Horror, The Universal Language 1: Insanity in Repulsion (1965) & Clean, Shaven (1993)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 25, 2009 11:43pm | Post a Comment
In terms of movies, horror is the most philosophically rich of the various genres, generally giving a more truthful commentary on us humans than any of its generic brethren (science fiction is equally compelling as a literary genre, but it just hasn't lived up to its potential in film -- cf. Tarkovsky's religious mockery of one the great atheistic novels, Solaris, to catch my drift). Since my only costume for Halloween is a wet blanket, why not offer a series of double-feature suggestions as a way of getting into the spirit? I'm going to stay away from the ones everyone should've already seen (yes, Kubrick's The Shining is the greatest horror film ever made, end of discussion) and none by directors with the initials D.L. I plan on doing one a day, ending either with Halloween, or until I run out of categories, or I just get plumb sick of doing this. First up, the fear of the irrational, or, more appropriately, the fear of losing one's grasp on reality.


A common refrain in horror film criticism since the 70s has been that the genre makes us confront the faults in the architecture of reason. This critique usually goes by the name of postmodernism and its big bugaboo by the name of the Cartesianism. René Descartes had some difficulty reconciling how all the immaterial, mental stuff was able to effect changes in all the meaty stuff we call physical, creating the primary Cartesian dichotomy called mind-body dualism. No one's figured a way out of that mess yet, but who cares since we're talking about horror movies. The important point is that Descartes tended to privilege reason over all that biological machinery, so he gets the blame for all the scientistic / instrumentalist / phallocentric / logocentric / patriarchal domination that has supposedly developed since the 17th Century. (I remain skeptical of this demonization of the Rationalists for the simple reason that I'd prefer to live after the Enlightenment than before it.)

As this common critique has it, with the contemporary horror film (from the 60s to the present), the horror affect arises from the suppressed half of the dichotomy returning with a vengeance. Thus, what's scary is when the body, emotions, technology, nature, the feminine or whatever else might've been defined or ignored as the Big Other by the rationalist hegemony -- serving as its structuring absence -- begin to make themselves terrifyingly present (the so-called "return of the repressed" that was popularized in film criticism by Robin Wood's take on Romero's zombie films). A relevant feminist spin on the critique is offered by Isabel Cristina Pinedo:

[P]ostmodern horror defies the Cartesian construction of reason that reduces it to instrumental rationality and pits it against emotion and intuition. According to the Cartesian construction of reason, rationality is masculine, associated with mastery, and requires the domestication of irrationality, which is feminine and associated with the body and disorder. This limited conception of reason disparages the feminine. Postmodern horror combines, in the (often female) figure of the hero, instrumental rationality and intuition. -- p. 96, The Horror Film

It was this quote that gave me the idea for the first double-feature. Note that as a supposed feminist, Pinedo doesn't defend the feminine as capable of belonging to the rationalist enterprise, but mostly agrees with the old patriarchal view that women just ain't good at math, being from Venus and all. Instead, she chooses to degrade the value of reason, suggesting what the postmodern horror film teaches us is that we need to rely more on our "gut instincts" or "intuition" -- that is, "femininity" qua feelings. I prefer the kind of feminism that suggests women are just as capable as men at being rational and good at science, and not this "lowering the standards." In other words, reason, logic and the like aren't patriarchal, but the cultural support for the hard thinking disciplines which rely on them has been. It is reason, after all, that is the best base for arguing about the mental and social equality of the sexes. Thus, women, just as much as men, have something to fear in losing rational control.

More often than not, horror films are fantasies relying on the supernatural, so giving into irrational forces tends to make sense. As I argued here, defining rationality in such a diegesis by our world's reality isn't particularly rational when there's a psychotic leprechaun or sentient Jell-O roaming about. In such worlds, someone like Gandalf is actually a rational agent. He has a proven experimental track record that demonstrates the reliability of his magic, which in the real world would be nothing more than the hucksterism of an Aleister Crowley. (Also, I note that women aren't any more likely to be wizards -- particularly of the good variety -- in fantasies than scientists in the real world, suggesting that feminist critique should target the qualifications of being in control, rather than reason per se.) Anyway, what's most important to me about Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven is that they're both effective horror films, eliciting the necessary reflexes of the genre, but that do so by rooting the affect in the real world, not a fantastic one. As such, there doesn't exist a fantastically derived justification for the critique of reason that mucks up so many analyses of the genre. The horror comes from feeling along with the protagonists the loss of control over reality. That the insanity is just as terrifying for Catherine Deneuve (in Repulsion) as it is for Peter Greene (in Clean, Shaven) indicates that rationality isn't a masculine versus feminine issue. Both films are exceptional in the postmodern age of horror (as Pinedo and the like call it) by going against the grain and using the genre to argue for reason over gut instinct, where the latter only pulls the protagonists further into a solipsistic abyss. 

Both films are available in beautiful Criterion editions (Repulsion can be had on blu-ray, even).

Next up, body horror.

Relevant Tags

Rationalism (3), Blu-ray Criticism (4), Dvd Criticism (26), Horror Double-features (4), Horror (215), Repulsion (1), Clean Shaven (1), Halloween (85), Lodge Kerrigan (1), Feminism (18), René Descartes (3), Roman Polanski (2)