Book Review:

  B-Movie Gothic: International Perspectives, edited by Justin D. Edwards and Johan Höglund

Reviewed by Naomi Simone Borwein

Western University

Review of B-Movie Gothic: International Perspectives, edited by Justin D. Edwards and Johan Höglund, Edinburgh UP, 2018. 256 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1474423441).

Bringing together diverse scholarship on Gothic and Horror in a burgeoning transnational cinematic tradition, B-Movie Gothic: International Perspectives, edited by Justin D. Edwards and Johan Höglund, is an attempt to reassess B-film ‘Gothic horror’ within a Global Gothic canon. The approach is constituted by “theoretical lenses supplied by Gothic, by horror, and by Gothic horror” (6), which they suggest “allows for a more complex reading of these films than the designation of them as simply ‘horror’” (6). Part of a series on traditions in world cinema, the mandate of Edward and Höglund’s volume is the collapse of differences, and the complexification of horror criticism with Gothic discourse and canonicity. In this volume, such a focus translates into analyses of a body of Gothic and Horror, low-budget films, and the inspection of regional and national cinema, alongside political and aesthetic movements, while being cognizant of “cultural imperialism” (xii). This threatens to re-enact imperial projects within a Global Gothic lens that creates a post-binary Gothic. The editors state that the volume is the first significant attempt to chart, through various disciplines, “B-Movie Gothic horror from a global perspective” (13). However, conclusions drawn in the diverse spectrum of chapters, from evocative popular culture readings to in-depth critical assessments, attest to the problematic application of irreducible equivalencies of Gothic and horror aesthetics and their distinct traditions in ideologically and epistemological symmorphic cultural, social, and canonical conditions. Reactionary imperial projects of the “Gothic horror” lens produce the irreducible hybridized monsters found in Turks-Mex-Blax-Sex-ploitation cinema. Globalized Gothic labels, like Mexican Gothic or Bollywood Gothic, and terms like “glocal” (Reyes 96; Fraile-Marcos) suggest the panoply of terms that trace horror at the limits of the Gothic mode. 

Edwards and Höglund divide their volume into three main parts. Part one includes four chapters on the Americas as “the continent that spawned the concept of B-movies” (9). From reading “Gothic phenomenon” of “B-Movie schlock” (Edwards 17) to experimental Black Horror films and Blaxploitation, the section moves to Mexican Gothic and vampiric, cultic horror B-film as “Mexploitation,” addressing codified Mexican Horror/Gothic referents in ‘dark fantasy’ (Ibarra 59). Part One ends with a Gothic reading of survival narratives in the ‘dark ecology’ of two Brazilian zombie films (Serravalle de Sá 65). Part Two, “Europe,” contains five chapters. The discussion moves from the Americas to Europe by first examining Hammer Classic British Horror movies and their impact on American “New” Horror (Browning 91). The Golden Age of Spanish B-Movie Horror follows, reimagining Gothic-Horror tropes and figures (like Knights Templar) in the Spanish context through the “glocal” and “Fantaterror”—derived from Cine Fantástico (Reyes 95). The hybrid post-human monster, das Ding, and the river Muir critique an absurd, horrific capitalist ecology in splatstick Das Ding movies and Austro-trash, ultra-low-budget horror. The next chapter offers analysis of two Nordic Horror films produced by Stockholm Syndrome Films: Wither (2012), featuring the undead Vittra, and Madness (2010), influenced by the pathologies depicted in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Part Two ends with Gothic horror in Turkish B-films—elements like undead Hortlak, body horror, and Islamic exoticism—and the impact of the “Turkification process” and Turksplotiation (Bıçakçı Syed 140).

In Part Three, “Africa and Asia,” four chapters have the task of charting Gothic horror cinema throughAfrican and Asian Gothic” (12) from Tanzanian Horror, or ‘Filamu Ya Kutisha’ to Japanese Lolitas and demon-blooded psychos and their thanaphilic variants in Japanese Gothic or “goshikku” (McRoy 172). Next, Hong Kong Gothic is examined through Category III crime dramas (as 18+ designated films), tracing autophagic themes and serial killer figures formed by socio-economic tensions in the cityscape. Part Three ends with a critique of Bollywood Gothic and an Indian genre of subliminal-horror cinema, Bhayanak, which can be apprehended as horror films.

The collection plays with Gothic geographies, addresses local, national, and global considerations, and variously negotiates Horror and Gothic aesthetics and genre elements. But several contributors reject Gothic labels as a vehicle for genre analysis of cultural production because tradition cannot “be reduced to a generic description, like ‘gothic’” (Khair 219), or note that B-films remain “standard horror fare” (Fuchs 109). Crucially absent are contributions on local-global Indigeneity and important Pan Pacific cinematic traditions, like Ozploitation Horror cinema (see Mark David Ryan’s 2018 Terror Australis) or South Korean B-film, even though it is discussed in the introduction to the edition. 

Certain chapters offer a nuanced critique of the incorporation of Gothic and Horror aesthetics. Katarzyna Ancuta’s chapter, “Hong Kong Gothic,” discusses both Category III crime dramas from 1992 to 2001 as a distinct genre “characterized by stylistic hybridity” (187) and the gore and excess of “sexploitation” (187, 202) films. Ancuta binds Horror cinema to Gothic tradition to read sociopolitical tensions from the “dark side of Hong Kong” (188), an autophagic, monstrous environment. The Gothic-Horror synthesis exposes dystopian reimagining of postmodern aesthetics tinctured by “neo-noir’s visual style” (203). Maisha Wester’s “Re-Scripting Blaxploitation Horror” offers a similar cross-engagement with social and horror realism through experimental films like Ganja and Hess (1973), arguing that B-Horror can be “artfully Gothic,” and thus reinscribes Black stereotypes seen in Blaxploitation film (48). She critically inspects Gothic tropes in relation to Horror: Black monstrosity, vampirism, or bestial characterization. Wester ultimately situates her aesthetic within Gothic terror not the Horror genre. 

While Justin D. Edwards’ Lovecraftian Gothic monster reading in “Its, Blobs and Things” offers a more Gothicized reclaiming of Horror discourse, Johan Höglund’s chapter, “Wither the Present, Wither the Past,” bolsters the volume’s mandate by exploring how Gothic and H/horror “converge on the same disturbing explorations of the human psyche and critique of modern society” (125). Höglund reads recent “low-budget Nordic horror films,” Wither and Madness, as a means of “[d]e-Paradising Nordic history and the welfare state” (122), punctuating the violent history of the nation “through gothic allegory” (137) and suggesting one way of implementing the genre-imperative of the volume. 

The chapters that conform the least to Edwards and Höglund’s overall lens offer the most intriguing analysis in terms of genre formation, aesthetic process, and other transcultural considerations. For example, in “Psychopaths and Gothic Lolitas,” Jay McRoy points to the difficulty of gothic transformations in Japan—for instance, the reproportioning of awe, horror, and beauty. The chapter is reminiscent of work on Edo Gothic by Colette Balmain and the Japanese figurality in Global Gothic by Charles Shirō Inouye. McRoy argues that the term Gothic in Japan carries a different “semantic weight or cultural significance” (172). He advocates exploring this Gothic “through the critical lenses provided by” other epistemologies and ontological systems (184)—but not through Horror.

Hybridized local monster variants range from folkloric and romantic to social realist: the Nordic Zombie (Vittra), the Turkish undead (Hortlak), Spanish hybrid Knights Templar, Brazilian Mud Zombies (Mangue Negro). Exemplifying the Global Gothic paradox of the volume, they are all both derivative as a by-product of globalization and have regionally distinct meanings, which pertinently underscores how such figures are used to negotiate global-local aesthetics of Horror and the Gothic in mainstream production, marketization, and canon building.

Overall B-Movie Gothic is a valuable addition to Global Gothic scholarship. A recent Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies guide develops a definition of the ‘B-movie,’ de-focalizing the Gothic, while still using Edwards and Höglund’s volume. Paratextually, this suggests how the recycling, repurposing, and reclaiming of labels in the analysis of B-film, with its own slippery series of subgenres that can tend towards horror, do not necessarily neatly fit under the Gothic umbrella. It is worth exploring this volume alongside already-extant and increasingly rich and complex Horror scholarship, some of which the editors borrow from, such as Noël Carroll's seminal The Philosophy of Horror (1990); Horror International, edited by Steven Jay Schneider and Tony Williams (2005); and more recently, Transnational Horror Cinema: Bodies of Excess and the Global Grotesque (2016), edited by Sophia Siddique and Raphael Raphael;, or A Companion to the Horror Film (2014), edited by Harry M. Benshoff. B-Movie Gothic: International Perspectives may be of particular interest to undergraduate and graduate film students and general audiences alike due to the plethora of filmic texts surveyed and contexts explored through various international perspectives.

-29 May 2020