J. Rocky Colavito
Department of Language and Communication
Northwestern State University
Natchitoches, LA 71497
Rhetorical Practice and the Marketing of Horror Films
It’s by now commonly known that Roger Corman’s American International Pictures quite often produced a marketing campaign prior to actually having a film in the can; William Castle was better known for the gimmicks that went with his films than the films themselves, and the less than stellar works of filmmakers like Roy Dennis Steckler were often reinforced by the presence of actual “monsters” that hopped off the screen and ran through the audience. These techniques, which we know as “ballyhoo” originated with traveling carnivals and were thus transferred to movie companies in search of audiences. The techniques of ballyhoo are a wonderful area ripe for rhetorical archaeology, and the aim of this presentation is to examine these techniques as evidence of astute rhetorical practice. Of particular interest are the intertwining of the appeals of pathos (emotion) and logos (logic/factual) that conspire to engage the audience by revealing more than the movies perhaps delivered. By examining these rhetorical elements, we’ll come to see a vital, and significant, aspect of the history of advertising and the place of rhetorical practice within it. The presentation will not only engage the written material (press releases, et al.) but also visual documents (posters, trailers), and performed elements (radio spots, spook shows, and so on).
April 19, 2004
Case Western Reserve University
“White Zombie and the Living Dead World of Silent Cinema”
The low-budget 1932 film White Zombie (Victor Halperin) continues today to captivate viewers and to draw praise for its atmospheric, dreamlike, and poetic qualities. This essay explores these senses of the film in relation to aspects of its formal makeup and in the context of its first reception. It argues that the effectiveness of White Zombie was, in 1932, in part a result of the film’s resonance with viewers’ senses of silent films as dead and ghostly entities. The Halperin film’s pale and silent zombies certainly play a role in evoking the defunct silent cinema. Other aspects of the film do as well, including qualities of its sound, tendencies in its editing, and certain facts concerning the film’s cast. These narrative, stylistic, and biographical aspects of the film, and ways that some exhibitors promoted the film, suggest that White Zombie was a ripely uncanny film for viewers who, in 1932, vividly remembered silent films but no longer found them to be vital- or normal-seeming.
Gary D. Rhodes
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and THE ACTIVE VIEWER
When Paramount decided to adapt H. G. Well's novel ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU for the screen in 1932, they were consciously participating in the burgeoning horror film genre (or "cycle" as the industry dubbed it) of that decade. Indeed, they produced the film at a particular moment within those years in which many viewers saw the horror film as a problem. Such movies were bad for audiences, especially younger ones, the moral groups inside and outside of the film industry proclaimed. Paramount pursued production of their film undaunted, and even saw a unique opportunity to tear down the "fourth wall" by running a national contest looking for an amateur actress to portray one of the film's "manimal" characters. "The Panther Woman" would be given a role in the film, as well as a studio contract. Kathleen Burke, the winner of the contest, and other finalists like Verna Hillie, have been well-documented in their careers by such horror film historians as Gregory William Mank. However, horror film history has ignored the contest's lower levels from city to city where contestants emerged. My paper will cover the competitions as they occurred in such cities as New Orleans. From out of the audiences came contestants that were given screen tests taken at local theaters. Audiences then saw their own peers the following week as screen tests were projected as a special feature of the program. And local celebrities quickly developed as stores and restaurants offered citizenry the chance to meet local Panther Women. Beyond mere anecdotal history, my paper will attempt to view the first level of the Panther Woman competition as a unique moment in horror film reception, one in which audience members quickly crossed the line from viewer to film player in the space of a week. And viewers who weren't in the contest saw their friends and relatives go from theater seat to screen in that same time frame. Reception studies and theory on larger issues of spectatorship have often constructed very passive viewers, and when they have discussed more active viewers it has often been in monolithic groups ("The audience didn't like the film," for example). My paper will show a highly active instance of horror film reception that for a small number of people redefined what it meant to be a viewer.
Umphrey Lee Center
Southern Methodist University
P.O. Box 750113
Dallas, Texas 75275-0356
Seething, Crawling, Slithering Through the Distribution Pipeline: Killer Snakes
and the Grindhouse Theater
The Hong Kong horror film Killer Snakes / She sha shou (1975) was produced by the Shaw Brothers Studio and released in the U.S. by independent distributor Howard Mahler Films as one part of double and triple bills in inner city theaters catering to a predominantly African-American audience. Many economic, social, and aesthetic factors are at work on the movie’s reception context. The theaters which played the movie were at the tail end of a cycle of martial arts and blaxploitation genre films which would prove to be the final stage in the economic life of many of these impoverished former subsequent-run theaters which had struggled as major studios cut back on their number of annual releases throughout the sixties and seventies.
Smaller distributors such as Mahler served these theaters (and their more upscale sibling, the art theater) with a mix of imports and low-budget American independent features. In the case of Mahler, their release slate of the first half of the seventies included the Danish/American coproduction Threesome (1970), a drama misrepresented as a soft-core sex film, two Hong Kong martial arts movies starring African American kung fu performer Ron Van Clief, Black Emmanuelle / White Emmanuelle (1974 – an Italian melding of Emmanuelle and Mandingo), the British import Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1977) featuring John Gielgud, and Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975).
As this breathtaking survey of Mahler’s output will suggest, the movies playing in the inner city were often audacious genre hybrids of the blaxploitation, kung fu, horror, thriller, and sex film formulas. These disparate sets of genre conventions were mirrored in the wild programs of multiple bills booked by these theaters, which would include three or more of these genre programmers along with a subsequent-run engagement of a major studio hit. I will trace these exhibition circumstances in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas movie marketplace in 1974-75. Here as in other major cities, movies in these theaters often ran “on the grind,” with the program starting at nine or ten in the morning and running all day and night until long after midnight. Show times were rarely posted, and audience members, who frequently shouted their reactions to the action onscreen in a call-and-response pattern, came and went with little concern for a movie’s three-act structure.
It is into this environment that Killer Snakes was released in 1975, carrying an “X” rating as the result of a wildly repulsive scene of snakes crawling all over the nude body of a woman tied to a fetid bed. Although Hong Kong imports were often enthusiastically received by the inner-city audience, Mahler’s artwork on ad slicks and posters for the film seemed to depict a Caucasian cast. The movie itself was highly derivative of MGM’s Willard and told the story of an abused and reclusive teenager’s growing friendship with and dominion over a nest of poisonous snakes. It is not hard to imagine the narrative of Killer Snakes, with the victimized outcast of the Mongkok slums taking revenge on the shop owners and gang members who victimize him – and, tragically, the young woman who tries to befriend him – having particular resonance with the film’s original young male audience watching the movie as the inner-city exhibition scene (and the inner city economy) slid into a bottomless abyss from which the early twenty-first century seems to promise no escape.