You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde

Whether it's a question of shaking and baking the bourgeoisie or grossing out the simpletons, eerie pics like George Franju's 1959 "Eyes Without a Face" tend to erase easy distinctions between the aesthetic and the horrific. Or to put it simply: One man's sleaze may be another's high art.

Whether it’s a question of shaking and baking the bourgeoisie or grossing out the simpletons, eerie pics like George Franju’s 1959 “Eyes Without a Face” tend to erase easy distinctions between the aesthetic and the horrific. Or to put it simply: One man’s sleaze may be another’s high art.

At least that’s Joan Hawkins’ claim in “Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde.” Where classic horror pics are concerned, she argues, the bounds between high and low culture become shaky. Cultists and purists alike prize many of the same works, although their reasoning and rhetoric may be different. Sensational films often assume a life of their own after their initial public release, making them a rich subject for populist film historians to examine the crossover between the arty and the outre.

Perennial midnight masterpiece “Freaks” is a convincing case study. Tod Browning’s Depression-era study of circus geeks who seek vengeance against a representative of the “normal” world was initially banned in England and shelved by its Hollywood studio, MGM. Subsequently re-issued in 1962, it catalyzed countercultural intellectuals and thrill seekers alike. “Freaks” inspired high-art photographer Diane Arbus at the same time it played the fleabag moviehouses of the exploitation circuit. Combining elements of cinema verite with a nightmarish pulp urgency (and, Hawkins argues, a violently misogynist subtext), it stands as “a mainstream horror film that migrated into the exploitation arena before being finally recuperated as an avant-garde or art project.”

“Cutting Edge” incisively explores the way in which social anxieties are refracted by horror films. For instance: Was the murderous plastic surgeon in “Eyes Without a Face” really a metaphor for smoldering French guilt over collaboration with the Nazis? Did the thalidomide scare enhance the appeal of “Freaks” at the time of its re-release in the ’60s?

Hawkins is at her strongest when she explores how the historical reception of specific films shook up critics’ assumptions. Examining the dorky downtown art snobs who dismissed the gross-out humor of “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” in their efforts to discredit the popularity of its director, Paul Morrissey, Hawkins skewers the art-vs.-pulp mentality.

As midnight mavens world over know, good gore transcends categories. Nevertheless, Hawkins’ study is written in the sometimes jargon-infested prose of academia, and it figures to appeal more to students of film history than to underground genre fans.

More Reviews

  • Lil Pump Harverd Dropout cover

    Album Review: Lil Pump's 'Harverd Dropout'

    On the cover of “Harverd Dropout,” the sophomore album from Miami rapper Lil Pump, the young MC is tossing homework papers in the air and looking rakish with his graduation cap askew, while wearing a robe emblazoned with the misspelled university name from his new full-length’s title. If this is meant to signal some sort [...]

  • 'Stitches' Review: Berlin Film Festival

    Berlin Film Review: 'Stitches'

    An elegant hybrid of true-story exposé and slow-moving arthouse thriller, Serbian director Miroslav Terzić’s sober sophomore feature “Stitches” takes a familiar idea — a lone crusader taking on a corrupt system in pursuit of the truth — but delivers an unusually thoughtful, psychologically compelling character study. Taking its cue from Snežana Bogdanović’s eerily composed but fathomless [...]

  • Aruna and Her Palate review

    Berlin Film Review: ‘Aruna & Her Palate’

    When mouthwatering Indonesian cuisine and romance are on the table, “Aruna & Her Palate” is a bouncy crowd-pleaser. Less tasty is the backdrop of a suspected bird flu outbreak that brings a food-loving epidemiologist into contact with her secret crush. Adapted from Laksmi Pamuntjak’s 2014 novel “The Bird Woman’s Palate,” “Aruna” manages to overcome its [...]

  • 'Duke' Review: Two Fake Cops Patrol

    Film Review: 'Duke'

    If you can envision “Let’s Be Cops” reconstituted as a noirish psychodrama, you may be adequately prepared for “Duke,” an uneven but arresting indie thriller about two siblings who are driven to heroic extremes by childhood traumas. Co-directed by twin brothers James and Anthony Gaudioso, who also appear in strikingly different supporting roles, the film [...]

  • A still from Sea of Shadows

    Sundance Film Review: 'Sea of Shadows'

    It’s a decidedly grim circle of life that moves us all in “Sea of Shadows,” a tight, troubling documentary eco-thriller that charts a compelling course of consequence from Chinese black-market apothecaries to the near-extinction of a rare whale in the Sea of Cortez, hitting on Mexican crime cartels and institutional corruption along the way. Austrian [...]

  • My Extraordinary Summer With Tess review

    Film Review: 'My Extraordinary Summer With Tess'

    Winner of a special mention from the Berlinale Generation KPlus’ adult jury, the family-friendly, light drama “My Extraordinary Summer With Tess” is straightforward youth cinema with surprising emotional depth. Based on a prize-winning novel by Anna Woltz, a beloved Dutch writer of work for young readers, it explores family relationships and emphasizes the importance of [...]

  • Ghost Fleet review

    Film Review: 'Ghost Fleet'

    The revelatory documentary “Ghost Fleet” condemns the modern-day slave labor fueling the Thai fishing industry while focusing on the work of Bangkok-based advocacy organization Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), a group dedicated to ending slavery at sea. Combining chilling testimony from formerly enslaved men, some wincingly arty recreations of their ordeals, and on-the-ground footage [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content