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A Knife in the Dark

D. J. O’Neill

Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film

Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film
Edited by Wickham Clayton
Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015
254pp
ISBN 978-1137496461
£60 (Hardcover)

 

 

 

 

An elevator filled with blood. A monster beneath the mattress. Knives glinting under moonlight. All are images that conjure memories of watching horror films late into a Friday night and of the feelings they evoke: uncanny insecurity, dreadful delight, and the thirst for sensational titillation. It is this sense of cinephilia that unabashedly shines through in Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film .

The collection of essays Wickham Clayton has collated in Style and Form cuts its way into a dense forest of scholarly material on the slasher film to state an absorbing and fresh argument. Intriguingly, it challenges much of that very material’s approach to film analysis: a broad approach that primarily overlooks the importance of form in, and of, Hollywood slashers. It is a book that will thrill ready-made horror film fans and spark the curiosity of those yet to discover the genre. It does more than merely self-consciously situate itself as a contemporary contribution to a colourful academic field that stretches back to the 1980s. Indeed, Clayton’s collection fills a hole – a wound – in the field left to fester by supercilious scholars who ridicule or dismiss that popular Hollywood horror subgenre: the slasher film.

What, then, is the style and form of Clayton’s Style and Form? It is witty, lucid, passionate, engaging and convincing. It is a collection of essays, arranged by Clayton to logically guide readers through the (surprisingly long) history of the slasher and its garnered academic probing. Most refreshingly, Clayton and the book’s contributors are not afraid to show themselves as cinephiles. Academics can sometimes distance themselves from the films they analyse to maintain both power over the text and credibility in their interpretations. Clayton, however, establishes and emphasises his love of cinema, in particular his intimacy with the slasher film, and then introspectively seeks to disclose why he succumbs to its sensations. This is aptly captured in the (self-)referential title of his essay in the book’s second chapter, “Undermining the Moneygrubbers, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Friday the 13th Part V.” This makes for an engaging and personable read: Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film is the friend who tries to convince you of a film’s value one night at the pub, put more elegantly and with less spillages.

Unlike the majority of texts on the slasher film, Style and Form takes a formalist approach to reading the films it examines. This means its contributors are concerned only with the formal elements found within texts and disregard outside influences: it is the purest of analytical approaches to film. In the book’s introduction, Clayton declares that Leon Trotsky would have reversed his unenthusiastic feelings towards formalism if only he had seen Friday the 13th Part V. It is a bold but playful claim that establishes the book’s primary concerns and also reflects the stylistically subversive capabilities of the successful Hollywood slasher film. The book’s thesis, then, is plain: Hollywood slashers can be studied using formalism and need not oppose – as their recent absence in the field suggests – the theory, interpretation, or non-Hollywood auteur slashers that seem to have thus-far dominated academics’ concerns in the field.

Style and Form’s argument is persuasive. It draws on a plethora of challenging examples to support its thesis and, even as a densely referential text, is easy to navigate. Halloween (1981; dir John Carpenter), When a Stranger Calls (1979; dir Fred Walton), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984; dir Wes Craven) are just a few texts from an enormous filmography referenced in this genre-enriching excavation into a derided cinema. Indeed, the book’s achievements lie in its capacity to cogently cover a great expanse of subjects. Divided into three parts, each of which chronologically focuses on a different period in the evolution of the Hollywood slasher film, Style and Form guides readers through an impressive array of articles without ever feeling overreaching or breathless. And yet, the book’s strengths as a coherent work are also its biggest weaknesses: there is no obvious internal conflict. It is often stimulating to read direct disagreements among books’ contributors, so it is disappointing to see such unity between Style and Form’s covers.

Nonetheless, Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film is ambitious in its aims of analysing stylistic and narrative construction in the Hollywood slasher subgenre, largely overlooked by academics since the 1980s. Clayton’s book is fresh and accessible. It engages in the near one-hundred-year-old debate about formalism’s value to film theory by using a formalist approach to analyse films that seldom garner such reading. It expresses a desire to convince us of these films’ value – films its contributors admire and argue have been unfairly treated – and to analyse oft-forgotten films in new ways that reveal their achievements. It is, above all, characteristic of the cinephiliac culture through which the slasher film has survived.

D. J. O’Neill is currently reading Film Aesthetics (M.St.) at St. Anne’s College, Oxford.