Barry Keith Grant, Monster Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2018, 200pp, £7.85) [import]
Reviewed by Zack Kruse
As an academic looking for ways to introduce students and fellow scholars to critical approaches to popular culture, I’m always on the lookout for brief, accessible primers that demonstrate the value of the subject and make plain what might otherwise be esoteric. Barry Keith Grant’s Monster Cinema fills that need. It’s a thorough, engaging, and immensely readable primer that surveys the genre, placing it within a sensible historical and cultural context relevant for contemporary readers.
After introducing readers to the genre at large, Grant divides monsters into three broad categories: human monsters, natural monsters and supernatural monsters. Although some may consider these categories as an incomplete representation of the variety of monsters featured on the screen, Grant takes the time to provide reasonable depth, nuance and sub-categories for each one, whilst in narrowing the categories to just three, he places the nascent reader within striking distance of the more complex academic conversations surrounding the genre. It’s precisely this kind of jargon-free (or at least jargon-lite) text that is useful, and often necessary, for easing students and newer scholars into a given field. This accessibility is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Moreover, Grant’s categorization also invites readers with theoretical investments, for whom film may be on the periphery, to engage with popular cinematic texts as a means for excavating their theoretical concerns.
The most obvious example of this kind of invitation to readers is in the third chapter, which invites an eco-critical approach to the monster genre. Grant doesn’t engage with any specific theorists or constructs; instead, he tries to stretch the metaphorical value of different kinds of monstrous figures from an eco-critical perspective. Introducing this idea, Grant writes, ‘Our uncomfortable unfamiliarity with nature is expressed by the numerous monster movies about city folk who encounter monstrous inbred rednecks and Satanists once the venture into rural America’; these kinds of monsters in nature often represent ‘a constant struggle for survival in a complexly interdependent and increasingly challenged food chain’ as well as ‘the complex interconnections of the ecosystem’. Grant also links increased awareness of ecological concerns in the 1980s to a cycle of films with an eco-bent to them like Wes Craven’s adaptation of Swamp Thing and Troma’s Toxic Avenger series. It’s not so much that Grant has built, or is even attempting to build, an unassailable foundation for an eco-critical approach to film. That’s certainly not his aim, but even so, I have serious questions about specifically situating eco-concerns about ‘monstrous flora and fauna’ in the late 1970s and early in 1980s. Such a claim is fairly easily refuted when matched up against creature features and horror films of the 1950s and early 1960s. Films like The Day of the Triffids (1962), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), Beginning of the End (1959), The Fly (1958), Them! (1954) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon series all immediately come to mind. Grant even cites Them! in a number of places in the book. To be fair, his citing of Swamp Thing and Toxic Avenger involves the linkage of atomic and/or military accidents or experiments with the transformation of humans into monsters, and he’s attempting to delineate subtle differences in approaches to the different kinds of monsters that have appeared on the screen. Further, the nit-picking I’m engaging in here does not undercut the aims of a book like this in any significant way. However, what it does demonstrate is both the scope and limitations of a short introduction. The distinction Grant is making here is less about historical or theoretical exactitude and more about bracketing out subsets of film to make the sprawling genre of monster movies manageable for his readers. To that end, he certainly succeeds.
Although a book like Monster Cinema may not present challenging new visions of monster movies for the seasoned filmgoer or scholar, its principle value is in its accessibility, both as its own text and the welcoming hand it extends to neophytes. The balance it creates across exposition about the films it considers, the historical and cultural circumstances of these films, and its critical components is admirable and increases the book’s practical value, establishing a clear sense of credibility. These distinctive scholarly markers set Grant’s book apart from more traditionally relied upon film guides that, while valuable catalogues, belie a kind of period-induced critical stagnation that imposes itself on the reader. Rather, Monster Cinema invites readers to place the genre and specific films within contemporary critical and theoretical conversations, and allows a kind of plasticity for the films, making them pliable in the hands of new viewers and critics. In a satisfying and perhaps strange way, Monster Cinema offers readers the chance to crack open a creaking door to a long, dark, cobwebbed hall adorned with dusty paintings and cracked statues of creatures to be contemplated and dissected in the laboratory of human experience.