Few stretches of American film history are as thoroughly analysed and deeply revered as the period from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Covering the decline of Hays Code censorship, the emergence of ‘New Hollywood’ directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, and the rise of the blockbuster, these years are awash with an acclaimed range of wildly diverse works, from Bonnie & Clyde to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. It requires nerve to tackle such over-exposed material, particularly when promising to challenge the dominant critical narrative of a post-Star Wars descent from revolutionary cinematic art into crowd-pleasing mediocrity. We Are The Mutants, a new book co-authored by Kelly Roberts, Michael Grasso, and Richard McKenna (founding editors of the website of the same name), boldly attempts just such a feat in enjoyably fearless style.
Subtitled ‘The Battle for Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon,’ the book works chronologically from approximately 1968 to 1987, with the three authors working independently on separate chapters. Its twelve essays compare and contrast two contemporary films each in order to explore their respective themes and discuss their place in American cinema and society of the time. Sensibly, given the amount of criticism already available on touchstones like The Godfather or Chinatown, the writers choose to mix mainstream selections with less widely-known independent works. This means that box office smashes such as Alien and Fatal Attraction rub shoulders with small cult works like Punishment Park and Suburbia. Pleasingly, they do so as equals, with each film considered on its individual merits, rather than solely in terms of either commercial success or underground credibility.
Although it occasionally relies a little too heavily on simply comparing plot synopses, the dual-film structure generally works well, with the chapters frequently based on truly inspired and unexpected juxtapositions. Roberts’ ‘The Cost of Electricity’ reinterprets Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a comment on decayed industrial relations, energy shortages, and shrivelled corporate cannibalism, via a revealing pairing with Barbara Kopple’s mining documentary Harlan County, USA. In ‘Every Girl Should Have a Daddy,’ Grasso examines the exposure of middle America’s adolescent girls to demonic influence by way of The Exorcist and the exploitative true-crime feature Manson, debating their shared themes of societal fractures and devilish patriarchs. Even the more far-fetched couplings yield intriguing results. At first glance, a comparison between Disney’s fantastical Dragonslayer and serial killer thriller Manhunter seems ridiculously literal (the latter being based on Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon). Yet McKenna’s ‘What is it you Think you’re Becoming?’ finds fascinating links between the way the two films utilise their mythical creatures, enabling key characters to ‘become’ something other.
The book is perhaps less successful in challenging simplistic views of 1980s cinema as facile and regressive, in contrast to the boldly experimental 70s. The introduction raises salient criticisms of the conservatism inherent in the plot of The Exorcist, and the total lack of political or native Vietnamese insight in the surreal fantasies of Apocalypse Now, both strong examples of the less-than radical streak to be found in several lauded 70s classics. The introductory section then goes on to persuasively champion the rise of independent releases and home videos in the 1980s and the opportunities they offered for more diverse voices to make themselves heard. Yet the book itself climaxes with a despairing (if entertainingly withering) chapter teaming the knuckle-headed blockbusters Lethal Weapon and Fatal Attraction, with the brief conclusion conceding the ascendance of right-wing politics in the mainstream, sweeping aside difference or disillusionment.
While the conclusion is far from inaccurate, it arguably overlooks several contemporary dissenting voices that could have been harnessed to support the authors’ earlier defence of a more diverse, interesting version of 80s American film. Underground 80s horror is entirely neglected in favour of slaying the lumbering big beast Poltergeist; a film characteristic of the decade’s mainstream perhaps, but far less subversive and influential today than the best of the period’s lower-budget genre fare. A slight expansion of the book’s self-imposed mid-1987 boundary could have led to the inclusion of John Carpenter’s They Live or Alex Cox’s Walker, near contemporaries of the final films covered but utterly opposed to their glib, conservative values. As Reagan’s presidency drew to a close, even the fairly tame likes of Wall Street and Scrooged contained at least a tepid acknowledgment that all was not well in US society, the former starring Fatal Attraction’s Michael Douglas and the latter directed by Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner. It seems a shame such examples were left aside, particularly in view of the intriguing gauntlet thrown down in the book’s introduction.
Nevertheless, We Are The Mutants remains a highly enjoyable read for film fans hungry for an alternative point of view. The writing is intelligent, detailed, and well-researched without drifting into the academic and dry, and its arguments are frequently invigorating and thought-provoking. If its eventual pessimism is somewhat disappointing, the authors’ passion and enthusiasm for their subject always shines through, ensuring that even their bleakest conclusions remain intriguing and involving.
We Are The Mutants will be published by Repeater Books on 11th October 2022.