Spotting the comfortingly familiar within a generic horror sequel.
On a single viewing I picked up the following quotes and references:
2001: the cosmic baby
Psycho: the shower scene
Bedlam: the asylum scene
Rosemary’s Baby: the black pram (and baby)
Seconds: the operating table (point of view)
It’s Alive: the demon baby
The Brood/Eraserhead: babies
Lucio Fulci: dream reality illogical directorial style
Scorpio Rising: rock ‘n’ roll biker myth
Cat People: swimming pool scene
The Stepfather: kill your children because they disappoint
Escher effects scene
This film is virtually a textbook example of a certain tendency in the horror film of the 1980s. Baudrillard has written of the postmodernist nightmare; a text which is little more than a compendium of sources and references. This direction has been fully exercised in the novel American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis, and it is no coincidence that this text has leaned heavily on the iconography of horror and pornography. These are genres which are eminently suitable for this kind of textual play of signs (exactly why this is so needs to be further dealt with in another essay).
Stephen Hopkins’ The Dream Child operates in much the same way as American Psycho does. It overwhelms the audience with a non-stop barrage of signs and trade-marks which draw upon our shared experience of the genre in order to replicate meanings, very often without resorting to explicate the meaning of the sign in this ‘new’ text. In other words, a black pram might tumble down a flight of steps in this film for no other reason than to bring Rosemary’s Baby and The Battleship Potemkin to mind. We put the signs together, create a ‘meaning’ for ourselves and thus push the narrative along without very much authorial structure or plot at all.
Unfortunately, Hopkins’ intertextuality lacks the charm and ironic self-referentiality of, say, Joe Dante, whose film Gremlins 2: The New Batch I consider the classic of this kind of late eighties horror cinema. Hopkins does not mediate his use of sources and hence the endless citations often do no more than repeat an ‘existent’ scene: existent in terms of the body of textual genre information that is. I see the horror genre in particular as one which has built a large corpus of uninvited elements which exist in order to be re-used, re-examined and of course, cross-pollinated with each other. In this sense, the genre is larger than the individual work and only very few directors have succeeded in transcending the enormous pull of the genre to create work which remains identified by their personal authorial stamp (Cronenberg, Romero, Argento and perhaps a handful more…you name them).
What is the end result of this un-mediated intertextuality?
1. We, the genre aficionados that is, are so accustomed to these scenes that recognising them is actually a source of comfort, the very nature of which excludes even the possibility of experiencing terror.
2. the discomfort (ie terror) that we do feel is domesticated. The authors, in quoting extensively from the shared corpus, are in effect saying “here, this is where we come from”. The audience that recognises these references cannot be scared because it is their own cultural genre build-up that is being reinforced. One of the basic principles of horror cinema’s once-ability to terrify is thus violated: we are scared of the unknown, but merely re-stating the visual sign of the unknown from, say, The Brood is not an unknown any more. It becomes “the known from The Brood“, and thus instead of terror at the ‘unknown’, the only reaction a textually literate viewer can have is self-satisfaction at the instant of recognition (and of course a shared genre/culture identification with the film auteur whose use of the genre corpus textual sign subliminally reinforces our own sense of taste and knowledge. Do not forget that horror genre devotees are innately ‘against’ something – they are very often marginalised from friends and family, and thus their bonds with other devotees are very strong. A director who sends out so many signals as to his possible viewing past with his audience is in effect creating the possibility of a family network: we feel at home).
3. The question then is why do people go to see these horror films which are simply not scary anymore? The ritual of the horror film these days seems less to do with the abjection ritual that Julia Kristeva writes of (as fear itself is absent and thus the notion of transgressing that fear) and more indeed with sustaining and building a collective, almost meta-family, of continuity within the corpus text. The young male viewer will feel less lonely, less discontinuous, when recognising these references. In effect these moments of recognition serve a similar function to orgasm or murder – they are brief connections with the continuous.
The film itself has remarkable special effects, a breathtaking scene being the transformation of the motorcycle into an object of death. This resonates with a quarter-century worth of rock ‘n’ roll biker mystique and would make a great video clip for Henry Rollins’ Ghost Rider. This motorcycle death resonates with the idea of sexual union and death epitomised in our culture by the death of James Dean.
The MTV style animation computer graphics are also splendid and provide an intriguing example of how the video clip, which was originally so influenced by the feature film, is now exercising so much influence on the feature film. The most interesting concept of the film, the idea that a foetus can dream, resonates with the macabre day to day reality of Crack and AIDS babies today, but it is such a tremendous pity that this idea was not worked through better. Freddy Krueger can get through to the world again and create havoc because the baby in the womb is capable of dreaming. The baby’s umbilical link with his mother allows his dreams to influence her and vice versa. Thus her ‘disease’ (being the gateway for Krueger to get to the earth) is transmitted umbilically to her hapless child. This is very much an Eighties phenomenon intimately tied to the concept of AIDS and Crack babies.
The construction, form and editing of this film are impeccable but somehow the film just never works. Strangely enough the other A Nightmare on Elm Street films are never used much as references, beyond the basic mythology which is simply narrated verbally once.
I saw this film in between Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and Pasolini’s Il Evangelo Seccondo del Matteo and was intrigued that neither of these ‘superior’ films stimulated my own thinking processes and analytic activity anywhere near as much as The Dream Child. I find this to be an intriguing example of the practice of film criticism following theory: having namely been deeply influenced by Adorno’s scorn for the tradition of emphasizing subjective taste, a method that, he contended, was particularly inappropriate when applied to the sphere where it is most frequently used, that of contemporary mass culture.