Contribution to Autism in Film and Television: On the Island

Thanks to editors Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer, who have included my chapter on Nightcrawler (2014) and The Accountant (2016) in their exciting new collection, Autism in Film and Television: On the Island (University of Texas Press, 2022). I’m delighted to be included among scholars such as Mark Osteen, Fincina Hopgood, Alex Clayton, Ina Rae Hark, and many more, in a wide-ranging book that examines (just for example) sitcoms, Star Trek, NBC’s Community, Being There (1979), The Social Network (2010), Sherlock Holmes, Rain Man (1988), and Netflix’s Atypical.

Available from the University of Texas Press website and other online retailers.

The Other Hollywood Renaissance (2020) 2022 reprint

I’m happy to announce that the collection The Other Hollywood Renaissance, co-edited with R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance, will be released in paperback edition this August. This collection, first released in late 2020, re-examines the work of 24 directors associated with the Hollywood Renaissance/New Hollywood, including Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, and William Friedkin, but also directors that have typically attracted less critical attention, such as Elaine May, Paul Mazursky, Peter Yates, and John Schlesinger. I’m hugely appreciative of the work of co-editors Barton and Murray—who have chapters of their own in the book—as well as the tremendous work of scholars such as Steven Rybin, Rebecca Bell-Metereau, Dennis Bingham, I-Lien Tsay, Con Verevis, and many others, whose intricate and compelling appraisals of their respective subjects make this book what it is. My own chapter is on William Friedkin, examining both his film style and the troubled personalities that populate The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Sorcerer (1977), and Cruising (1980).

Find The Other Hollywood Renaissance at the Edinburgh University Press website, as well as Amazon and other online retailers.

Brute Force: Animal Horror Movies (SUNY Press, 2019)

Brute ForceI’m happy to announce that my book Brute Force: Animal Horror Movies has been published by State University of New York Press.

It’s always been a wild world, with humans telling stories of killer animals as soon as they could tell stories at all. Movies are an especially popular vehicle for our fascination with fierce creatures.

In Brute Force, Dominic Lennard takes a close look at a range of cinematic animal attackers, including killer gorillas, sharks, snakes, bears, wolves, spiders, and even a few dinosaurs. Lennard argues that animal horror is not so much a focused genre as it is an impulse, tapping into age-old fears of becoming prey. At the same time, these films expose conflicts and uncertainties in our current relationship with animals. Movies considered include King KongJawsThe GreyThem!ArachnophobiaJurassic ParkSnakes on a PlaneAn American Werewolf in London, and many more. Drawing on insights from film studies, art history, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, Brute Force is an engaging critical exploration—and appreciation—of cinema’s many bad beasts.

  • Brute Force is available from Amazon and SUNY Press in hardcover, paperback, and ebook versions. SUNY Press have made the introductory chapter (sans endnotes) available for free download; if you’d like to try it, click their link above, then “Read an excerpt” for PDF.


Other films discussed include:

The Reef (2010), Open Water (2004), Orca (1977), Bait 3D (2012), Sharknado (2013), Dark Age (1987), Black Water (2007), Rogue (2007), The Shallows (2016), Day of the Animals (1977), Grizzly (1976), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), The Edge (1997), Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Phase IV (1974), Eight Legged Freaks (2002), Bug (2006), Godzilla (1954), The Fly (1958 and 1986), Jurassic World (2015), The Birds (1963), Wolfen (1980), Anaconda (1997), Venom (1981), The Thing (1983), Cujo (1983), Werewolf of London (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), The Howling (1981), Wolf (1994), Bad Moon (1996), Cat People (1942 and 1982), Ginger Snaps (2000), and more!

“The brilliance of Dominic Lennard’s Brute Force is not only that it is long overdue, but one didn’t realize it was due in the first place! Yet upon reflection and, of course, through Lennard’s engaging book, one realizes not only the ubiquity of animals in horror, but their utter centrality to so many classic horror films. In reading this, we can hear the distant rumble of footsteps of a genetically reborn Tyrannosaurus or the hurried pounding of our beloved Rover who has decided that he wants more than kibbles and bits for dinner—and we look mighty appetizing. ‘Groundbreaking’ is often overused, but in this case it truly fits.”

— Emeritus Professor David Desser, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Review: Hang ‘Em High (1968)

HANG ’EM HIGH (1968)
Dir. Ted Post


Imagine if one of the hard-done-by herdsmen of The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) survived the miscarriage of justice that left him twitching at the end of a rope, add a dash of Spaghetti sauce, and you have some idea of the premise of Ted Post’s 1968 dark justice-drama Hang ’Em High.

Clint Eastwood is Jeb Cooper, the nice-guy cowhand falsely accused of rustling and murder. His vigilante capturers string him up as hastily as it can be managed but ride off prematurely, leaving Jeb to be rescued by a passing marshal and ushered back to town for a fair trial. Cleared of all charges but offered only a pittance for his trouble, he accepts a job as a lawman himself and sets his mind to bringing his attackers to justice the legal way—that is, if he can help himself.

Eastwood’s silent-but-violent characterization of Cooper clearly bears the influence of Hang ’Em High’s Spaghetti Western predecessors, although Post’s film conspicuously eschews the free-wheeling vengeance of European contemporaries like Death Rides a Horse (1967) to attempt a more intriguing and problematic portrait of violence and justice in the Old West.


The problem with this is that Eastwood’s minimalist characterization doesn’t provide the emotional cues required by a story with as many latent moral questions as this. The film isn’t the violent Spaghetti Western imitation we might expect; similarly, Hang ’Em High has action enough, but it isn’t an action film. In lieu of this, we need more than a Dollars impression from Eastwood: a performance that better carries the mood of the narrative and allows more insight into his behavior. This situation, that creates “drama” with too little human at its center, is not helped by the forced atmospheres of Dominic Frontiere’s score: all thunder and doom in the film’s early scenes—tolling bells and ominous military snares that contrast starkly with the bright, romantic landscapes on display.

Fortunately, Hang ’Em High has a great many redeeming features, all of which present themselves in the film’s latter half. A surprisingly sensitive depiction of the villains is the first indication of the film’s interest in exploring the harshness of penalties meted out for criminality, and the manner in which violent “justice” inspires equally violent means of evasion.


The most compelling aspects of Post’s film are those which implicitly question the foundational role of violence in U.S. history. It exhibits a clear concern with the connection between bloodshed and community “togetherness”—here expressed through the desire for statehood—and with the role of punitive state violence as a kind of morbid entertainment.

Hang ’Em High is not without flaws that prevent it being as affecting as it might be (the romantic subplot feels especially half-hearted). However, these flaws are ultimately outweighed by the intriguing and original presentation of still-relevant issues relating to vengeance, and the irony of using violence to maintain an image of civility. 3.5 / 5

Nobody calls him chicken: The Four Feathers (review)

the four feathers_

THE FOUR FEATHERS (Silent, 1929)
Dirs. Merian C. Cooper, Lothar Mendes, and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Those familiar with The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933) know producer-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s swashbuckling sensibilities, and in this silent, pre-Kong collaboration between the two (with Lothar Mendes) we get a pulpy yarn of wartime rescue, heroism and redemption. When British military gent Lt. Harry Faversham (Richard Arlen) evades his duty in favor of marrying his childhood sweetheart (Fay Wray) immediately, he drags himself and his family into disgrace. The film’s title derives from four feathers he receives from those once close to him (including a very unimpressed fiancée who’s now embarrassed to be betrothed to such a wimp), the items offered as symbols of his cowardice. However, when his cohorts are captured in Africa he concocts a plan to infiltrate the enemy stronghold and ferry them to safety, thereby restoring his honor.

The Four Feathers

The codes of heroism and masculinity on display here are of course remarkably dated by now; however, even by 1929, in the aftermath of the Great War, the chivalry of soldiering was under considerable scrutiny. Nevertheless, the film’s angst-ridden premise sets up some fine action as the Brits battle their captors, and a particularly momentous chase sequence (albeit with some discomforting animal involvement). The Four Feathers hardly stands alongside Schoedsack and Cooper’s more famous efforts, but it’s an enjoyable excursion before bigger things to come. 3 / 5

Complete film (public domain):

Drag you Down Under: Dark Age (review)

DARK AGE (1987)
Dir. Arch Nicholson

Darkage1987poster.jpgCrocodilian chaos in Australia’s Northern Territory: When one particularly big brute starts snacking on humans, it’s up to wildlife ranger and conservationist Steve Harris (John Jarratt) to bring it to heel. With a sensible respect for the local wildlife, Steve wants to stop the killer croc while preventing a crew of mad hunters (eager for an excuse to indulge their bloodlust) from hitting the creeks for a pump-action killathon.

Aboriginal elders warn Steve that this ain’t no ordinary crocodile: In addition to its size, this creature is “proper old” and “wise,” they say.  He’s also a figure in their Dreaming and they refuse to participate in killing him. The initial attack is provoked by the incursions of racist poachers, and Dark Age carries a strong anti-colonial subtext, evoking a land stolen and its ecology ignored and degraded.

The largest reptile on earth, and with the gnarled look of a nasty dinosaur, the saltwater croc’s menace is wonderfully evoked with reference to its prehistoric origins (hence the film’s title), as well as its role in a timeless Aboriginal spirituality. In a nod to Jaws, the local bigwig (played by Home and Away veteran Ray Meagher) is concerned about tourism: Japanese investors set to build the town up mustn’t be scared off. 508Ultimately, Dark Age depicts an outback culture whose powerful players are in hot pursuit of modernization and money, trying to leave behind an indigenous historyand presentto which the creature is connected. The subtext comes on a little strong at one or two points, but amid numerous less imaginative Jaws-imitators it’s refreshing to see a film so brimming with ideas.

darkage_5609604f06a83The film’s score, heavy on the synth drums, is at times distractingly dated, and can’t always summon the intensity required (especially during a Jaws-like pursuit of the predator). The crocodile effects are also limited and sometimes log-like: one shot of the croc on the water’s surface seems to terminate because the model is slowly drifting off to the left. Shots of the brute in motion could have been livened up with some strategically edited and inserted stock footage. That aside, the film invests properly in its human drama, and tensions within the town (and culture more broadly) are played out through strong performances. As implied above, though, the film is perhaps most effective in its evocation of Australia as a kind of haunted land: a place with an ancient identity of which its white inhabitants are ignorant, but which nevertheless bursts violently forth from the past—and bites.  3.5 / 5

Full Boar: Razorback (review)

Razorback-2RAZORBACK (1984)
Dir. Russell Mulcahy

From deep within an Australian Outback as grotesquely gothic as any Tim Burton landscape comes Razorback, feral boar titan, to freight-train through your living room and steal your baby. Yes, your baby. I don’t know what it does with the baby. Presumably it eats him. The film doesn’t get a whole lot more sensible than that, but for those with a taste for horror with an absurdist touch: pig out.

To the land of the weird ventures American journalist and animal-lover Beth Winters (Judy Morris), intent on reporting the country’s heartless massacre of marsupial ‘pests’. Yet with Hogzilla on the prowl the story is bigger than she realizes. Not only is the wildlife more than she bargained for, but so too are the locals, the worst of whom—a couple of yawping, greasy, black-tooth hunters—intrude with a villainy of their own.

Razorback.gifMeanwhile, grizzled pig-shooter Jake (Bill Kerr), grandfather of the stolen baby, begins a Quint-like quest against the beast. Regrettably, Jake is but a shadow of his animal-horror influences, and the film suffers here from its indecisive tone: it’s hard to develop a scarred and serious character in a circus like this. Leaving that aside, Razorback is stylish and garishly striking—fairly well-financed but shot with an irresistible exploitation verve. The final showdown with the big boy (with much organ-pounding over the soundtrack) is sort of scarier than the rest of it, but foremost a silly delight. 3.5 / 5

The Maddest of the Mad: Possession (review)

Dir. Andrzej Żuławski

667.jpgAn intense and aggressive domestic drama descends into experimental horror in Żuławski’s cult classic Possession. Steered visually by the restless cinematography of Bruno Nuytten the film constructs a world pervaded by uncertainty, discomfort, and a sense of worse to come. The initial horror is of an everyday nature: Mark (Sam Neill) arrives home to Berlin to discover his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) has been having an affair and is not the least bit sorry about it either. He turns on the insecure male hysterics and quickly drives her to a similar pitch—then beyond. However, in an apartment downtown Anna has been keeping (and gradually growing) a more monstrous secret, and as her behavior becomes more and more unhinged the film explodes into a warped and chaotic exploration of loathing, desire, and frustration.

As the above perhaps suggests, Żuławski’s film focuses at least partially on ‘possession’ in terms of sexual behavior: Sam Neill feels his cheating wife has acted like one ‘possessed,’ although in doing so highlights his own desire for ‘possession’ (of her). Character interactions are histrionic from the outset but often powerfully so—commanding our stunned attention with so much emotional mess. Beyond sexual ‘possession,’ the film is famous for its scenes of female madness, which are indeed remarkable and transfixing. Yet one scene in particular (you will pick it) is so explosive it seems to repel any Possession-8276_4.jpgpossible identification or sympathy, risking a kind of objectifying ‘insanity porn’—a display foremost for our shock and amazement. Or perhaps in its transgressive and apocalyptic intensity (far beyond narrative or meaning) the moment achieves a kind of liberatory chaos?  I expect opinions vary.

The mysterious Thing kept by Anna in her grubby parody of the domestic environment is darkly fascinating, yet the film seems occasionally to lose interest in it, so the device isn’t quite explored to its full visual or metaphoric potential. Ultimately the themes of partner-perfection and obedience are provocative and troubling, and the film’s emotional collisions both traumatic and captivating. But in addition to Anna’s startling hysterics, a very kooky paramour, the monster and a doppelganger there’s also talk of souls and death and God—and really there’s just a bit too much thrown in for us to get an intellectual or emotional feel for its implications. Disorienting sometimes to its detriment, Possession is nevertheless a work of wild and commendable audacity.  3.5 / 5

Review: Death Rides a Horse (1967)

Dir. Giulio Petroni

death_rides_a_horse.jpgGood old-fashioned revenge doesn’t get much better than this down and dirty lead crusade from Giulio Petroni. On the kind of sodden night from which nothing good can come a gang of hoods storm the home of the young Bill Meceita, murdering both his parents. 15 years later, all grown up and more than handy with a gun, Bill (John Phillip Law) sets out for revenge. Meanwhile, Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an outlaw as weathered as the rocks he splits during his term of hard labor, is finally granted release and begins his pursuit of the crooks who double-crossed him into the slammer in the first place. You guessed it: they’re the same low-lives.

The storyline of Death Rides a Horse packs a crude punch, but the ominous atmosphere is what really sucks one into this graceful and aggressive film. The rumbling strains of Morricone’s score effortlessly summon dread or exhilaration as required, and the opening attack scene is a horrid thrill-piece of trepidation—moody enough to be captivating and tumultuous enough to be genuinely threatening. The cinematography here arrests us at every turn: shots of the cutthroat legion moving over the hill toward the farm in the blinding rain, of water cascading off low hat brims, of hooves stepping with dire purpose through the mud.

DeathRides.jpgAlthough the film’s main interest is action—the simple pleasure of watching a couple of tough hombres take care of business—Petroni’s stylistic flair lends a symbolism of its own to these proceedings. The treachery and isolation of the Western landscape, the inexorability of fate, and the development of a surrogate father/son relationship between Ryan and Bill are all evoked.

The minimalist characterization and straight-up firepower of Death Rides a Horse won’t appeal to all viewers, but for those keen on a tightly plotted thriller content to let the lead do the talking, the film is a treat.  4 / 5

Download film (public domain)


Eyes of the Hunter: Wolfen (review)

Wolfen_1981.jpgWOLFEN (1981)
Dir. Michael Wadleigh

1981 was the year of the wolf, unleashing on cinemas both An American Werewolf in London and The Howling as well as Michael Wadleigh’s captivating Wolfen, the director’s first and final non-documentary feature. Albert Finney plays troubled NYC detective Dewey Wilson investigating a series of gory kills, beginning with the mutilation-murder of a real-estate tycoon and his wife. Big Money of course has plenty of enemies, and possibly connected is a militant Native American activist, Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos). But this crime-scene suggests some hairier happening.

Eschewing the sexual subtexts of its contemporaries, Wolfen instead gestures to an ancient and unknowable animal world never quite vanquished. Like much animal horror, Wolfen imagines the creature’s point of view as it stalks its human prey; yet these shots are used so extensively that the technique threatens to destabilize familiar human points of view associated with the order and normality Wilson seeks to restore. The resulting impression is that this threat is not merely some aberration of civilized life to be corrected by good policing, but a rival reality—ever-present and always waiting for the inevitable demise of western “progress.”

wolfen2.jpgThis theme is hauntingly imbued in images of industrial and residential dilapidation—urban rubble through which the wolves stalk their prey. As Wilson tracks his targets, a tingling, stealthy score by James Horner accents (and never smothers) the film’s shivery atmosphere. A film as dark, graceful and bewitching as its elusive antagonists.  5 / 5