–Blade Runner, by Scott Bukatman, 1997/2019
–The Exorcist, by Mark Kermode, 1997/2020
–The Matrix, by Joshua Clover, 2007
–Nosferatu, by Kevin Jackson, 2013
–The Shining, by Roger Luckhurst, 2013
–Solaris, by Mark Bould, 2014
–Alien, by Roger Luckhurst, 2014/2020
–Night of the Living Dead, by Ben Hervey, 2008/2020
–The Thing, by Anne Billson, 2019
–Near Dark, by Stacey Abbott, 2020
2020 made for a relentless questioning of what to do if you’d decided to stay in, or if you weren’t given the choice, which allowed a renewed proximity with books and films that spoke to a moment that encompassed a number of co-existing fears, of transmission, transformation, isolation and separation from loved ones, friends and colleagues. A fear of time that had ceased to be concerned with how it was measured.
Science-Fiction and Horror films served to heighten the mood during that time, and allowed a generation of film scholars to look back on the eighties and nineties, when key theoretical books and publications on both genres kept emerging until such enterprises were geared immediately to film studies curiculums. Again to its credit, the BFI Film Classics series, a collection one imagines overwhelmed with proposals, welcomed essays at the turn of the century and since that would, or not, expand on the groundbreaking work accomplished in the previous decades. As is its practice, the series looks to writers who are academics, journalists, novelists, poets and theorists.
The experience of watching a film then picking up a book (rather than searching online) that provied its variation on the film’s genesis, its director, before delivering its reading, inevitably produced critical engagement. The process additionally helped to shed light on titles that were missing, as well as on the issue of parity and diversity. All of which could have contributed even more to this confinement of anguish; while David Cronenberg is in the series, Shivers, Rabid, The Brood are not. And of the list compiled here, only two were written by women.
The most famous remains UK film critic Mark Kermode’s informed text on William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, first published nearly twenty-five years ago, while Stanford professor and cultural theorist Scott Bukatman, who had his own ‘Stephen Heath’ moment in the nineties, brings a different ambition to Blade Runner, one that manages to combine what the film has come to represent since its release -something shared by all the books here- and an aptly succinct use of postmodern theory that is echoed in Joshua Clover’s The Matrix with the difference that the Wachowskis were familiar with the philosophy texts while Ridley Scott had his hands full with Philip K. Dick.
Professor Roger Luckhurst (Birbeck Collegue, U of London) has the distinction of having penned two titles on this list, another Ridley Scott film, Alien, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Luckhurst, like Bukatman, sees Scott’s early career as the trailer for postmodernism and where there’s a cat, there’s Derrida. The Kubrick study raised the spectre of Georg Luckacs among the guests of the Overlook.
Another UK professor and a Routledge stalwart, Mark Bould’s essay on Andrei Tarkovski’s Solaris suffuses intelligence and grace of prose. It meets the task of making the encounter with this film an indispensable experience. While not playing down the density of a film disliked by its director, Bould also brings up Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem book, with George Clooney very much the intertextual signified, who some two decades later would try to revisit isolation in his own Midnight Sky.
Former Oxford and Reading lecturer and current California screenwriter Ben Hervey’s contribution is possibly the most traditional volume of the gathering here and serves as a solid introduction to Night of the Living Dead and an inevitably endearing description of what George Romero set out to do and the seized legacy. Likewise, writer/filmmaker Kevin Jackson’s Nosferatu, by F.W. Murnau, emphasizes the film’s role not only in the horror genre but in the immediacy of its treatment of the vampire as a poetic creature which Murnau enabled in cinema. It does not bring up what filmmaker Tobe Hooper did with it in his adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, though he rapidly mentions Werner Herzog’s own very European rendering…as well as Tim Burton’s Batman Returns which feels as if it was made so very long ago, at a time when there was a Christopher Walken who played a villain named Max Schreck, after the Murnau actor who inhabited the vampire, and the Walken who became the vampire in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction.
The U.K.’s Sunday Telegraph’s film critic Anne Billson’s premise wants to argue that John Carpenter’s The Thing has never been given its due. This would be reason enough to expect what comes next as a glorified film review. Ms Billson based much of her reasoning of how well another sci-film of the era fared, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. . It is an odd choice for a writer, given both the film and intellectual scholarship at play in the other essays of this list. Yet the BFI Classics series has not shied away from publishing those books which were targeting varied audiences. On the other hand, Roehampton reader in film and television Studies Stacey Abbott (and praised by…Roger Luckhurst) deftly located Kathryn Bigelow’s extraordinary Near Dark within what she termed the americanization of the vampire genre, during a period that saw colonial vampires on plantations preying on children, while other Winnebago cowboys were allowed to get dirtier that on a James Cameron picture. Ms Abbott is especially enthusiastic in discussing this very genre hybridity, a pervasive trope that informed key releases of the eighties.
Revisiting these films through these texts ultimately pointed to a new set of ideas, references and theories, other writers and filmmakers. And those waiting to do it next.
Part 2 will look at BFI Classics titles focusing on Asian cinema.