Interview: horror film scholar Florent Christol
Flo and his lovely and sweet girlfriend Tara dropped by my house yesterday to hang out and screen the rough cut of the inaugural episode of my series, The House Between. I sequestered Florent in my office for a time to catch up with his numerous (and impressive...) writing activities...
MUIR: Update me a little bit about your work in these French film journals...
FLORENT: I've written two pieces on Tobe Hooper. One is about the way Tobe Hooper uses Psycho by Hitchcock in different forms. I wanted to work on that because so many people have seen that with Brian De Palma, but I thought Hooper used Psycho in an interesting way. I would say he dismembers that film, taking several shots and putting them back together. He uses Psycho as a puzzle.
My second piece was on the carnavalesque in the Tobe Hooper film. Of course, you can see that in The Funhouse, which is set in a carnival. But I wanted to see why - from the start - that was something important for him. That led me to the topic of my dissertation, which is about how the American horror film is a wonderful place to highlight the carnavelsque culture, which started in Europe. The Puritans, when they arrived in America, banned carnavelsque holidays. They thought they were too transgressive, like Christmas originally...which was more about drinking and not really celebrating the birth of the Christ.
So these transgressive rituals were banned, and when something is banned or repressed it returns. Freud has talked about the return of the repressed, and Robin Wood wrote his famous piece about the return of the repressed in the American horror film.
However, my interest is not really psycho-analysis, but more anthropological and sociological. So in my dissertation, I start at the beginning and see how the first horror films - like Freaks or the Frankenstein series by James Whale can be seen through a carnavalesque lens with this kind of monster, this transgressive menace, that comes from outside and is a chaotic force, a bit like carnival. And when it leaves, order can be settled once again.
When you get to the sixties and the seventies and especially in the eighties with the slasher film, the "party" is basically the main theme of the film. Movies like Killer Party or Slumber Party Massacre or Killer Clowns or Clownhouse by Victor Salva. So, there are lots of things to discuss.
MUIR: If you had to pick one film to embody your thesis...
FLORENT: It would be The Funhouse. Hooper summarizes it wonderfully - and visually - what I would like to show and prove, if I can say that. Basically, there is this wonderful moment when the monster who wears the Frankenstein mask...suddenly people realize there's also a monster underneath. A monster is hidden behind another monster, and I think that what Tobe Hooper wants to show here is how the original Frankenstein films were already wondering about what to do with the carnavalesque. The answer at that time was "let's burn it."
The menace in the original Frankenstein is isolated in the body of the monster, and it can easily be evacuated. It's not the same thing in the sixties and seventies because of all the historical changes in America. People realized that chaos was basically everywhere, and not just from outside...from Europe, for instance. The carnival in The Funhouse is a wonderful space to demonstrate these kind of things. It's an exercise almost in deconstruction, because it deconstructs the American horror film as a carnavlesque thing, as something which hides the real horror, which is everywhere. There is this game between the mask and the illusion, and on the other side something which is real; which is the presence of death.
Hollywood cinema has always tried to hide the fact that death was here, and the fact that death is present in The Funhouse is like the most horrifying thing you can think about. Normally a funhouse is meant to exorcise death. You go through a funhouse like you go through a horror film, and when you leave, you're alive. But if you go in and you're dead in the end...there's something very wrong. And I think that Tobe Hooper understood that.
MUIR: So you - like me - are a huge admirer of Tobe Hooper...
FLORENT: I really like him. I just finished watching Mortuary, which is his last released film, I believe. Lots of people are disappointed because Tobe Hooper has done some not-very-great movies recently, but I thought this one was pretty good. It reminded me of another favorite Hooper film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I am also trying to write something on that film right now.
MUIR: Does Mortuary feature his typical theme of having two villains working in conjunction; one with an acceptable face and one with an unacceptable face?
FLORENT: I think the theme is more in the George Romero living dead vein. Also, there is the theme of contamination, and people turn into zombies. Which I love...
Apart from that, I've published a paper on Jacques Tourneur, who is both a French and American director. He directed some very famous film noirs in the 1940s, and some famous horror/fantasy films, like I Walked with A Zombie or the original Cat People...not the remake. Also, Curse of the Demon. Once again, I use the carnavalesque theory.
MUIR: This is your piece, "Tourneur et le carnavelsque: une poetique ruinee?" Tell me about it.
FLORENT: The interesting thing about his films is that they take place a few years after the original Universal classics, wherein the monsters are always evacuated in the end, thanks to the wonderful special effects by Jack Pierce and other people. But with Jacques Tourneur, he was working with a low budget, and his producer, Val Lewton...they didn't have any money. So they couldn't really show the monster, because there was no Jack Pierce to provide great make-up. They didn't have the money to make a credible or interesting monster, so he went ahead with the suggestive approach.
Many people theorize that it's always scarier when you don't see the monster. I'm not sure I really agree with that. A monster can be very wonderful...we all remember the monster in Alien or Aliens. Any kind of great director will do a great job whatever the case. What's interesting is the result of what happens when you don't see the monster. With Jacques Tourneur what I wanted to show is the fact that the monster cannot be seen and therefore cannot be evacuated, cannot be gotten rid of. Therefore it contaminates the entire film. The monster is everywhere, because he's not in a specific place. There are monstrous spaces in his films, where metamorphosis can happen.
What's interesting in Jacques Tourneur movie is that some people (meaning critics) don't think there are monsters at all. Maybe there are no monsters. Maybe it's psychological. For me, the monster is the film itself. It's not a monstrous figure, it's the movie. The style is grotesque, the way he edits the film...there are lots of things that can be linked to the carnavalesque aesthetic. Once again, this is proof that the American horror film is grappling with this cultural legacy - the carnival - which was rejected from the very beginning; which always comes back. Either with the monster, as an isolated figure, or as the film itself; a monstrous body.
MUIR: Where can readers find this paper?
FLORENT: This is in CinemaAction. It was published a few months ago. The issue is interesting...
MUIR: All right, buddy, time for the lightning round of the interview. This is the idea: Horror films are being destroyed at a rapid rate. You're trying to save them, but here's the rub. You can only save one film from each director. I'll name a director, you tell me which film you save. Okay?
MUIR: John Carpenter?
FLORENT: That's tougher. I would say In The Mouth of Madness.
MUIR: Wes Craven?
FLORENT: It's between The Hills Have Eyes and the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I think I'd have to choose Nightmare. Seeing Johnny Depp get killed is always fun.
MUIR: Sam Raimi?
FLORENT: That's tricky. Probably the sequel to The Evil Dead.
MUIR: So let me get this right, you'd pick comedy over balls-to-the-wall horror?
FLORENT: Yeah, I'm afraid so. It's my taste for the carnavalesque.
MUIR: David Cronenberg?
FLORENT: I would go ahead with The Brood.
MUIR: Tobe Hooper. You just get one.
FLORENT: Although I think his most interesting film is Texas Chainsaw II, I would go ahead with The Funhouse.
MUIR: You wouldn't save Lifeforce?
FLORENT: Maybe. For Mathilda May...
MUIR: Larry Cohen?
FLORENT: He's very underrated. This guy has created so many interesting films. His trilogy of It's Alive is very interesting, but I think his best movie is God Told Me To.
MUIR: Here's a curveball. William Girdler?
FLORENT: Grizzly. Definitely.
MUIR: De Palma?
FLORENT: That's tough. I like Sisters, but I'm not sure that...
MUIR: I'd pick Dressed to Kill.
FLORENT: I could have said Dressed to Kill, but you just said it. So I would probably pick Obsession.
MUIR: David Fincher?
FLORENT: I'd pick Alien 3. It's the first film I saw by Fincher, and I think it's a great film.
MUIR: Now, I heard you've done some acting recently. Is that true? (Editor's note: Florent plays Sange, the villain of The House Between's sixth episode, "Trashed.")
FLORENT: No. I would say I've done some anti-acting in what is otherwise a wonderful program. I was invited by this person who is interviewing me right now...
MUIR...conflict of interest...
FLORENT: Read his books. I encourage you to read them.
MUIR: Thank you.
FLORENT: No, I had a great time doing the show. I can't wait to see the results. I think it's going to be a masterpiece.
MUIR: You are brilliant at playing a very evil man...
FLORENT: It's the French touch...
MUIR: Did you have a hard time, saying all this brutal - almost hardcore - dialogue to people you'd never met?
FLORENT: That's right. I tried to be as natural as possible. I'm a very mean guy in everyday life. So it wasn't that hard for me.
MUIR: That's totally not true. How did you like abusing the other actors?
FLORENT: I had the time of my life. I can't wait to do it again. In the remake or the sequel. I think that the most enjoyable part was being surrounded by really nice people. All of them are really into the stuff I like, horror and sci-fi. It was just a very wonderful human experience.
MUIR: Okay, if we're back to horror films being destroyed. What's the one title you'd save from the 21st century?
FLORENT: That's a hard question. The one that had the most impact on me, which terrified me...was the American version of The Ring. I know many people prefer the original, but I thought the American version was very well done. The topic itself is not that original, but the treatment was fascinating. I was disappointed by the sequel.
MUIR: It missed the mark a bit. It was a bit dreary, wasn't it? What are your thoughts on The Descent?
FLORENT: I thought The Descent was really good. Maybe because I've read so many things about it, I wasn't as surprised. I had seen pictures in magazines of the monsters. I was disappointed because I'd already seen the face of the "bad guy." But objectively, I think it's a great film. I'd like to see Dog Soldiers, the first film by Neill Marshall. I'm ready to see The Descent again because it comes out this Friday on the American screen. I'm going to take my girlfriend...
MUIR: Flo, thank you so much for your time. Best of luck with all your future endeavors. Can't wait to cut together your episode of The House Between, and I look forward to the completion of your thesis on the carnavalesque in the American horror film.