During four jam-packed weeks this summer, University of Virginia students enrolled in a three-credit course watched movies starring monsters, creatures from outer space, vampires and robots.
Taught by Robert Kolker, adjunct professor and instructor in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program in U.Va.’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, “Special Topics in Film: Science Fiction and Horror Film” explored how two of the most exciting and imaginative – albeit not always critically acclaimed – film genres frequently cross and merge at crucial points in the visual narrative experience.
Fifteen students, mostly first-years with potential majors ranging from history to engineering, watched and analyzed classic films in the over-the-edge genres of science fiction and horror. The course consisted of screenings, readings, lectures, discussions, papers and a final exam.
Kolker placed each film in context by connecting the dots with his vast knowledge of film history.
“I brought a lot of DVDs and showed clips to give the students a sense of lineage about where things come from,” he said. “I also talked to them about film form itself, so that it’s not completely content-driven – and so they have an idea that film is a formal medium with its own language.”
In the course, offered through the media studies department in the College of Arts & Sciences, the movies viewed and analyzed included cinematic work from 1920s German expressionism (Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu”), 1930s American horror (Tod Browning’s “Dracula,” James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein”), 1950s science fiction (Howard Hawks’ “The Thing,” Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Fred Wilcox’s “Forbidden Planet,” Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), 1980s modern horror (Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) and modern sci-fi (Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and “Blade Runner”).
Students in the class also discussed two seminal works of the ’60s, which Kolker describes as “the apogee”: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Kolker made a conscious decision to stop the course in the early ’80s, even though he now wishes he had included films by David Cronenberg. After then, he said, computer-generated images took over the soul of the genres.
“With the advent of CGI, science fiction and horror both became less interesting because it became too easy for filmmakers to devote their attention to creating digital effects while not paying enough attention to mise-en-scène and narrative,” Kolker said.
“Because of this, I think a lot of horror film today is sort of bang and flash – loud noises and sudden edits at the expense of really trying to creep out the audience.”
According to Kolker, every film taught in the course speaks to some of the deepest fears of the human unconscious, as well as some of the great aspirations of the imagination. His purpose was to reveal how the genres intersected in each work and how patterns interlock from film to film.
“‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ is both a science-fiction film – it’s about a scientist creating life – and a horror film about a monster,” Kolker said. “‘Alien’ is a sci-fi film about a monster who winds up on a spaceship in the future out in the solar system, and terrifies and eats the crew.
“This notion about figures from the dark – that is, the repressed – cropping up in horror films crosses over into films about the future.”
What happens on screen when the sci-fi and horror genres do indeed crisscross – the cinematic intersection – conveys in a primal way the very meaning of the film itself.
“It means that the horror film, which calls upon primeval fears, and the science-fiction film, which calls upon anticipatory fears, come together,” Kolker said.
The intersection occurs because the two genres have fears embedded in the filmic narrative as well as in the filmgoing experience. “Terror, fear and dread are the three words that I used in the class to try and define this,” Kolker said.
Kolker’s knowledge of cinema comes from a rich experience of watching, teaching and writing about films. He is an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland, where he taught film for 30 years.
Kolker is also the author of numerous critically acclaimed works of film studies, including “Film, Form, and Culture,” “The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema,” and works on Bernardo Bertolucci and Wim Wenders. He has edited books of essays about “2001” and “Psycho,” as well as the prestigious “Oxford Handbook of Film and Media Studies.”
Kolker’s “A Cinema of Loneliness” remains an important work on the history of ’70s Hollywood – focusing on key figures such a Arthur Penn, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Kubrick and Spielberg – and has been called “the best book on contemporary American film” by The Washington Post Book World. Kolker once taught a film course at U.Va. on the contemporary American directors Stone, David Fincher, Scorsese and Kubrick.
Since coming to U.Va. as adjunct professor in 2004, Kolker has taught an introduction to film, a course on postwar European cinema and two separate courses on the films and culture of the 1940s and ’50s.
In the coming academic year, Kolker will teach two online courses for the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program: the films of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock in the fall and the films of Stanley Kubrick in the spring.