Faculty Spotlight: SMU Film's Rick Worland
SMU's film professor talks Hitchcock, what brought him to Meadows, and his favorite films of the year
Isabella Rossellini was the featured guest of the Dallas Film Society’s annual “The Art of Film” gala last year. SMU Film Professor Rick Worland hosted an open Q&A for Meadows students, faculty and staff.
Rick Worland is a film professor at Meadows School of the Arts. He received his master’s and Ph.D. at UCLA for motion picture/television critical studies and has been teaching at SMU for nearly 30 years, receiving the Algur H. Meadows Distinguished Teaching Professor award in 1997-1998. His classes include International Film History, Film Genres (Horror, Westerns, Film Noir, etc.), and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Professor Worland published his first book, The Horror Film: An Introduction, in 2007
What is it that attracted you to the horror genre and particularly the work of Hitchcock?
Two separate questions, really. Hitchcock only became linked to the horror genre after Psycho came to be thought of as a “horror movie,” though this didn’t occur until the early ’70s. Previously it was “a Hitchcock film” foremost, as was The Birds. Re horror, I think many people come to a love of film and TV through early fascination with the related genres of horror, science fiction and fantasy. To me this is because we start out thinking of these things as fairy tales or fantasy stories, and small children can’t fully distinguish between what’s real or not (e.g., Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy might be real.) But, as we get older we realize that these kinds of movies (horror, SF, fantasy) are made. They aren’t “realistic” like sitcoms or cop shows. Writers, makeup artists, set designers, visual effects people created these images consciously and creatively. And that becomes the point of fascination to some extent. You begin to see conscious creation, art in a word. Hitchcock I responded to as most people always have: His movies are gripping, entertaining, suspenseful, often dryly funny too. But that’s not all they are. The level of craft and art that goes into seemingly “simple” stories and characterizations is almost always complex.
What inspired you to write The Horror Film: An Introduction?
Because I’ve always loved the genre and enjoyed teaching its history, I assigned a variety of specialized book chapters and articles that focus on particular topics for students. But there was no straightforward historical survey then around that would introduce and guide students through the basic, narrative chronology of the genre’s history. The book is also an introduction to critical methods and approaches to the genre that have been used by critics and historians over the years. It’s a combination of distilling older scholarship alongside some original research and analyses of “greatest hits” from 1920-2000: Frankenstein (1931), Cat People (’42), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (’74), Re-Animator (’85), etc.
From your time at UCLA, was it always your goal to teach, and what brought you to Meadows?
Yes, I was aiming in grad school to do what I have now done for nearly 30 years: Teach film and media history, theory and criticism; and conduct research and write about particular movies and television shows that interested me. I enjoy both very much. As anyone who teaches anything knows, this is the best way to learn things, by explaining or elaborating concepts about the subject to others. My teaching has always informed my writing, and vice versa. I applied for a job at SMU in 1990 because I wanted to live in a major city and teach at a large university. Actually, SMU is not too large, at about 10,000 students, and that’s even better.
What advice would you give to students interested in studying film?
Have open minds and varied tastes. The most successful people who work in film and TV watch everything, or at least are willing to. That doesn’t mean be totally indiscriminate, but be willing to engage with a wide variety of movies, documentaries, TV programs past and present, foreign and domestic. I love it when I show older Hollywood movies from the 1930s or 1950s and students say afterwards, “Thank you for making me watch these. I would never have done so on my own.” I said that very thing to a professor in grad school about the women’s pictures and family melodramas of the 1950s. Now I enjoy them and show them regularly in classes.
What are the best films of the past few years in your opinion?
Because I like westerns and teach the genre regularly, I liked Tarantino’s last two, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. He’s a stylist with a definite point of view regardless of what else can be said about him. He loves the medium. The horror genre has been producing interesting things in the last several years. The Witch (2016) is a very moody, carefully shot and performed film that’s not exactly a straight horror movie. It depends on a careful buildup of an odd, oppressive tone and doesn’t hand you all the plot information directly. It feels a bit like the European art cinema movies of the 1950s and ’60s in that regard.
See more about other film professors and happenings in the Meadows Film and Media Arts department at SMU Meadows Film.