During Halloween a good scare is in season. Rutgers–Camden students enrolled in a horror film course are spending the
whole semester learning about the genre that conjures more than just screams and squirms, but serious commentary on our national psyche. Hobnobbing with Academy Award-winning directors at local screenings is also on the syllabus.
Taught by Matthew Sorrento, a Rutgers–Camden alumnus and seasoned film reviewer, the undergraduate course, cross-listed in both English and media studies, examines movies from throughout the 20th century to see how world events and film history impact the tone and style of each spine-tingling feature. Students will also hone their critical thinking skills to pinpoint the makings of a successful horror film. For Sorrento, the best scary movies are rooted in tradition.
“Horror films work off of mythical elements – archetypal figures and narratives – and our deep-rooted fears. This is why the three ‘classical’ monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde – will remain forever, and continually be reborn,” offers the 2002 Rutgers–Camden graduate and contributor to the Bright Lights Film Journal. “A good horror film should have some sense of tradition, but also consider our psychological make-up, i.e. what terrifies us.”
In addition to watching classic films like Universal Studios’ Dracula and Frankenstein, and the various versions of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Sorrento says one comes out around every decade – the class is also watching films that aren’t even in theaters yet. Last week, the Rutgers–Camden course attended an advance screening of 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle. Sorrento’s class not only watched the film starring James Franco, but met and interacted with the director, who’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire won him a slew of Oscars.
“While not a horror film per se, [127 Hours] certainly depicts some horrifying scenes,” says Sorrento. A real-life hiker gets pinned between “A Rock and Hard Place” – the title of the book of which the movie is based – and must cut off his arm to save his life. “It’s one of those movie moments you’re not going to let go of. That scene is still stuck in my spine somewhere,” admits Sorrento. This latest work from Boyle, who directed the apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later, produced three faintings and a seizure while on the festival circuit.
No smelling salts were needed to revive the Rutgers–Camden students in attendance. April Smith, a junior English major, said seeing the film weeks before her friends and meeting the director was incredible. “I had no idea when I registered for this course that I’d have the opportunity to meet one of my favorite directors” she says. “It was great to watch an amazing film and then be able to ask the director about the process behind making a film.”
Brian Hofacker, who works for the comic book company Dynamite Entertainment and Dynamic Forces, also appreciated hearing Danny Boyle explain his decisions. “The event really set a mood for wanting to learn more about the movie industry,” Hofacker adds.
Even without meeting the award-winning director, the Rutgers–Camden course has been positively impacting Hofacker’s career in comics. “The class certainly opens up greater details of the genre and an understanding to the filmmaking process,” he says. “But more importantly the class explains how the films relate to the time period, which is an aspect to keep in mind when considering reviving a property for comic books.”
Next month, Sorrento’s class will attend another screening in Philadelphia.
While the course peppers discussion with inside information on famous films, it also presents history to students through palpable fears of the times. “Nowadays we look at the Red Scare as more fear than it was worth, but back then people believed Communism could take over the world. That unstoppable counterforce is what’s haunting us in The Day the Earth Stood Still and the War of the Worlds,” offers Sorrento, who will teach two film courses this spring: one on Westerns and the other an Honors course.
From German expressionist influence on the genre to the arrival of supernatural thrillers, the course exposes students to the evolution of the tradition, while keeping current trends like the Saw and Twilight series a part of the discussion.
“The newer mainstream trends are more bankable than they are innovative. Right now, we have what critic David Edelstein has termed ‘torture porn,’ a style that lays on the punishment to its protagonist with less suspense. We also have the adolescent vampire trend, which borrows more from teen angst than the gothic tradition,” says Sorrento, whose book The New American Crime Film will be published by McFarland next year. “Though these traditions aren’t much in themselves, I make a good exercise in encouraging my students to see how we have come to them.”
Media Contact: Cathy K. Donovan