28th 04 - 2014 | 2 comments »

The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter

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By Roderick Heath

I can remember when loving John Carpenter’s The Thing was still a rather lonely business. Carpenter’s remake was largely dismissed and derided upon release, chiefly for its gore, but also for its defiantly, disturbingly corporeal take on what had been a considered a very clean-cut alien invader fantasy when filmed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951. But the intensity and intelligence of the film’s revision of the original to speak to a new era slowly gained traction, to the point now where it’s widely considered Carpenter’s best film. In the 32 years since its release, it’s become a significant cult film and rite of passage for young fans of fantastic cinema, as well as something rare in motion picture history. Standing with the likes of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), The Thing proved that remakes could, in apt and imaginative hands, be taken seriously in their own right, not eclipsing a predecessor, but rather providing it with a potently evolved progeny.

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Moreover, Carpenter’s take had claims to precedence over the original film as a more conceptually faithful adaptation of former Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell’s feted 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Burt Lancaster’s son, took Campbell’s original notion of a shape-shifting alien and made it their version’s reason for being, whilst maintaining the essential, classic set-up of a remote polar base under siege by a thing from another world. The result is as tough, harsh, and near-abstract in its elisions and uncertainty as any big-budget film ever made.

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For Carpenter, The Thing was a troubled achievement. The young film student who, with some UCLA pals, had pieced together Dark Star (1974) with duct tape and hobby glue became the hugely successful hero of low-budget independent film with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). Armed with millions of Universal Studios’ dollars, he made a film that has become both a fixed pole of excellence in his oeuvre, but was also the culmination of a seemingly inexorable career rise that was halted by the film’s weak financial performance and constantly frustrated thereafter.

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Although The Thing was the first film for which Carpenter had not written either the script or the score, both provided instead by Lancaster and Ennio Morricone, respectively, with large contributions by special-effects wizards Rob Bottin and Dick Smith, the film is marked on all levels by Carpenter’s innate sensibility: the salty, plebeian mood of its characters, the sense of isolation and besiegement by forces beyond human control, the sustained mood of eerie dislocation. Even the unnerving electronic throb of Morricone’s scoring mimics and augments Carpenter’s familiar effects in music perfectly, spelling out lingering dread even as the viewer comprehends a stunning snow-crusted vista. Lancaster, had previously penned The Bad News Bears (1976), and whilst The Thing proved to be his last screenplay, his dialogue is almost endlessly quotable in its salty fashion, swiftly painting character and milieu. A brief prologue of a spaceship tearing out of the void and crashing into Earth’s atmosphere segues into Carpenter’s only direct nod to the original film, recreating the indelible image of the title seeming to burn or rip through a black field.

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The concision of the original film’s metaphors for the paranoid new frontiers of the Cold War give way to something very different, an insidious process of breakdown and infiltration: whilst still “alien,” the Thing here is not a convenient Other, but a force lurking within familiar bodies, warping, perverting, and disassembling the given reality of the humans who contend with it. Gone, too, is the conflict of cold science and hot militarism in the original, reorganised (but not actually replaced) by different versions of survival impulse: here, the scientist, as in the original, endangers the team, but with the very different purpose of protecting the rest of the world and thinking about larger pictures than the mere frame of personal survival. Carpenter only offers a brief picture of his Antarctic explorers before chaos visits their midst, because that’s all he needs to paint the group and individual dynamics: the clashing temperaments, the huddled group and the self-exiled cowboy R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), black and white, rebels, bohemians, and company men—all echoes back to Dark Star and its portrait of men sent out on an absurd, isolating mission that has broken down not merely patterns of prescribed behaviour, but also individual personalities. Here there’s a subtle distinction between the hard-hat workers there to keep the machines running and the scientist nerds, but this soon dissipates in the face of individual responses to threat, as all characters are revealed, in their varying ways, to be both helpless in the face of such adversity but also often sneakily resilient and leadership roles are reassigned according to temperament and situational wit rather than societally imposed standards.

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Carpenter’s innate respect for individualism is clearly at play here, but also placed in telling conflict with other urges—herd instinct and mutual responsibility. The camp’s inhabitants are all men, isolated in the first week of winter, to keep watch upon the Antarctic ice seemingly for the sake of it: commander Garry (Donald Moffat), helicopter pilot MacReady, blasé radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites), camp cook Nauls (T. K. Carter), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), biologists Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney), and mechanics Palmer (David Clennon) and Childs (Keith David). Priceless, and precise vignettes of personal adaptation and maladaptation, from MacReady getting pissy with his computer’s chess programme and tipping a drink into it for revenge, to Nauls torturing Bennings by playing Stevie Wonder through the night, and Palmer and Childs getting high whilst watching VHS copies of old “Wheel of Fortune” episodes. This collection of men threatening at first appearance to break into distracted, preoccupied islets of coping with their isolation and the hell that is other people, are shocked back into reality by new circumstances. The narrative is propelled by the loss of individuality, as members of the team are assimilated down to the finest detail, for the purpose of perfect chameleonic disguise. Yet the innate certainty of some of the characters, like MacReady, that they’re still human provides the closest thing to certainty in the often opaque narrative.

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The film’s pitiless logic distinguishes it, and moreover, the very narrative is about that logic, from the moment the husky dog that is actually the Thing’s last vessel reaches the U.S. National Science Institute Base 4, relying on the inability of the humans to recognise it as a threat so that they kill the last person who might’ve stopped the monster—the apparently mad Norwegian who’s chased it in a helicopter from his own devastated base. One of the cleverest revisions of both short story and original film was this narrative remove of having the Thing discovered not by the characters at the centre of the tale but by their predecessors in a chain of bleakly self-replicating events that mimic the Thing’s method of reproducing itself. The circumstances of its discovery, its thawing, and just what it originally looked like are all left to the imagination. There’s no causative immediacy for the American team, then, only an outlandish proliferation of mysteries and instabilities, the horror of a situation where, by the time they become properly aware of just what’s going on, they might be powerless to halt.

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The confrontation with otherworldly forces finally comes when animal-loving Clark locks away the foreign dog in a kennel with the camp’s own, only for the arrival to split apart and reveal itself as a spidery mass of tissue that begins absorbing and replicating the other animals in a grotesque display of corporeal invasion and perversion. “I don’t know what it is,” Clark says to his campmates when they come running, “But it’s weird and pissed and off, whatever it is.” This is about the limit of what we come to learn about the Thing, apart from its relentless drive to survive in what fashion it can now that it’s found a new host world. Carpenter turned stomachs with his willingness to show the Thing going about some of its business, a rare segue into outright revulsion for the director. And yet it also came with the thrill of seeing something genuinely original and nightmarishly convincing, as well as viscerally intriguing in trying to capture just how a very different life form might behave, something most scifi cinema shies away from. This also sets up some of the best shocks in cinema history, like the infamous moment when the belly of a man apparently dying of heart failure suddenly opens like a massive pair of monstrous jaws, and the eruption of a dish full of blood that signals the crewman least you least suspect of being infected is, in fact, the Thing.

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One of the greatest qualities of The Thing, however, is its embrace of ambiguity in the situation not merely to excite the audience with mystery but as a dramatic end—and not in that schematic manner of more gimmicky films. In spite of the endless attempts of fanboys to parse the film’s deliberate obscurities and unsolved mysteries, Carpenter’s filmmaking maintains teasing force. Characters disappear, their fates unclear, and one, famously, turns up again to leave the finale tingling with unanswerable angst. One of the disappointing aspects of Carpenter’s later work is his decreasing patience with setting up and deploying his effects, a surrender to adolescent glee in jokey violence and dime-store horrors, where the hallmark of his early work was the relentless control he wielded over camera and mood, that reached a height here. Camera movements analyse empty space in a manner reminiscent of Mario Bava, with some of Carpenter’s most memorable shots here depicting nothing, only wandering the halls of the station, suggesting unseen presences. Sometimes the camera takes on points of view in peering into corners and picking out patches of horror lit by torches with a sense of elision that gives a constant feeling of never quite seeing all.

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Glimpses of things hellish are brief and stunning, like when Windows enters a storeroom where moments before Bennings had been working, and is confronted first by gruesome traces of blood and slime, and then looking over to where Bennings is in the grip of the monster, now a caricature of a human form swathed in tentacles. Carpenter sets this scene up with a deliberate nod to a similar scene in The Fog, which itself remixed another moment in Halloween. Whereas in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, the threat was an Other clearly defined in nature but rendered close to abstract in concentrating on the reactions of his heroes to threat, here the film’s story offers the most perfect metaphorical reduction of Carpenter’s interest in this theme (barring perhaps the more comic, but equally sharp hypnotism of They Live, 1988) in that Other is now Us. Carpenter might have taken some licence from the flesh-twisting and rupturing of David Cronenberg and Alien (1979), but an equally close ancestor could be Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Soft Beans,” with its famous image of a two-headed rock man trying to rip himself apart, often referred to as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, civil war is what The Thing portrays, a disintegrating body politic, making the film at one with Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But the microcosm serves Carpenter better than many of his more sprawling takes on the theme.

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The care taken with lighting, shooting, and acting that the big budget allowed Carpenter undoubtedly helped bring all this to a fine edge, though his early films had no lack of such craft. The narrative and the characters accept a situation where the precise limitations of threat dissolve and leave only taunting vagaries about the degree to which any of them cannot only be sure they can kill a Thing that can reproduce to the smallest molecule, but be sure of being human themselves and of surviving. The tension between individual and group reflexes of survival is beautifully studied in contemplating the Thing and the Humans, where for each, the temptation to go it alone is exposing. Faced with the necessity of group action, MacReady comes in from the cold, but finds himself almost killed in a roundelay of mistrust and power plays in which who the best man to lead against the monster becomes a genuinely vexed question. Where earlier Palmer had mocked official leader Garry in pondering “when El Capitan was gonna get to use his pop gun,” Garry hands over that pop gun when he comes under suspicion of sabotaging a potential test for identifying the Thing. MacReady’s reaction to his computer beating him at chess seems almost bratty and childish, but is quietly rhymed later when Blair watches his own computer mapping out the Thing’s replication pattern, calculating that the entire Earth could be infected by it in 25,000 hours. Blair obeys the computer logic and reaches for his gun; MacReady rebels and leads. MacReady’s observations of the Thing during one of its rampages realises that the alien is just like the group of humans fighting it, composed of unruly components that react blindly when threatened. This realization gives him a tool to uncover it.

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The Thing is a grinning death’s head of a film, coolly, relentlessly sarcastic and laced with cruel swerves of fate, from the opening scene where the Norwegian, played by producer Larry J. Franco, accidentally blows up his fellow survivor with a grenade meant for the infected dog and then getting shot after his warnings in his uncomprehended language are taken for lunatic ramblings. A similarly contradictory mania grips Blair, the camp’s biggest brain and the one everyone looks to for answers, who devolves into a ranting, axe-wielding madman is because he’s the first to comprehend the extent of the danger. Deciding that the entire camp must be quarantined, he smashes up MacReady’s helicopter and Windows’ radio, robbing both men of purpose, in effect, and then spurring them to opposite reactions. Windows makes a play for individual defence, running to get himself a gun but only precipitating a leadership crisis as Garry is implicated by circumstance, whilst MacReady takes up the mantle as “somebody more even-tempered” than the aggressively querulous Childs.

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MacReady, in Campbell’s story a gnarled, elemental hunk likened to a bronze statue, is here a spiky, faintly asocial cowboy who possesses the right mixture of chilly readiness and native intelligence to take an effective stand against both the monster and his own crewmates. He’s the ideal hero for the circumstances, though Carpenter and Russell would later collaborate to disassemble his perfection for laughs in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). First contact, historically laced with devastating plagues—here, between man and alien—is no different as virtually from the moment the dog arrives at the station, the men are doomed. This is not to say their fight is worthless, as MacReady, the most genuine survivor amongst the crew recognises: just as Blair does half the job of closing off the men’s chances for escape, so the rest of them close off the Thing’s chances.

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Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography aids inestimably in creating contrasts early on between hermetic exteriors and microcosmic interiors, shooting David Lean vistas in the unerringly crisp ratio, opening the film proper with a view of an ice-fringed cliff wall and the helicopter that appears as a tiny dot, like Omar Sharif’s appearance in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Like Lawrence, such expanse becomes a prison. But the frames are often oblique and distance. Scenes shift with dreamy dissolves. High-flying helicopter shots offer primal expanses that contain essential nothingness. Life is only possible within the fragile human abodes, which become temporal traps.

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Beautifully unusual as exposition and tension-building, too, is the way backstory is drip-fed. MacReady and Copper venture out to the Norwegian camp in the hope of saving lives, instead finding a ghostly ruin littered with signs of violence, a huge, suggestively shaped block of ice that something has clearly broken out of, and piles of incinerated corpses that seem to have been warped together like the most perverse visions of surrealist art. Video footage purloined from the Norwegians gives clues to what they found, and Carpenter wittily reproduces the iconic shot from the original film of the men marking out the shape of a buried and frozen flying saucer, albeit once removed, glimpsed like the original film as a fuzzy relic on a black-and-white screen.

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The actual spaceship, which MacReady, Norris, and Palmer seek out, proves to have been partly incinerated by the Norwegian attempt to extract it, and to have been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years, a nasty birthday present from the universe for whoever found it. That’s become a rather common motif of scifi cinema since this film, and perhaps marks out the long shadow of Nigel Kneale on Carpenter’s work with its obsession with primeval atavism, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) equal mark on the genre as a whole in looking to a distant past as key to present calamity. In any event, Carpenter’s precise use of quiet and space to create his nerve-jangling mood segues into scenes where all hell memorably breaks loose, particularly in the aforementioned sequence in which Norris is revealed to be a Thing by Copper’s cardiac shocks. The shocks stir the beast within to snap off the doctor’s arms before distorting and ripping apart, an id-beast with Copper’s face dangling from the ceiling whilst Norris’ head detaches, grows legs like a spider, and crawls away, stirring Palmer’s immortal motto, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” And, of course, the sustained tension of the scene in which MacReady puts his idea into practice whilst holding the crew at gunpoint—or, rather, flamethrower-point—by poking petri dishes filled with each man’s blood, having realised the Thing’s peculiar nature means that every part of it is, in essence, a separate entity, and the blood of a Thing ought to react. MacReady resorts to such measures after he falls under suspicion of being a Thing himself, locked out in the blizzard by Nauls and forced to shoot Clark when he tries to ambush MacReady with a scalpel.

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The sequence that follows is a marvel not just of unerring construction, but also of dramatic byplay, as the specific characters react to each twist, from Childs taunting MacReady over Clark’s proving to be human after mocking the test as a crock of shit, to Nauls’ queasy expression as his test comes around and then his intense, hawkish look once he’s freed and holds the flamethrower himself, and Garry’s veneer of patience giving way to a hilarious final eruption of anger. In between, the startling revelation that Palmer, the classic least likely suspect, is a Thing, transmogrifying gruesomely, with skull splitting into toothsome halves that crunch on Windows and stumbling out into the polar dark whilst burning like a roman candle. At the point where victory seems possible for the men, however, new calamity forces them to contemplate extinction, as they venture out to test Blair, but find him vanished and a half-built alien spaceship under the tool hut, hinting that Blair’s been assimilated and their survival mission has literally been undermined. The simultaneous, mysterious venture of Blair into the snowy dark and the breakdown of the camp’s engine signal that the Thing now wants to refreeze and wait for a rescue party, demanding that MacReady, Garry, and Nauls burn their little world down to flush out the Thing at the inevitable cost of their own lives.

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Arguably the film gives in to a less sophisticated brand of monster movie shtick in its climax, as the complete Thing, an obscene hodgepodge of assimilated animal and human parts, erupts from the floor to attack MacReady and release King Kong’s old roar. MacReady tosses dynamite at it with regulation action-hero pith and a sub-Bond kiss-off line. And yet the foreboding and disorientating effects extend right to the end, too, in the glimpse of more cringe-inducing corporeal invasion as the Blair-Thing assaults Garry, fingers sliding under the skin of his face and fusing solidly with it, whilst Nauls vanishes. Most memorable of all is the very coda, which embraces bleak, yet humorously deadpan stoicism of a brand that feels all too apt in the land of Scott and Shackleton. Childs and MacReady, on the edge of death and with one or both of them an alien by now, sit by their burning world, doing what a couple of working stiffs do when there’s nothing more to do—drink J&B. MacReady’s last line, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?”, ends the tale on the most low-key, yet utterly perfect note of exhausted acquiescence, MacReady’s tiny, appended laugh signaling he sees the cosmic joke in it all.


7th 02 - 2014 | 6 comments »

The Naked Jungle (1954)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director: Byron Haskin

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By Roderick Heath

Eleanor Parker’s death last December at the marvellously ripe age of 91 saddened me greatly. On top of the loss of a link with history, Parker had long been one of my favourite female stars from classic Hollywood. I’d had a powerful crush on her ever since first seeing her in Scaramouche (1952), where she whips up a storm as the hero’s fiery actress-mistress. The Naked Jungle is sublime stuff for the Parker fetishist and a quintessential work of ’50s adventure cinema. Adapted from an admired short story by Carl Stephenson, the film was produced by George Pal, a former animator who moved into live-action films and became one of the most successful filmmakers feeding the science fiction craze of the post-War era, commencing with Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Pal had ambitions to becoming the next Cecil B. DeMille, to whom he paid overt tribute by adapting two of his failed projects, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and mimicking his mix of epic largesse and religious piety. The quasi-biblical flavour of tribulation and transcendence found in Pal’s movies was corny, but bolder than rivals staking out a place in the scifi race in seeking to capture the psychic polar extremes of the era.

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Pal’s brand reached its height when he hired Byron Haskin to direct War of the Worlds (1953). By that time, Haskin had been working in films for 30 years, having made his directing debut in the late ’20s, but was known mainly as a cinematographer until he made the superb Technicolor hit for Disney, Treasure Island (1950). His work with Pal was the next high point of his career, as the pair developed a grand, hysterical, almost hallucinogenically lush Technicolor brand of scifi cinema with War of the Worlds that plugged vividly into the era’s fantasies and colonised the minds of a generation of budding filmmakers: Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and a host of others have paid homage to it over the years.

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Haskin, like Jack Arnold and Gordon Douglas, actually directed only a handful of scifi films but remains associated with the genre because he did his most famous work in it and indeed seemed most at home there. The much-derided Conquest of Space (1955) ended the Pal-Haskin partnership until they reunited for The Power (1968), but that sadly confirmed how out of place their brand of craftsmanship was in the late ’60s. Haskin had, in the meantime, continued to work occasionally in the genre, directing important episodes of the TV show “The Outer Limits,” including the famous ‘Demon with a Glass Hand’ episode by Harlan Ellison, and the eerie cult film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The Naked Jungle was the immediate follow-up to War of the Worlds and represented a digression into period exotic adventure, though it has aspects in common with scifi cinema’s “creature feature” impulses insofar as the climax involves combating a monstrous animal force. Here, however, the monster is entirely earthly and real, but no less alien. For much of its length, The Naked Jungle is not a film about man vs. wild, but rather a tale of man vs. woman, though the two are definitely linked within the narrative logic.

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The Naked Jungle is definitely of a piece with When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, with its emphasis on collapsing “civilisation,” individuals standing in the way of almost cosmic-level nihilism, and Haskin’s powerful, colour-sodden, cleanly contextualised images of fire, corrosion, and calamity. However, it avoids piety, perhaps reflecting the strong influence of coscreenwriter Ben Maddow, blacklisted at the time and fronted by Philip Yordan. Maddow’s incisive gall inflects the film’s vision of a capitalist empire run by a repressed yob and very literally eaten away by hive-mind labourers; or perhaps because of its historical 1901 setting, the need for such reassurance was negated. But it certainly has the same thematic stresses as other Pal films, with the emphasis of the film as a whole on the peculiarities of human willpower to both create and destroy and the ghost in the machine itching to tear the works down. There’s an intimacy, however, to these transcendent/apocalyptic visions that far outstrips many of Pal’s inheritors in modern cinema of spectacular destruction like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. As War of the Worlds finds its poetic center in a young woman’s anguished recollection of lost peace and safety, The Naked Jungle is, for most of its length, squarely and as unabashedly as you could get in the ’50s, about sex. The title isn’t entirely a tease in that regard: animalistic impulses threaten self-appointed titan Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) from within and without. Parker is Joanna, a mail-order bride from New Orleans who travels via steamboat to Leiningen’s coffee plantation in the Rio Negro area of the Amazon jungle.

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When Joanna arrives in Leiningen’s whitewashed castle filled with trappings of Western civilisation tediously brought in by boat, a trove Joanna is intended to round off, she finds the workforce of tribal folk more welcoming than Leiningen, whose Olympian attitude apparently borders on contempt for her. After several exchanges of strained politesse, Joanna finally loses her cool in a memorable eruption of verve: “Yes – I am exactly as represented. I speak several languages, play the piano, converse intelligently, and have very nice teeth. Would you care to count them?” Joanna then compares herself to a horse Leiningen bought, though at one point Haskin frames him with a statuette of a stallion, indicating he’s the would-be stud. Leiningen’s response is even franker in its conceit: “You’re very beautiful – intelligent – accomplished. There must be something wrong with you.” He soon enough sniffs it out: Joanna is a widow, a friend of Leiningen’s brother who recommended herself as the best candidate after he asked her to help him find a wife for the Amazon plantation owner. This leads into the film’s cunningly portrayed central problem. Leiningen is a virgin, having begun his empire building as a teen and resisted the temptation to sleep with the native women: “They have a name for the white men who sneak into the native villages at night. I was determined that no one would ever call me by that name.” As such, he’s initially repelled by the thought of a sexually experienced wife. Gleeful metaphors abound as Leiningen and Joanna compare her presence to the never-played piano he had shipped in. “A good piano sounds better when it’s played,” Joanna retorts pithily, and we all know what she means. Leiningen’s adamantine control begins to crack almost immediately. Taunted by Joanna’s preference of her own perfume to the brands he had imported, he gets drunk, kicks down her bedroom door, and splashes scent all over in a moment of tactile, erotic frenzy before his willpower returns.

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Leiningen begins schooling Joanna in “what you’re up against” in introducing her to both the world he’s carved out with his two hands and the glowering force of sexual frustration. The plantation used to be a swamp, but the water is now held back by lock gates (plot point!); Leiningen extrapolates that a similar mental gate is required to hold the physically and spiritually corrosive power of the jungle—nature itself—at bay, pointing out one of his workers who has Mayan ancestry, “one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known,” but who has devolved into a head-hunter. Lest we mistake Leiningen for one of them exploit-the-natives capitalists, fellow planter Gruber (John Dierkes) turns up with a full head of steam, believing some of his contract workers have run off to Leiningen, and indeed he finds two hiding amongst Leiningen’s crew, identified by the whip marks on their backs. Leiningen outwits Gruber with the aid of the state commissioner (William Conrad), who’s been waylaid by Gruber to help reclaim the workers, by the somewhat torturous but successful ploy of accusing the two men of murder—the shrunken head carried by another worker is used as a prop—and moving to hang them; the commissioner must hold them rather than deliver them back to Gruber’s tender mercies. Joanna meanwhile is momentarily shocked out of her formidably wide comfort zone by the spectacle of a native justice ritual that results in a man being killed. She abuses Leiningen’s foreman Incacha (Abraham Sofaer) for letting it happen, but, of course, the dead man is Incacha’s son.

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The Naked Jungle looks back over its shoulder to fetid melodramas like West of Zanzibar (1927) and Red Dust (1932) in using a jungle setting as mimetic canvas to paint perfervid fantasies, whilst its themes both pay heed to and mock late Victorian Freudian theories of repression as the key to constructing civilisations. Neither Haskin nor Heston and Parker step back from the campy edge to the hothouse melodrama, and indeed push gleefully toward and over the edge as Leiningen moves from chilly Pharaonic recline to panther-like lunges and poses over the piano as he probes Joanna about her past and her knowledge of men with the energy of a prosecutor grilling a murderess, with Parker’s blue eyes registering insult and provocation and converting them into energy. Parker, just before delivering that crack about pianos, rises whilst pounding a discordant note on the keyboard, as if the soundtrack has invaded the movie itself to declare infinite offence. Relations devolve into a comically grotesque show before the commissioner as Joanna tries to inform him that she’s leaving but not because the Amazon has proven too much for her, whilst Leiningen tries to feed her dictatorial cues, and the film moves into the territory occupied by Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk as Technicolor satirists of bourgeois gender relations.

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Young Heston’s odd mixture of physical strength and ability to play febrile personalities was rarely better exploited as Leiningen strikes poses worthy of Bauhaus sculpture, a study in masculine strength who almost immediately starts crumbling within when confronted by Joanna’s all-but-irresistible cache of feminine virtues. Whilst Heston had made his mainstream debut in a DeMille film, the invocations here of primal struggle with plague and flood more clearly point the way forward to his role as Moses. Yet as a protagonist, Leiningen more recalls John Wayne’s Matt Dunston in Red River (1948), a haute macho icon with a vein of rich hysteria just under the surface, and like Dunston, Leiningen engages in a titanic, almost mythic enterprise only to feel the ground slipping out from under his feet: “I was afraid you were disappointed in me,” Joanna announces excitedly as she cottons on to Leiningen, “Instead you’re afraid of me.” Superman loosens up and confesses to having read the books of poetry he has piled around the house. The moment with the perfume has its mirror later as Joanna entices him to put insect repellent on her back, in a scene that approximates the temperatures inside supernovae whilst not even resolving with the traditional kiss. The kind of primeval power a man can obtain in the jungle is transmitted by signs and legends: “Beyond that next bend, your husband has more power than a king,” the commissioner tells Joanna on the boat taking her upriver toward this Amazonian Heart of Darkness. But the jungle’s power is signified at the same moment, as the captain of the steamboat (Romo Vincent) notes birds flying far out of their climes, the first mark of something happening deep within that heart that can upend the peace treaty Leiningen has made with the earth.

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The tension and mystery about what’s out there are built carefully but marginalised for most of the first hour of The Naked Jungle. It’s made amusingly clear just how dreadful it could be, as the commissioner confirms he’s ventured upriver to find out what it is, and utters the dread word, “Marabunta!” to Leiningen, who is so alarmed he makes sure no one could possibly be listening before allowing the conversation to continue, whilst scorer Daniele Amfitheatrof lets loose with his oft-repeated theme of the threat for the first time, a wild-sounding, high flurry on wind instruments that sounds like a bird’s fearful cry. When Leiningen decides to go with the commissioner, he packs Joanna along, intending to send her across land to catch a boat out. But the signs of dread proliferate, with wildlife and villages all deserting the locale. A floating canoe proves to have a dazzlingly clean skeleton in it, albeit still clad in clothes that identify it as Gruber’s. Finally the heroes are confronted by the awesome sight, far more destructive and dangerous than any monster of myth, of the Marabunta: a colossal column of soldier ants, or, as the commissioner dubs it, “40 square miles of agonising death,” devouring all in its path, and working irresistibly toward Leiningen’s plantation. Leiningen, of course, decides to defend his turf, pitting immoveable object against unstoppable force. Joanna half-coerces him into letting her stay rather than leave with the baleful commissioner, pointing out that her presence gives him power over the workers. Not taking chances, however, Leiningen steals a leaf from Cortez—surely a deliberate echo—and burns his workers’ boats to prevent escape.

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The Naked Jungle belongs in a blurred genre zone. In addition to its variation on the themes of Pal’s scifi series and an historical adventure, the story patterns and audience-appeal tropes recall films like The Hurricane (1937) and The Rains Came (1939) as sexy dramas set in exotic places with climactic deus ex machina transfigurations, and looking forward to the ’70s craze for disaster movies and the horror films of an oncoming age. Although there’s little overt gore in the film, the visceral nature of its implied horror laid groundwork for a significant subgenre. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) followed the model of the Haskin-Pal film in concentrating on a tense romance foregrounding calamitous animal attacks in a vision of truths behind the human condition, and beyond to the craze for animal-attack films in the ’70s exemplified by Jaws (1975), by which time the metaphorical force of this narrative pattern as displaced portrait of invasive forces eating at the western body politic would be more starkly obvious. Paul Verhoeven, a fan of War of the Worlds in his youth, may have remembered The Naked Jungle for Starship Troopers (1997), where the ideas are the same but the bugs bigger, whilst Spielberg quotes it for a gleefully nasty trope in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), though there, the ants eat the communist. Most intriguingly, perhaps, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo likewise essays the same theme in the same setting. There, the secret brittleness of Haskin’s white übermensch was exchanged for Herzog’s beautiful, nonconformist visionary, but both heroes test their own potential to gain dominion against natural forces and fail in a fashion that confirms them as titans who refuse to become Promethean victims, but instead find revelation in loss. The common link between Pal’s monster movie and Herzog’s arthouse drama is the immediate sense of existential peril, a vivid interest in the contrast of powerful individual humanity against implacable surrounds.

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In Leiningen’s case, this comes in contending with a force that overwhelms and outwits his efforts to hold it off, but finds other things in defeat. Not least of which, natch, is that it seals the deal in his marriage, and the mission is changed not just by the threat of the ants but of Leiningen’s changing perspective and circumstance to become one of protection, and not mere defiance. Haskin’s sense of style is unobtrusive and yet undeniable: the cinematography by Ernest Laszlo, a fin-de-siècle trumpet blast for the beauty of Technicolor Academy-ratio pictorialism as the widescreen age was burgeoning, offers rich depth of field and space in the boxy format, seeking out balancing elements in compositions, and smooth tracking shots that dog the characters incisively, like the deft little track forward as Joanna and Leiningen provoke each other as she plays the piano. A keen eye for colour coding is plain as the white walls of Leiningen’s buildings, his outpost of civilisation, and are echoed by the characters’ dress. Joanna arrives clad in a blazing white jacket, an emissary of alien cleanliness and angelic beauty that makes her instantly iconic to the native workmen, whilst Leiningen first appears filthy and clad in earthy colours. Later, as the two stand together to form a united front for the native labourers, both are dressed in pale hues matching the house, symbolising their unity with the world they’re defending, not long before the insinuating masses of black ants begin crawling over the plaster. Pulsating greens dominate exteriors and, as disaster comes, fire rendered in nightmarish hues call back to War of the Worlds, as Leiningen’s last bulwark against the invaders burns away.

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Haskin and Pal’s special-effects team do more restrained work here than in Pal’s other scifi works, offering painterly matte depictions of the oncoming swarm, first glimpsed as a great, grey, teeming gash in the jungle, and then cleverly layered shots of the ants crawling on limbs, stripping away leaf and stem, and reducing Leiningen’s plantation to a skeletal desert. The sense of staging reaches a crescendo in the film’s most famous and excerpted scene, as Leiningen’s rotund lock keeper (Jack Reitzen), performing the vital task of keeping the canals Leiningen’s dug as a barrier to the ants filled with floodwater, falls asleep at his post, with the camera tilting down from his sleeping face to note the masses of ants crawling up his legs. Awakening, he’s flung into a thrall of terror, screaming as his eyes are eaten in their sockets by the horde.

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Haskin returns to the same image, of a man’s hand curling up in pain as the ants swarm on his body, the second time with Leiningen himself as he makes his last desperate effort: whereas that binary moment of him rubbing fluid on Joanna’s body carried potent erotic meaning, here the corporeal sensation is equally powerful and far more terrible, whilst the efforts of both men to hang on to life is reduced to the singular picture (interestingly, the poster of Saul Bass’s new-age variation of the story, Phase IV [1972], depicts an ant burrowing its way out of a hand) that calls back to Luis Buñuel’s love of crawling ants as symbol of irrepressible forces, the tingling sensatory quality of dozens of tiny feet evoking the finest patterns of the nervous system. Of course, Leiningen fares better than his employee and escapes the gnawing death to induce his own destructive flood, destroying the lock gate entirely and allowing the waters to wash the ant horde away, saving lives at the cost of rolling back his labours. Leiningen is caught by the boiling waters, but lurches his way out of the mud and into Joanna’s arms on a water-logged plain as the end title appears. It profits a man everything, it seems, to lose his world but gain his woman.


29th 10 - 2013 | 3 comments »

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Director: Mark Robson

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By Roderick Heath

Not the most popular or famous of Val Lewton’s epochal series of low-budget horror films made for RKO Studios, The Seventh Victim is the deepest, the most original, perhaps the darkest, a film that tends to weave a powerful spell on those who tune into its peculiar wavelength. The fourth film in Lewton’s horror cycle, it was the directorial debut of Mark Robson, who, like Robert Wise, had worked as an editor at RKO. He was promoted after Lewton’s first director collaborator Jacques Tourneur graduated to bigger-budget productions, and who would go on to a long career with many strong films as well as some shamefully shoddy late career labours that bespoke cruel truths about the decline of the studio system and the talents it fostered.

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Tourneur’s films with Lewton had clearly reflected both men’s status as immigrants, fascinated and alienated by the American landscape. Robson and Wise were more parochially alert, and facilitated a shift in focus in Lewton’s series to foreign and historical settings, where a similar sense of unfamiliarity could be sustained. The Seventh Victim looked back to the initial success of Lewton’s series, Cat People (1942), and to silent melodramas that had blended aspects of realism with fable-like storytelling precepts, like Victor Sjöstrom’s The Phantom Carriage (1920) and D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1922), whilst also looking forward to many films, and indeed genres that didn’t yet exist. Jacques Rivette would strive to recapture its atmosphere with several films, particularly Duelle (1976). Alfred Hitchcock may have remembered it in the most famous scene of Psycho (1960). Roman Polanski would engage its ideas for Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Dario Argento channelled it for Inferno (1980). Stanley Kubrick would partly remake it as Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Hints of its influence are detectable in urban horror stories of Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma.

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One reason for this slow yet indelible effect of The Seventh Victim was that it followed Cat People in proving a horror film could be set in a completely contemporary urban landscape, transformed into a world of dreamlike vignettes and private netherworlds, and unlike its precursor was able to do so without any hint of the supernatural, presenting a situation where human folly creates horror. Robson’s directing wasn’t as smoothly fluid and sophisticated as Tourneur’s had been, but to a certain extent his neophyte coolness helps exacerbate the sequestered mood. Like all of Lewton’s productions, the title came down from RKO honchos. But the erstwhile Ukrainian aesthete, who had immigrated to the US in the company of his aunt, the silent tragedienne Alla Nazimova, took an active interest in every level of his creations, as Lewton excelled his former employer David Selznick in fulfilling the ideal of producer as auteur. Lewton’s approach had a twofold strangeness stemming from linked urges, as he tried to set his dramas in a demonstrably real world, but also psychologised his narratives, and pared them back to simple, almost fairy tale-like precepts, an approach which Lewton would take to an apogee with the next film, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which bypasses horror altogether in spite of the title, and becomes instead a gothic-edged children’s film. Lewton’s fondness for deliberate naïveté is also apparent in The Seventh Victim, which tells the story of young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her first role) and her coming of age whilst on a Snow White-like adventure in the concrete forests of Manhattan. The film kicks off with a quote from John Donne, a quote so suitable it serves almost as the mission statement of the horror genre: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”

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Like many fairy tales, this one starts with an exile from home, albeit a place that’s not really a home. The two Gibson sisters, Mary and older sibling Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) are orphans. Jacqueline has earned a living whilst Mary has grown in a girl’s boarding school. Called before the principal Mrs. Lowood (Ottola Nesmith) and her aide Miss Gilchrist (Eve March), she is told that her sister has been out of touch, and her tuition hasn’t been paid for six months. Mary is offered a post at the school, but Gilchrist encourages her to make a break: “It takes courage to really live in the world,” she says, both as imploration and warning. The narrative’s use of staircases as symbology is plain in the first shot, showing the main staircase in the school, with religious-themed stained glass windows above it, as Mary ascends through a throng of other students, an intimation of Mary’s status as an almost holy innocent about to swim against a tide of human decay. Her departure from the school is one of the brief yet indelible, almost magical Lewton moments, as she smiles both sadly and wryly to herself, descending the stairs this time, in listening to the students in the classrooms being chided and reciting Latin conjugations and Romantic poetry. Mary’s excursion to New York sees her come in contact with a peculiar sprawl of vividly contrasted personalities, most of whom are engaged in duels with their own mortality and searching for meaning in existence.

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Mary learns Jacqueline has sold her successful cosmetics business, La Sagesse, to her former assistant Mrs Esther Redi (Mary Newton), and seems to have vanished. Mary begins following a breadcrumb trail, firstly a clue provided by one of La Sagesse’s employees, Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), who leads her to a boarding house run by the Italian immigrant couple, the Romaris (Chef Milani and Marguerita Sylva), above their restaurant in Greenwich Village, where Jacqueline has rented a room that proves to contain an ominous array: a noose suspended above a chair, waiting for someone to take their place at the end of the rope. Such disturbing discoveries point Mary to the morgue in search of her sister, and this leads her to another person seeking out Jacqueline, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont). A prominent lawyer, Gregory says that he loves Jacqueline, but keeps his marriage to her secret from Mary. Such secrets teem in the situation Mary finds herself in, as she soon learns the nature of adulthood seems to be ever-metastasising confusion.

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This Snow White gains a single dwarf as helpmate, diminutive private eye Irving August (Lou Lubin), who is taken with her vulnerable desperation. When he’s warned off the case by a bigwig, August’s interest only intensifies, and after checking out La Sagesse, tells Mary that there’s a mysterious locked room in the factory where Jacqueline might be held prisoner. Mary and August steal into La Sagesse, whereupon both freeze up when faced with the long, dark, ominous corridor down to the secret room. Mary can’t work up the will, and instead encourages the timorous August to go in her stead. August finally does disappear into the dark, then reappears, moving strangely and silently, not answering Mary’s appeals, until he drops dead on the floor, bleeding from a wound in his chest.

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This terrifically eerie sequence, with the photography (by Nicholas Musuraca) and lighting turning humdrum factory space into a nebulous zone of existential danger and infernal threat, is one of the great moments in the Lewton canon. It also provides an interesting contrast to the famous pool scene in Cat People, which it sustains a similar concept and mood to, insofar as that it pays off with actual violence rather than mere self-induced fright. Except that, fittingly for the film’s themes, August’s death later proves not to have been a malicious killing but one caused by fear, fear of the dark and the quiet just as beset the interloping pair. The way Mary encourages August to venture forth into the dark in her stead reveals the degree to which Mary is still a child, getting the adult to go where she daren’t, whilst the pair of them also resembling a couple of kids standing outside a haunted house daring each-other to go in. But Mary’s has growing capacity as an adult to persuade, an ability to make another do something that has an unexpectedly ugly consequence because of her weakness. This resonates interestingly with the Lewton films on either side of this one, with the ponderings of the nature of free will in The Leopard Man, and the more urgent contemplation of a desire to impose will with fascist overtones in The Ghost Ship (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945): indeed in the Lewton cycle this tendency is considered a genuine evil. Later in the film group will is exerted on an individual for destructive ends.

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Mary loses her innocence here, and is sent running out into the night. Riding the subway back and forth in a daze, she’s startled to see two society swells propping up a third who seems passed out drunk, except that the third’s hat tumbles off and she recognises August. Mary chases down a transit cop, but the duo slip off with their charge, making it all seem like some nocturnal imagining. The mood of this scene, with the clamour of the train, sharply contrasts the pellucid silence of the factory scene, and yet compliments it, presenting another perversely claustrophobic, alienating urban environment. I can’t think of another scene like it in film before it, except perhaps in a Hitchcock film like Blackmail (1929), but it certainly anticipates in acute ways the fascination with New York’s fecund, deteriorating infrastructure in ‘70s cinema as a wonderland for evoking anxiety, and specifically a sequence like the one in which Nancy Allen dodges a killer on the subway in Dressed to Kill (1980).

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One of the Lewton series’ singular qualities was this way the filmmakers were able to turn limited resources and set-bound productions into precisely atmospheric invocations of place. Just as The Leopard Man (1943) captures the mood of a town on the fringe of the wild, The Seventh Victim follows Cat People in tangibly recreating the feeling of a big city in the hours when its streets might as well be wilderness. That canard of “eight million stories in the naked city” is suggested in Mary’s visit to Missing Persons, a simple tracking shot absorbing an array of similarly befuddled by the ease with which it’s possible to get lost in a big city, even as August tries to reassure Mary that it’s only “nine miles long and three miles wide.” The most overt poetic invocation in The Seventh Victim comes from an actual poet character, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), in whose mind a searchlight above the Manhattan rooftops becomes “Cyrano’s sword,” cutting through “the blue cloak of a prince.” Jason invokes Cyrano de Bergerac, Byron, and is glimpsed at one point sitting “at the foot of Dante,” that is, under a mural in the Romaris’ restaurant under the boarding house, named for the poet. For the jocular Mrs Romari, all intellectual and emotionally complex propositions are humour. “Do you actually want to find your sister?” Jason asks Mary, who catches his eye when she first arrives at the Romaris. Mrs Romari laughs at him, but Jason’s sense that tracking down Jacqueline might involve soul-rending damage proves prescient. The gentle, Hart Crane-ish poet, who’s haunted by a romantic tragedy that killed his burgeoning career, begins finding his way back to functionality as he’s stirred to action on Mary’s behalf. Jason learns he’s not to be Prince Charming, but finds other things that make the effort worthwhile.

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Another peculiarity of the Lewton series is the fashion in which it touches on metatextual ground without quite making it overt. Similar characters and roles recur from film to film, whilst actors appear often in interestingly, deliberately contrasting parts. For instance, here the velvet-voiced Ben Bard, who had played a stern but empathic policeman in The Leopard Man is here the leader of a Satanic coven. The Seventh Victim features the most explicit example of this tendency, as Tom Conway reiterates his role from Cat People, the psychiatrist Dr Lewis Judd. Except that he’s not quite the same Judd. For one thing, the character in the other film was mauled to death. For another, this one isn’t as coolly amoral, even if he seems at first just as superciliously obnoxious, phlegmatically brushing off a secretary’s pleas for help for her alcoholic father: “Dipsomania’s…rather sordid.” It soon proves that both Jason and Gregory have reasons to distrust the psychiatrist, who was seen with Jacqueline and Jason’s former sweetheart years before, shortly before they both vanished. Echoes of Cat People’s emotional quandaries are also apparent, the fear over loss of a loved one to mental instability and the abuse of privilege by a physician. The possibility that Cat People might indeed have been a story written by Jason as a j’accuse screed aimed at Judd, converting emotional damage into metaphorical terrors, is entirely conceivable. It’s clear enough why Lewton and regular screenwriting collaborators DeWitt Bodeen (who co-wrote this with Charles O’Neal) would bring back this character: his insolent charm, given body by Conway who was a minor marquee star, provides an engaging cynical, worldly counterpoint to the idealists and placeless drifters who populate the film, as well as a constant hint of sexual evil. Except that here the filmmakers take a chance to divert the outcome of the previous drama, as if deliberately engaging in an act of self-reflexive revision.

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Judd first appears approaching Gregory as an apparent emissary from Jacqueline, shaking down the lawyer for money to support her, and remaining cagily impenetrable about what exactly is going on. He then goes to Mary, offering to bring her to Jacqueline. He takes her to an upmarket hotel, but finds that Jacqueline seems to have vanished: “She’s left me to meet them alone,” he murmurs in alarm, and flees, leaving a bewildered Mary to face “them” alone himself. The knock at the hotel room door Mary answers proves however to be Jacqueline, glimpsed only for a few seconds like a fleeting mirage. Few movie characters can ever live up to the levels of mystique as are built up about Jacqueline (notably, like Rebecca de Winter, Jacqueline is spoken of in rather awed terms, and identified by totemic monogrammed effects), and that makes the Brooks’ appearance here all the more unique. When she’s finally glimpsed, with her weird Egyptian-flapper hairstyle and haunted, moon-bright eyes, it’s only for a few seconds: Jacqueline raises a finger to her lips, warning Mary to be quiet lest she attract any of the people searching for her. She’s undoubtedly corporeal and acting for real reasons, but also, seems like some emissary of the underworld, urging silence like an enforcer of taboo and mystery. The film’s obsession with doors and staircases – leading Mary to Jacqueline, Judd wryly comments, when presented with two staircases up to the next floor, that he prefers the “left or sinister side” – as passages between worlds accords with Jean Cocteau’s use of mirrors in his intensely similar Orphée (1949).

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Eventually the truth of Jacqueline’s situation begins to emerge: through Mrs Redi she became involved in a group of Satan worshippers known as the Palladists (based on a French society of Satanists rumoured to have practised in the 1800s), and because she told her therapist Judd about them, they’ve declared she must die. The Palladists are hardly however a shocking cult, but a collective that runs the gamut of bohemian oddballs, bored socialites, saturnine malcontents, homosexuals, and the physically damaged. They give a face both to the overwhelming anxiety manifesting in the darkness that crowds the edges of the film, and also suffer from it themselves, and have adopted one method of trying to feel they master life and death. Judd and Jason even move in the same social circles as the Palladists, amongst whom Redi, Mr. Brun (Bard) and one-armed hostess Natalie Cortez (Evelyn Brent) seem to be the senior members. Jason is canny enough to bring Mary and Gregory within close proximity of the coven on a hunch. Judd seems like an ideal Palladist, but he rather stands distinct from them, too intelligent to fall for their folderol, too interested by their strangeness to ignore them, and too scared of what they might do if provoked. Brun expostulates at length the peculiar dichotomy at the heart of the society’s sensibility, its insistence that anyone that breaks its oath of secrecy must die, but also its pledge to non-violence. The only legitimate way they can, then, punish Jacqueline for her transgressions is to force her to commit suicide, but failing that, a few members are willing to go further, not because Jacqueline broke their rules but because she could possibly expose and embarrass them.

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The notion that Jacqueline joined the group for erotic as well as emotional and spiritual stimulation percolates below the surface as you’d expect from a 1943 film and yet nudges me constantly, apparent in Frances’ suggestive worship and unconcealed love for Jacqueline (“The only time I was ever happy was when I was with you!”). Redi’s husky-voiced ambiguity is also telegraphed, giving a particularly piquant charge to a scene in which Redi enters Mary’s apartment to warn her off the search for Jacqueline. Mary is caught naked and dripping wet in the shower, with Redi’s silhouetted form glimpsed through the curtain. The prefiguring of Psycho here is unmistakable, although less violent, the note of erotic threat less immediate than a big knife but no less unsettling for the naïve and vulnerable girl. Redi makes a mistake, however, by doing this, because she informs Mary that Jacqueline was in fact the prisoner in the secret room, and she killed August in fright. This fact gives Jason the inspiration to finally pressure Judd, who’s been hiding Jacqueline since she escaped that night, into letting him, Mary, and Gregory take her into their care.

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Jason’s tracking of Judd through a skeletal studio version of the Village offers stark, lunar-surface alleyways and blankly silhouetted, shadow-play windows, islets of warmth between oceans of dark. When Judd finally does lead the trio of searchers to Jacqueline’s door, she proves to have now lodged in some mysterious abode, descending into a deep focus frame with peculiarly numinous effect, her waiting cohort of would-be friends and protectors gathered in the foreground. Lewton’s films were usually too starkly budgeted to offer the kind of oversized Expressionistic effects found in Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau’s early work or in Rowland V. Lee’s delirious Son of Frankenstein (1939) with their carefully contrived and constructed games with space and architecture as mimetic canvas, and besides Lewton was usually after something a touch subtler. Here Robson captures something closer to the French 1930s template of “poetic realism,” where more realistic environments were carefully manipulated to create expressive settings, here managed on the back-lot sets with an almost theatrical minimalism. Robson was following on from Tourneur’s work, and pointing the way forward to the similar mix the most visually vivid noir films would sport within a few years. Many of the personnel who worked with Lewton, including Robson, had indeed worked on Orson Welles’ costly but deeply influential works at the studio, and indeed in many ways Lewton and team found practical applications for much that Welles had helped evolve.

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Jacqueline’s “return to life” however proves disorientating: taken to Jason’s studio, she recounts August’s killing in a spellbinding moment, with Robson tracking his camera in slowly to her wan and haunted face, and then finally her eyes, a shot that summarises, for me, the essence of Lewton’s achievement and perhaps indeed the genre. Where before she had ministered silence to hold the abyss at bay, now she confesses with words but those eyes say more about abysses she’s seen into. As tawdry as the Palladists are, the terrors they’ve evoked for Jacqueline after a life of frantically seeking sensual experience have pushed her to the edge of sanity, of liminal awareness, which with her morbidly fixated nature she feels experiences with all the acuity of a Dostoevsky character. At the same time, Jason, realising his romantic hopes are fading as Mary is gravitating more to Gregory’s paternal charm, tries to hint, by way of his extended Cyrano metaphor, to Jacqueline that her husband is in love with her sister. A dance of attraction has been in motion behind the scenes, between the carefully calibrated types: Gregory as upholder of order, Jason as protean creator, Judd as guardian of the psyche and healer, with Mary and Jacqueline, objects of their affections, as mirroring siblings, who embody Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, in William Blake’s parlance.

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The dance ends unsatisfyingly on one level: it’s hard to believe Mary would fall for Gregory, if only because, like too many of Lewton’s heroes, he’s played by one of RKO’s usual, deathly dull leading men, in this cause Beaumont, who would later find his role comfortably numbing us all as the patriarch of Leave it to Beaver. It does make sense on a psychological level, as Gregory has presented to both Gibson girls the ideal of the settled, paternal male, and through him an illusion of familial solidity. Jason, denied the girl, is rewarded with renewed creativity and also in discovering his accord with Judd, who proves to actually have been a benefactor, protecting Jacqueline and Jason from harm by life’s crueller facts. When he explains that Jason’s long-ago sweetheart, the one he saw Judd with, is now irretrievably insane, “a horrible, raving thing,” he recognises that Judd has been his friend all along. Judd’s own admissions to jealousy of Jason’s accomplishment with his first book gives way to his scepticism over his new work: “the time is out of tune,” he says, for such a romantic artist in a bleaker time. This touch reflects the peculiar status of Lewton’s films, their blend of darkness and light, homey emotionalism so nimble but frail in contrast to overwhelming evil, which marked the producer’s sensibility out of place in ruder environment of Hollywood, and yet came closer than almost anyone else to recording the psychological undertone of his era: The Seventh Victim, after all, was made in the midst of World War 2, and if any epoch could shake a person’s faith in common humanity and yet also offer many proofs for it, that was the one.

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As Tourneur and Wise went on to make some definitive films noir, Robson’s different touch would become clearer as he would make some excellent works situated rather at the nexus of noir with urban drama and social realism, like Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956), whilst fervently emotional melodramas amongst like Peyton Place (1957), From the Terrace (1960), and Valley of the Dolls (1967), coherently extend the female-centric sensibility he could adopt, apparent here and in his follow-ups for Lewton, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam (1946). Like Wise, Robson essentially became an all-round artisan who could be relied upon by the studios even as they floundered: it’s hard to imagine a film more diametrically opposed to the delicate horrors of this film than Earthquake (1974), Robson’s second-last work. The melancholy effect of The Seventh Victim is strong and genuine, especially considering that Lewton had used it to express his own mortal anxiety: he would die aged 46, whilst Gage would be killed in combat in the Philippines a year after the film was shot, and Brooks would die young from alcoholism.

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It’s remarkable, considering how dense and suggestive the narrative of The Seventh Victim is, that the film only runs a fraction over 70 minutes. The sense of compression is leavened slightly by the artificial effect of Mary and Gregory’s romance, although their couple’s last scene together, as Gregory asks Mary not to look at him as he both declares his ardour but also states his intent to deny it for Jacqueline’s sake, is delicately lovely and only needs a more convincing context. Judd and Jason’s rebuke to the Palladists awkwardly approaches a note of standard-issue piety Lewton usually artfully avoided. But this is both more complicated and simpler than it seems as it bears out a consistent aspect of the Lewton series, a belief that sometimes the most complex things are summarised best by the simplest words, especially matters like human interdependence. Judd offers the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses” – with a direction to actually consider what it implies in retorting to Brun’s respect for “Satanic majesty and power” by implying his belief is far cornier, with the implication that, to quote another Donne poem, no man is an island, and that the Palladists, rather than finding exclusive power, have instead left themselves tragically cut off from the only things that make life bearable.

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Apart from these stumbles, the last fifteen minutes are remarkable, as Jacqueline, brought out from the shadows by her friends, proves to have only been made vulnerable to her enemies. Kidnapped from Mary’s rooms, she’s kept by the Palladists in Cortez’s place, browbeaten by the gathering into drinking a cup of poison, with Robson’s framings teeming with Dutch Master-like faces looming out of chiaroscuro lighting, and Brooks with her nemesis, the glass, looming before her, voices of encouragement, alternately bullying, seductive, and despairing, whilst Jacqueline resists with cool boredom: “No, no, no…” When she finally does raise the chalice to her lips, Frances knocks it from her hands, an act of mercy from a friend moments after Frances was hysterically imploring her to drink. Jacqueline is released, but one of Palladist goons who had helped spirit August away now stalks her through the dark streets in perhaps the most epic of the many sequences of anxious midnight wandering in the Lewton series. Like Mary in the subway scene, Jacqueline finds herself utterly alone in the midst of the great city. She can’t appeal to the oblivious passers-by to protect her from the almost abstract threat that pursues her, the stalker’s face gleaming deathly pale out of shadows and looming out of shadows, building to a point when she edges her way along a wall in trying to escape a blind alley, only to feel the coat of her pursuer, lying in wait for her. A hand grasps her wrist; a knife flicks open.

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Jacqueline is only saved by the sudden eruption of a coterie of actors from their theatre’s rear entrance: one of the male actors grabs Jacqueline up offering to buy her a beer and a sandwich, and spirit her away to safety. They’re more than actors, they’re like an explosion of the life essence itself, emerging from doors with the Comedy and Tragedy masks painted on. The irreducible linkage of the two faces lies at the heart of The Seventh Victim’s obsession with mortality. Jacqueline cannot follow the actors into the tavern to share their Bacchanalian love of life, wandering away instead back to the Romaris’ boarding house, where she encounters one of the other residents, who throughout the film has only been glimpsed shuffling from one door to another. This is Mimi, a withering, consumptive woman waiting to die, played by another Lewton regular, Elizabeth Russell.

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Just as Russell played the sinister foreign woman who mysteriously recognised her “sister” in Cat People, here she recognises Jacqueline as fellow lost soul, and states her intention to go out and have fun rather than wait for death, in a monologue that’s both chilling and pathetic: “I’ve been so quiet, oh so quiet, I hardly move, yet it keeps coming for me all the time.” The firelight from within her room casts infernal flickering on the scene. Jacqueline’s final realisation that Mimi will die anyway precipitates the seemingly off-hand, yet bone-chilling final moment. Mimi, dressed up, leaves her flat and moves down the stairs, only distracted for a moment by the odd sound of a toppling chair in Jacqueline’s room, the confirmation that Jacqueline has finally taken her last option. A throwaway touch here underlines the overtone of inevitable fate being met: where the Palladists had mentioned that so far six deaths had been listed for the six betrayals their organisation had recorded, so Jacqueline’s apartment is numbered 7. The final effect is tragic, and yet as a whole, like all of Lewton’s films, The Seventh Victim is peculiarly life-affirming: enjoy it while you have it.


27th 10 - 2013 | 6 comments »

The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin

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By Roderick Heath

Few films have ever scored such a bullseye with the zeitgeist as The Exorcist did in the early 1970s. Whilst its reputation as a classic of the horror genre has only grown stronger in the intervening 40 years, the impact it had in its day seems practically unreproducible now, as it’s hard to imagine a modern horror movie driving as deep into the secret anxieties and wrenching such phobic reactions from such a large audience. Apart from the genre borderline case Psycho (1960), it was the first horror film since Universal Studio’s colossal one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) to provide a genuine blockbuster, and became, along with The Godfather (1972) and Jaws (1975) one of three record-shattering hits adapted from popular novels in the early decade that restored Hollywood’s confidence as arbiter of global entertainment. Notably, all three were comparatively harsh, violent movies revolving around threat to the family. The Exorcist, in spite of a censorship rating that today would hamstring its chances of being a big hit (witness this year’s bloodless World War Z), became that movie everybody saw.

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Disliking The Exorcist should be easy to for some of the same reasons it was so successful. The film cunningly exploits the post-’60s anxiety over permissiveness, the fear of disintegrating social and familial bonds, the fading role of binding institutions and patriarchal controls, and the uprise of the conservative reaction: indeed it might be argued that it helped foster that reaction, as Moral Majoritarians ranting about demonic influence and satanic sacrifice became a pseudo-political fixture in the next 20 years. Teeming rip-offs and imitations have followed it and indeed still populate theatre screens, diluting the film’s individuality and impact. The Exorcist moreover shattered nearly as many taboos of popular entertainment as young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) ruptures in the course of her possession. How does a film with a scene in which a teenage girl gouges her own vagina raw with a crucifix and then tries to make her mother lick off the blood, a scene of pathological force much in accord with Jesus Franco’s and John Waters’ no-budget exercises in provocation, become such a giant hit? By being as hypocritical, in a way, as Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics filled with the stark pleasures of the flesh and the profane.

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The Exorcist gets off on the spectacle of the transgressive, the nascent punk spirit of the demon’s mockeries of all settled structures, whilst contriving to box them in and redefine them as forbidden, in turning the liberationist urges of the previous decade into a leering caricature of adolescent anarchic impulse. And yet The Exorcist resists being belittled by such objections. William Peter Blatty’s tawdry but surprisingly skilful novel provided a solid basis. Blatty was himself a screenwriter and successful literary entrepreneur, who had written several movies, most notably A Shot in the Dark (1964), and shepherded the film version as screenwriter and producer with proprietorial attitude. The director, however, was William Friedkin, making a follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit The French Connection (1971), handling a production laced with surprising prestige for such lurid material. Friedkin, both still a flashy wunderkind but also already an experienced professional, was at the height of success and artistry with his gift for melding slick filmmaking with various New Wave and Neo-Realist principles, and he tackled Blatty’s material with an individual purpose.

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The opening sequence, filmed in the ruins of Hatra in Iraq, introduces the title protagonist, Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), and is effective in the way it capitalises on refinements of sound technique as visual flourishes in a sequence that’s cryptic, purposefully enigmatic, but filled with charged intimations of arcane dread and mysterious signs. Merrin, engaged in an archaeological dig, is called with peculiar urgency to come and take a look at some relics that have been uncovered, including a medallion that seems out of place, and Merrin himself finds a dirt-crusted idol that seems to stir some latent fear in the aging minister. Merrin’s wanderings in the nearby town are filled with off-hand yet portentous omens like a one-eyed blacksmith, a clock that stops by itself, and an old woman in a coach who nearly barrels down the priest, all shot by Friedkin in a fashion that combines documentary matter-of-factness and deceptive stylisation. The rhythmic pulse of workers digging on the ruins segues into the clamour of blacksmiths and the thunder of horses’ hooves, as Merrin seems to follow signs like breadcrumbs until he encounters a statue of the Mesopotamian wind demon Pazuzu, standing watch over the primal, blasted landscape. The very air vibrates with spiritual threat as armed guards watch and a pair of dogs start madly fight, droning dissonance and savage tussling on sound. The way Friedkin builds this sequence, with what’s really going on left vague but tangibly momentous, manages to promise the audience a real ride is commencing even though virtually nothing happens, essayed with care fitting for the tradition of genre masters like Jacques Tourneur, Terence Fisher, and Mario Bava.

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Friedkin shifts scene through a series of dissolves that bind an image of confrontation, between Merrin and the demon statue, and the setting sun, and disparate landscapes, that of the Iraq desert and the American city of Georgetown, rendered in reverse zooms (out and then in) to confirm the as-yet mysterious relationship of the two places and events. As opposed to the blinding clarity and warm tones of the desert, Georgetown is a smear of cold blues and autumnal hues. The university town was an inspired choice of location, a place where old brownstones and modern architecture clash in the street. Blatty’s choice to set his tale partly in the film world gives the film a flavour of insider satire at points, although he and Friedkin also consciously wring the extra dimension it offers to the background of Chris and Regan MacNeil: Regan is caught at one point reading a gossip magazine with their photo, clandestinely shot, on the cover, as if to hint the cult of celebrity is another insidious force in their lives, and giving aspects of what follows the feeling of a particularly twisted type of celebrity-offspring cautionary tale. The essence of The Exorcist, in portraying a young girl from a modern, irreligious, liberal, broken home possessed by an opportunistic devil, is on its crudest level bigoted nonsense. And yet the writing and directing avoid shallow reductions, and there’s coherence to the work on both a dramatic and human level that both contradicts and powers the film’s core themes.

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One contradiction is the emphasis on maternal love that refuses to accept faltering authorities’ bleating failures, and a strong mutual reliance between Chris and her secretary Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), who along with old housekeepers Karl (Rudolf Schündler) and Willi (Gina Petrushka) provide a kind of makeshift family, exacerbating the film’s surprisingly close relationship to the “Women’s Picture” genre, one aspect that confirms the canny operator and film buff as well as screenwriter Blatty was. It’s also a peculiar reminder that the ‘70s cinema that has become popularly hallowed is very much a masculine realm. There’s no traditional love story in The Exorcist, a telling elision. The major male characters are necessarily sexless. It’s also in part a tale of teenaged alienation and fallout of rupturing family securities. The MacNeil household is established early on as a broken one: Regan’s celebrity mag happens to dish the gossip on why her father left, and an almost Bergman-esque shot early in the film peers through an open doorway in the capacious house as Chris gets more and more frantically angry trying to contact her ex-husband to get him to speak to his daughter on her birthday, and then Friedkin’s camera dollies back to reveal that Regan’s listening. A pervasive note of hushed melancholy and both physical and moral exhaustion flows through most of The Exorcist, which gives coherence to feeling that hero Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and victim Regan have become spiritual garbage cans for a swiftly altering world’s toxic emotional waste and confusion.

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Notably, the first manifestation of possession that grips Regan comes when she prods her mother with nascent awareness, in suggesting that Chris can bring the director of the movie she’s been filming, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), to her birthday celebrations, discomforting Chris even as she laughingly dismisses the notion. Oh, how many parents would like to be able to put such signs of emerging independence and viewpoint in their cute and cuddly children down to demonic influence? The notion that Regan’s behaviour is a heightened version of a jaundiced idea of then-modern youth remains, with the film revelling in transgressive behaviour: swearing at authority figures, pissing on the carpet, grabbing a psychiatrist by the balls, using a crucifix as a sex toy, and vomiting bile on a priest when he tries to get too clever, with the relentlessly puerile, satirical bent of a work of performance art. Friedkin exacerbates this tone by making each stage of Regan’s transformation into a blackout gag.

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The notion, suggested in Regan’s probing Chris about her relationship with Burke, that the possessing demon whispers like the serpent of Eden in Regan’s ear, prodding her to act on dark impulses and observations about her world, is not taken anywhere, disappointingly; rather the demon’s complete separation from Regan is rammed home with force, but less complication. The film’s most malicious coup is the way it makes relentless fun of the modern world’s new priests, medical practitioners, to score a victory for the older brand. The Exorcist inverts familiar assumptions by making the forces of rationalism into the cold, foolish, scarcely capable bumblers who have to finally bite the bullet and hand things over to the “witch doctors.” A parade of know-it-alls, from Chris’s first consultant, Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman), onwards try to mollify the situation with drugs and tests to diagnose the problem. The tests become, under Friedkin’s eye, essentially modern versions of witch trials, with the body of a small girl who has shown aggression and disobedience, tethered, jabbed, probed, scanned, irradiated, and bled with a gruelling exactitude that would make Witchfinder General’s (1968) Matthew Hopkins smile in recognition.

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This great joke is acute to a degree and also disingenuous on several levels, but certainly key to The Exorcist’s atypical, Janus-faced power and popularity, in that it both exploits the popular mindset of the early ’70s with its distrust of institutions and experts, a New Age-type dislike of the over-powerful ministers of official truth and well-being, whilst also catering to an anxiety over rejecting other institutions and their teachings. The call of a deeper, darker, more primal truth is the constant keynote of the story, albeit framed safely by the religious structure, with the pre-Christian horror of Pazuzu representing the threat of devolution to a world that abandons Judeo-Christian values. Regan, initially glimpsed as an apple-cheeked cutey pie, devolves into a scarred, pale, suppurating mess tied to her bed and yet waiting in malign pleasure to join battle with the forces of good. It soon becomes plain that Pazuzu wants a return bout with Merrin, who famously conducted an exorcism that lasted a month and nearly killed him whilst working as a missionary in Africa. The demon also hopes to claim the soul of Karras, a Jesuit priest who’s also a psychiatrist and rationalist who is failing to cope with the schism.

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Karras seems to present a protagonist in the Van Helsing tradition of heroes who have both secular and spiritual skill. And yet Karras’ susceptibility is the ticking time bomb, providing a mirror to Merrin, who’s confident in his faith but aware that his body is failing. Karras is further dogged by his mother’s (Vasiliki Maliaros) decline and death, contorted by guilt and frustration at his dedication to his calling, rather than pursing his potential as a boxer or secular headshrinker. Tellingly, Friedkin emphasises Karras’ frustration as a an intelligent man with poor, plebeian roots, who takes out his rage on a punching bag and oppressed by his inability to come to grips with evil, calling to mind Popeye Doyle and other Friedkin heroes. Amusingly, Karras’s neuroses reveal Blatty’s pleasure in cherry-picking marketable story elements. It’s even acknowledged as the film introduces interested detective Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), who’s also a movie nut, who tries to charm the priest by comparing him to John Garfield in Body and Soul (1947) and then diss him by amending this to Sal Mineo, who, in The Gene Krupa Story (1959), went through similar angst as guilty son to immigrant mama. Kinderman is essentially superfluous to The Exorcist in terms of story progression, except that he offers a Columbo-esque comic relief in his apparently digressive jokes and film buff quirks – he begs Chris for her autograph moments after suggesting a man was murdered in her daughter’s bedroom – and helps keep the film rooted in the real world where too many genre smiths would have been content to let the drama play out in a conveniently law-free zone.

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Karras’ initial scepticism over the possession is soon quelled by the demon’s blackly humorous mockeries, including the famous, rather hilarious pea soup regurgitation, and finally by the film’s most genuinely effective, yet one of its more subtle, horror fillips. Sharon fetches Karras away from his neurotically fascinated studies of Regan’s ravings in backward-English to show the mangled girl’s belly, which displays the words “Help Me” written in her own hand from the inside of her own body, as if trapped deep within, flesh turned into a blackboard of pain. Whereas a lot of the other special-effects moments in the film now look pretty ropy, even tacky, this one retains power, as does the first time Regan’s head seems to turn far beyond human capacity, to deliver, in Burke’s voice, a cruel missive to a beaten and despairing Chris. Blatty’s script was certainly strong, but much of The Exorcist’s ultimate success was due to Friedkin’s skill as a filmmaker, in spite of the work’s many moments of excessive, showy literalness. Just as The French Connection adopted a docudrama approach and cast people really involved with the case it described, Friedkin builds in The Exorcist, layer by layer, an intimately depicted, finely detailed context for the drama, a pseudo-realistic approach mixed with traditional genre style elements. Friedkin went back to Blatty’s original inspiration, the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, to try to wring out every detail and feed it into the overall texture, to give the unlikely tale a feeling of veracity.

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A hallmark of his great ’70s run of films was Friedkin’s feeling for environment as dramatic element, his capacity to both exploit the shape location imposes on a film and also manipulate it to his ends. Karras’ trip to see his mother in the dilapidated neighbourhood she still clings to kicks off with a shot down the length of a street where skyscrapers soar in the background, but the blight that is the old immigrant ghetto cuts like a black scar in the cityscape, an almost Manichaean contrast that expresses the film’s repeated creed that Earth already has heavens and hells on its face. The evocation of crowded student bars and dorm rooms, the crowd of onlookers watching with delight the troubled film shoot, the swanky party Chris throws, and the wryly businesslike, post-Second Vatican Council attitudes of the religious characters all help imbue a sense of a larger, busy, bustling universe around the core drama. The eventual reduction of the drama to a few specific people engaged in microcosmic struggle packs greater punch for this, too, as every other alternative, and respite is stripped away.

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Friedkin often breaks scenes, particularly climactic ones, off at unexpected moments that give the narrative a jerky, yet compulsive, almost concussive tempo. Regan’s assault on the psychiatrist breaks off with her maddened scream still echoing in a jump-cut to a seemingly benign, autumnal landscape as Karras takes his morning jog. Alternations of concerted quiet and sudden infernal action alternate as the story gains pace, at least until the thunderous finale, and even that is broken up and filled with delays. Stunned silences, reverent hushes, dazed introversion grip the characters. Each time Regan’s bedroom is approached, a new, ever-heightening act of atrocity occurs, setting the scene for the finale in which all laws of nature are perverted, and yet end with clamour resolving back into quiet.

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Friedkin was never, however, a proper realist. Just as he turned New York with The French Connection and Cruising (1980) and the jungle of Sorcerer (1977) into stygian stages, and plugged into the overheated theatricality of The Boys in the Band (1970), The Exorcist veers close to the genre’s traditions of stylised Expressionism. This is obvious particularly, of course, in the shot that provided the movie poster image, a world of chiaroscuro shadows and vividly contrasted light that emphasises the infernal realm the characters shift into, and Karras’ dream sequence, with its desaturated colour, discursive sound, and near-subliminal glimpses of the demon’s face. But it’s just as marked in a less obvious scene like the one in which Karras visits his mother, injured and senile, in a public hospital ward where dazed, drugged, and frantic remnants of human beings are kept, like Bedlam (1946) restaged in Bellevue, where Karras’ mother can only make her borderline camp appeal, “Why you do this to me, Dimmy?”

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Another uncommon element of The Exorcist, especially considering how sensational elements of it are, is how few of the narrative’s most consequential acts are depicted. In comparison to the body count porn the horror movie was soon to become, only one death is directly attributable to the demon’s actions, that of Burke. Regan’s initial games with the Ouija board that presumably attract Pazuzu are not shown, only a kind of comic coda. Mrs. Karras, Burke, and Merrin all die off screen. Often the main characters, and the audience with them, are reduced to confused onlookers, glimpsing moments of grotesquery and unnatural occurrence, but what exactly is seen is kept on the edges of the subliminal, like that first head spin, and the flash-cuts of Pazuzu’s leering, demonic face. Anxiety over the film’s shock value forced Friedkin to curb his original intent to use subliminal images more. In spite of the barrage of effects and the finale’s eventual embrace of the blatant, neither the sense of ambiguity in unknowable aspects of the tale nor the sense of potent spiritual and corporeal threat are ever entirely discharged. The original closing shot, of Karras’ fellow priest and friend, the jovial, larcenous, show-tune-loving Father Dyer (Rev. William O’Malley), standing above the stairs contemplating all things in heaven and hell, leaves off with a vertiginous sense of mystical questioning and urgency even in closing. Indeed Blatty, who wanted “the point” that good won made more obvious, pushed for this shot to be changed in the clumsy 2000 recut.

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The quality of the cast is another enormously important strength, for they sell this folderol to us with sublime conviction. Miller, a stage actor and playwright who had never been in a film before, and Burstyn, scarcely a household name, hold up the film with their detailed, physically committed performances. Committed is the right word, as Friedkin puts his cast through the wringer in a fashion bordering on harsh. The film’s high count of Oscar nominations, including for Burstyn, Miller, and Blair, signals how large the cast’s role was in breaking down prejudices against the genre. Burstyn is particularly excellent in the scene in which she fakes her way through an interview with Kinderman even as the realisation that her daughter killed Burke takes root in her mind. The great Irish actor MacGowran gave a peach of a comedic performance despite playing an abusive drunk: sadly it was his last role. Von Sydow gained perhaps his most iconic role after Antonius Block, albeit a problematic one for the Swedish actor, as Dick Smith’s makeup to make him appear old and frail was so successful the 40-something never quite shook off the image. His casting was clever, however, insofar as after The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1966), Von Sydow was largely associated with theological matters, though most his characters for Ingmar Bergman had been closer to Karras.

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Ultimately what makes The Exorcist work is the insistence that it’s a genuine, dramatic human story with a purposeful narrative progression. The build-up to the finale is, in its way, as well-arranged and inexorable as the movement of Star Wars (1977) towards the Death Star assault, and like that film, it keeps the story in rigorous contention until a breathlessly climactic rupture lays the narrative waste. As risible as moments of the finale become, like Regan’s 360° head-spin and the two priests bellowing “The power of Christ compels you!”, the sequence retains power in the relentlessness of the audio-visual assault and the spectacle of the two men, who seem almost powerless with only the invisible and waning strength of faith they wield, trying to contend with a force that bends nature to its will. The tension about whether Merrin still can successfully intervene, whether Karras can withstand the demon’s assaults on his psyche, and whether Regan can possibly survive the ordeal all screws relentlessly to a breaking point, as Merrin drops dead, the demon laughs in triumph, and Karras is reduced to wrestling quite literally with the devil whilst also, incidentally, punching a small girl. The sting of the tale is that the demon gets what it wants, but so does Karras, a true proof of faith and redemption for himself. He resists the urge of the demon to consummate his possession by killing Regan, and instead hurls himself to redemptive death. All unfolds in a blindingly brief, yet indelible whirl of images, and concludes with the brilliantly staged vision of Karras’ death-plunge down the fateful stairs.

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Inevitably for such a popular film, The Exorcist produced sequels, but the series has always been perceived as particularly benighted in that regard, not entirely fairly. John Boorman’s severely uneven Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) took Regan and the underpinning ideas to some fascinating new places, filled with lush images and perverse inspiration whilst awkwardly incorporating some of the original’s blood and thunder. Blatty himself tried to make a sequel with more fidelity, The Exorcist III (1990), based on his follow-up novel, Legion, revolving around Kinderman and Dyer and the possessed body of Karras. Blatty’s moody direction and the cast were remarkably strong, but a studio-mandated reshoot of the finale almost completely sabotages an otherwise impressive piece of work: similarly ill-fated was Paul Schrader’s attempt to do a prequel, which was deemed too heady and revised by Renny Harlin, with largely awful results. None of this dimmed the original’s status as a rare beast: a genuinely satisfying mainstream horror film.


15th 09 - 2013 | 6 comments »

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Director: Jack Arnold

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By Roderick Heath

A clawed hand, seeming to reach out like the living spirit of a deadly, animalistic past trying to grab at prey, looms at the camera. But it’s only a fossil jutting from a rock face, uncovered by the workmen of geologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) in the heart of the Amazon. Carl knows he’s found something remarkable and immediately intends returning to civilisation to exhibit the world-changing artifact, even as a very live, very dangerous-looking counterpart to the hand reaches out of the water and rests on the riverbank, indicating the lurking presence of a creature watching Maia pluck free his ancestor’s remains. During the night, whilst Maia is away, his two workmen, camping in the jungle, are attacked by the roaring, scaled beast and brutally killed…

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For people who delight in the brassy glories of ’50s scifi cinema, William Alland must count as a relatively unsung hero. He began his career under Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre, and won a claim to cinematic immortality playing the shadowy journalist Thompson in Citizen Kane (1941) before becoming a film producer. Alland’s success in this field was found in a comparatively peculiar niche. Like Val Lewton at RKO in the ’40s, Alland captained a series of productions for Universal-International aimed at artfully exploiting a popular trend in a profitable, but not especially prestigious cinema. For Alland, these were scifi movies, built around the lurid, poster-ready appeal of impressive bug-eyed monsters, a subgenre with which Alland’s name became synonymous.

3487342Universal was reacting to the success other filmmakers like George Pal had gained in this territory, but also aimed to reinvigorate their brand as the home of movie monsters, in shifting the official genre prism from the horror style the studio had found such success in over 20 years earlier, a style which had nearly gone extinct. By the mid ’50s, the trickle of scifi became a flood of movies replete with UFOs, aliens, robots, and rampaging beasts, with all their quotidian metaphors for Atomic Age anxieties and frontiers. Alland’s success as a producer was relatively brief, a six-year reign during which he also made several B-Westerns, but in that time, he produced 11 scifi works that run the gamut from major classics to tepid time wasters.

imagesAlland displayed one gift his mentor Welles would have appreciated—an eye for apt and talented collaborators, one of whom was director Jack Arnold, who successfully lobbied Universal and Alland to helm It Came from Outer Space (1953). Arnold started out as an actor but moved behind the camera under Robert Flaherty during World War II. The Oscar-nominated pro-union documentary With These Hands (1950) made his name, and he soon broke into helming B-movies. What made his collaboration with Alland particularly fruitful was that, unlike so many filmmakers trying to make a few bucks from the scifi craze, Arnold had real affection for the genre from his boyhood spent devouring books. Arnold could well be the first proper auteur of scifi cinema, in close competition with Ishirô Honda, who emerged the following year with Godzilla (1954). Fritz Lang, James Whale, Howard Hawks, and Robert Wise were some major directors who had all displayed affinity for scifi, but their works in the mode were limited and used it to offer variations on a worldview expostulated equally well in other genres. Arnold, on the other hand, although he would make some fine noir works and Westerns, was clearly most at home in this field. His influence, worked through a handful of major variations on basic themes, echoes through the next few decades of filmmaking in the genre: ambiguous aliens in It Came from Outer Space, the primal monster of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Atomic Age giant in Tarantula (1955), the transformed man in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and antiwar parable in The Space Children (1958). Even something like his bizarre teen thriller High School Confidential (1958) seems close to scifi in its shrill evocation of modern anxiety and moral rot.

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The idea for Creature from the Black Lagoon reputedly began forming when Alland met the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at a party in 1941 and heard from him the legend of a half-man, half-fish that haunted the waters of the Amazon. Years later, Alland carefully developed this notion as a follow-up to It Came from Outer Space, with a story by Maurice Zimm and a script by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross. Whereas It Came from Outer Space had struck a peculiarly ambivalent and intelligent approach to ideas of the alien, Creature represented an attempt to craft a genuine crossbreed of the motifs Universal had exploited so well in its ’30s horror films with a more contemporary edge. Indeed, the specific success of the Alland-Arnold model was in its deeper awareness and embrace of the psychological element of the genre, the notion that, as in the horror genre, the monstrosities seen on screen were essentially signifying something else, something within the psyche, reflecting another, more genuine anxiety.

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The strange humanity of the monstrous (and vice versa), a theme most obviously explored in the canonical Frankenstein and Wolf Man films, was in Creature grafted onto an explicitly evolutionary investigation of both humanity’s progress and limitations, unpeeling the notion that under the stellar-aimed mindset of modernity lurks the slavering, adapted beast for which the basic drives of sex and eating are the only true motives. These motifs are introduced in a prologue that strikes the same pedagogical stance that a lot of these films did, but with an underlying quality of curiosity and a faintly haunting note, as a chronicler narrates the birth of the Earth in fire and cataclysm, and then then emergence of life, seen as strange-looking footprints dotting a primeval beach. This promptly segues into an image of the past looming into the present with fearsome immediacy of the fossil hand.

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Primeval past and space age present soon come into jarring contact as Maia presents the fossil hand to the remarkably good-looking collective of American nerds running the Brazilian Instituto de Biologia Maritima. Maia gains the interest of guest field researchers David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), and they, in turn, present the find to their boss Mark Williams (Richard Denning), a blonde he-man who’s always eager for anything that can bring glory and funding to the institute. Along with another of the institute’s brainiacs, Dr. Ed Thompson (Whit Bissell), they form an expedition to head to Maia’s dig site and extract the rest of the remains, hiring the steam launch Rita, captained by the shabby genial Capt. Lucas (Nestor Paiva) for the voyage upriver. Finding the mutilated bodies of the diggers, the scientists are momentarily shaken, but press on to find the rest of the skeleton. They have no luck because much of the rock face has been washed away by the river, and the fossil bones along with it. Deciding to take a chance on the theory that the eroded fragments might have collected downstream in the fabled Black Lagoon, the expedition packs up and moves into the recessed waterway, only to discover they’re not alone: the immensely powerful and devastatingly violent Gill Man proves to be the product of an evolutionary cul-de-sac that is nonetheless smart and aggressive enough to have survived into the twentieth century in this locale. Mark, hungry for glory and the thrill of battling something as relentless and motivated as he is, sets out to trap or kill the beast, browbeating David and the others into helping. But it soon becomes clear that the Gill Man has its own hunt in mind: the solitary anthropoid recognises Kay as a potential breeding partner and traps the expedition whilst making constant attempts to snatch her away.

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Scifi cinema in the ’50s is now recognised as occupying the same place as film noir did in the late ’40s, that is, that in beholding the genre, one sees the id of the age closest to the surface: aliens in place of Communists, monsters in place of A-bombs, UFOs in place of ICBM missiles and jets. Like most of Arnold’s best films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon actively invites symbolic readings, in part because it’s a meld of styles, with its chiaroscuro visual style and reflexes of phobic intensity in the narrative that stray very close to the gothic horror film. Other aspects of the film fit the ’50s scifi craze at its broadest: there’s a high level of pedagogy, straining to relate all fields of scientific interest with the great and glorious projects of the space and nuclear age. David gives a speech, nominally to his fellow scientists but really for the audience’s benefit, linking research into life on Earth with space exploration and questions of adaptability. The film’s cosmic overtones, set in play at the outset, soon resolve into something more interesting, however, as the story unfolds. Both the forward rush of evolution and its basic, unchanging driving impulses are observed in unison, and the lack of evolution on display becomes crucial. Scratch the rational man and quickly the bully, the mighty hunter, the mate-shielding chest-beater, the savant of survival, the animal on top of the food chain makes clear its determination to claim dominion. All it takes is a close cousin with two-inch claws to shake it all out.

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Another hallmark of the Alland’s series was his efforts to always entwine a strong genre concept with a kind of core social or psychological idea and character conflict to feed into its themes and give propulsion to the plot. As in the later, under-budgeted but interesting The Land Unknown (1957), here the propensity of human rationality to devolve quickly and accept arcane principles, particularly those to do with sex and power, are explored. The central conflict between thoughtless enquiry and defensive authority explored in Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s genre-defining The Thing from Another World (1951) here is reversed and reconfigured into a pattern that’s become, over the years, close to an essential motif in cinematic scifi. David’s conscientious, curious perspective becomes the default heroic pole against which Mark’s grasping, greedy, warmongering delight in the hunt is contrasted. Mark is identified quickly as a man who takes credit for the work of others, a relentless political operator who represents the corruption of the institutional sensibility, whereas David is a proto-hippie environmentalist in a film that does, indeed, have some claim to being one of the first to engage with this vital modern idea. Creature avoids total didacticism, however, as both sides are ultimately revealed to have strengths and weaknesses. David’s refusal to countenance killing the Gill Man soon appears naïve, whilst Mark’s ferocity proves equal to the task of combating the beast, a nightmare figuration that taunts and fascinates him like some gnawing part of his own id that must be beaten. But he eventually overreaches in trying to wrestle the monster; in the film’s most floridly epic sequence, man and monster lock in a death match, churning in the mud on the lagoon floor that is akin to some extraordinarily weird mating clinch.

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The actual heart of The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the darkly erotic frisson provided by the beast’s pursuit of the gorgeous Adams. The Gill Man becomes a phobic reconfiguration of the basest masculine desire turned on the most fetishized of feminine physiques. In this regard, Creature reveals is roots in the kinds of pulp magazine covers of Amazing Stories and Weird Tales where tentacles and otherwise repulsive things drooled and fondled scantily clad damsels, id-beasts in adolescent fantasias of lust. There’s also the long shadow of King Kong (1933) as a variant on the Beauty and the Beast theme, as the monster in the heart of darkness is stricken by the woman it can’t have. Unlike with Kong, however, where the mechanics were obviously difficult, there’s a more genuine sexual as well as physical danger in the situation. Creature would scarcely exist without Adams as its raison d’être, as the object of desire all events flow to and from. The cleverest and most specific spin on the Beauty/Beast figuration found here, in fact, is the idea of making a kind of eternal triangle into more a quadrangle, with a sliding scale of eligible masculinity offered by David, Mark, and Gill Man. David and Kay are introduced as a couple, with David resisting marriage: “I’m waiting for Williams to give her that raise—then she can afford me.” But David’s laggard romanticism and Kay’s excessively grateful demeanour give Mark a toehold in his initial project of prying Kay away from David, before the even greater challenge of the catching the Gill Man. The two projects become entwined for him, signalled in a hilarious display of phallic aggression early on when Mark exhibits the spear gun he’s brought for hunting, firing it off with pointedly potent accuracy after catching David and Kay canoodling: “All you have to do is aim it and squeeze.”

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Ironically, of course, ’50s prudery precluded the Gill Man costume from sporting a phallus—his enormous claws serve as stand-ins. One of Arnold’s gifts as a director was his ability to root scifi in a gamy physicality, mapped out at its most extreme in the endless castration of the hero of Shrinking Man, which begins when mysterious fluids coat his bared body, and the switchbacks of familiar guises and repugnant actuality in It Came from Outer Space. Creature is all about sex, and Arnold’s eye through the intermediary of William E. Snyder’s photography, laps up the barely coded fetishism that fuels the tale, replete with Denning and Carlson constantly going shirtless and the proximity of the Gill Man’s scaly form to Adams’ bubble-butt shorts and bare legs. From practically the first moment Kay steps ashore in the Amazon, the Gill Man’s webbed hand comes groping out of the water, desiring tactile communion with the glossy perfection of Adams’ calves. Adams, who had been an agreeable starlet in a couple of westerns for good directors (Raoul Walsh’s The Lawless Breed, 1952, Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, 1953), never had another moment like this one, which put her name up there with Fay Wray and Evelyn Ankers in the annals of monster-sought damsels, setting a record for Amazonian costume changes and a dip in a bathing suit that would make Esther Williams jealous. Adams’ Kay feels throughout much of the film like the islet of amity and good-natured openness compared with the thickening atmosphere of macho neurosis. She refused to have her genuine feelings of conflict between David and Mark dismissed by Thompson when he tries to play elder-knows-best with her.

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The film’s most singular and famous sequence is the perversely romantic scene in which Kay goes swimming in the lagoon. The Gill Man, fascinated, swims after her and begins to mimic her motions underwater, unseen and unsuspected by her until she treads water and the creature tries again to touch her legs. That image echoes back to Jacques Tourneur’s famous pool scene in Cat People (1942) (inspired by Tourneur’s own near-drowning whilst swimming at night) in invoking an intensely reactive sense of personal vulnerability. Many ’50s scifi movies are held today as examples of ‘50s cinematic sexism, filled with brainy heroines reduced to quivering balls of fear in the face of monstrosities, and to a very large extent that charge is true, including here. And yet the era’s genre entries are also curiously driven by the powerful question of gender relations and equality, in part as a necessary gimmick for putting pretty faces into some otherwise sweaty masculine jobs and locations, or even bravely ignoring them altogether, as Roger Corman’s fascinating no-budget movies of the period tended to do. Kay’s scientific know-how is never doubted, but keeping the female safe is still the major plot stake: “Well there’s just one thing Mark,” David warns when the proposal to venture into the Black Lagoon is first raised: “Going into unexplored territory with a woman.” Kay laughs him off, and Mark himself drawls that “I’ve always found Kay can take care of herself.” David’s caution is vindicated, naturally, but the voluble urgency of the film’s notion that biology drives everything undercuts even his wisdom: in the end, it all boils down to the survival of the fittest.

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One of the less bracing aspects of Creature’s immediate success was the number of tacky imitations it sparked in the following decades: sticking a guy in a hair or rubber suit and having him terrorise sundry isolated people became a basic template for B-movie makers. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg remembered Arnold’s vision for his own variation on the theme with Jaws (1975), echoing this swimming scene for the opening and quoting elements of the visuals and storytelling in his blockbuster, as in a sequence in which the Gill Man gets caught up in the Rita’s boom net and almost rips off its mast trying to escape. The specific influence of Creature on a single, later blockbuster hides its larger contribution to modern genre film as a model of dramatic compression and intensity. Once the Rita reaches the Black Lagoon, the narrative scarcely relents, in a fashion that looks forward to works like Aliens (1986), as the Gill Man’s campaign of terror commences. Arnold’s reveal of the Gill Man’s full appearance, like Spielberg’s revelation of the shark in his film but coming much earlier in the film, is a real surprise, with the creature suddenly rearing up out of the depths behind Mark and David when they’re casually patrolling the lagoon. Once seen, the creature scarcely disappears, constantly probing the Rita, attacking and murdering Lucas’ crewmen. As the cast dwindles, the expedition team find themselves hard-pressed to even keep the Gill Man off the boat, paying off in a delightfully odd moment in which the Gill Man reaches in through a porthole whilst a bandaged, faceless, voiceless man tries in vain to alert his comrades. Nine years before Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the idea that nature can throw up terrors that can encage all-conquering humankind still is clearly mooted, and indeed as in the Hitchcock film, there’s a sense of confluence between the still-present dark of the primal in the human soul and the strange, inimical wisdom of the inhuman world even in the over-lit age of science and reason.

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Snyder’s photography expertly charts the sensatory communication of this essential theme: daylight shots are blazes of light, but nighttime sequences are semigothic, noir-influenced islets where the lights on the Rita seem lonely and assailed bastions against the terrible dark. In spite of the moments of cheese and patronisation, Creature still rises to the best of its genre in its conscientious, inquisitive spirit. Thompson is presented as a voice of reasoned contrast to the rest of the team, pointing out early on to a careless Mark that “Dedication doesn’t mean risking the lives of others,” and playing relationship counsellor for Kay moments before he’s assaulted and horribly mangled by the Gill Man. The challenge of defeating the Gill Man on his own turf with wits is raised by David, and in spite of Mark’s drive to turn it all into a raw battle, the native trick of drugging fish with a root-derived drug is repurposed into a method of catching him and holding him at bay. David and Mark do manage to finally catch the Gill Man with the drug, but only after it kills another crewman, and the monster still manages to escape from its cage. Thompson manages to bash it with a lantern after it mauls him, in a striking shot of wild motion and fire as the burning monster struggles, wreathed in flames, before leaping into the water. A major aspect of the film’s stature and appeal is, unavoidably, the creature itself. The Gill Man was designed by Millicent Patrick; the bodysuit was executed by Jack Kevan, who had made prosthetics for World War II vets; and Chris Mueller Jr did the mask. Although limited in some ways and certainly an exemplary “man in a rubber suit” monster, the Gill Man is nonetheless easily one of the most recognisable and tangible screen monsters of all time, particularly when animated by the gutsy underwater adventurer Ricou Browning, who did shot after shot in the costume holding his breath and going for broke.

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It’s not really belittling the film to note that an enormous part of its appeal lies in its cheesiness, particularly the blaring, alarmist score provided by Hans J. Salter’s scoring company, with contributions from Henry Mancini, amongst others. Creature is constantly spiked by blasts of brass and ferociously churning strings that underpin appearances of the Gill Man, unsubtle but certainly contributing to the headlong rush of the film’s pace. Paiva provides a sweet counterpoint to the main drama with his gleefully insouciant performance as Lucas, lounging about watching the savants labour, blissfully unconcerned with scientific knowledge, and utterly immune to the temptations and pressures apparent in the other characters: when Mark tries to bully him as he does the others, Lucas simply pulls out a knife, holds it to his throat, and asks, oh so cheerfully, “You wish to say something, señor?”

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Happily, Arnold was able to bring back his character, albeit briefly, for the following year’s sequel, Revenge of the Creature, after the finale of this film, which showed the bullet-riddled Gill Man drifting in the inky depths, was just ambiguous enough to justify a sequel. Arnold and Alland did their best to sustain an organic connection in the series, but budget limitations and weak scripting make Revenge a bit of a chore to sit through. A third film in the series, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), directed by John Sherwood, had far too little action, but managed to reinvigorate the basic concept with some interesting twists. All three films end with a touch of vagueness, the monster seeming to die each time but with a crack left open for survival (and another sequel, of course). For all his deadliness, the Gill Man even by the end of the first film clearly represents something we both fear and prize: the essential pride of natural force.


29th 06 - 2013 | 4 comments »

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Peter Strickland

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By Roderick Heath

British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at the Berberian Studio of Post-Production, a labyrinthine facility and a niche for creating the aspect of cinema perhaps least appreciated by laymen and yet amongst the most vital. This particular netherworld, where glowing, pulsing red lights wait with infernal meaning for Gilderoy, is guarded by a beautiful Circe, Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), armed with all contempt for the merely human expected of a fashion plate functionary in a magic kingdom filled with makers of fame and fortune. Gilderoy, middle-aged and gnomic, certainly seems especially human, like the intrusion of a sewage worker in a royal bedroom. But Gilderoy has gifts, gifts impressive enough to have inspired director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) to have imported Gilderoy from England to mix the soundtrack of his latest film, The Equestrian Vortex.

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Gilderoy has recently won an award for his work on a documentary about rural England, evoking the delicate textures of a genteel and pastoral landscape, but now he finds, to his queasy discomfort, that he’s engaged on a blood and thunder flick, filled with bizarre supernatural emanations and grotesque torture. Light years out of his comfort zone, this homely, homebody savant of sound is worried about his aged mother back home, disturbed by the material he’s working on, and gnawed at by financial distress since he spent all his money on the plane ticket and can’t get anyone to reimburse him. He finds himself surrounded by people driven by unpredictable emotions and private agendas, the alienation exacerbated by a language barrier. Gilderoy sets to work with his exacting and deeply introverted method, only to find himself falling into an abyssal trap of anxiety and mystery.

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Writer-director Peter Strickland’s only previous feature work was the eerie, compelling revenge thriller Katalin Varga (2009), set and shot in Romania, and it’s possible Strickland’s experiences working on such menacing fare in a foreign language and locale helped inspire this far more enigmatic, deeply discombobulated follow-up. Berberian Sound Studio is, on the surface, a tribute to, and evocation of, the hallowed era of Italian giallo horror film, which came near the tail-end of an epoch of Italian exports from a film industry uneasy with English-language cinema, which it constantly tried to annex. Tales of disconnection and confusion in that time and place are many and amusing, and have already provided fodder to some filmmakers as far back as Vincent Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). The mood of Berberian Sound Studios is similar to some other movies about moviemaking, particularly Anthony Waller’s chiller Mute Witness (1995), which offered Hitchcockian suspense in a near-deserted Russian film studio; Roman Coppola’s playful CQ (2000), depicting this often happenstance, esoteric and self-involved world where personal creativity and messy necessity often blend in unpredictable ways; and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), which turned the craft of its hero, a sound-effects man, into a deeply tactile, experiential drama where bottomless depravity is uncovered through layers of media. Strickland, whilst evoking such progenitors of method, ultimately has a distinct and peculiar purpose. Rather than segueing from the fakery of filmmaking into a zone of “real-world” drama, Berberian Sound Studio instead uses the paraphernalia and artifice of film to conjure an interior journey into places of disquiet and dread.

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Gilderoy is the innocent abroad here, and innocent he is, a bachelor and mummy’s boy who seems to have scarcely ventured out of the garden shed of his recording studio in years. He’s no signposted weirdo, however, only a timid and easily cowered man who has to undergo a sink-or-swim immersion in the ways of a corner of experience at once even more hermetic than his own but through which far more worldly characters occasionally tramp, violating the texture of his immediate surrounds and expectations with excruciating results. Gilderoy, upon arrival, learns that Santini worships his talents, but his hoped-for meeting with the director is delayed for some time and then proves a frustrating meeting with a patronising egotist. Gilderoy spends most of his time accompanied by Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the film’s producer, always poised on a knife-edge above poles of professional facility and virulent irritation. When Gilderoy presses him about getting his ticket reimbursed, Francesco fobs him off on Elena, who passes him on to anonymous functionaries before Gilderoy learns about dealing with such matters here—get loud, get angry, and get the money—which is, of course, extremely difficult for a timid Englishman, especially one faced at every turn by language problems and wilful obfuscation. For extra genre cred, the studio is, in neat mid-’70s fashion, beset by random power cuts, with candles ready to illuminate the place after sudden plunges into stygian blackness.

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Gilderoy is hired specifically as a sound mixer, but as the post-production lumbers on and the shortfalls of the film shoot have to be plastered over, he’s drawn into helping create sounds through foley work, the artful manipulation of elements to create apt aural versions of what’s occurring on screen. Strickland’s wicked sense of humour in exploiting this element is introduced early on as Gilderoy is first shown some footage of the film whilst the two official foley artists, Massimo and Massimo (Pal Toth and Jozef Cseres), provide accompanying effects. They hack at watermelons with brutal force, evoking the savagery of killing on screen through the most blackly hilarious of indirection, as Gilderoy squirms in his seat: one of the Massimos offers him a slice of the melon to eat, and Gilderoy regards it like a severed body part.

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Strickland’s core conceit is that he never shows any footage from the film, allowing the sound effects the crew are providing and sometimes with a sketchy description of the plot to do the work. Ironically, the only bit of the film we do see is the opening credits sequence, a dynamic pastiche of ’70s-style design effects, which stands in for Berberian Sound Studio’s own credits. The Equestrian Vortex is evidently inspired by Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976), though with overtones that seem closer to the work of trashier giallo directors like Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino: the plot seems to involve young women who find that the equestrian school they attend is infiltrated by witches with a history dating back to gruesome medieval witch trials. Santini balks, naturally, at having Gilderoy describe his movie as a horror film: “This not a horror film. This is a Santini film! … This is a part of the human condition.” Santini airily expresses his desire to evoke the horror of historical misogyny, but, our suspicions that it’s utter trash are confirmed by the reactions of his crew and particularly the female cast members like Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro) and Silvia (Fatma Mohamed).

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Berberian Sound Studio is a display of dazzling technique attached to a mysterious-feeling, ultimately interior tale of a solitary man’s mental disintegration, or possible transcendence, conveyed through the methods of his own craft. A gift for film buffs but one that nimbly avoids descending into a mere pastiche for the sake of tickling facile recognitions, Berberian Sound Studio is more an attempt to comprehend the peculiar nexus of artistic endeavour, private psychological credulity, and workaday labour. Strickland celebrates a world, one rapidly fading into history, of analog technology by which so much of the great cinema of the past was created. In its time, Gilderoy’s art represented cutting-edge capacity, but now it smacks of retro fetishisation as Strickland delights in depicting methods of constructing the densely layered compilation of devices we glibly call a movie. Strickland reminds us of the almost fanatical attention to craft that often goes into even the seamiest piece of crap, and which, on the level of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s scrolls of hundreds upon hundreds of crew names in closing credits, feels close to a religious enterprise. There’s more than a hint of connotation here, in that culturally we want to reward modest DIY artisans like Gilderoy, but the industry tends to win out in every other respect. Strickland’s camera roves over Elena’s desk with typewriter and rubber stamps arranged on a trestle like an abstract sculpture, the buttons and dials and charts and tapes that form the paraphernalia of Gilderoy’s art becoming runic, inscrutable alchemic devices for conjuring spells.

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Strickland creates a uniquely strange atmosphere, and tension, but not by offering any specific source for unease, save for the oneiric atmosphere generated by his work. A parade of actors moves through the studio, making perverse and unnerving sound effects for terrified and slaughtered women, witches, and lurking goblins, filling the studio with disturbing inferences and the unpleasant sensation of everyday technical effort being suffused with menace and the ghosts of appalling acts. One scene sees Katalin Ladik, playing herself, recording the sound for her role as a witch, acting the incantatory part, face twisted into a visage of terrible delight, mimicking the faces of death and morbid ecstasy often glimpsed in De Palma and Argento’s films, exposed in artifice and yet still wielding a strange power. Santini proselytises to Gilderoy about his need to depict the horrors of witch trials to awaken his audience to historical crimes, except, of course, that Strickland notes the same crimes, in a far subtler and less immediately deadly fashion, going on in the studio. Santini, the smooth and imperious stud, is accused of casting with his dick, and Silvia, evidently involved with him in some fashion, is filled with disquiet and disillusionment. She forms a tenuous bond with Gilderoy, with his seeming status as meek, attentive gelding in contrast to the brash Italian alpha males, and advises him in how to combat the studio bureaucracy. Francesco warns Gilderoy about getting too close to Silvia: “Be careful of that girl…There is poison in those tits of hers.” Like Gilderoy, Silvia is another foreigner out of her element. Appearing with witchy portent in the dark of the studio and seeming alternately entrapped by the filmmaking and its dark avatar, Silvia finally goes on a rampage of destruction all too cruelly exact for the filmmakers: she destroys reels of sound and footage to announce her furious departure from the project, a special kiss-off to Santini.

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Meanwhile Santini and Francesco push Gilderoy in implicating himself in the professional drama that has overtones of the imaginary one, finally conflating as Francesco forces Gilderoy to turn up the volume on recorded sound effects to literally torture a potential replacement for Silvia into giving a decent sounding scream. The sneaky truth to the casual sexism and contempt for employee needs, like Gilderoy’s, passed over for the joy of working in the big wonderful world of filmmaking, melds with Gilderoy’s evident frustrated sensuality, a sensuality channelled into his work. Gilderoy is something of a gentle magician: in one mesmerising scene, when a power cut leaves the actors and crew bored, Gilderoy is talked into entertaining them by creating eerie sounds with household items, conjuring a UFO from a lightbulb scraped across a grill. Just recently I’ve been much fascinated with the work and life of Delia Derbyshire, a brilliant boffin who helped invent electronic music from the anonymous ranks of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, most famously creating the Doctor Who theme: Gilderoy is characterised as just such a classic English eccentric whose introversion masks the ability to create worlds and invent futures, a delicate gift unable to withstand the pressure of industrialised art filled with egotists and moral vacuums.

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One of the film’s most evanescently strange moments comes in one of the several turns in which Strickland uses the blackouts as a way to seamlessly and, with momentary disorientation, change scenes: Gilderoy is awoken in the night, and leaves his room, passing into blackness. The sounds of crunching detritus, as if he’s walking on fallen leaves, are heard, and Silvia emerges from the darkness, clutching a candle, an emanation from an ethereal beyond. Actually, they’re in the studio during another power cut, with Gilderoy recording his footfalls as background noise. Nonetheless Gilderoy’s tactile enjoyment of the moment evokes the very different world he’s used to, a quieter, more natural world. This moment reminded me powerfully of a similar motif in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), in which the antihero smothers his face longingly in natural detritus, mourning his isolation in a denaturalised world. Gilderoy sleeps in a room adjoining the studio, and his situation, and seemingly fragmenting consciousness, often seems to dissolve boundaries between liminal and subliminal zones. The rubbish bin filled with all the pulverised vegetables used in the foley work begins to turn into a toxic mass of putrefaction, standing in for the mangled flesh on screen: “Well, I was hoping for a more dignified end than this,” one actress quips upon seeing the mashed marrow that represents her on-screen character’s brutal death.

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Berberian Sound Studio is, in many respects, an experimental film, an extended attempt to explore the pure texture of cinema, a layered journey through the act of creation itself that becomes at the same time a mesmerising experiential plunge. There seems to be an emerging strand of what could be called pseudo-abstract genre work in recent independent filmmaking, mimicking the forms of traditional horror and science-fiction films, but doing so to extract and isolate qualities of tone and method whilst excising literal story development: the U.S. and British film scenes have produced several filmmakers, including Shane Carruth, Brit Marling and collaborators Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, Ben Wheatley, and Ti West, who have deconstructed filmmaking pitched on the edge of the fantastic or the ominous to varying degrees; works by European filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier have also grazed this zone. Strickland’s effort here stands closer to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Fonzani’s Amer (2009), which boiled the traditional visual essentials of giallo down to an enigmatic narrative freed from responsibility to the boilerplate requirements of genre entertainment. Rather than offer the usual coded metaphors for a descent into a realm of nightmares and the irrational, Strickland goes straight for the purified sense of dread and implication of a solitary man who specialises in creating hints of wonder but is too vulnerable to being immersed in his own works.

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Berberian Sound Studio therefore feels closer to some far more offbeat by-products of the ’60s and ’70s film milieu than to the giallo to which it pays surface tribute. David Lynch is an evident touchstone. Strickland references the shibboleth of Mulholland Drive (2001) through the flashing sign “Silenzio” outside the studio, the intimate examination of decay suggests Blue Velvet (1986), whilst the narrative doublings and dreamlike metamorphoses recall Lost Highway (1997). But where Lynch was fond of creating surrealist textures out of pulp stories, Strickland offers much less immediate strangeness, preferring to create a more definably psychological texture. The peculiar counterpoint of a technologically enabled tinkerer able to transform everyday ambience into strange art and a situation rife with discomforting expectation of violence recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1976): the heroes of both are sound experts engaged in creating evocations of the uncanny and faced with the disintegration of their presumably stable lives. But the ultimate method feels to me closest to Ingmar Bergman, as in Persona (1966), mental breakdown is conveyed through the literal breakdown of cinema itself, whilst Hour of the Wolf (1968), where an artist’s neuroses consume his life, realised through dreamlike reductions of gothic horror imagery to their phobic essences. Where Bergman referenced the expressionist chillers and Bela Lugosi flicks he’d loved as a youth, Strickland evokes giallo, but both modes are for each filmmaker a style to emulate rather than a genre to copy, a wellspring of expressive ambiguity and nightmarish textures.

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Like the protagonist of Hour of the Wolf, Gilderoy disappears within the ghostly fantasia his mind seems to be projecting. As Gilderoy’s perception of his world becomes increasingly warped, everything becomes charged with a capacity for communing with a nightmare world, and the very filmmaking conspires against him. Gilderoy’s periodic letters from his mother take a dark twist as she recounts the massacre of a nest of bird hatchlings they’d been watching over before he left. Gilderoy’s private reality becomes increasingly mixed up with the film as one of the auditioned replacements for Silvia recounts the letter. We know who Gilderoy is, but what’s his last name? Why was he hired for this project? Why can’t the studio accountants find his flight booking? Is he here at all? Is the whole experience just his dream? Or is he, as the film repeatedly suggests, simply a figure at the mercy of his filmmaker, free to create him and then pull him apart, like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953)? This seems ultimately the perfect analogue for Berberian Sound Studio, an exercise in layers of cinematic construction becoming its own malefic stunt. Time eventually reboots; Gilderoy, suddenly a speaker of fluent Italian, becomes the high priest and witch hunter, pummelling the eardrums of his actress-witches and lighting candles in prayer to dark gods of nature even as he remains ensconced in his technological cocoon.

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Strickland saves his smartest antistrophe for a sequence in which Gilderoy imagines some hidden force crashing against the door of his bedroom, snatching up a knife and stalking out to search for the shadow enemy, only for the footage of his earlier fear in the room to start unspooling on the projection screen. Then the film melts and gives way to, of all things, the rural documentary Gilderoy won his prize for, tranquil footage of English dales and grass-munching sheep presenting a far more jarring and mercilessly funny twist than any supernatural ambassador could provide. Gilderoy is terrified of the price he will pay for success, of the world battering in his door and implicating him in its evils, anxiety attaching itself to the art he’s prostituting himself out to create. As in many horror films, however, the forces of good and light may have their victory over darkness. Gilderoy finds himself confronted by self-animating equipment that projects a spot of growing light, transfixing Gilderoy and promising to swallow him up, 2001–style, the beckoning promise of transcendence into ecstasy, or obliteration, a final surrender to the irrational. It’s easy, too easy, to imagine Berberian Sound Studio earning the wrath of viewers who would have it finally offer some sort of familiar gothic pay-off. But for anyone who engages with Strickland’s seriously peculiar yet remarkable style, this is a genuinely galvanising film experience—and those are pretty rare at the best of times.


25th 12 - 2012 | 4 comments »

After Lucia (Después de Lucía, 2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

For those of us who were raised on lighthearted boy-and-his-dog/girl-and-her-horse films and cuddly Disney forest creatures, our first sight of a lion taking down a young gazelle on a TV series like Nature is likely to be a terrible shock. How cruel! Well, not exactly. The lion needs to live, too, and nature has seen fit to equip her with the ability to sprint, claw, and bite; the gazelle has speed and endurance to help level the playing field, so generally only the young or the old gazelles are eaten, leaving the healthiest and most sexually mature animals to continue the species.

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Human beings are animals, too, and exhibit all the same bestial instincts to mate, tend to our young, flee from danger, and so on. However, human beings also have advanced thinking capabilities that can overcome our basic survival instincts; consider the sacrifices people make, even unto death, to help others. Nonetheless, in many ways, the way we arrange our social structures reveals the beast in us, particularly in our hierarchical pecking orders that depend inordinately upon those at the top to govern our human affairs wisely and embrace our advanced thinking abilities to care for all members of the society.

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After Lucia, winner of the Un Certain Regard and Silver Hugo awards at Cannes and Chicago, respectively, takes a grim look at the workings of a pecking order among a group of teens from a prosperous area of Mexico City and how an infraction of the group’s rules leads to rapidly escalating, unconscionable bullying. Many American critics have found the severity of the hazing unbelievable, but I believe this reaction reflects the American tendency to draw a curtain quickly around unpleasant truths, develop positively spun marketing campaigns to pretend that something is being done, and then go back to business as usual. Mexicans appear to have more of an appetite for the lurid and an unblinkered acceptance of darkness in the world, with a particular appreciation for the animalistic underpinnings of human existence. The unflinching approach Michel Franco takes to machismo and human conflict, the plight of the vulnerable, and the archetypal pairing of sex and death makes After Lucia something of a horror masterpiece.

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Alejandra (Tessa Ía) is an ordinary teenager from privileged circumstances who is dealing with the death of her mother in a car accident from which she escaped unharmed. Her father Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) wears his grief like sack cloth; in the opening scene, he very carefully drives the repaired car away from the mechanic’s after listening to what sounds like a rebuild rather than a repair and then simply abandons the car in the middle of the road and walks out of his life in Puerto Vallarta to start over with Alejandra somewhere else. Roberto, a chef, struggles to stay focused enough to open a new restaurant; when he walks out on the enterprise at one point, it is Ale who takes charge and makes him go back and get on with it. Almost miraculously, Ale has been brought into the cool-kid clique at her new school by its alpha male, José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto), and seems to be getting along just fine.

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Unfortunately, Ale makes a fatal error when she is invited to a weekend party at a posh home. She gets drunk and lets José record them having sex on his cellphone. The video circulates online, arousing the jealousy of the girl who thinks José is her boyfriend. Soon, the taunting emails and physical abuse begin, the boys calling her a whore and exposing themselves to her, and the girls dressing her up like a hooker and cutting her hair off. She doesn’t tell her father or the school authorities about what is happening to her. She just disappears into the shell of her own misery and eventually, just disappears during a mandatory school trip to Vera Cruz.

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After Lucia explores some very interesting aspects of human behavior, in general, and the social order of teens, in particular. It seems that Ale understands well the tendency of teens to attack the weak rather than to show understanding. For example, she is careful not to reveal too much about her background, saying only that her mother is back in Puerto when her new friends wonder if her parents will go ballistic when they find out she has failed a mandatory drug test at school. She is a person who contains her emotions by nature, but she also doesn’t want to be seen as having any defect, and having only one parent would pose a status problem for her. She hides the abuse she is suffering not only to keep her father’s fragile equilibrium and, more important, temper under control, but also to prevent the abuse from getting worse. When it can’t get any worse, she goes into an emotional coma, uncaring about what happens to her father or her tormenters. We want her to lash out, be sensible, but a young ego is extremely delicate and the centers of reason have not yet matured.

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The horror aspects of the story have to do with punishment for having sex. Ale becomes the target for bullies, it seems, for sleeping with another girl’s boyfriend, but it really isn’t as simple as all that. Her tormenters focus on her sexual conduct and use sexual and physical humiliation to punish her for losing control. It is never revealed who sent the video around, as the cellphone was left in the bathroom for anyone to pick up, but suspicion rightly falls on José, who can prove his machismo, attack the girl who lays a claim to him he doesn’t want, and humiliate the new girl he brought into the group in the first place. It is even possible he befriended her with this ulterior motive in mind. One only has to think of the torment and murder of the character of Juanita, a newcomer to Cuidad Juárez, in Backyard to see a familiar dynamic at play. The disposability of strangers, the acceptance of brutality against women that women collude in to maintain the pecking order, and the fragility of the male ego, which demands violent retribution, all come into play in After Lucia. The film, particularly the last scene, is very reminiscent of the feral behavior and shockingly matter-of-fact violence captured so heartbreakingly by Luis Buñuel in his 1950 classic Los Olvidados.

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The film shows a fine attention to detail and expert use of indirect narrative to communicate the events of the story. That first scene, which only hints at the tragic death of Lucia, comes graphically into focus as Ale remembers the details as she swims obsessively to relieve her stress. Conversations occur in the distance, out of earshot, leaving us helpless in the foreground to imagine whatever plot, or horrors, we like. The cinematography of Chuy Chávez takes in the beauty and modernity of this set of people, contrasting the savagery that emerges from it without the pressures of physical survival that make comparison by some with Lord of the Flies erroneous. Although many commentaries focus on how difficult this film is to watch, I actually found Franco’s style discreet, offering enough distance to allow me to view the film to the end and, therefore, see the full realization of his vision. Much more difficult was taking in the incompletely suppressed emotions Ía and Mendoza express with their brave, committed performances.

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People who see After Lucia may use it to start a dialogue about bullying and the need for open communication between parents and children. I think that’s just fine. But this is no afterschool special. The issues it raises go to the very heart of the psychic minefield of sex and the human pecking order, as well as the depths of depravity and violence to which the id unchecked by human reason can sink. After Lucia will shake you up and never let go.


31st 10 - 2012 | 2 comments »

I Tre Volti della Paura (aka The Three Faces of Fear; Black Sabbath; 1963)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Mario Bava

Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava is a name to conjure with amongst lovers of horror cinema today, after an interregnum when his brand had waned and he was remembered only by film scholars and the directors who ripped him off. His lush, visually symphonic work in the horror field did not just bridge eras in the genre’s evolution, but actively affected it. Bava oversaw both the great revival of the Gothic horror style, thanks to his rescue job on Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), which beat both Hammer Studios and Roger Corman to the mark of sparking that style, and continued with Bava’s proper debut La Maschera del Demonio (1960). Bava however also oversaw that revival’s wane, and its displacing by a new style of horror, one which Bava essentially invented, based in more modern conventions, codes, and tropes. This would become known as the giallo movie. In the wake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which gave contemporary horror an electric relevance, Bava first compiled the giallo style in 1963’s La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo and its brilliant follow-up Sei Donne Per l’Assassino (1964). Where the Gothic genre was historical, rooted in intensely psychologised images and long-settled figurations representing threat – ghosts, vampires, werewolves – the giallo was stylised according to the shape and rhythm of a less superstitious but equally paranoid contemporary landscape, reconceiving threat as a lurking, masked, gloved killer out to attack and annihilate beauty and complacency. Gothic was rooted in Victorian literary and folk-tale traditions; giallo came from pulp literature, modern art, and urban myth. Giallo latched onto the sorts of figures beloved of trashy newspapers and which seemed to have devolved along with the modern urban world – sex killers, heavy breather phone callers, alienated misogynists, and murderous anarchists. 

I Tre Volti della Paura feels like a pivotal movie for Bava, not simply in that its English-language title, Black Sabbath, inspired the name of the prototypical heavy metal band and thus gave it a higher measure of fame than any other Bava work, but because it’s an omnibus movie that allowed Bava to offer variations on new and old horror aesthetics. This analytical presumption contrasts not simply their disparate preoccupations and lexicons, both visual and thematic, but also their shared roots and mutual, closely related power. Bava’s film tells three stories adapted from Anton Chekhov, Howard Snyder, and Alexei Tolstoy, a disparate triumvirate of names and modes of storytelling, ordered depending on which version you’re watching of the film, the Italian or the foreign release cut. The Italian cut commences with The Telephone, from a Snyder story, moves on to The Wurdalak, from Tolstoy, and concludes with Chekhov’s The Drop of Water. The first is clearly an exercise in giallo nerve-wracking, whilst the second is ripe Gothicism, and the third represents a distinct tradition but also presents a curious melding of the two, apt in adapting Chekhov, a writer with old-world class partly veiling a very modern, ironic mind. The horror genre has, over the years, seen more omnibus and portmanteau films than any other genre I can think of, from Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), up to this year’s V/H/S. This seems a by-product of the type of story the genre works well with, minimal mood-pieces where sometimes complication despoils the form’s inherent qualities, and the powerful literary tradition of short eerie fiction. Bava’s work came in the wake of Corman’s Tales of Terror (1961) and anticipated Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964), the multi-director fancies of Histoires Extraordinaires de Edgar Allen Poe (1967), and Milton Subotsky’s series of Amicus films, but unlike most others Bava resists mixing the bag in tone or intent too much, and each episode vibrates with concerted near-perfection.

I Tre Volti della Paura often seems aware of its place as a bridging point of old and new, and certainly Bava keeps glancing over his shoulder at both his own style’s roots, and that of the genre. He signals this most clearly by taking advantage of having Boris Karloff as a star, offering him in a prologue and epilogue as a good-humoured master of ceremonies, warning the audience about vampires who might be sitting next to them – “Vampires go to the movies too!” – and imbuing the film with a self-evident link to the heyday of Hollywood horror. Karloff’s stature as a horror star had taken him through three distinct waves in the genre’s evolution, from James Whale to Val Lewton to Corman and Bava. Karloff’s jests in the bookends suggest an extension to his salutary self-mockery in Corman’s The Raven the same year, and yet his actual role in this film, in The Wurdalak, is serious in a severe and classical fashion. The Telephone, particularly in its Italian version, is remarkable for its concise summary of the underpinnings and methodology of the giallo style. The set-up is simple: a woman alone is terrorised by an unseen threat and a taunting voice on the phone. It’s one of the hoariest of modern genre variants, one that easily turns dull and repetitive in lesser hands, and yet Bava’s version is the ür-text, crisp in its execution and telling in its supple feints and clever miscues. 

The woman here is Rosy (Michele Mercier), a gorgeous young trollop who arrives home one evening, strips down, and gets ready for bed, only to start receiving phone calls. At first the caller does not answer her plaintive demands to know who they are and what they want, and then finally the raspy mystery man begins to taunt her with threats of rape and murder, before slipping a newspaper cutting under her front door. The cutting suggests the caller is a former boyfriend of hers, Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), who has since gone to jail and now escaped. The caller seems to know everything she does, and Bava privileges the audience to a glimpse of malignant peering eyes through a window blind. Rosy, distraught and told if she calls the police then the killer will come in and finish her off, instead phones up her former lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) and begs her to come over. Mary arrives and after soothing her fears ends up sleeping with her, but as Bava has already revealed, Mary is in fact the source of the phone calls – a pretext in her desire to get back with Rosy. But as Mary writes a confession to leave for Rosy to read in the morning, the real Rainer enters the apartment and sneaks up on Mary, assuming she is Rosy.

The Telephone is a masterpiece of compact storytelling, unfolding with Bava’s illustrative intelligence whilst accepting distinct formal restrictions. The lesbian twist to the episode, carefully fudged in the English-language version, gives it a darker and deeper emotional punch than would otherwise offer, making Mary’s malfeasance a keener manifestation of emotional jealousy and longing worked out through a sadistic ploy, and staking the tale in a game of reversing roles. Mary pretends to be Rainer and Rainer mistakes Mary for Rosy, the man and woman swapping parts in their desire to possess/destroy Rosy’s fecund but independent sexuality, but finally only helping destroy each-other. This element plugs into the contemporary anxiety over sexuality and changing social mores overtaking traditional morality which would give the giallo genre so much of its bite, albeit often with reactionary overtones. Only a couple of years after Fellini offered arch queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita (1960), Bava treats this element with beguiling matter-of-factness, carefully depicting Mary as driven by angry desire to duplicitous means, eyeing Rosy’s fancy rooms and wondering out loud who pays for it all. The suggestion is that Rosy has often used her as her emotional comfort whilst working her way through men who could help her financially. Mary’s bitterness at being thrown over is then all too palpable, and it’s clear that Rainer, a dangerous criminal, was one of those men. Bava’s usual punitive moralism, often even stricter than his own hero Alfred Hitchcock, is apparent as all three characters pay a steep price for their transgressions, with Rosy left alive at the end as perhaps the worst punishment of all as the victims of her romantic life lie quite literally sprawled on the floor.

At the same time, Mary’s gamesmanship replicates on a narrative level the fundamental dynamic of Bava’s direction, a reduction of drama to the act of looking, watching, hypnotised by the pure spectacle as Bava stokes Rosy’s fear with pseudo-erotic sadism, the unseen watcher/caller standing in for the camera, director, audience, willing the game to go further, deeper, and climax with orgasmic act of murder. But like his successor Dario Argento in his early work, Bava enjoys disrupting the expectations about whose viewpoint the terror represents, evoking polymorphic underpinnings to a nominally simple exploitation of phobias of sex and death: it’s like Sartre’s No Exit reconfigured as chamber piece horror. The Telephone charts Bava’s precise awareness of just how long to string along the situation, offering his key revelations, like the staring eyes behind the blind and the identity of the caller, with seemingly casual yet actually precise and forceful cuts and camera moves as if following a thread to the heart of the labyrinth. He sustains dread in the meantime with the resolute build of shots around Mercier’s terrific performance, with each new call causing a distinct mounting of tension manifest in Rosy. Whilst the pace of editing builds, the telephone itself turns in an object of adversarial power – it’s coloured red and black, looking forward to the red telephone receiver that dangles as the evocation of severed lives and ruined loves at the end of Sei Donne per l’Assassino. The Telephone sees Bava at once defining the basic principles of giallo for the future – peering eyes, gloved hands, wickedly shining knives, isolation, paranoia, the fetishistic delight in the image of a terrified woman – whilst also looking back to Hitchcock’s immediate influence. He executes the story within one room, recalling Rope (1948) and Rear Window, particularly the latter with its emphasis on voyeurism; the eyes behind the blind evoke Psycho (1960), whilst Bava mimics a singular shot from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) as he performs a delicate camera move around Rosy, as she listens to an unfolding nightmare on the telephone. A climactic shot of Rainer sneaking up on Mary with an appropriated stocking clearly references Dial M For Murder (1954).

Which is not to say Bava’s filmmaking is imitative, but simply paying nods where they’re due, whilst also presenting his own stylistic brilliance, his sense of colour and composition and genius for fluidic, sensuous camera movement, and these qualities permeate the whole of I Tre Volti della Paura. The Wurdalak, the second and most elaborate episode, is a miniature epic that offsets the contemporary vision of private hells in The Telephone with a more traditional version. Bava’s penchant for the folkish eccentricities of the Slavic ghost story canon had already seen him loosely adapt Gogol’s ‘The Vij’ for La Maschera del Demonio, and The Wurdalak like that film takes place in a netherworld version of Eastern Europe, with sonorous location shots fleshing out perhaps Bava’s a beautifully crafted exercise in gothic horror. Freda, Bava, Sergio Leone and others of their breed were always expected to make their films look like the popular and commercially dominant English-language genre films in their fields, and even as they began to distort the results towards their own interests they paid lip-service to this necessity: here Bava pays clear nods to Corman by importing the stolidly handsome star of his House of Usher (1960), Mark Damon, to play a variation on his role there as an outmatched ingenue locked in a battle with his lover’s very identity. The set-up has distinct resemblances to several of Corman’s Poe-derived or inspired cycle, as Damon’s Count Vladimir d’Urfe takes on the role of archetypal Wanderer, in a vaguely identified, eerily depopulated land where peculiar social assumptions and menacing activities permeate the onerous scenery. The Count discovers a headless corpse on a riverbank with a distinctive knife in the heart. Vladimir straddles the corpse across his horse and carries it to the nearest house, where he discovers a family living in cowering anxiety and expectation, and he’s confronted by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) who recognises his own father’s knife as the one Vladimir has removed from the body. 

When Vladimir leads Giorgio outside to inspect the body, it proves to have mysteriously vanished, only to turn up a short distance away, being stabbed through the heart with punitive relish by Giorgio’s brother Pietro (Massimo Righi). Somehow this discovery is actually more unnerving than the corpse’s reanimation would have been, the sight of the headless remnant being stabbed with a need for certainty commingling with the impossibility of ever truly killing the spectre of fear, heightening the atmosphere of hysteria that builds in the forty or so minutes of The Wurdalak’s running time. The corpse, it’s explained to Vladimir, was that of Alibeq, a Turkish bandit who had terrorised the region and who was rumoured to also be a vampire-like wurdalak. Their father Gorca (Karloff) had gone out days earlier to find and kill the enemy after he had murdered the clan’s foreman, but left behind a mysterious entreaty that they should kill him in turn, if he turned up more than five days after departing, a timespan which happens to run out at midnight, for that would mean that he would certainly be a wurdalak too by then. As the family waits fearfully for the appointed hour, Vladimir’s is drawn to Gorca’s stunningly beautiful daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen). As midnight ticks by, Gorca appears, haggard and alternately fierce and strangely unctuous in his manner, displaying Alibeq’s head which he’s been carrying around with him, a strikingly iconic image of a man who’s given into savage nature even in attempting to annihilate it. His fearful children know they should obey his previous statement, and yet can’t bring themselves to. In the night, as Pietro is left to keep watch, Gorca begins moving about the house, claiming Ivan, the child of Giorgio and his wife Maria (Rika Dialina), and leaving Pietro for dead. 

One of Bava’s distinctive traits as a filmmaker was his ruthlessly clear understanding of the basic underpinnings of the dark fantasies he was engaged in depicting, and just as La Maschera del Demonio expanded intelligibly on the schismatic yet eternally conjoined images of Madonna and whore, and Sei Donne Per l’Assassino would contend with the urge to exterminate beauty if it could not be possessed, The Wurdalak anticipates Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1973) as Bava’s inwardly spiralling meditations on the encaging horror that can be family identity. Here the poisoned patriarch Gorca, who had gone out to do battle with the marauding villain, comes back as the force of evil he had sought to exterminate, and swiftly causes his clan to fall victim to it, complete with clear overtones of paedophilia and incest as he singles out young Ivan and snatches him away into the night, and the net draws tighter around Sdenka even as Vladimir begs her to escape with him. Images in Operazione Paura of evil lurking outside windows, peering in on the warm and contented with baleful intent to feed on that land of life, are prefigured here, as the household eats itself from the inside out. What’s most striking and pathologically precise about The Wurdalak is its pitilessly unsentimental view of sentiment, one which plainly prefigures the similar brute logic that George Romero would examine in his best films, a tension between emotional reflex and survivalist necessity.

This tilt on the familiar dramatic necessities of fighting evil examines the way people can behave in illogical ways when their lives are at stake and disturbing facts are plainly apparent, but their taboos and intensely entrenched prejudices and loyalties, no matter how retrograde or ignorant of other concerns, have been internalised so completely that they demand people act in contrary ways. Thus Bava shows the clan destroyed by its blindness to anything but its own hermetic nature, in a pungent metaphor for this schism: the sons cannot obey the father’s own advice and destroy him, and Giorgio’s wife murders her husband when he tries to prevent her letting in their plainly vampirized son, who seems to come wandering out of the frigid night to scratch at the door (anticipating memorable moments in Tobe Hooper’s spin on Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, 1979). Many a young lover has often felt like they’re trying to extract the one desirable member from a family of monsters, and Vladimir struggles to convince Sdenka to flee with him as she believes she must stay with her family for loyalty’s sake even as they all expire. Although Vladimir does finally convince Sdenka to leave, the delay is fatal, for the clan are able to catch up with them. In a brilliant depiction of the inescapable nature of formative roots, Sdenka is caught between her transformed family members, advancing to claim her in the midst of a ruined church, shambling corpses still obeying their inculcated ideals of clannish behaviour, and ghosts of ancient repressions still overwhelming all good sense in the present. When Vladimir awakens alone, he retraces the path to the Gorca house and finds Sdenka, waiting in all luscious readiness for him to join the family circle.

Interpretative perversities aside, The Wurdalak is visual gothic par excellence, with Bava manipulating both the studio settings and the location shooting to maximum atmospheric effect, conjuring a magnificent, appropriately fairy-tale world of menace, frames teeming with overgrown thorny bushes and misted forests, frosted windows and warm hues of longed-for shelters and sunrises. Indelible images proliferate, like Gorca stalking across the bridge on his way home, the faces of the undead glaring through frosted windows, and young Ivan clawing and weeping at the door, stoking his mother to emotions so desperate she cuts through her husband to get to her son. Bava pulls off one of his most felicitous bits of filmmaking here as he cuts from Giorgio and Maria arguing to the plaintive yet disconcerting image of what they think is their son kneeling with arms spread on the front door, and then cutting back to the sigh of a pair of scissors, daubed in Giorgio’s blood, falling to the floor, the mortally wounded man still crying out to the wife who’s killed him not to open the door for the monster. The deliriousness of Bava’s sci-fi horror riff, Terrore Nello Spazio (1965), is nascent in the saturated colours and dream-like mood. If the last chapter, The Drop of Water, seems comparatively lightweight after the The Wurdalak, it actually represents Bava’s most purely stylistic coup, in the orchestral use of colour, composition, sound, and camera work utilised in compiling a growing sense of unease. 

Operating in a similar mould of isolated anxiety, depicting a woman alone in her apartment afraid of lurking terrors, to The Telephone, The Drop of Water is the story of plebeian, sticky-fingered, hapless nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), who is called out on a dark and stormy night from her warm abode to attend to her just deceased charge, a reputed but reclusive medium. Distracted and irritable, Helen espies and surreptitiously steals the enticing ring on the corpse’s finger. If The Telephone and The Wurdalak explore two major strands of horror, The Drop of Water exemplifies a third, the morality play where justice, which may be supernatural or might simply be overloaded mental credulity, comes surging from beyond the grave to punish transgression. For Bava, the mechanics of this kind of storytelling are comparatively simplistic, but the elements of class envy and the depiction of property as a maddening and destructive spur look forward to the insidious supernatural class struggle again in Operazione Paura, and the war over the estate that drives the bloodshed of Reazione a Catena (1971). Bava further invests The Drop of Water with overtones of black comedy, through Pierreux’s amusingly exaggerated performance as Helen, and the minute, nuisance-like, yet cumulatively maddening proliferation of difficulties in her attempts at thievery that start to resemble silent comedy. This restrained slapstick has consequences, as these events begin to recur as increasingly dreadful portents of warning after they’ve already suggested the taboo nature of stealing from the dead, building with a rapid but precise relish reminiscent of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1957), where again the temptation to profitable transgression is met by the corrosive terror of being caught. 

Whilst the episode’s tone sustains impudent humour, Bava still constructs this episode with magisterial craft, contrasting the decaying splendour of the Medium’s mansion and Helen’s flat whilst filling both with resplendent colour effects that communicate moral, corporeal, and spiritual rot, for both places are filled with hues eloquent of decay and slovenly disinterest. Bava’s camera peers into spaces where any manifestation of evil might appear and yet which don’t – until finally they do, or at least the mind, tired of waiting for them to arrive, conjures them itself. Helen’s midnight suffering as she hears dripping water and is tormented by a single, impudent fly, sees her worked up into a pitch of anxiety. Finally the ghoulish visage of her dead charge appears in the shadows, gliding with eerie weightlessly and terrible purpose, her face, distorted as on the deathbed into a gnarled and gruesome leer, is etched in sickly hues of green and red. Helen is found dead the next day, missing the ring. Perhaps the ghost came and claimed it, and yet, as Bava details the guilty face of Helen’s neighbour and zooms in for a last look at Helen’s dead face, now distorted itself into another grim leer, the neighbour has taken the ring, and the roundelay of guilt and fear invoked by this seamy fixation with possession will continue. You can’t take it with you, but you can damn well haunt whoever else thinks it’s theirs.

The title’s cleverness becomes apparent by the end, as the “three faces of fear” refer not only to the trio of spooky stories, but to the cumulative fixation each episode has with a face that encapsulates fear, whether being experienced, as found in Rosy’s or Helen’s sweat-dabbed, tremulous brows, or inspiring it, as in Gorca’s and the Medium’s funereal visages, even coalescing monstrosity and beauty in Sdenka’s enticing final clinch with Vladimir. If, as Jean Renoir once said, the face was the greatest tool at the filmmaker’s disposal, this was Bava’s response, his proof of faith in the gestural power of the human element to invoke the most extreme cinematic emotions. If Sei Donne or Operazione Paura offer complete statements that are ultimately more powerful, I Tre Volti could well be the best produced of Bava’s horror films: the production carries little of the tackiness a lot of even the best Italian genre cinema could never quite escape, and the costuming, lighting, and settings reflect craftsmanship of a rich and delightful sort. Bava’s collaboration with DP Ubaldo Terzano is superlative. This excellence is ironic, as the film finishes up making fun of its own construction, revealing in the climax the tacky charm required to conjure such visions as Karloff, in his Gorca guise, suddenly stops riding the mechanical horse he’s mounted on to jest with the audience, whilst Bava pulls back to reveal crewmen running in circles to create the effect of forest brush whipping by. This jokey epilogue is Bava laughing at his own showmanship and Karloff mocking his own legacy, but not with tiredness or self-contempt, but the knowing winks of great magicians who don’t mind giving the game away if it’s been played well enough. Or perhaps it’s Bava’s answer to his pal Fellini’s inverted study in cinematic creativity released the same year, . Anyway, when it’s all over, it’s not the humour you remember, or the storytelling: it’s that primal image of the Medium’s face, sliding forth out of the darkness, straight out of every childhood nightmare.


28th 10 - 2012 | 4 comments »

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Victor Sjöstrom

By Roderick Heath

The Phantom Carriage has a power which almost defies description, a sense of an overwhelming darkness crowding the edges of the frame and corroding the very flesh and spirit of the characters on screen. It’s a tale of damnation, for whatever remains after death but also on earth too, the poison of psychological fear and anger blighting life as surely as the tuberculosis bacilli eat away its protagonists inside out. Light, with all its redemptive promise, radiates by contrast from the centre of frames, burning candles and lamps stranded in the midst of shadowy rooms, and from the face of the benighted Sister Edit (Astrid Holm). Edit lies expiring on New Year’s Eve, desperately begs her mother (Concordia Selander) and fellow Salvation Army worker Maria (Lisa Lundholm) to track down the one soul and body she’s been trying to save more passionately than any other. That is the soul of David Holm (Victor Sjöstrom), a drunken wastrel tracked down not in the hovel where his wife (Hilda Borgström) and children are trying to stave off hunger and cold, but drinking in a graveyard with two vagrants who listen as David recounts with amusement the fate of his old drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was tormented by an anxiety that used to gnaw at him on New Year’s Eve. As the minutes tick towards midnight, David explains Georges’ obsession with a folk myth that whoever died at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s would be a cursed and sinful person, charged with driving the carriage that collects the souls of those who die during the year. And, as ill luck would have it, Georges died one year ago on the very night he feared. After David chases off the Salvation Army worker who tracks him down for Edit, he fights with his two companions, one of whom smashes a bottle over his head. David is left for dead, and Death’s carriage soon comes rolling around.

Victor Sjöstrom’s career in film climaxed famously with his role in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958). In casting the aged director and actor in his film, Bergman was paying tribute to Sjöstrom’s status as a father of the Swedish film industry, and as an artist to whom Bergman and others, both in Sweden and around the world, owed a lot. In his heyday, Sjöstrom’s gift for portraying psychological drama and capturing tones ranging from fulminating unease to outright hysteria was second to none, and his cinematic experiments were as rich and innovative as anything that would soon follow in Germany, France, and the US. Along with Mauritz Stiller, Sjöstrom was at the front rank of Swedish filmmakers well before the First World War, labouring like many great early directors on dozens of short features as the quintessential forms of cinema began to evolve, and finally with his 1921 hit The Phantom Carriage, Sjöstrom gained an invite to Hollywood, where he made great films, often with Lillian Gish, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). But commercial success began to elude him, and his career essentially waned along with the silent film. Sjöstrom’s passionately visual, rhythmic, intimately composed ideal of cinema was at once highly stylised and fascinatingly realistic, as the director amongst other things helped to bridge early cinema with the Swedish stage and its tradition of dark, neurotic realist spectacle as exemplified by August Strindberg.

Today the horror film, in spite of patchy acceptance by mainstream critics, is still essentially considered a fringe genre. In the first quarter-century of cinema’s existence, however, it was a favourite field for directors who wanted to interrogate the possibilities of the medium, as they contemplated the intrinsic link between the mystery of film’s power and images of mortality, nebulous existence and concrete form. This was true of much important early cinema, including several of Georges Melies’ most striking works, Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1919), Wegener’s Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam (1920), Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Christensen’s Häxan (1922), and Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). The Phantom Carriage itself stands up amidst the most beautiful, eerie, and dazzlingly rendered movies of its time. One reason the horror genre, which was hardly a genre at the time and certainly not called that, attracted such a wealth of early talent was that it presented possibilities for experimenting with the kinds of special effects available to early cinema, in a fashion that later sci-fi, action, and fantasy films would invite, as a testing ground for evolutions in technology and the inspiration to use it. Whereas, apart from Tod Browning, it would take European directors working in Hollywood and, more crucially, the advent of the Depression to shock American horror cinema into its first golden age, in Europe a superlative glut of definitive moviemaking in this mould was closely aligned with the stylistic moment of what became known as German Expressionism. The time was in tune, too, for the great flowering of these films came in the period directly following the Great War, a time in which a great hole had been carved in European society, the pall of death was an everyday, invasive reality, and fascination with spiritualism exploded in a world that felt not at all metaphorically haunted.

But not all of these films were clear-cut in their exploitation of this mood, as many depict the birth struggles of modernism, as artists wrestled with remnants of folk traditions and the detritus of cultures going through painful evolutions, trying to reject the dead-weight of past truisms to embrace rationalism, but often rubbing fears raw in that process. Sjöstrom’s film was adapted a novel by 1909’s Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, and the story is in many ways a familiar piece of post-Victorian abstemious moralism, playing like a darker version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which a sinner sees the error of his ways through a supernatural encounter. For Sjöstrom, who had been adapting Lagerlöf’s novels regularly thanks to a deal she had made with the studio he worked for, the task was however to retain the complexity of the novel and depict the perverse, dramatically difficult elements onto the screen, precisely at a time when it was becoming clear that film was open to all challenges. The Phantom Carriage becomes a psychological epic about cruelty, fear, and pain, as experienced and exacted by David, an antihero who takes on Dostoyevskian dimensions in his anger at humanity even as he cringes before immutable forces. David, a former carpenter and craftsman, has long since slid into the gutter under the influence of the ironically well-educated Georges, whose habitual cynicism and florid bon vivant postures attracted both David and his younger brother (Einar Axelsson). Georges only ever registered disquiet when New Year’s rolled around and revived the folk tale figuration of the phantom carriage in his thoughts like an annual memento mori.

One of Sjöstrom’s significant flourishes in telling his tale is the complexity of the narrative, refusing to simplify Lagerlof’s storyline, shifting perspectives and offering layers of stories within stories in retracing the paths the key characters have taken to this converging night of fate. Starting with Edit’s plight and then shifting to David and his wayside buddies in the graveyard, Sjöstrom then segues into the past, as David recalls his time with Georges, and through Georges the mythology of the carriage is depicted. This cues a lengthy, sepulchral, superlatively realised sequence depicting the carriage and its hooded, scythe-clutching driver, going about their work. They watch over all varieties of human misery and misfortune, standing by as a plutocrat shoots himself in his immaculate mansion, and plucking the spirits of dead mean just drowned in the sea, the carriage trundling carelessly into the waves and the driver descending to the ocean floor for his prize. It’s easy to recognise the influence of these scenes on Bergman’s figuration of Death for The Seventh Seal (1957) and other elements of the visual design – one shot of the carriage travelling over a hilltop against a cloudy horizon recalls the famous shot of Death leading the dance of the dead that climaxed the Bergman work. Sjöstrom achieves his otherworldly emanations with that simplest and oldest of movie special effects, the double exposure, rendering with stark beauty the scenes of the carriage venturing onto the waves or trundling through the streets, and the spirits of dead wandering and conversing, the human world oblivious to their presence and the dead gazing back at the world they’re cut off from with forlorn impotence.

Yet whilst the film’s pictorial and emotional depictions of oneiric gloom are compelling, Sjöstrom is equally adept at capturing the grubby world its characters inhabit. Lagerglof’s novel had begun life when she was asked to write a treatise on tuberculosis control, but as she worked a narrative came to her with an aspect of social realism mediated by and reconceived through the veils of mysticism and mystery. Sjöstrom answered with its cinematic equivalent: the seamy taverns, fetid flophouses, low-rent apartments, midnight card games, the chilly graveyard, all are depicted with a care worthy of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), with which the film shares a subterranean mood of acidic reportage and neurotic intensity. One function that the narrative complexity serves is to give the tale a sense of haziness about the veracity of what is seen: it could all be David’s alcoholic horrors or dazed dream after getting walloped over the head. But it also suggests that such distinctions mean little in the face of how it summarises the struggle, and attraction, between the all-encompassing nihilism of David and the naïve yet powerful altruism of Edit. Caught between them are David’s victimised wife and brother, early casualties, emotionally and morally if not mortally, for David’s rage, and yet also participants in and causes for it. After David and his brother fell in with Georges, David did a short stretch in jail for drunken behaviour, and as he was released, the prison chaplain (Nils Aréhn) revealed to David with brutal condemnation that his brother is now also locked up, but for the far worse crime of killing a man in a drunken brawl: the chaplain stated that he was of the opinion David should be doing the time instead. David, horrified and chastened, returned home to his family, only to find they had left without any idea of where to find them, turning David’s ill feeling into an unshakeable and near-psychopathic misanthropy.

The existential angst of The Phantom Carriage is aligned with the pain of the post-war period, even if made in a country that was neutral during WWI, as it resembles the nightmare prophecies and structure of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse! (1919) which similarly climaxes with visions of the dead rising up, possibly hallucinated but still urgently meaningful. The difference is that the horror of The Phantom Carriage is microcosmic, a study in personal degradation and damage but with a reformist social agenda. And yet the film slips out of such limits: the notion that David travels deeper into his personal nightmare out of wilful determination and anger at the cheap pieties and soft options that leave him adrift in a bleak world, gives The Phantom Carriage more complexity. Sjöstrom imbues it with a hallucinatory unease that captures that mood of midnight agony anyone who’s drunk to forget the day’s pain might recognise. When David arises from his own sprawled, shattered body to be confronted by Georges, who has spent the last year driving the carriage, except for him every night has been “a hundred years”, collecting souls like a tired garbage man clearing away the refuse of human existence. There’s a quality approaching black comedy as the grim figure of death proves to be the middle-aged, familiar Georges, but his rank melancholia and sombre missives quickly diverge into a form of horror that penetrates far deeper than the later genre’s usual stock visions of psychos in masks killing sundry teenagers, asking instead, what are we most afraid of in life and in death? Whilst Georges ushers David away from Edit’s deathbed in telling him that the job of taking her soul belongs to other, presumably more exalted spirits, there’s no sight of better worlds or paradises in this vision, only of the afterlife as a place where people walk or trundle along in stunned misgiving, staring back at the life they’ve lived with awareness that hell is a place humans create for themselves.

Of course Georges tells David that he’s going to take his place as the driver for the next year, and when David protests, George binds him with invisible strands and forces him to accompany him to Edit’s deathbed, where Edit, not yet dead but standing at the edge of permeable reality, can see Georges, and greets him with confusion: “Death…but too early.” Edit has her own crosses to bear. Her mother had begged her fellow Salvation Army workers to ignore her frantic wish to see David before dying because having given up her life to the cause and now doesn’t want her death to be consumed by it too. As Georges stands over Edit’s bed, he explains her situation to David, thus commencing another lengthy flashback as the narrative retreats one year to the same New Year’s when Georges himself died, and David, drunk and sick, barged his way into the new shelter Edit and Maria had set up, and passed out on a bed. Edit set herself to fixing up David’s torn coat, oblivious to the fact that in doing so she was breathing in all the germs on it, including his chronic TB, which she’s expiring from at an accelerated rate. When he awakened, David ripped off the patches she had put on the coat, stating, “I’m used to it this way,” and she asked him to come see her in a year’s time to let her know how he was getting on. The pair continued to encounter each-other with a quality of combative aggression mixed with erotic fascination, as Edit confesses she fell in love with David, seemingly everything she isn’t, even as she determinedly wrested one of his friends away from him at a Salvation Army rally. David’s wife, for whom he’s been searching for months, was at the same rally, and after seeing Edit and David argue, explained her plight.

Edit, with selfless determination, set about reconciling the couple, but once returned to his family, David’s long-awaited revenge commenced as he refused to give up his drunken ways, preferring to taunt his wife and breathing precariously over his children. David’s vicious misanthropy is at its rarest when he tells a woman at the rally that she shouldn’t cover her mouth when she coughs, as he takes pride in breathing his lethal germs right in people’s faces. When his wife tried to rebel again and locked him in the bathroom whilst she tried to get the kids away, as she fumbled with the sleeping youngsters he hacked his way out with a hatchet, in a sequence that at once suggests a nod to Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) but looks forward too with unavoidable similarity to the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining (1981), complete with the peculiarly intimate terror of the enraged father figure, a potent and toxic vision of masculine violence erupting in the home. And yet when his wife faints, unable to escape, and David gets free, he props her up on a pillow and feeds her water, greeting her awakening with the harshly knowing words, “It wasn’t as easy to run away this time!” To her exhausted reply, “Haven’t you had enough revenge?” As Edit expires, Georges takes David on to his next stop – the slum dwelling where David’s wife and children are living now, as Mrs Holm prepares to poison them all, a final recourse. Finally David’s self-absorption is shattered and he begs with Georges to save them even at the expense of his own total extinction.

The surprisingly naturalistic acting, particularly from Sjöstrom himself, whose husky physicality gives David the insolent charisma the role needs, is littered with gestural marvels that equal the filmmaking. In an early scene, Mrs Holm is brought to Edit’s bedside, the woman a fidgety, dead-eyed wraith who reaches out with clawing, Nosferatu-like fingers at the slumbering Edit in her anger, only for Edit to awaken and immediately smother the woman in kisses in submissive gratitude. When Maria first finds Mrs Holm, she keeps retreating to each corner of the room, standing with back to the room. Just as affecting is the anguished stroke of his brother’s face David gives when presented with him in his jail cell, and in David’s homecoming as he cringes and smoulders in rage as he stands in the midst of the jarringly empty flat, whilst two neighbour women laugh over his misfortune. One stark shot depicts Mrs Holm and her children standing over David who lies sprawled and passed out on the pavement. Sjöstrom’s best moment comes in one of David’s ugliest, as he first clasps eyes on Edit after learning she’s repaired his coat and she waits with eagerness to see his reaction: David’s expression turns as cold as the winter wind as he perceives the embodiment of everything he’s at war with and feels cannot be his, and his frenzied tearing at the patches of the coat delivers his message, but whilst startled, Edit refuses to be fazed, and her fascination for the simultaneously pathetic and grotesque, yet also powerful David is made weirdly coherent. Her subsequent effort to reunite David and his wife see her perpetuate the great Victorian delusion that all you had to do to normalise any experience, any anomaly, any fracture in human dealings, was to slap a pair of decent clothes on it. Thus the story is complicated by its concentration on the way good intentions often crash headlong into harsh realities.

The Phantom Carriage ends happily, after a fashion, but as in Bergman’s work there’s a sense that redemption and facing up to all that’s gone wrong in life can be exhausting, even counter-productive. David, restored to “life” and rushing to intervene in his wife’s seemingly imminent euthanasia, buckles and weeps when she reacts with aggression and disbelief in his sudden show of concern, and it’s clear that even if he really has seen the error of his ways, the same essential cause of both his good and bad behaviour remains a fretful terror of mortality, the disease still in his lungs and the pain that is his burden. The mood of The Phantom Carriage lingers long after it’s over, and its influence on filmmakers, both in the horror mode and outside it, feels deep: as well as Bergman and Kubrick, its atmosphere and original blend of precise psycho-social veracity and the otherworldly anticipates the qualities of Val Lewton’s epochal film series, whilst other aspects vibrate through the works of Murnau and G.W. Pabst, and prefigure a very different film about a misanthrope haunted by past loss, particularly the flashback to scenes of familial happiness for the Holms, in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964). Like many notable silent films, The Phantom Carriage has seen many editions and restorations over the years, but I recommend the version I saw with an aptly spare and eerie score by the electronic group KTL: where many match-ups between silent films and modern scores, like the several Metropolis (1926) has seen, feel arch in the long run, the KTL score expertly captures the sense of nocturnal foreboding, alienation, and bleak emotionalism that fuels the film. Either way, The Phantom Carriage is an early masterpiece of the medium.


25th 10 - 2012 | 7 comments »

The Fog (1980)

Director/Coscreenwriter: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

John Carpenter helped change the face of horror cinema with his 1978 hit Halloween. This change, as it soon proved, was not for the better, as legions of poor imitations of his stark modernist nightmare, which translated the motifs of the Italian giallo horror style into American suburban paranoia and mixed them with a radical embrace of purely figurative villainy, filed onto movie screens. Carpenter’s immediate follow-up, The Fog, sits between the singular success of Halloween and the pulpy thrills of Escape From New York (1981), which would see Carpenter work for the first time with favoured star Kurt Russell. The Fog, in spite of a poor remake in 2005, remains by comparison neglected in Carpenter’s oeuvre. It is nonetheless one of the gems of the director’s early career, at a time when it seemed he could do no wrong, and one of the finest cinematic hymns to the pure malevolent joy of telling a ghost story. Halloween explored the frisson stemming from the most sepulchral of childhood fantasies associated with the eponymous date, reinventing the Boogeyman as a blank and primal force of brutality uncontained by any earthly concern or interest. By contrast, The Fog aimed for a more traditional evocation of the mood of campfire spook tales, making this motif both its key-note and its driving logic, to the extent where it opens with a celebration of this age-old act, as children, bathed in flickering firelight, sit in wrapt attentiveness as old sea salt Mr Machen (John Houseman) narrates.

Machen holds an old fob watch out to tick away the seconds to midnight, before snapping it shut and announcing there’s time for one more story before the witching hour begins. He recounts the tale of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship that sank off the coast of the small northern California town of Antonio Bay, smashed to pieces on the rocks when fooled by a mysterious wrecker’s light, bathed in an unholy fog. Carpenter’s camera details the enthralled faces of the children Machen entertains and the aged storyteller’s own visage, before craning up over a dune to survey Antonio Bay itself in the midnight moonlight, placid and beautiful, linking the layers of storytelling involved as well as the spoken myth with the real locale. The eerie strains of a coastal fog horn blare out as well as the drone of Carpenter’s usual simple yet unnervingly perfect electronic scoring, and the story Machen has told soon proves less entertainment than warning and invocation. The Fog explores the town with its faint fringes of nocturnal life, cleaners, lone duty policemen, drinkers. Father Patrick Malone (Hal Holbrook), after seeing off the local church’s odd-job man (Carpenter) who wants to be paid at an inconvenient moment, is shocked when a block seems to spontaneously fall out of the wall in his office. This reveals a hidden nook where Malone discovers his own grandfather’s old journal, containing a menacing missive: “Midnight ‘til one belongs to the dead – good lord help us.”

True to this word, around the town, strange phenomena begin occurring: tremors shake supermarket shelves, gas pumps fall from their cradles, telephones ring en masse, car alarms suddenly erupt in deafening din, and household furniture moves about by itself. Driving into town, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up a hitchhiker on a dark and lonely stretch of road, Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis), and his rapport with her is both interrupted and deepened as the windscreen is suddenly shattered by the same unseen force. This is all accounted with nerveless, intimate detail by Carpenter, relying on the intense power of stillness and quiet, infused and interrupted by mysterious powers readying to shatter the illusion of normalcy, as the past returns quite literally to haunt Antonio Bay.

Ironically, much of The Fog’s first 20 minutes had be to be hastily reshot and reassembled with the aid of Carpenter’s key collaborators Debra Hill and Dean Cundey, as the film Carpenter had initially envisioned was too short and enigmatic, and also out of date, as the craze Halloween had started for amassing body counts and brutal violence far outpaced its creator. Yet the result adds up to a perfect encapsulation of Carpenter’s feel for the fundamental dynamic and necessary rhythm of the horror genre, and his reliance on visual storytelling as something that does not always require visceral effect to build intense engagement. Already in 1980 this faith in mood, composition, coherence, and a carefully calibrated sense of unfolding story tethered to a sense of locale and mindset, was starting to look outmoded in genre cinema, and indeed whilst today Carpenter’s best work is considered iconic in nostalgia as exemplary old-school cinema, in its original context Carpenter’s work was staked in an ethic of functional intelligence with roots in an older, vanishing filmic sensibility. The Fog was, then, an important crossroads not merely for Carpenter himself, but for the genre, as a kiss goodbye to a classical brand of horror.

The events that plague Antonio Bay as midnight rolls around, redolent of some invisible force playing havoc with the trappings of modern civility (anticipating Carpenter’s much more overt war on sense-severing technology in They Live, 1988, and the finale of Escape From LA, 1997) prove to be a mere prologue to a far more vivid resurgence of supernatural forces, as three fishermen, Dick Baxter (James Canning), Al Williams (John Goff), and Tommy Wallace (George “Buck” Flower), who have stayed out to get drunk, have their boat overtaken by a strange fog bank moving against the wind, and become witness to a ghostly sailing ship sliding past their vessel. Dark, gnarled figures appear on the deck and slaughter the trio, whilst their boat drifts on in the curling mist. Although more visibly violent, this sequence is squarely in a genre tradition that favours intense atmosphere, and vivid contrasts of modernity and the atavistic, wraith-like forms of dead men and ghost ships. It’s offered with a refusal to smirk at the hoariness, only allowing a momentary note of dry humour to slip by (“She’s crazy, there’s no fog bank out there…Hey, there’s a fog bank out there!”) before the weirdness starts. Carpenter’s editing keeps what is seen partly elusive, almost cryptic, and resolves in a moment of pure, phobic nightmarishness, as Baxter is left alone on the dark bridge, panicking as he reports mysterious objects on the radar, thinking the dripping, staggering zombie wielding a sharp tool behind him is one of his friends. One of the same gruesome figures seems to come knocking at Nick’s door, as he and Elizabeth recline in post-coital calm, only to vanish when Nick opens the door exactly at the stroke of 1 a.m., and the forces of darkness retreat into the sea again.

The Fog maintains Halloween’s less-is-more ethos whilst expanding its scope far wider, as it plays out with a similar Greek drama-like limitation to slightly more than a 24-hour period. The previous film reduced its killer to the status of purified, blank symbol of fear and encouraged the audience, like some other recent horror hits like The Exorcist (1973), to give themselves up to the irrational without appeal to psychological or social realities. The Fog on the other hand presents its wraiths as the spirit of old wrongs returning to extract a peculiar, fearsome brand of justice from all who have profited from those crimes. This “rotting body politic” motif recurs constantly in Carpenter’s best work, commencing in the long-achieved breakdown of the professional astronauts in Dark Star (1974) and recurring in Assault in Precinct 13 (1976) and many films after The Fog. It accords with a thematic strand that was popular more in ‘70s horror fiction, including often bobbing up in Stephen King’s works, in keeping with a post-‘60s exploitation of anxieties about suppressed and repressed aspects of history and social life.

Carpenter and Hill’s screenplay joins this anxiety to another theme which became attractive after Jaws (1975) and Nashville (1975), exploiting American bicentennial angst, where communal celebrations become moments for eruptions of those repressed forces, but here given an explicit basis in the crimes of that community: “We’re honouring murderers,” Malone, the devolved remnant of that tradition, murmurs. The founding and growth of Antonio Bay is linked, as Malone discovers through his grandfather’s diary, to a murderous crime in which the settlers who picked out the bay for a home, horrified by the thought of a leper colony being founded a short distance away, conspired to accept the money paid to them by the colony’s financier Blake, and then caused the wreck of the ship, with nature itself seeming to aid the calamity. As the hundredth anniversary of this crime is nigh, however, the fog that seemed to aid the wreckers now returns as a cloak for the emerging dead, who set out to kill the descendants of the conspirators and anyone else who gets in their way.

Carpenter’s faith in pure storytelling is captured in the relish of the depiction of it in Machen’s opening speech, and of course the character’s name evokes Arthur Machen, the Welsh author who wrote and collected ghost stories, some of which helped feed the Halloween mythos. And yet a modernist’s vibrant restraint is constantly in evidence throughout The Fog, refined to a rigorous twinning of form and function. The mid-section of The Fog, between the two nights of ghostly vengeance, entwines off-hand characterisation with exposition. Solitary radio host Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) takes over from Machen as a “narrator”, as her vigil from the lighthouse, where her radio station broadcasts from, makes her the one person who can tie together the disparate threads of action, and guide them with a director’s viewpoint. Another layer of storytelling opens in the inter-cutting between Malone reading his grandfather’s diary, and Nick recounting a sea story of his father’s that relates to the unfolding drama.

But the film never allows meta-narrative impulses to impede its essential classicism. The personality of the film is signalled by the number of character names given to Carpenter’s collaborators current and former. Carpenter’s fondness for large casts with a Hawksian interactive affinity, and a notable diffusion of heroic status over several characters, hinted at in his earlier movies, comes more fully into focus here as The Fog divides it attention between multiple character threads of interest that eventually collide, and the story converges into one of the siege situations Carpenter has been so fond of. Stevie’s drama and Nick and Elizabeth’s hunt for the source of the mystery connects with Malone’s uncovering of the grim truth whilst Al Williams’ wife Kathy (Janet Leigh) attempts to organise the memorial to the lie, with the aid of her sarcastic assistant Sandy Fadel (Nancy Loomis). It was entirely apt that after Halloween’s several overt references to Psycho (1960), including casting Leigh’s daughter, that Marion Crane herself appeared in the follow-up, and Leigh gives a deft seriocomic performance as a hyperactive booster plunged into a survival struggle, exchanging sundry sarcastic barbs with Sandy (“You’re the only person I know who can make ‘yes ma’am’ sound like ‘screw you!’” “Yes ma’am.”) as a wry commentary on friction between old-fashioned pluck and new-age indolence.

Carpenter’s work with cinematographer Cundey, which had helped make Halloween the film it is, and creating a near-legendary pattern for the use of the wide Panavision screen, is here a stream of restrained beauty and perfectly composed tensions, capturing crisply the alternately eerie and picturesque shores of the northern California setting, skirting Bodega Bay, the setting of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), which is mentioned, with Carpenter getting to pay nods to the master in his uneasily becalmed shots Barbeau driving across the landscape. As in the Hitchcock film the seemingly limitless, empty expanse of the ocean becomes the place where a nameless threat gathers, whilst Carpenter carefully and insinuatingly suggests that present evil is only ever the hangover of past evil, refusing to be laid to rest, and he offers glimpses, sometimes direct but often cunningly supple and elusive, of the irrational nature of the threat, as objects transmute and the seemingly hard contours of reality melt away in the numinous mist.

As is often the case in Carpenter’s work, it’s the specificity of the setting and the characterisations that infuses the drama with a rare kind of life, as Carpenter captures the feel of the small town exactingly, catching both the fine details of a blue-collar, workaday place, and also some of its contradictions, like Nick’s status as a working class bohemian, who connects with rich girl Elizabeth because like her, he has no idea what to do in his life. Although Carpenter was about to become associated with Russell, Atkins, who would also star in the ill-fated but interesting Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), was a perfect actor for the director’s oeuvre with his seemingly plebeian charisma and looks, heavy-set and vividly masculine in the least traditionally Hollywood fashion, and he’s terrific as the competent but thoughtful, slightly haunted-seeming Nick, who’s intelligent and imaginative but used to the risky, subtly dangerous world of the fishing fleet of Antonio Bay.

By contrast, Stevie is a big city refugee, who surveys the ocean and murmurs, “Nothing but water, Stevie. But it sure beats Chicago.” In her seaside house Carpenter surveys, dispassionately, photos of herself, her son Andy (Ty Mitchell), and a man, presumably her husband and the boy’s father, in their former enterprises in radio, and the fact that Stevie keeps these photos in view suggests the man died rather than divorced, and perhaps therefore running from a peculiar kind of urban horror only to encounter another kind of it. Barbeau’s terrific performance is at its best as Stevie attempts to stay at her post even as she’s wracked by fear for her son who’s directly in the fog’s path, perhaps the film’s keenest moment of emotional engagement, coexisting with an interesting post-Watergate subtext, interrogating about the slippery divide between reporting on crisis and being involved in it, and to whom responsibilities ultimately belong. By the film’s end Stevie’s ivory tower is being assaulted by decaying remnants of men, emanations of a primeval Id that could stand in for every fear Stevie as a single mother has ever tried to stave off. She directs the survivors from the town to Malone’s church as a theoretical refuge, except that’s exactly where the dead killers are heading in pursuit of Malone. Curtis, by the same token, gets to leave behind her role in Halloween as the haplessly virginal yet plucky final girl in playing the game, swinging Elizabeth, whilst still playing a young woman who seems initially out of her depth but who proves finally equal to the nightmares around her.

Carpenter, like many of the other filmmakers who emerged in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and were ennobled with the general epithet “Movie Brats”, often played games with the referential nature of his excursions, never placing them in quotation marks as in the next wave of post-modern directors a la Tarantino, but trying to iron them into the texture of the film, much as his ultimately quite different but similarly rooted generational fellows Spielberg and Lucas. The Fog may in turn have influenced some other filmmakers: Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984) is in some ways a redeployment of this film’s aesthetics with a more aggressively expressionist tilt. Some of Carpenter’s concepts owe quite a bit to the little-seen 1958 British sci-fi horror flick The Trollenberg Terror (also called The Crawling Eye), from which it borrows one significant element – the smothering fog concealing the lurking evil – and a couple of signature scenes, including a corpse climbing off its deathbed and stalking a heroine, and one in which one character hears another being killed on the other end of a phone line. The former scene also sees Carpenter following in Brian De Palma’s wake of consciously remixing elements of earlier scenes from his films and letting them play out in different fashions, as a late moment from Halloween in which Curtis had the apparently dead Michael Myers rise up behind her is tweaked now as Baxter’s very dead, sea-rotted corpse picks itself up and lurches towards Elizabeth with scalpel in hand, only to trip and leave a mysterious sign that seems to be an ‘M’ scratched into the linoleum – a Fritz Lang shout-out?

This moment points forward in turn to one of the creepiest scenes in Carpenter’s up-coming remake of The Thing (1982), whilst a late scene sees Stevie mimicking the “watch the skies” speech at the end of the 1951 original; the Cold War era message of vigilance is here perverted into one of historical awareness. The second quote from The Trollenberg Terror, as Stevie tries to talk smooth-talking meteorologist Dan (Charles Cyphers) from checking out whose knocking at the door of his remote weather station, only to hear his dying gurgles as a baling hook is jammed in his neck. Much of Val Lewton’s psychological spirit is apparent throughout The Fog, particularly in Carpenter’s emphasis on brusque, eliding edits and oblique framing that constantly render the source of threat slightly out of focus and easy dismissal. The Fog is also marked out by its strong sense of a literary legacy in the form: Carpenter’s constant genre masters Nigel Kneale and H.P. Lovecraft are invoked, anticipating The Evil Dead (1981) in filching Lovecraft through the means of a malefic tome that guides the action, whilst the narrative echoes with references to Machen, M.R. James, Arthur Conan-Doyle, and Sheridan LeFanu, the formative masters of the ghost story.

At the same time, the driving force of Halloween, a solid basis in that modern campfire tale, the urban legend, which exploded in the alarmism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, is identifiable here too. This is manifest in the phobia-exploiting images of mysterious visitors wielding large vicious weapons, and in the sense of isolation around the hitchhiking Elizabeth and solitary Stevie, an intimate awareness of that isolation in a world where threat lurks. Stevie’s radio show, which plays vintage big band jazz, helps generate the intense feeling of both late-night, nostalgia-flecked warmth whilst also reinforcing the sense of isolation. One great and also slightly amusing aspect of The Fog is the unadorned simplicity and force of its suspense situations, including perhaps the absolute best ever “can’t get the car moving” nail-biter sequence, as Elizabeth struggles to get Nick’s truck moving after he’s saved Andy from the zombies, with the shuffling ghouls closing in as Elizabeth struggles to get the truck in gear. Part of the beauty of this scene is its precision of character detail under pressure: Elizabeth has obviously never driven a vehicle like the truck before, and she wrestles the gears with frantic, wheel-slapping frustration but refusing to give up and finally succeeding. The finale, which sees the main cast converge in Malone’s church, sees Carpenter at last back in the siege movie territory he loves so much, with the memorably bold visions of the zombies’ gnarled, discoloured, bandage-swathed hands shattering the stained glass windows and reaching out of the hallucinatory fog.

Carpenter’s habitually dark tendency of killing off unexpected and empathetic characters was more muted than usual here, although he doesn’t mind having the cutesy old babysitter Mrs Kobritz (Regina Waldon) fall into the zombies’ clutches. But he saves one of his darkest final blackout jokes for the very end, as it seems that evil has been satisfied by Malone’s gesture of sacrifice to the ghosts, presenting the gold stolen from them which his grandfather hid away in the form of a cross to Blake (Rob Bottin), the walking dead standing in the midst of the church unfazed by the usually sacrosanct territory in their mission. Malone’s handover of the gold sees an eruption of supernatural power, Nick snatching the priest away as Blake and his crew vanish, apparently returned to the netherworld satisfied. But later, as Malone mulls over the meaning of his survival, he’s confronted again by the ghouls, and this time Blake dispatches him with one swift, brutal blow. The message is as inescapable as it is grimly funny: the past will exact all its debts from the present eventually, and you can only buy it off so long.


1st 07 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Dark Shadows (2012)

Director: Tim Burton

By Roderick Heath

Dark Shadows, a cultishly remembered, increasingly perverse take on the daytime soap opera, presented through a prism of increasingly outlandish gothic tropes, debuted in 1966, but did not gain its true notoriety until it introduced vampiric antihero Barnabas Collins a year into its run. Decades before Anne Rice and Twilight began to make such figures seem commonplace, the show helped make the link between the Byronic romantic and the undead prince, already lurking in some of Dracula’s on-screen incarnations, suddenly solid. I’ve seen little of Dan Curtis’ original TV series, sadly, though I’m a lifelong devotee of Curtis’ subsequent series The Night Stalker (1973-1974). A spin-off movie, House of Dark Shadows (1970), made in the wake of the show’s cancellation, had an air of bare-boned sufficiency. So I’m no real judge of Dark Shadows a la Tim Burton as a tribute to, or send-up of, this original entity. What I can speak of is Burton himself.

Burton’s career since 2000 has been held in increasing disdain by many critics and fans, even as his box office touch has been growing surer thanks to his editions of popular properties carefully made over with a veneer of Burton touches. That disdain is partly deserved: there is no hell hot enough for his hacky remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), I could not fake an interest in his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and whilst I found the near-universal negativity turned on his Alice in Wonderland (2010) more than a little hyperbolic—if nothing else, it had muse Helena Bonham Carter’s gleeful Red Queen to offer—it was still clearly a long way from the man’s most inspired work, and redolent of a once-unruly wit tailored into a franchise. On the other hand, Big Fish (2003) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), near-great films, and Corpse Bride (2005), a fine-wrought bon-bon, deserved no such censure, and merely confirms something obvious from Burton’s whole career—that he was always an uneven talent.

Burton’s general refusal to entirely abandon his sense of cinema as a mere fancy version of a children’s dress-up party, mixed with a Goth rock-and-roll bash and usually realised through leading man Johnny Depp’s variations on a theme of pasty weirdos, is both a strength and a weakness. Its strength is in opposition to the times, where the false verisimilitude of CGI, the rise of self-serious blockbuster auteurs like Christopher Nolan, and an attendant cut-to-the-chase cynicism amongst lesser luminaries, defines big-budget cinema: Burton has embraced CGI, but in a fashion that uses it as merely another prop in his magic lantern shows. Its weakness is that it could be said to be holding him back from growing artistically, although lingering anger for the failure of Big Fish, his most overtly personal and felt film since Ed Wood (1994), might also be involved.

Dark Shadows, on the back of a trailer whose emphasis on its comic elements made many nervous, also seems to have met with a lot of lingering resentment for how much money Alice made in spite of the opprobrium. But whilst it’s not a flawless film and shows distinct signs of having been awkwardly trimmed in the editing room, it’s also Burton’s most playful work since 1996’s Mars Attacks, his antic streak slipping the leash and making the most of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay as a delicious survey of retro camp, and his own undying desire to both laugh at and indulge the frisson welling from a morbidly sensual sensibility. It’s nigh-on impossible to construct a cult artefact in the context of modern Hollywood’s highest spheres, and yet that’s what Dark Shadows actually feels like. Had it been made, production techniques and budgetary differences notwithstanding, in the time it was set, it would have stood a good chance of standing up with other oddball by-products of the era’s wayward impulses, like Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! (1966), Corman’s The Raven (1963), Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), or Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966). Dark Shadows overflows with ideas and images that reveal Burton as anything but creatively exhausted: rather, it’s such a freaky surplus that it threatens at points to fly apart.

Burton’s film, like House of Dark Shadows, places Barnabas front and centre. Unlike most of Depp’s other Burton-directed characterisations of socially maladjusted misfits, Barnabas is superficially a commanding figure, albeit one rendered a misfit by dint not only of being a vampire, but also by dislocation in time. Barnabas was the respected scion of the successful émigré Collins clan, who set up a fishing business in New England in the 1700s in a town that came to be known as Collinsport, but who had, alas, a witch in their midst. Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) worked as a servant in the Collins’ mansion and became Barnabas’ lover. When he spurned her and fell in love with local lass Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), Angelique began a campaign of terror and revenge on the family, killing Barnabas’ parents, driving Josette to suicide, and cursing Barnabas to his undead state. She then raised the locals to bury him alive as a monster, chained in a coffin and forgotten, until accidentally disinterred in 1972 by construction workers, all of whom Barnabas apologetically slaughters in his frantic hunger.

Barnabas makes his way to the mansion, takes control of servant Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), and discovers what’s left of the clan living in waned, penurious isolation. Matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to hold things together whilst ignoring the preternatural strangeness of her surrounding kin, including insouciant teen Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her ghost-seeing younger brother David (Gulliver McGrath), both damaged by the premature death of their mother in a boating accident, and their emasculated, petty thief of a father, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). The clan also houses David’s alcoholic, live-in psychiatrist, Dr Julia Hoffman (Carter), and new nanny Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), on the run from something and residing under an alias. She soon proves, like David, to be able to see roaming ghosts in the castle, warning of Barnabas’ return and the lurking evil that threatens the clan.

Dark Shadows, like scattered forebears, running from The Cat and the Canary (1927) through to The Fearless Vampire Killers and Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), doesn’t divide neatly between its gothic tributes and its satiric impulses. If it fails to match the nearly perfect balance of Sleepy Hollow (1999), it’s because unlike that film, Dark Shadows, as a TV adaptation, is forced to divide its attention between many competing elements, resulting in an occasionally diffuse narrative. The aforementioned signs of editing don’t help, though to a certain extent, they aid the evocations of the arbitrary twists prevalent in even the most upright soaps after a couple of decades have gone by, for example, when Carolyn leaps into a fray, suddenly sprouts hairs and claws, and snarls, “I’m a werewolf, okay, let’s not make a big deal of it!”

Burton can’t entirely deliver the film’s ripe eccentricity from mere plot, but whilst the rushed quality of the last third does somewhat lessen the impact of the film, the earlier parts dance nimbly between tones. Some touches delve into outright skit, like Barnabas trying to brush his teeth in a mirror or opening a secret chamber with impressively rumbly mechanisms, only to find Elizabeth uses it to store her macramé. But others retain a genuine impudence, as when Barnabas, a former student of the occult, recognises the 20th century equivalent to the emblem of Mephistopheles in the golden arches of a McDonald’s sign: the sign’s smaller wording, “9 Billion Served”, takes on a whole new meaning. One sublime gag sees Barnabas expounding his tale of woe to Elizabeth, with strains of eerie, melodramatic music rising—music that sounds like the score of, yes, a very early ’70s TV creepfest—only for these to prove to be programmed tracks rising from the electric organ he’s leaning on. It’s the sort of gag that’s impossible to properly describe, and can only be rendered by a clever filmmaker, managing to riff on several ideas at once: the pained hero making his confession in soap-opera style with appropriate accompaniment, provided by the modern equivalent of the compulsory organ that is the feature of any good vampire’s home.

The McDonald’s gag puts Dark Shadows back in touch, albeit blithely, with Burton’s once-strong satirical streak, as displayed in his early films like Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), where a comedic but still potent anti-consumerist, anti-conformist spirit was nascent; Dark Shadows portrays a battle of ruthless capitalistic endeavour involving sabotage and mind control, espoused between a witch and vampire. There’s a pretty obvious, but thematically apt gag in how a baying mob is repeatedly led in a witch hunt by an actual witch, casting meaningful aspersions on those who whip up panics and their reasons. More unexpectedly, signs of Burton’s duskily elegiac romanticism, so powerful in Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, and Batman Returns (1992), blend with hints of psychedelia throughout Dark Shadows. This quality rises in the opening with it swooping shots of stormy cliffs, thundering seas, and tragic lovers: Barnabas, who had tried to die with Josette as she hurled herself over a cliff under Angelique’s spells, instead picks himself out of the surf, contorting into a perverted being.

The romanticism quietens to a somnolent refrain, as the opening credits see Victoria making her way to her fateful rendezvous with the Collins household on a train with the sonorous fetishism of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” overscoring the train’s passage through forested hills. Victoria is seen in the act of adopting a fake name from a ski lodge poster in the train. Rehearsing her introduction, she almost gives her name as Maggie Evans, an in-joke that gives away how she’s actually a compendium of two characters from the show. Victoria is the doll-eyed, seemingly demure yet quietly adamantine heroine Burton is often so fond of portraying, her self-containment overtly contrasting the flagrant strangeness that whirls about her. She has her own bleak background to contend with, one which comes across like a missing scene from last year’s Sucker Punch: clearly linked to Collinsport and Barnabas as the contemporary incarnation of Josette, she was, we learn, a psychic child whose speaking to ghosts was mistaken for madness, and she was hauled off, screaming and pleading, to an asylum where she grew up as a near-catatonic waif until the will to escape came to her.

Burton’s essential empathy is always with the weirdoes, as they become his heroes in the way they tend to keep an essential humanity burning inside of them even when circumstances seem most challenging—indeed, precisely because they must. Barnabas, upon being told by Victoria how her parents had her locked up and forgot her, speaks with stern judgement, “It is unforgivable. Your parents deserve to boil in Hell’s everlasting sulphur!” Burton’s villains are, by contrast, those who want to control others, or other weirdoes who surrender their humanity, like Danny DeVito’s twisted Penguin in Batman Returns, who screamed with epochal rage, “I am not a human being—I am an animal!” Similarly, whilst the prodigious force of nature that is Angelique, driven by class rage and sexual jealousy, attempts to bend all and sundry to her will, and most specifically Barnabas, he struggles to hold onto his humanity even as he has to kill people to survive. Whilst Angelique is the old figure of the woman like whom hell hath no fury, the fact that this is the time of women’s lib is repeatedly evoked. The film’s lone figure of traditional masculinity, Roger, is so pathetic and perfidious that Barnabas gives him a choice of absenting himself immediately with plentiful cash and leaving the children to his care, or staying and shaping up: Roger chooses the former, fleeing house and family, leaving all in the care of leonine Elizabeth and screwball Barnabas.

In spite of Depp’s foreground performance, the film fills up with archly iconic female characters. Burton’s usual fondness for unusual families and bizarrely lovable figures, and rejection of conservative norms, therefore finds a new accord with a distinctive sociopolitical shift. Dark Shadows becomes a film about the period in which it is set as well as a cut-up refashioning of its aesthetics. Nor is this the first time Burton has exercised such a notion—he managed to invoke it purely through the gradation in Sarah Jessica Parker’s performance in Ed Wood. In this context, as well as offering his alternative lifestyle energy, Barnabas becomes, in true soap opera style, something like the accidental fox in the henhouse, a love object more at the mercy of the women around him than not, sought by Victoria and Angelique. When he gives Hoffman a compliment, the love-starved psychiatrist promptly goes down on him. The psychiatrist tries to turn back the clock and restore her own youth by utilising Barnabas’ blood under the pretext of curing him, only to so anger him at the thought of her cheating him and placing another unruly monster in the household that he kills her and dumps her body in the harbour.

Barnabas’ family loyalty and identity give him purpose when his existence might otherwise have become a nihilistic nightmare. Burton allows a mood of queasy black humour/horror to punctuate the moments in which Barnabas’ monstrous side is let off its leash, slaughtering the construction workers and a clan of guileless hippies whom he fascinates with his druggy-seeming reminiscences and proclamations of the nature of mortality. “You tripped for 200 years?” one girl asks in spacy credulity in a scene that proceeds with broad comic kookiness until it reaches it nasty punchline when Barnabas regretfully sighs that now he has to kill all of them. Burton doesn’t go for an all-out juxtaposition of raw gore and humour, a la American Werewolf, but, more like Polanski, allows a genuinely morbid and malicious sensibility squirm just beneath the surface.

Barnabas, for the most part, remains a weirdly lovable creature chiefly in his mix of confidence and bewilderment, strutting into what’s left of his family fiefdom with a plan to save the clan from being swallowed up by its demons, and attempting to negotiate the modern wonders he encounters with bemused fascination. Confused by television enough to rip out the back of one at the sight of Karen Carpenter singing on it, trying to find her (“Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”), he’s utterly taken with modern pop music, to the point where he recites the lyrics of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” with the arch solemnity of a Shakespeare soliloquy (“If only Shakespeare had been as eloquent!”), even if he doesn’t quite get the joke of Alice Cooper: “Ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” he murmurs on close inspection. The correlation of specific, supernatural afflictions with character is constantly apt: David’s ghost-communicating evokes the distracted state of a melancholy preadolescent, whilst Carolyn’s secret lycanthropy fits perfectly with her grouchy, protean, onanistic eruption into puberty, and Angelique’s witchery simply inflates the mesmeric grip of her sensual powers and ruthless obsession.

Dark Shadows, in fact, plays with its musical cues with a sense of intricacy that moves well beyond mere sarcastic incongruity, suggesting instead a nongenre follow-up to Sweeney Todd, whilst trying to weave the pop motifs of the era into the film’s structure to give a slippery substance to the film’s understanding of the changing social landscape already mentioned. The invasive spirit of rock and pop, and the indulgent perversity of the heroes, are correlated, possessing dangerous and frightening, yet also empowering, forces. A major montage of Barnabas’ efforts to rebuild the family fortunes is scored to the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” its sunshiny optimism at odds with the strangeness of Barnabas and his enterprise but also according with his ingenuous determination and positivity, and recalling the “By The Sea” number in Sweeney Todd. Earlier, Moretz’s lupine Carolyn gyrates in a trancelike, adolescently sensual fashion to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” whilst the family sit down to an edgy, uncomfortable meal with their new nanny: Roger so uptight under his thinning blonde quaff like a starched shirt holding to a man’s shape without a real body to hold it up, Hoffman lurching in with tipsy grande dame demonstrations, and David attempting to deliver Victoria a welcoming fright swathed in a sheet. The sense of intimate family tension at a nexus and the use of the Donovan song put me in mind of George Romero’s Season of the Witch (1971), which likewise invoked the onset of feminism in the context of a spiralling fascination for the stygian underworld.

The film’s best, most intricately woven sequence comes when Barnabas decides to throw a ball: “They’re called Happenings these days,” Carolyn informs him, and, in listing the things he’ll need, she adds, mockingly, “Alice Cooper.” Barnabas, whilst not realising the essence of the gender-bending joke, nonetheless actually does manage to hire Cooper for the party, through which Barnabas and Cooper strut in competition for the biggest, most entertaining freak. The vignettes here swing from the drolly comic—Hoffman experimentally bobbing her head to Cooper’s wailing strains, the ancient housekeeper reading a book oblivious to the thunderous rock—to the dreamy and the tragic. Burton uses the lava lamp that strikes Barnabas as a mystic totem as a visual motif, sliding past the camera in bobbing psychedelic brilliance as his camera shifts from stage to stage. He cuts from Carolyn providing the introduction for Cooper performing “Ballad of Dwight Fry” wrapped in a straitjacket, with Barnabas listening to Victoria’s recounting of her own history, glimpsed in flashback getting electroshock treatment and glaring out like a J-horror wraith under bedraggled hair, cocooned likewise in a straitjacket. The agile game played here with demarcations between different layers of performance and the invocation of genuine, transfiguring pain through its “fun” simulacrums is genuinely clever and invests the film with a real, off-kilter emotional resonance. Of course, Burton doesn’t push too hard towards perversity and explorations of adolescent trauma as the underpinning of eruptions of primal rage—more’s the pity, perhaps—in a film that maintains a largely frothy tone.

Still, one reason Dark Shadows works where his earlier franchise reinventions failed is because the material is obviously far, far closer to Burton’s heart. Where Sleepy Hollow gained spiritual cohesion from modelling itself on Hammer horror, Dark Shadows similarly adopts Roger Corman’s ’60s gothic works as the major point of reference, copying Corman’s tactic of splicing shots of waves crashing on rocks at every interval, allowing Depp to sport dark glasses borrowed from Vincent Price in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), and having Depp and Pfeiffer roam the mysterious hidden passages of the Collins house in search of secreted treasure in a manner familiar from Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Other horror icons make the cut: Halloween’s (1978) vision of a real ghoul under a prankster’s sheet ghost costume is invoked, whilst Nosferatu—both Murnau’s and Herzog’s—comes to the fore as Depp buckles and twists unnaturally with his long, jagged fingernails, peers in on telephone conversers and rutting couples like a great bat, and rises stiff as a board from a coffin. Heathcote in vampiric form resembles Isabelle Adjani’s wasting heroine in Herzog’s film, whilst the finale’s twist strongly evokes Jean Rollin’s Lips of Blood (1975). Christopher Lee turns up for his compulsory cameo, playing an aged sea dog Barnabas hypnotises. Nor do the film’s stylistic reflexes and references stick to mere horror film pastiche: in a sequence in which Angelique harangues her board of well-trained males, she struts past a row of portraits, all of herself in different guises and styles over the passing last two centuries, like some undying edition of a Joan Crawford antiheroine.

Green, with her Barbara Steele smile and anime eyes, usually ennobles whatever she graces with her presence, but whilst she’s not always well-served by the story structure here, she nonetheless comes close to walking off with the whole film, moving through the proceedings with an arch sensuality and imperial prerogative blended with detectable lunacy, tearing about in a little red sports car and crashing the ball in a blood-hued glitter dress: never mind scarlet letters, she goes the whole nine yards. Her frustrated love-hate obsession with Barnabas pays off in a sequence with a mix of seduction, threat, and insult: tearing open her dress to show off her cosmos-shaking bosom to seduce Barnabas (“Oh!” he bleats in defeat, “I must admit, they have not aged a day…”), she finally cajoles him into a bout of spectacular hate-sex that sees them careening about the room in ecstatic destruction, reminiscent of the epic bedroom-trashing sex scene in The Tall Guy (1989), except in three dimensions, all scored to Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.” A moment in Batman Returns where Pfeiffer’s Catwoman licked Batman’s latex-framed face recurs here as this time, Angelique caresses Barnabas’ snowy brow with her long, snaky tongue. Angelique is reminiscent of other New Age stygian temptresses, like Barbara Carrera in Love at Stake (1987) and Amanda Donohoe’s incarnation of sexy evil in Lair of the White Worm (1987), but by the end, there’s a distinct resemblance between Green’s increasingly unhinged, insanely grinning visage and that of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the final stages of Batman.

It would be very wrong not to mention the brilliance of Bruno Delbonnel’s photography throughout Dark Shadows, rendering the milky hues and splashes of scarlet provided by the blood that daubs Barnabas’ face, the lipstick of Angelique, and coif of Hoffman, contrasting lushly with the blues and greys that fill most frames. The film’s finale gives in to fragmentation in tone and action, reaching its climax abruptly as if someone called time, and I can’t help but wonder how much material involving Carter, Haley, and Moretz hit the cutting room floor. The jerky pacing both helps and hinders the film’s spiralling into ecstatic nuttiness. Burton still pulls off a last coup as Angelique is defeated not by physical action but by the lingering spirit of maternal care that still lives in Collinwood. She lies prostrate, not mangled like a living person, but with her immaculately maintained two-century-old form now stove in and cracked as if she were actually a mannequin, a broken doll still transfixed by an obsessive need: she rips out her own heart and hands it Barnabas, and it crumbles into papery flakes in his palm. It’s the sort of weirdly poetic fairytale image Burton is almost alone in still providing in mainstream American cinema. The very finish is similarly loopy, with Victoria repeating her march to the cliffs from the opening, but this time not from mind-control, but a determination to destroy herself if she can’t live in Barnabas’ world. Barnabas tries to save her by vampirising her in mid-air, a ploy that works. Victoria, now entirely conflating with Josette, awakens as an ashen, morbidly transformed, perfect mate for Barnabas. It might be the romantic in me, but this liebestod finish left me grinning for hours.


29th 04 - 2012 | 2 comments »

Cure (1997)

Director/Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In cinema, even documentary cinema, the question of who we think we see on screen and who is actually on screen are two different things, fueling all kinds of existential fun and games for the astute filmmaker and receptive audiences. Identity as a motif has preoccupied numerous filmmakers, from Ingmar Bergman (Persona) to Monte Hellman (Road to Nowhere) to Abbas Kiarostami (Close-up). Identity is often tied up with psychosis, and psychotics frequently feature in horror and suspense films because they channel the nameless, faceless Id that resides in all of us that, on some level, we all would like to release in all its rampaging glory once in a while. The idea that any one of us could become a gruesome killer if someone or something pierced our social conditioning is at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure. Kurosawa, interested in the shocked comments people invariably make after a neighbor or acquaintance commits a brutal murder (“He was such a nice man. They were an ordinary couple.”), explores the nature of identity and whether our bodies and minds are mere vessels waiting to be filled.

On a busy street in Tokyo, a man (Ren Ohsugi) walks through a damp tunnel as cars pass on his right. A fluorescent light illuminating the tunnel blinks and buzzes. We next see the man in a hotel room with a naked prostitute. He is moving about the room, and she is sitting up in bed. Suddenly, he grabs a pipe and bashes her twice on the head. When next we enter the room, it is filled with police investigators. The lead detective, Kenichi Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), observes that a deep “x” has been cut across the prostitute’s neck and chest. The man is found naked, hiding in an air duct in the hallway. When he is questioned at police headquarters by Takabe and police psychiatrist Makoto Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), the man has no idea why he killed the woman. The case resembles other murders under investigation where a similar “x” was carved into the victims.

Takabe will have several more such murders to investigate as the film goes on, but he must balance this puzzle with the increasing burden posed by his wife Fumie’s (Anna Nakagawa) mental deterioration. We first see Fumie talking with her psychiatrist (Toshi Kato) as an outpatient and observe her attachment to the story of Bluebeard. She tells the doctor that she knows how the story ends—Bluebeard is killed by his wife. Fumie doesn’t appear capable of murder, but the worry she causes Takabe, the things she does that drive him crazy, the loss of companionship he experiences by her disconnectedness certainly must cause a kind of death to his spirit. Not being able to talk to her about the pain of his work is especially difficult for him.

As other “x” cases come to the fore—a young man kills his wife of two years, a police officer shoots his partner in the head, a doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and peels his face away from his skull—we and Takabe slowly discover what links them together: a young amnesiac who is soon identified as Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a medical school dropout whose disheveled home reveals shelves of books about psychiatry, psychosis, and works about and by Franz Mesmer, a German physician who developed the idea of animal magnetism, or in the term used in the film, hypnosis, to influence behavior. We saw the young husband, Tôru Hanaoka (Masahiro Toda), encounter Mamiya on a beach and after Mamiya collapses, take him home. Mamiya questions him over and over about who he is and asks him questions about his wife Tomoko (Misayo Haruki) while transfixing Tôru with the flame of his cigarette lighter. As Mamiya bounces from one encounter to another—Hanaoka takes him to the police station, where he mesmerizes Oida (Denden), the cop, before being sent to a hospital to put Dr. Miyajima (Yoriko Dôguchi) under his spell—the daisy chain of  violence barely outpaces Takabe’s efforts to unravel the mystery before he himself is drawn under Mamiya’s influence.

As with most detective-centered stories, Takabe is no ordinary cop. He is intelligent and tormented, a Japanese version of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his complexity makes him a Rorschach image of good for his evil opposite Mamiya. Mamiya entices Takabe with an accurate assessment of the detective’s torment, mentioning a vision Takabe had of Fumie hanging dead in the couple’s kitchen that incited the detective to helpless wailing. Of course, as a mesmerist, Mamiya causes his victims to conjure such visions by helping them to access their deepest fears and hatreds through his highly developed gift for hypnosis. Only by remaining empty himself can Mamiya be the master rather than the victim.

It is Mamiya’s conviction that most people don’t know themselves, the many selves hidden under the surface, the duality of their generous and vicious impulses. He considers Takabe extraordinary, like himself, for recognizing the split in himself—trying to be a loving husband while seeing the worst in human nature on a daily basis. The encounters Takabe has with Mamiya create convulsions of emotion in him, signaled not only by his violent outbursts toward Mamiya but also toward some of his colleagues; in fact, when Takabe tries to turn the tables on Mamiya by forcing him to look at his own lighter while incarcerated, a vision of a rain-collapsing ceiling overwhelms Takabe, and the lighter goes out. It appears to have been put out by the rain water, but my guess is that while Takabe was having the visions, Mamiya merely blew the lighter out. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a horror story if we didn’t give ourselves over to wondering if the strange sights on screen are real or imaginary.

Kurosawa’s camerawork is beyond good. He scouted locations in and around Tokyo that reek of decay, giving us a fair approximation of a haunted house in the penultimate scene where the final showdown between Takabe and Mamiya takes place. He combines handheld work with static long shots of great beauty and atmosphere. He knows how to create tension by considering the images outside the frame that haunt our imagination, for example, having Sakuma enter Mamiya’s cell, which has a short wall hiding the toilet area in which Mamiya is standing. We don’t see the prisoner, but we know what he’s capable of, and the fear of actually looking at him infuses this scene powerfully. In a later scene, we see one handcuff hanging from a pipe, and the story a cop tells Takabe about it creates the image of the body that had been attached to it in our minds in an uncomfortable parallel to the way Mamiya was able to create images in the minds of his victims. Indeed, Mamiya is rather like a filmmaker, bringing us under his spell, finding our triggers, conjuring images through exposition and suggestion.

But Cure does more than that. It makes us wonder what Takabe achieved by resolving the murder investigation. The last two scenes are powerfully suggestive, but also highly ambiguous. Takabe has put his wife in a psychiatric hospital, and we see a very brief scene at the hospital in which the image of a corpse with the telltale “x” appears. Takabe is later seen eating heartily and happily in his regular diner, apparently cured of his previous troubles. His waitress removes his plates and is called over to speak to her boss. Calmly she moves to a station and picks up a large chef’s knife. Has Takabe taken over where Mamiya left off, or has our experience of the film left us imagining the worst?

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29th 02 - 2012 | 6 comments »

Communion (aka Alice, Sweet Alice; Holy Terror, 1976)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Alfred Sole

By Roderick Heath

One reason horror genre fans look back to the 1970s with such keen nostalgia is not simply because lots of horror films were made, but because so many different varieties of horror film were made, before the arrival of the slasher flick late in the decade permanently skewed the genre towards more formulaic bellwethers. This brilliant little crossbreed from independent New Jersey filmmaker Alfred Sole is very much an example of the era. It straddles the mid-’70s Hitchcockian revival that included young filmmakers as radically different as Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg; the George Romero school of gritty, handcrafted genre cinema; and it also breaches the realm of the nascent independent film, with its template of empathic realism in portraying lives in society’s peculiar niches. The setting and characters are depicted intimately, their world investigated with familiarity and feeling, and everyday pains and perversities are invoked, even as the film erupts with intervals of psychotic violence and raw suspense orchestrated in exacting cinematic terms.

Sole cowrote the screenplay with Rosemary Ritvo, and as well as a deep lexicon of film references, much of it has a flavour of being torn from memory and observation. The setting is 1961 in an intensely Catholic neighbourhood, a similar time and place to what John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt tried to revive. The changing mores of the world around the church that is the linchpin of the story and its characters’ social lives is part of the film’s unstated texture, as the tale revolves around young divorcee Catherine Spages (Lisa Miller), who is raising two daughters on the cusp of pubescence, Alice (Linda Sheppard) and Karen (Brooke Shields).

At the film’s outset, Catherine shepherds her daughters to visit the handsome, much-liked young Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich). Tom lives with another priest and a monsignor (Peter Bosch), all taken care of by the dedicated Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton). The purpose for the visit is to arrange for Karen’s first communion, and Father Tom gives Karen an ornate cross on a chain. Alice, distracted and irritated by the attention her sister is receiving, scares Mrs. Tredoni by sneaking about wearing a doll-like mask. When Karen later receives her communion dress, Alice steals the veil and then one of Karen’s dolls; when the distraught Karen tracks Alice to an abandoned building, Alice frightens her by slamming a fire door shut behind her, sealing her in a decrepit space. When she releases her, Alice bullies her sister into keeping quiet about it. When Karen is standing, last in line to receive communion, she’s grabbed by a figure clad in the same doll-like mask and the ubiquitous yellow raincoat all of the young girls who go to a local Catholic school wear. Karen is strangled with a candle, and her killer stuffs her body into a trunk, steals her cross, and places a lighted candle in with it. Alice enters the church wearing a veil she claims she picked up, and soon, the smell of burning attracts attention and Karen’s body is found to a general furor. When Karen is buried, her father, Dom (Niles McMaster), who has remarried, returns to attend and consoles Catherine, whilst police detectives Spina (Michael Hardstarck) and Brennan (Tom Signorelli) and Catherine’s shrewish sister Annie (Jane Lowry) make little secret of their suspicions that Alice killed her sister, a notion Catherine and Dom reject out of hand.

Alice is from the outset one of the most intensely believable and fascinating portraits of bratty youth ever committed to film. Aggressive, frightened, volatile, secretive, Alice is both victim and perpetrator of evils in a landscape where images and rituals of purity, beauty, and just order are often revealed to have seedy and decaying flipsides. She keeps a private shrine littered with stolen objects, a talismanic photo of her father, candles, and a jar full of insects she will eventually put to good use. The neighbourhood hasn’t gone bad, but there’s a feeling that behind many a door things are rotting. The Monsignor is ancient and decrepit, yet technically still an authority. Catherine’s landlord Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) is an obese shut-in with urine stains on his pants who accepts Alice’s insults with smiling menace as he tries to paw her. Alice seems jealous of Karen partly because, like everyone else, she has a crush on Tom, who offers an aspect of the father figure just as he subliminally offers a figure of romantic aspiration for Catherine, and also because she seems to have not experienced the first communion, perhaps when Catherine was still on the outs with the church for her divorce; each time Alice steps forward to actually take communion, someone dies.

Alice is the sort of embryonic troubled youth punk and grunge rock adored celebrating. (Sheppard would go on to play in her only other film, Slava Tsukerman’s equally cultish punk relic Liquid Sky [1982]). Alice is secretly angry at her father’s departure and wants him home again, and she’s begun lashing out at everyone around her with increasingly artful offence. But she also hides a powerful, if manipulative, streak of real despair and fear of abandonment as revealed when she drops a jar of jam when Annie is bossing her about, sparking a furious kitchen confrontation. Alice is certainly infuriating and perhaps even a little dangerous—but is she unhinged enough to be a murderer? For Annie and others, Alice’s transgressive attitude is easily transmutable into sociopathic acts, especially as the killer consciously adopts the same dress and guises as Alice. When Annie leaves the Spages’ flat after her charged clash with Alice and Catherine, the same masked, raincoat-clad figure attacks her and hacks at her legs on the stairs. Annie plunges bleeding and terrified down into the lobby, screaming that Alice has attacked her, and crawls out onto the sidewalk in the pouring rain as Dom and Tom arrive.

The film’s opening titles proffer a weird gag, in which a young woman in veiling white is seen praying with a crucifix in her hands as an image of sanctified youth, only to lift the cross and reveal a dagger point on the end. It’s the first moment in a film that presents seemingly disparate things—devotion and homicide, innocence and sadism—in a confused singularity. The cleverness of Sole’s film is in the richness with which he melds humdrum detail and the heightened realism of the familiar, down-to-earth preoccupations of the characters, full of family tensions that blend love and antipathy in barely separable ways, and the more expansive cinematic gamesmanship of its thriller plot and visuals. Sole’s use of Hitchcockian visuals, justified not only by story, but also by the fact that Psycho is showing at the local movie theatre; so, the texture of remembering an era and a set of events as filtered through an associated aesthetic method is matched by an individual cinematic sensibility that expresses itself mostly keenly through close-ups. Sole builds to singular moments of feverish, almost operatic telegraphy of feeling in his close shots, as when Karen’s body is found and an exchange of looks between Tom and Catherine confirms the worst, and when Annie, screaming in panic, crawls into the torrential downpour. Sole is constantly receptive to faces, particularly those of the female cast. Miller’s Catherine, with a mature beauty, retains at first a sphinx-like aura of self-containment, often shot in cool profile or watched in silent recline, only to be constantly twisted into a mask of anxiety as she’s beset with the trials of Job as many a single mother might feel. Alice’s face with her unnerving large eyes and sullen mouth radiate force of character unleavened by the deference of maturity, and Annie’s face looks like Catherine’s except slightly smudged by a life of bossy and judgemental self-righteousness. Later, there are faces bent in pain and transfigured by madness and anger.

The actual killer calls to mind other horror movie tropes beyond Hitchcock, with the killer’s deceptive physical appearance and raincoat evoking the killer dwarf of Don’t Look Now (1973) and Dom as a similarly doomed pursuing father, whilst the mask is pure giallo movie stuff. Like George Romero’s Martin from the same year, Sole utilises an almost neorealist sensibility in his depiction of his native milieu, his feel for the assailed, decaying sensibilities of the formerly secure, and his use of genre tropes to try to describe an authentic psychic atmosphere of disconnection and alienation in communities that used to be defined by rock-solid values and an insularity both reassuring and suffocating. Alice and Martin are similar square pegs for very round holes, whose inchoate rebellions inevitably bring on punishing forces, all the more hysterical as the certainties that inform the punishers are endangered. Yet in many ways, the actual mood of Sole’s film is closer in spirit to Val Lewton than Hitchcock or Romero, in its sense of ordinary lives inflected with eruptions of the irrational. For the most part, Sole takes his material on at the far more immediate level of a family drama, and many sequences, like the kitchen bust-up, are convincing depictions of simple, emotional fracas amongst ordinary people; indeed, aspects of the film, for example, the depiction of psychologically injured youth in the wake of calamity, anticipate the more precious “serious” stuff of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980). The process of Alice’s becoming a serious police suspect evokes the similar scenes of Antoine Doinel’s passage into the justice system in The 400 Blows (1959), even as Alice still manages to get a blow back by sabotaging a polygraph when the technician is out of the room. The visual texture around Alice becomes encaging, with repeated shots through bars and window frames isolating her from the world.

The thriller plot, then, works in tandem with depictions of the all-too-familiar dangers and threats of childhood, like the dance of malignancy Alice and Lorenzo engage in. Three sequences of sustained emotional volatility in the film’s mid-section serve both in a propelling plot purpose, but also retain self-sufficient qualities of character study and interaction. The first is when Catherine desperately pleads with, and then threatens, Annie in her hospital bed to divert her from saying that Alice attacked her, but Annie, agonised and fraught, still bawls out to her henpecked husband and the police that Alice was the guilty party. The second comes when Dom and Catherine visit Alice, who’s subsequently locked away for psychiatric evaluation, with a doctor (Louisa Horton) concluding she has schizoid tendencies; Alice at first furiously rejects them, but then buckles and chases after her mother in a teary catharsis. Alice’s incarceration means that she ceases to be the centre of the story, as Dom and Catherine move into focus in the third scene, as they momentarily give in, in their brittle and clingy states, to their still-bubbling attraction, only for a phone call from Dom’s new wife to cut into their tryst with humiliating timing. Nonetheless, Dom’s return and his determination to stick about until he can find the real killer, whom he begins to suspect might be Annie’s chubby, sullen daughter Angela (Kathy Rich), seems a perfect way not only to get his daughter out of immediate trouble, but also to prove he’s still a part of her life, vitally important to saving her unstable psyche as well as her freedom. But in a coldly inspired, mercilessly staged sequence, Dom is fooled into meeting with Angela in a park, and, spying the coated, masked figure, chases it into a disused building, where the figure stabs him in the shoulder on the stairs, and flees to a higher floor.

Dom continues to track the attacker, still believing it’s a frightened and unstable girl, only to then be knocked out, tied up, and rolled towards a high drop with chilling, laborious calm, by the murderer. This is actually Mrs. Tredoni, utterly psychotic and determined to destroy the Spages, who represent everything that’s wrong to her with a world of decaying morals, and who keep distracting her beloved Father Tom from his priestly duties and her tender care. Dom’s panicked, prone screams once he revives can’t stop her from continuing to roll him toward his doom. He manages, however, to tear Karen’s crucifix from her neck with his teeth, and won’t give it even as she smashes his teeth in with a stone, swallowing it instead, before sending him plummeting for the coup-de-grace. The grinding sense of corporeal punishment here, suffered for sins directly subsequent to the moment of near-adultery between former husband and wife, beautifully channels Catholic guilt into worldly suffering, as the killer inflicts pain as self-appointed wrath of god, albeit one who returns to scrubbing floors and making tea and grumbling. The film’s signal image inverts meaning: the mask, which on Alice signifies a longing for the depersonalised power of adult eroticism, is on Mrs. Tredoni a borrowed guise of sensuality turned grotesque, as she seeks to punish “that whore” Catherine for her perceived transgressions, and the secret perversity of the conformist, rather than the outsider, is revealed. Tredoni’s attack on Dom’s teeth carries Freudian dimensions, redolent of a prepubescent oedipal violence.

Bloodied and dirty from her exertions, she returns to the church and takes refuge in the confessional, where she admits vaguely to her sins to be given a reassuring absolution by Father Tom, who tells her she’s a good person, accidentally, implicitly affirming the rightness of her determination to punish the wicked: Tredoni, slumped in the shadows and quivering with feeling after her deed, now lifts her eyes in beatified happiness. Momentary calm, however, threatens to dissipate as Alice returns home, restored to her life by a repulsive sacrifice Catherine decides to keep secret from her for a time. Catherine still taunts Tredoni with her presence in the church, and her attempt to kill Catherine is forestalled by the most bizarre device: Alice, in her return home, leaves her jar of bugs propped on the sleeping Alphonso’s lap. When he wakes with the bugs crawling on him, his cries brings the watching detective charging in, and Tredoni, alarmed, stabs Alphonso to death and is seen fleeing. She makes it to the church, where she stands in the queue to receive communion, unaware that the police are gathering outside. Father Tom begs them to let him extract her, but Tom’s conscientiousness finally proves his own undoing as he asks Tredoni to leave and she, in a rage of betrayal and lunacy, asks why he’d ask her to leave and not “that whore” and stabs the priest in the neck.

Again, Alice’s attempt to receive communion is ruined, this time by the savage annihilation of her last father figure right in front of her, and the spectacle leaves her wandering away with Tredoni’s bag, fingered her mask and knife with a boding purpose. It’s arguable that here finally Sole steps too close to a glib twist ending, but there’s a terrible concision to it: like the same year’s Carrie, there’s a dark catharsis where damaged youth finds itself irrevocably tethered to the sins of the parents and broken morality, and rational forces no longer present any credible barrier to the young inheritor’s vengeful mind. Either way, Communion is a small masterpiece. For a cast of virtual unknowns, with the exception of I’ll Cry Tomorrow scribe Lillian Roth in a droll cameo as a medical examiner and, of course, future star Shields, the cast is remarkably effective. Sole, sadly, never came close to matching it again: whereas, by his own admission, he would have been better off remaining an independent local filmmaker, a la Romero and John Waters, he went Hollywood, and after making the utterly bizarre-sounding Tanya’s Island (1980) and the weak slasher-movie send-up Pandemonium (1982), he finished up in a career as a production designer.


17th 02 - 2012 | 4 comments »

The House of the Devil (2009) / The Innkeepers (2012)

Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Ti West

By Roderick Heath

Revivalism is always a contentious practice in any art form, inviting charges of slavish nostalgia and unoriginality, but it’s also often a signifier of a form trying to reinvent itself and a rejection by younger artists of dominant, but oppressive and depleted models, a way of looking forward by looking back. That’s as true in cinema, though often more piecemeal because of the difficulties of film production, as it is in pop music or painting. In the case of a recent strand of revivalist-tinged horror cinema, it’s easy to see the roots of the movement: the horror film has been in a crisis, it seems, for most of my lifetime. That crisis has been ever-present, even though, or in large part because horror is a genre with a powerful commercial worth, whilst remaining doggedly verboten in the minds of many filmgoers and cultural watchdogs: many a box office list of recent years has proven what utter garbage can still lure fright and gore fans into the multiplexes. The genre proves over and over that it’s sourced in an essential ethic, one that can only be domesticated so far. The genre has seen a variety of pretenders march its halls. The much-hyped waves of Torture Porn, J-Horror and Euro Extreme yielded one or two strong films and a slew of infinitely lesser fare. Fortunately, just lately, there have been distinct signs of a sea change in the genre from the independent film scenes of Great Britain and the U.S.: indeed, whereas indie cinema has for a long time prided itself on distinction from low-budget genre cinema, a crossbreeding of the two seems to be nascent, allowing adventurous young filmmakers to reject the tired reflexes of the slasher movie, endless lousy remakes, and pure stomach-churning nastiness, and channel other models.

Ti West’s films are particularly engaging in this regard, because they represent a melding of the immersed sensibilities of a young genre fan with the anti-generic rhythms of independent film so confidently that he erases the disparity as if it was never there. The House of the Devil, for instance, immediately declares its indie cred with the mischievous touch of casting Greta Gerwig in the type of part often filled by Nancy Loomis or Belinda Balaski back when. West, who began to gain attention with two ultra-low-budget features, The Roost (2005) and Trigger Man (2007), before an ill-fated stab at becoming Eli Roth’s anointed successor with Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), is suddenly the genre It Boy, and for once, the attention is for very good reasons. West’s already-signature slow-burn narratives have one foot distinctly planted in post-mumblecore realist cinema, with an emphasis on characterisation through suggestion and an almost discursive sense of narrative construction, and one foot in a classic gothic genre sensibility where a prevalence of a mood of evolving credulity, a sense of precise timing, and a slow rhythmic build-up, is of paramount importance. This mood is directly opposed to the instant gratification sensibility ushered in by the likes of Friday the 13th (1980). West extends that into the raison d’etre of his works, invoking no less a figure than Andrei Tarkovsky in the way he insists, like the Russian titan, that the surest way to build tension is to force the audience to wait. Thus in many ways West betrays the legacy of the ’70s and ’80s genre cinema he clearly loves as much as he celebrates it, because such patience and such wilful resistance to cheapjack stunts was rarely exhibited by such models.

The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are, in their fashion, extremely simple movies, employing spare settings and casts, and moving to deceptive beats of storytelling, at least until they hit their crisis moments, closer to ambient techno than blaring rock. The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are linked not only by aesthetic design but by the circumstances of their production: West was inspired to make the second film whilst making the first, during which he and his crew stayed in a hotel with a reputation for being haunted. Most consequentially, they’re conjoined by their human focus, and a distinctive quality of generational biography, skewed a little, but hardly unrecognisably by the ’80s setting of The House of the Devil, and emerging more fully in the context of employment anxiety and the disintegrating faiths and decaying institutions in The Innkeepers.

Both films follow comely, young, but hapless and semi-alienated heroines. The Innkeepers’ Claire (Sara Paxton) is spiritual kin to House’s Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), whilst moving in focus from college into the big, wide world, a world ironically defined by constantly narrowing environs to match their narrowing options. Samantha is more introverted than the kookier, talkative Claire, but each is linked by a flailing lack of direction and both seem clearly cut off from any reliable sense of refuge with, or support by, family, or more than one or two immediate friends. Samantha’s course in The House of the Devil leads her inexorably to the titular abode; Claire’s choices similarly see her unable to avoid the basement she’s explicitly warned not to venture into in the hotel that had become her home and, to a certain extent, refuge from life. If in a subtler, less transparently hip fashion, West’s cinema is nonetheless as attuned to the mindset of the moment as John Carpenter’s was in the hairy, feckless, oppressed atmosphere of Dark Star (1974): like Carpenter’s heroes in that film, the experiences of West’s heroines illustrate immediate realities through the prisms of the fantastic. In both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, financial anxiety is a keynote, and a subtler but pervasive air of anomie and abandonment.

The early scenes of The House of the Devil depict Samantha eddying in a time between times, preparing to move out of her college dormitory into a rented house, negotiating with a kindly prospective landlady (Dee Wallace), and getting a deal that will allow her to make a quick and relatively cheap leap into living by herself. She has good reasons to do so: her room back at the dorm is perpetually used by her roommate (Heather Robb) to copulate with random men, and the college is a dull, desolate space through which she flits in anxious distraction. West is suggestive but not declarative about the nature of Samantha’s background and present state of isolation, but she evokes such marked heroes of the genre as the eponymous mother of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Sgt. Howie of The Wicker Man (1972), defined by her subliminal distinction from her surrounds, retreating to the bathroom to weep in private, sprawling on steps to wait for a prospective employer, zoning out in music.

The prospective employer is named Ulman, and has placed ads for a babysitter around the campus: the moment Tom Noonan’s voice emerges from the other end of the telephone, you know whoever’s answering this ad is screwed. Fate is given an accidental nudge along when Samantha’s solitary gal pal Megan (Gerwig) takes offence on her behalf after Ulman fails to show for the appointed meeting, and rips down all of his ads, leaving Samantha as the sole alternative when another candidate backs out at the last minute. When Samantha finally gets to Ulman’s impressive old pile of a house located (natch) deep in the woods, the list of complications gets increasingly more daunting, including the fact that she’s supposed to actually sit for Ulman’s wife’s mother, an elderly shut-in, and Ulman is willing to pay an absurd amount for a few hours’ work. Mary Woronov, the darkly vulpine star of ’80s flicks like Nomads (1986), is Ulman’s fur-draped wife, who probes with disquieting effect into Samantha’s personal life and circumstances.

Just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive directly evoked older films with its credit sequence, so, too, does The House of the Devil, projecting large yellow titles over an ’80s pop-scored reverie of Samantha (the music is actually on her ever-present Walkman) whilst strolling through autumnal suburbs back to the college. And, as in Refn’s film, it’s a touch that to a certain extent both announces the film’s programme but also miscues those quick to assume what’s following is mere pastiche. The House of the Devil is quite a radical piece of narrative cinema in its quiet way, especially by modern standards, in taking its time to quietly condition the audience and its heroine, to the point where an inevitable eruption of chaos will come as a virtual relief from the tension—and one thing West does superlatively well is build tension. The bleary casualness of Samantha’s scenes with the gauchely agreeable Megan, even when driving her into the deep dark woods, is delectable for the mood of everyday camaraderie blended with irritation and mutual indulgence of failings. For the most part, West seeks to justify his long intake of breath with undercurrents rather than declarations: only when Megan, after dropping off her friend and leaving in a huff at Samantha’s willingness to place herself in such an odd situation for the sake of rent money and then pulls over for a cigarette in a nearby cemetery, does the lurking threat finally resolve. A helpful young man (AJ Bowen), actually the son of Samantha’s intriguing employers, steps up to the car and gives Megan a light, but the instant he realises that she is not the prospective babysitter, pulls out a pistol and shoots her in the face.

Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are structured around buildings, and the elusive sensation of isolation and paranoia that can define being alone in large supposedly empty spaces, a mood West ties ineffably to the unease of his protagonists within their own skin. Throughout the second half of House, there are shots peering in at Samantha through windows, a specimen of study, whilst she in turn explores a space that offers constant mystery and suggestion; only the privileged audience is allowed to understand, as West will seemingly casually give viewers a glimpse beyond a door that has foiled his heroine, to find bodies strewn in bloodied carnage. Such gambits relieve the almost purified pressure of the anxious unknown which defines the way The House of the Devil’s narrative works.

If The Innkeepers is slightly more prosaic in its style, with much more dialogue, more defined generic situations, and a few nods to traditional horror movie tricks, it’s also slightly more mature. The dynamic between Samantha and Megan is reconfigured into Claire’s slacker-hued companionship with Luke (Pat Healy), a slightly older he-nerd and fellow college dropout who’s further along in the process of cultivating disengaged contempt for the real world, spending his days surfing internet porn and building a web page to showcase the supposed sepulchral delights of the hotel they work in. The hotel, the Yankee Pedlar Inn, is a virtually empty Edwardian pile about to be closed down. The boss has skipped out to holiday in a tropical paradise, and the young duo is left as a live-in skeleton staff over a long weekend. It’s the sort of job that could be a godsend to the creatively self-involved, but the anxiety provoked by the job’s imminent demise, the immersive constancy of it, and the lack of any other purpose in their lives, makes the mysteries swirling within the building’s aged bricks and timbers a trap that works a perfect spell on Claire. The hotel is supposedly haunted by Madeline O’Malley, a lovelorn suicide who, it is said, can still be glimpsed wandering the halls. Luke claims to have seen her, though he’s caught no more substantial evidence so far than a video shot of a room door closing spontaneously, and he and Claire salve their boredom by engaging in a part-time ghost hunt.

Claire’s fraying capacity to survive in the outside world is brought out in an early scene, the only one where she leaves the immediate surrounds of the hotel to visit a neighbouring café, only to flee swiftly at a barrage of whining by the barista (Lena Dunham, herself an indie filmmaker). She withers under the anxious contempt of a woman (Alison Bartlett) who’s staying in the hotel with her son (Jake Schlueter), who proves less than an ideal audience for Claire’s ghost stories. An encounter with a childhood hero, former actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who, tellingly, played a maternal figure in an ’80s TV show Claire once adored, proves equally discouraging. Leanne supposedly comes to stay at the hotel for a fan convention, but it’s actually a gathering connected to her new occupation as a new-age therapist and psychic, and Leanne’s sozzled prickliness is sometimes mitigated by a more friendly demeanour as she willingly uses crystals to try to commune with the hotel’s spirits. Her contributions to the ghost hunt are vague at best in her bad tidings and warnings to stay out of the basement. Claire, left on a solitary nighttime vigil with a sensitive microphone provided by Luke as part of the hunt, seems to hear traces of far-off piano music, and tracking it to the piano in the lobby, she witnesses one key struck with melodramatic impetus, scaring the hell out of her, but also seeming to announce that the haunting isn’t just the hotel’s emptiness getting to them. And yet, there remains a possibility that Claire’s assailed psyche is fraying.

McGillis’ presence in The Innkeepers, like that of Wallace, Noonan, and Woronov in the earlier film, pays a definite nod to ’80s genre cinema, and utilises the actors’ specific auras and capabilities with intuitive aplomb. Noonan’s capacity to seem both affable and unsettling is expertly employed in his character’s mix of old-world gentlemanliness and desperation to please Samantha enough to get her to stay around. His towering height is utilised in The House of the Devil’s best gag, when Samantha and Megan first meet him, his head cut well out of the frame that comfortably encompasses the two shorter, daunted ladies. McGillis admirably embraces her part as a greying, fatigued, spikily alcoholic old dingbat with élan, her initial patronisation and coldness to Claire transforming a childhood hero into an embodiment of both the alienating schism between art and life and implicitly maternal condemnation and a generational gap. Later, Luke sneaks in a few low blows, figuratively speaking, at Leanne’s drinking and failed career in revenge for her hurting Claire’s feelings, and this bit made me wonder if in some way all our contemporary obsession with the failings of the famous is sourced in similar motives. Either way, West advertises himself through such casting as an heir to Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s penchant for reviving the careers of faded figures of former cool.

But West is always focused on his central, younger figures, and he gets gems of performances out of Donahue and especially Paxton, whose wrestling match with a garbage bin early in The Innkeepers is a terrific piece of physical comedy that doubles as a furtherance of characterisation, as Claire is easily overwhelmed by inanimate objects, and the sight of Leanne gazing down from her hotel window like a hovering, disapproving owl deepens the moment’s humiliation. There’s a sequence in The House of the Devil where Samantha momentarily wins her war of nerves against both her own depression and her boding surrounds by cutting loose for a moment by listening to music on her headphones and dancing around the place with a kind of footloose energy and innocence that seems definably pre-’90s.

Unlike some obvious precursors like The Haunting’s (1963) Hill House or The Shining’s (1981) grandiose Overlook, The Innkeepers‘ Yankee Pedlar is nominally vintage, but is actually undistinguished in any quality except by age. But in the grand generic tradition, it has become a snare for frustrated dreams and circular lives: as well as the ghost whose backstory carries intimations of despair and abandonment, an aged man (George Riddle) turns up asking for the room his spent his honeymoon in, a room that, like most of the rest of the hotel, has been stripped down and sealed up. Claire and Luke acquiesce to his request, only for Claire to later find he’s committed suicide, the final catalyst for an onrush of terrible visions. Much of The Innkeepers is sustained by the attentive back and forth between Claire and Luke, particularly in an epic movement where the pair escapes ennui by getting drunk and playful, Claire’s flaky forlornness for a moment almost connecting with Luke’s sexual frustration and stymied attraction to his coworker. This tension resolves as Claire suggests descending into the basement to hunt for Madeline, culminating in a intense sequence offering only close-ups of the two actors in the midst of a sea of darkness, and Claire fearfully informing Luke that the wraith is standing right behind him. Luke freaks out and flees the hotel entirely, leaving Claire to try to survive alone. This sequence is enormously pleasurable on several levels—the slow-rising, sustained tension, the precision of characterisation and acting, the cunning use of camera perspective that generates a certainty of the supernatural whilst still never confirming its existence beyond Claire’s point of view.

If West’s otherwise marvellous diptych is hampered by anything, it’s by the relatively stolid conceptualisations of evil and the uncanny once they are actually revealed: the witch-woman (Danielle Noe) who claws her way out of the attic to perform a devilish ritual over Samantha’s trussed form at the climax of The House of the Devil and the mangled ghosts that pursue Claire in The Innkeepers are standard movie ghouls. West hasn’t really yet figured out ways to complicate and explicate deeper edges to his supernatural Macguffins yet. To a certain extent, that appears deliberate. West relishes their cheesy impact as ways of reminding people that he really likes the schlocky side of his films as much as their more ambitious elements. He’s clearly reaching a stage in his career where he might be advised, a la Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown (1997) or John Carpenter with The Thing (1982), to tackle an adaptation or a personalised remake that can enrich his lexicon. On the other hand, West displays in both films judiciousness about just what he does explain and depict that evokes the greatest traditions of Western ghost stories, as in the tales of M.R. James. One beauty of this approach is their simultaneous success as psychological narratives and genre fare. The apparently demonic gestation the witch-woman plants in Samantha in The House of the Devil is easily decipherable as the encumbrance of pregnancy putting a final damper on Samantha’s stymied upward mobility, and Claire’s final pursuit and death at the hands of a vengeful Madeline sees her unable to use an escape hatch she herself locked earlier in the film, finally entrapped by her own choices and susceptibilities. Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers resolve in genuinely haunting final images, suggesting survival in some form or another entails unknowable menaces.


15th 02 - 2012 | 5 comments »

The Witches, aka The Devil’s Own (1966)

Director: Cyril Frankel

By Roderick Heath

Hammer Studios first moved into making films in the cinefantastique genres with adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s epochal TV serials in the mid ’50s. But Kneale had surprisingly little to do with the studio, except for adapting his own work with the 1957 film The Abominable Snowman, and penning the script for this ripping mid-’60s work that sports one of the House of Horror’s few imported star turns, in the person of Joan Fontaine. Director Cyril Frankel’s name doesn’t conjure many associations, which perhaps partly explains why this film has fallen under the radar: after initial film work, he acted chiefly as a TV director. But The Witches is a delicious slice of classic British genre fare offers much the same deeply neurotic mood of repression and explosive release that also marks out other great, thematically similar British horror films like Night of the Eagle (1961) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It anticipates, in many ways, The Wicker Man’s ironic contrast of idyllic hamlets and uncanny threats, if without the calculated inversions of story expectations, and looks forward to more modern studies on similar material like Wake Wood (2010) and the satiric landscape of Hot Fuzz (2007).

The Witches is an adaptation of a novel by Norah Lofts, who also provided the source material for John Ford’s last feature film, shot the same year, 7 Women, an equally interesting revision of genre film with a female-centric viewpoint. Here, a bizarre and jarring prologue immediately hits a note of frantic alarmism, as it offers a fin-de-siecle twist on colonial do-gooder tales like The Nun’s Story (1959). Fontaine’s character, Gwen Mayfield, running a school in a colony beset by a Mau-Mau-like uprising, tries to pack up and flee before the menace comes calling. Her native assistants are so frightened by the curse of the local Juju man they finally abandon Gwen. The door is bashed in, and the Juju men, one wearing a colossal tribal mask, enter, presumably to rape and abuse our heroine.

After the credits, Gwen reappears in London three years later. She’s patched herself back together but is still bearing signs of trauma, fending off an attack of nerves as she’s interviewed by the pleasant, but fusty eccentric Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job teaching at small, rural school of which he’s a patron. Gwen’s new position takes her to the hamlet of Heddaby. Alan and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh) are the wealthiest people in the area, and the town is a backwater without a government school, which is why the Baxes fund their own. Gwen shares duties with another teacher, Sally Benson (Ann Bell), and begins to settle into her job, until the romance of two of her adolescent students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), is discovered. Linda’s guardian “Granny” Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) objects to this coupling, and Gwen finds herself called upon to find a way of keeping them apart. She encourages Ronnie’s talents, and soon he wins a chance to go to a better school out of town. Rather than send him away, which Gwen thinks will make him unhappy, she begins personally tutoring him, making him vulnerable to secret forces who control the village, and want to protect Linda’s virginity. Ronnie falls into a coma one night and is hospitalised.

Gwen makes a disturbing discovery, of a male doll Ronnie had bought for Linda as a suggestive partner for the female figurine she perpetually sports. Gwen finds this hidden in the crook of a tree with its head removed and riddled with pins, and it stirs her suspicions that she’s dealing with something she has encountered before. Ronnie’s mother (Carmel McSharry) flees town with her son when he recovers, and her husband (John Collin) visits Gwen one night in the schoolhouse stinking drunk, distraught at the collapse of his life. When Gwen lets slip that she suspects Granny Rigg might have cursed Ronnie in some way, he goes to visit her, but turns up drowned in a nearby lake. Before she can report her story at the inquest, Gwen, staying overnight at the Bax’s house, is stricken down with a vision of the Juju mask and she awakens in a nursing home, having completely lost her memory of the past three years.

Like many great horror films, The Witches cunningly uses other, more humdrum genres and everyday familiarities as a starting point. Although the prologue announces things are going to be sensational and garish, most of the first half is deceptively casual and evokes a traditional depiction of an English village that might have stumbled out of soap operas from The Archers through to Heartbeat. It avoids even the signposted oddness of The Wicker Man, with only a slightly tweaked atmosphere of estrangement, apparent in touches like the cheery brutality of the local butcher Bob Curd (Duncan Lamont), beaming with overemphatic friendliness as he rips the skin off a rabbit, the coolly unexaggerated bigotry of the local mothers aimed at Ronnie because of his father’s reputation as a layabout, and the discomfort Gwen experiences in trying to negotiate small-town politics. She plays the beneficent teacher helping give the poor young lad a leg up in a victimising world, almost a prototype for Kes (1969).

Frankel’s unmannered, clear-eyed direction helps the film walk a tightrope of tone, only skewing from the realistic in such odd moments as Granny Rigg telling her grey cat to follow Gwen, and a slowly manifesting sense of more than usual evil lurking under the surface, as when Ronnie tries to alert Gwen, claiming to have seen Linda being punished by Granny Rigg, who jammed her hand into a clothes wringer. Ronnie’s romancing of Linda isn’t just verboten because she’s important to a witches’ rite, but also because his mother isn’t local: the other children are all so in-bred, as Sally says, it’s hard to distinguish the variations on the “Heddaby face.” Frankel wields Hitchcockian technique as Gwen notices details like the many bare footprints scattered in the mud by the lake where Dowsett drowned, only to be erased as a flock of sheep charges through, panicked by Stephanie’s dogs; it’s a moment clearly reminiscent of the erasing of Miss Froy’s dust-written name in The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Perhaps another reason The Witches isn’t as well known to Hammer fans as it ought to be is because it mostly eschews the studio’s usual gothic stylistics, preferring crisper, restrained hues in the photography to the usual saturated tones. It also sports an uncommonly good cast of actors not at all associated with the genre, redolent of an attempt to elevate studio fare that was beginning to slide into the blood-and-boobs formula of many later Hammer works. In addition to Walsh and McCowen, Leonard Rossiter turns up late in the piece as a smug, yet hapless doctor who takes Gwen in charge when she suffers a second breakdown after being hexed. The comely Boulting was a daughter of film director John Boulting, and whose most recognisable role is perhaps the mysterious object of affection in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976).

Witchcraft has often been one of the more neglected fields for horror films to draw on, in part because it often demands suggestion of unseen forces at odds with the declarative demands of genre cinema, and also because the modern mind is largely inclined to give witches the benefit of the doubt. Frankel doesn’t draw out fulminating sensuality and neurotic energy like Terence Fisher or Don Sharp at their best, but he does master the necessary rhythm of slowly composing strangeness leading into outright nuttiness. Whereas Fisher’s tackling of similar notions in the following year’s The Devil Rides Out is a lushly orchestrated spectacle, Frankel and Kneale’s film builds toward something like black comedy in its depiction of dowdy villagers suddenly hurling themselves with joyous, countercultural energy into satanic rites and orgiastic preludes.

The Witches partners squarely with the same year’s Plague of the Zombies, though not played in a period setting, by invoking similar motifs: the secret link between colonialist horrors and malevolence infecting the coloniser’s homeland, an evil manipulated by the mansion on the hill, and virtually surreal visions of atavistic rites within the supposedly staid and settled English order of things. True weirdness finally, explictly manifests when Gwen ventures into the cave where the coven meets, discovering a cabalistic dial on the ground upon which a strange doll-like object seems to dance spontaneously—it’s actually got Granny Rigg’s familiar-like cat sewed up inside, and has a photo of Linda’s face pinned to it.

The Witches is fundamentally a good yarn, but it required a compelling lead performance to give the drama true pep, and Fontaine delivers. Her Gwen is shaky, but intelligent and dogged, fighting against her own brittle nerves and fear of the unknown. She is severely contrasted by the film’s other major female figure, Stephanie, a popular newspaper writer whose bracing, if slightly grating bravado contrasts her brother’s air of tragic failure. He had wanted to be a priest, and as well as dressing as one, spends much of his time locked away in private playing church bell and choir music and drifting away in melancholy distraction when trying to explain his fixations to Gwen. Fontaine offers, in a way, a bookend to her career-making part as the heroine of Rebecca (1940), considerably older and wiser, but equally perplexed by the workings of the world where, be it in Africa or rural England, irrational, cryptic, boding forces work to annihilate or assimilate anything that disrupts their cohesive fabric.

When Gwen presents the pin-stuck doll to her, Stephanie slashes heartily through the pretences of witchcraft in describing its practitioners as mostly repressed yokels looking for an orgy. Of course, she is really the secret head of the coven, which she found operating in the town and has taken over for her own purposes: convinced of her own brilliance as a force that could heal the world’s ills, she’s looking for a way to renew herself, and has found it, planning to claim Linda’s body to transplant her soul into. Walsh’s Stephanie is posited at first as a less damaged, more outgoing version of Gwen, radiating cosmopolitan intellectual confidence and, more subtly, a hint of lesbian charisma, all but licking her lips in joy at having Fontaine under her thumb as dominated, unwilling confidant. But she’s also a colossal egomaniac with a hale and aggressive energy that operates a little like an energy vampire against those close to her, even before she reveals her true status and her ultimate intent, which is to slice off Linda’s skin and wear it as a cloak of youth.

The attraction and tension between Fontaine’s and Walsh’s differing editions of middle-aged, woman-of-the-world, strength of purpose then sustains the drama, with Gwen starting off on the back foot thanks to her traumatic experiences and ignorance of the lay of the land in Heddaby, but slowly gathering resolve in trying to penetrate the mystery. When she’s stuck in a nursing home, stricken with amnesia, her memory returns in a cathartic moment, but she’s able to keep anyone from realising it until she can get a chance to escape. She’s soon snatched and forcibly inducted into the coven. Between the women stands the castrated Alan, whose defence mechanism against his monstrous sister is to isolate himself with the apparel of the church: Gwen’s appeal to him to give aid proves ineffectual as he locks himself away again: he is as much damsel in distress as Linda. Only Gwen is capable of standing up to Stephanie.

The film’s climax is also its major set-piece, as Gwen is forced to watch over a mesmerised Linda as Stephanie whips her coven into a sensual frenzy, orchestrating their gyrations as they perform the ritual dances. The tawdry sexual element Stephanie mocked comes out, the villagers, clad in rags, beat drums and blow horns with comic intensity. Gwen is held prone by two of the village men who can’t wait to induct her properly, and the rest cavort like they’ve been choreographed by an enterprising high school dance teacher. But the latent power and fascinating intensity of the rituals also begin to assert themselves as Stephanie, wearing deer horns on her head when clad in her witch’s garb, evokes the most ancient religions, and Linda, as she enters the coven, catalyses through her body the unnerving force she represents as an adolescent female, completely unfettered, a different kind of crucible that offers manifold promises of ecstatic delights. The coven smear themselves in juice squeezed from fruits, rubbing themselves and each other down, including one moment of homoerotic punch as two of the village males gleefully caress each other. Stephanie serves up a magical glop that look like excrement to be eaten in frenzied joy, and she leaves them twitching on the floor as if in a mass epileptic convulsion.

Meanwhile Stephanie’s monstrous egotism is configured as she conducts her coven like a puppeteer, sensually grasping Linda from behind and guiding her like a tuned instrument. Fittingly, then, the film’s corkscrewing narrative seems to find in the ritual acts of the coven a metaphor for the genre itself, a carefully orchestrated eruption of elements other worldviews frantically suppress or ignore, and where the dichotomous choice is to grasp or destroy the young female. Fittingly, Stephanie’s arrogance proves her undoing as her reading of the ritual procedure to Gwen earlier in the film gives Gwen the knowledge to wreck the ritual right at its climax, stabbing herself in the arm and soiling Stephanie’s cloak with it, bringing down the offended power of the dark gods on her: Stephanie drops dead and the coven’s power is broken.

The appended coda is a happy ending but rather disorienting in its disarmingly cheery tone, even as it encompasses some strange implications. A happy Alan sets about aiding Gwen as her liberated potential romantic partner, the town is suddenly dragged into the 20th century as the general store is replaced by a supermarket and the old residents scatter after the coven’s is broken, and Gwen’s students flock in to celebrate her goodness. The shattering of a corrupt order seems to have meant also throwing away that cosy insularity so often fetishized in retrospect in modern British life. In any event, The Witches is a delicious diversion for fans of offbeat horror.


3rd 02 - 2012 | 12 comments »

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Director/Screenwriter: Brian De Palma

By Roderick Heath

Brian De Palma’s volatile career, whatever you might think of it, is one of the most individualistic of American commercial directors. His oeuvre breaks up neatly, at least from a distance, into three movements, encompassing his raucous apprentice work, his chicly gaudy, richly eccentric major phase, and his often patchy, yet still restlessly creative and critical late career. These phases are each demarcated nicely by some of the many major financial flops De Palma has suffered in the ironic life of a director who so often seemed willing to offer up to his audience everything it wanted, but in such immoderate, immersive, gleefully perverse terms that he instead seemed to be making a joke of such pandering.

At the same time, De Palma seemed to take the idea of being an auteur more seriously than any other young American director, not only offering up personal themes and stories and expressive cinematic techniques that clashed with the settled textures of mainstream moviemaking, but in making his own creativity part of the show. He set about ostentatiously repeating devices, scenes, and sometimes whole movies, composing his epic signature scenes, then pulling them apart and staging them all over again in new contexts and with new resolutions. Such were the building blocks of his most famous string of films from the late ’70s through to the mid ’90s. But De Palma’s eventual pigeonholing as a postmodern remix artiste for genre fare with a thing for Hitchcock to a large extent concealed a major strand of his artistic personality, that of the sly, subversive gamester with a remorseless satiric streak.

De Palma was perhaps the closest of the major Movie Brats to the counterculture, with one foot planted squarely in the guerrilla theatre and film worlds of ’60s New York, and the influence of that zesty freeform sphere remained hard-wired in his aesthetic sensibility, constant dialectic partner to the media-mad young nerd with a yen for the lush, eroticised space of the cinematic frame. De Palma’s early films are therefore mostly comedies of manners, including the hipster gagfest Greetings (1968) and The Wedding Party (1969), and in such company, his first “thriller,” Sisters (1973), seems to wear the apparel of a Hitchcockian tale in large part to satirise the mores of early ’70s New Yorkers, and offer up a deliberately absurd, anticlimactic variation that makes fun of the whole idea of witnessing and investigation, as doomed and self-defeating as that of Gerrit Graham’s JFK conspiracy theorist’s pursuit in Greetings. His next film was his first work to gain major studio hype behind it, Phantom of the Paradise, destined to be a financial failure before cult revival and therefore something of a false start before he stepped back and reintroduced himself with Carrie (1976), a film that expands on many elements of Phantom whilst offering them within a new, deceptive, high-cinema composure.

What distinguishes Phantom from the films that would follow it, and keeps it tied to the less polished works before it, is its sense of anarchic energy and blackly comic rapture. The greatest insult in the ’60s had been to be labelled a sell-out, and written over Phantom in neon letters is the film’s simultaneous embrace and ridicule of selling out, tackled with a pulverising, panicky bravado. Early scenes make use of the same mock-silent film passages of sped-up slapstick that had often punctuated De Palma’s apprentice work, essayed now in the context of a film that transforms the morbid romanticism of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and its many subsequent film versions into an outright Faustian parable, mixed with a freebasing critique of pop music and celebrity worship. It’s as radical, and much more visceral a take on those ideas, as Peter Watkins’ unnervingly predicative Privilege (1967), but real life would soon catch up with and surpass its prototypical visions of glam rock, punk, and death metal excess.

The film’s impresario supervillain Swan (Paul Williams) is depicted as the force behind all of the movements in recent music, a man who sold his soul to the devil for eternal youth and therefore always has his pulse on the current youth spirit. Phantom kicks off with an expository voiceover by Twilight Zone scribe Rod Serling positioned somewhere between rock-doc awe and sinister prelude, before the opening credits unfurl over a performance by Swan’s current hit band The Juicy Fruits, a satire on the nostalgic shtick of Grease, The Rocky Horror Show, and other self-consciously retro theatre pieces and acts of the early ’70s. This opening is more gruesome than any of the physical violence that follows, as sleazy mock-greasers fondle each other and audience members, and nearly break into fights, whilst singing an absurd song about a heroic musical artist who killed himself get a hit record and save his sister’s life with the profits. The jokey image of the mock self-annihilation by stabbing repeats later in the film in a “real,” yet also even more flagrantly artificial, context.

De Palma’s version of Leroux’s tragic Phantom is Winslow Leach, played by William Finley, a gangly, adaptable character actor who appears in much of De Palma’s early work, and here takes the lead for the first and last time. His Leach bears a distinct resemblance to Warren Zevon. Hapless, dowdy, and painfully naïve in his life, Leach’s superlative talents as a musician serve only to destroy him. Hired to play piano during breaks in Swan’s shows, Leach is overheard by the impresario, who, impressed, orders his cruder flunky Philbin (George Memmoli) to get hold of Leach’s music. Winslow is reluctant to part with his songs, which are only portions of a magnum opus based on the Faust legend, but agrees on the promise that Swan wants to produce the record. Winslow tries to see Swan at his Death Records office and then his home. There he meets a young singer, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), practising for an audition using one of the Faust songs, and Winslow is dazzled. Winslow is quickly ejected when discovered, and so is Phoenix, when finds out the audition is just the nightly intake for Swan’s harem of groupies and refuses. Winslow, on the other hand, dresses up and joins the concubines and manages to meet Swan, but he promptly has him plucked out, beaten up, and then set up by flunky cops on a drugs charge. In jail, Winslow has his teeth removed and replaced by metal ones as a part of a perverse experiment in sanitation he’s forced into, and when he hears one of Swan’s stars singing his songs on the radio, he goes berserk, escapes, and breaks into Death Records. While attempting to sabotage the production machinery, Winslow is caught in a record press and burns his face. He stumbles outside and falls into the harbour, and is presumed to have drowned.

De Palma’s wild, dark, vicious sense of humour and technique are not only constantly apparent in this fast and furious first act, but at a height of unhinged energy he never tried to match again. De Palma and set designer Jack Fisk’s entrap the actors, including Harper, within rooms just as engulfing and overpowering in decorative mise-en-scene as those she would face in Suspiria (1977). The story, and De Palma’s approach to it, tread a precarious line between skit-like Theatre of Cruelty conceit and frenzied emotional biography. He employs strange, space-moulding sets, obtuse, often handheld camerawork, oddball scene grammar, and a barrage of student film tricks in the course of telling Winslow’s story. De Palma’s basic point comes out the better for such magnified distortion, that for much of the world’s self-appointed founts of power able to beatify with fame and fortune, gatekeeping against pretenders and the potentially unruly and the excessively talented is as vital an aspect of their power as any other. Thus, the age of celebrity turns devastating failure into mirth for consumers. The storytelling is as charged with the same frantic, drug-enhanced, one-step-ahead sensibility as the legendary ’70s recording industry itself. As Swan himself puts it later, referring to why he doesn’t want to make a star of Phoenix, “She’s perfect, and you know how I abhor perfection in anyone other than myself.” Those who meet this head-on without caution and self-awareness are inevitable victims, comical foils for the cynical.

Winslow’s attempts to penetrate the Olympian monster’s lair likewise anticipate the structural motifs of The Fury (1978) and The Untouchables (1987), whilst Swan is a version of such malefic, would-be masters of fate as John Cassavettes’ Childress and De Niro’s Al Capone. The notion of the Phantom being a scarred and furious victim of artistic plagiarism and the evils of commercialised culture—an idea that comes not from the novel but from the 1943 Claude Rains version—is played up here as a tragicomic exercise where, as is often the case in De Palma’s work, naivete, aspiration, and innocence are hardly guarded from harm, but are instead brutally assaulted and cruelly broken (e.g., in the grim fates of Carrie White, Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables, and the victimised females of The Black Dahlia [2006] and Redacted [2007]).

The flipside is often a furious, amoral retribution that reproduces and exceeds the violence of the wicked. Winslow returns as the Phantom, a work of performance art, encased in black leather and an art-deco bird mask, to haunt The Paradise, Swan’s gaudy new theatrical setting for his roster of acts. Winslow is agonised by his disfigured face and broken voice, but his artistic dedication and passion are to a certain extent released by becoming the Phantom, a point underlined with the ease with which Swan, after Winslow has announced his vengeful presence by exploding a bomb during a rehearsal in the Paradise, seduces him back into rewriting Faust. Winslow points out Phoenix to Swan at an audition and insists on her as his onstage avatar, and Phoenix rises to the challenge with an impromptu performance.

Swan’s genius as a creator and manipulator of talent is drawn out with impudent concision as he fine-tunes an electronic gadget for Winslow to speak and sing through, turning his hoarse, electrified wailing into a smooth croon with studio gadgets: he can turn the worst freak into a pop god, and vice versa. It’s worth noting that De Palma’s Phantom (being as De Palma was a friend of George Lucas, and who would write Star Wars’ opening scroll) seems to have influenced the look and concept of Darth Vader, who would similarly be revealed as another resurrected Phantom. Swan, of course, plans to double-cross Winslow even in the act of pretending to give him a second life.

Phantom of the Paradise references horror film imagery and mystique, naturally, but it’s also strongly under a comic filmmaker influence: as the first part uses Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin as templates, the second is under the spell of the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera (1935), as Swan gets Winslow to sign an impossibly long and obtuse contract (“All articles that are excluded shall be deemed included”), Winslow hovers above the stage a la Harpo to commit sabotage, and the distance between audience and performance is erased. Swan’s ludicrous acts meanwhile all use the same singers (Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor, and Peter Elbling) shifting between musical guises and eras: The Juicy Fruits with their ’50s style, their successors, the hideously faux-groovy The Beach Bums, and finally, The Undeads, whose grotesque onstage shenanigans, including pretending to tear audience members to shreds to build their lead singer, “Beef” (Graham) whilst caked in sepulchral make-up, charts a logical evolution of pop tastes towards calculated outrage and excess. The film’s jibes at manufactured stars, schlocky gimmicks, industry sexism, and coercion were intended to be Paddy Chayefsky-like satire, but life caught up with it all quickly and not only assimilated the criticisms, but made them part of the mystique.

Nonetheless, the humour and revulsion the film invokes toward the pop industry retain a charge far beyond the relative innocence of the equally farcical This Is Spinal Tap (1984) because De Palma backs it up with his twisted fantasia. Images of punctured and roasted flesh and operatic emotion alternate with this satiric panoply, imbuing it with a similar feel of sodden, sensual overload and consumerist satiety found through corporeal violence, such as in the later scenes of Scarface (1983). De Palma spares no one because it’s a world that spares no one: even the talented and intelligent Phoenix is easily suckered in by Swan and turned literally overnight from willowy starlet to drugged-up fame whore whom Swan can seduce and marry (but actually planning to assassinate to outdo Winslow for onstage killing as entertainment coup). Swan’s first choice for a Winslow stand-in is not Phoenix, whom he relegates to back-up singer, but Beef, a flagrantly gay showbiz pro whom Swan reinvents as a Frankensteinian id-beast compelling all potential audiences with his ambiguous hunkiness, one of the many moments of arch gender-bending that inflect both the film and De Palma’s oeuvre. Beef stands in for Carlotta, the prima donna in The Phantom of the Opera who is threatened into standing aside for the Phantom’s preferred singer. Here, in the first of De Palma’s many send-ups/variations on Psycho’s shower murder, Winslow slices his way through Beef’s shower curtain with a knife, but instead of stabbing him, jams a toilet plunger against his mouth and delivers his warning. Swan has Winslow bricked up in his studio after he’s finished writing Faust, but Winslow, realising he’s been betrayed again and that a hack is singing his music, smashes his way out and kills Beef onstage by dropping a lightning-shaped neon sign on him.

Swan, it proves, really has made a pact with the devil to retain his youth, turning his own habit of videotaping everything around him into a vessel for a Dorian Gray-like preservation. De Palma’s career fascination with recording mediums within recording mediums, and the act and experience of voyeurism blending together into a self-reflexive arc, is ever-present here, but surges to the foreground particularly during the film’s most dazzling scene. Winslow spies on Swan making love to Phoenix through the skylight of his house, and Swan spies on Winslow spying on him, Winslow’s contorted outrage and now godlike self-pity being provoked and enjoyed by his nemesis. Winslow immediately tries to kill himself, but finds he’s locked into eternal life with Swan by signing his contract and can die from his self-inflicted wound only when Swan also dies, a fact Swan explains as the most elegant capstone to his malevolence. Casting Williams as Swan is an uncomfortable fit, not exactly because of his diminutive size, for there’s a good and thematically apt joke in this, but because he lacks the dark, overwhelming charisma the part really needs; indeed, De Palma’s films often live and die on who plays the Mephistopheles figure. Finley, on the other hand, invests his character with a heightened blend of the comedic and the pathetic: his full-bore embrace of the expressive Grand Guignol heart of the film looks forward as far as Fiona Shaw’s perverse monster in The Black Dahlia, a film as preoccupied with Faustian bargains, conspiracies, and transfiguring bodily damage as this one.

Phantom of the Paradise is undoubtedly a bratty film, and an immature one in many ways, though this does not mean it’s inauthentic or merely flashy. It does, perhaps inevitably, collide with potential dead spots of narrative and invention, which De Palma’s style wasn’t yet attuned to overcoming. An expository sequence of Winslow penetrating Swan’s secret video library, where he finds the key to destroying his nemesis, is overlong, too flagrantly skit-like, and lacks a quality later De Palma would grasp firmly, that of the reality-changing impact of penetrating the final layer to a mystery. De Palma is still inclined to overindulge his comic actors like Graham and Memmoli. But De Palma’s energy is all-conquering, rendering the film as an ecstatic flux that manages to combine two stances often thought to be exclusive: the implacably hip and the flagrantly emotional. Shows of dazzling technique are spotted throughout, if not linked with the same careful sense of orchestration that distinguishes the likes of The Fury, Dressed to Kill (1980), or Femme Fatale (2002). As well as the film’s constant refrains to silent comedy and melodrama, there’s a strangely elegiac montage of Winslow composing in his Phantom lair, swooning on the same tone of deathless romanticism as Winslow’s music. A lengthy split-screen sequence in which Winslow plants a bomb during a rehearsal by the Beach Bums, unfolds in two simultaneous shots that absorb secret machinations and the abuse and coercion that lie behind the contrived appearance of sunny shenanigans, before resolving in the explosion that announces a legitimised terrorist riposte to Swan’s regime.

Winslow, whilst becoming a killer and a terrorist, remains the film’s moral centre in his perverse fashion: his destructiveness cuts through the overwhelming artifice and cynicism of Swan’s, and when he realises Swan’s last, devastating betrayal, he charges to the rescue, cueing a breathtaking sequence, furiously switching between perspectives, from that of Swan’s assassin fixing crosshairs on Phoenix, to a racing hand-held camera chasing Winslow as he charges to the rescue. He swings into the auditorium and snatches away Swan’s mask, which now conceals not his unnatural youth but a shrivelled and hideous visage. Winslow delivers his coup de grace, stabbing Swan to death with the beak of a bird mask from a dancer, turning the emblem of Death Records into the literal instrument of death. De Palma’s staging of the genuinely crazed finale refuses any sense of tragic closure, however, zooming up and away from Winslow’s body in the midst of the orgiastic eruption that aims instead for catharsis, revelling in all spectacle. Here violent death, Winslow’s revealed, hideous face, and Swan’s extermination only register as sideshows of the convulsive carnival. A remorseful, mourning Phoenix clutches Winslow in the midst of a party, prefiguring Blow Out (1981), and a woman stands watching, wearing Winslow’s mask, hinting at the fusion of the two figures in a world where all opposites come crashing together in one great apocalyptic shindig.


29th 01 - 2012 | 11 comments »

Take Shelter (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols

By Marilyn Ferdinand

About a month ago, Matt Zoller Seitz published an article titled “Nostalgic for Everything” whose deck reads “From Midnight in Paris to The Artist to Mildred Pierce, in 2011 we wanted to be anywhere but 2011.” While I think there are several reasons for the appearance of so many movies and television series that look back rather than forward, I certainly can agree that the world in 2011 is perhaps scarier than it was during the first Great Depression, and like audiences in the 1930s, we’re all looking for the fire exits.

The flip side of escapism, another kind of film has also been on the cultural scene—the cinema of dread. From the apocalyptic Melancholia, to the torment of Shame and the menace of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the free-floating anxiety that has gripped many people in these desperate times has formed into a variety of nightmare visions at a theatre near you. To my mind, no film has grappled more directly or compellingly with our societal insanity than Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Nichols dares to offer audiences a dose of reality, as the frightening personal visions of his protagonist collide with the traumas of trying to survive in a mauled economy with a shredded social safety net.

Curtis (Michael Shannon), a crew manager for an Ohio gravel and sand supplier, is having terrifying dreams of deadly tornados and physical attacks by strangers and friends alike. The 35-year-old Curtis fears that he is developing the paranoid schizophrenia that overcame his mother (Kathy Baker) when she was his age. He seeks medical help while at the same time taking steps to protect himself and his family from the dream figures who attacked him; he puts his dog Red out of the house and has Russell (Ron Kennard), his best friend and direct report at work, transferred to another work crew. He also spends money he doesn’t have to expand a storm shelter in his backyard.

In many ways, Take Shelter is a remake of a film that has been on my mind lately, Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear. In that film, the protagonist was seized with a similar fear of disaster triggered by the initiation of American H-bomb testing on Bikini Atoll. The Japanese patriarch had seen the devastation of atomic warfare during World War II, and spared no expense to try to save his family from a horrible death with actions that seemed delusional to them. So, too, Curtis has reached the age when disaster struck his family and sensibly takes precautions against a repeat of that disaster—mental illness—while nonetheless following some potentially ruinous compulsions.

In Curtis’ case, the ruin is not a mushroom cloud, but atmospheric disaster and betrayal by those who love him. His particular anxiety centers around those who would harm his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). It is certainly possible that Curtis is descending into madness, but his fears are not exactly irrational either. Climate change has spawned superstorms like the hurricane that devastated New Orleans, and earthquakes and tsunamis have brought parts of Southest Asia and Haiti to their knees. The natural world really does have an end-of-days feel to it these days.

In addition, good jobs are as scarce as those who want and need them are plentiful. When Curtis borrows equipment from his employer without permission to dig an addition to the storm shelter, he risks losing a job that Russell and others tell him he might not be able to replace. Losing his job would mean a loss of health benefits Curtis and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) need to pay for Hannah’s cochlear implants. The very real possibility that our children’s lives will not be better than ours, which would be a first in U.S. history, is embodied in Hannah.

Michael Shannon’s disturbing face has lent an edge of crazy to a number of films, most notably Bug, and so it is easy for us to buy into a psychiatrist’s recommendation that Curtis needs to begin a rigorous regimen of drugs and therapy immediately. But Shannon blunts his edges and portrays a caring family man so convincingly that it is hard to dismiss Curtis’ prophetic warning at a community dinner: “Well, listen up, there’s a storm coming like nothing you’ve ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it.” Which American does not feel that our country is tipping precariously on the edge of a disaster the likes of which none of us has experienced and might never have thought possible.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W. B. Yeats could have been talking about the United States today; certainly, screenwriter Nichols has channeled our “terrible beauty” into a film that works on several levels. He has an extremely deft hand at building suspense; a simple shot of a drill biting into stone feels claustrophobic and full of dread after he has lain the groundwork of Curtis’ growing morbidity. Watching starlings move swiftly like black, undulating clouds has always filled me with wonder; in Curtis’ eyes, of course, this strange cohesion is full of dark portend.

Nichols also makes the working-class milieu of this Ohio community real. The familial and friendly bonds, the fears and doubts, the suspicions of the community all ring true. The house Curtis and Samantha have is not the typically glossy, well-appointed home common in most films—the furnishings are well-worn, a bit tacky, and the entire home has a lived-in feel without seeming like a cliché. Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah are a likable, relatable family, and much credit goes to Chastain for giving another full-bodied performance, one of a woman whose warmth and fragile strength make us feel deeply for her and her family.

As we watch Curtis hide his problems from those he cares about even as he sinks deeper into his compulsions, we feel his fear and fear for him. At the end of the film, while Curtis and family vacation as they do every year on the Atlantic shore, Nichols offers a final vision in which Curtis faces the coming storm of insanity with his wife and daughter at his side. However, it could also be that Hannah and Samantha finally have been made to recognize the danger to their way of life. It doesn’t really matter what is “actually” taking place: no interpretation will quiet the unease of Take Shelter for long.


28th 12 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

Director: Joseph Ruben

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Who can turn the world on with her smile? As a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and of its star, I must admit that in a head-to-head tooth-off, MTM would wither in the blaze of Julia Roberts’ pearly whites.

Julia Roberts has been dazzling movie goers with her mile-wide grin, infectious laugh, and Playmate-like naughty innocence since the late 80s. Can she act? Does it matter? As the first $20 million woman among a legion of limited-range actors commanding that sum or more, Julia Roberts is a rarity in today’s world—an old-fashioned Hollywood star in the Gene Tierney mold who can act if a director pushes her out of her comfort zone and forces her to, but whose main assets lie in her on-screen charisma and beauty. One look at her list of films and a flashback to the studio build-up to her nonwedding to Kiefer Sutherland show that the old boys of Tinsel Town understood what kind of a property they had in her.

Many of her films cast her as the fantasy trophy woman every man wants. She doesn’t need to come from the American aristocracy to ascend to it—as waitress Daisy Aruja in Mystic Pizza (1988), she is a self-confessed social climber who snags a hot-blooded blue blood with sex and the saucy insolence that such men seem to like. Of course, her breakout role as Vivian, the hooker who catches corporate raider Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990), is as nakedly honest about America’s then-definition of success as any out there; every young turk needs his BMW and his beautiful arm ornament who is, of course, a pistol in the sack, and every woman needs to be a mercenary sexpot who cleans up well to catch one. Vivian going on a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive became Roberts’ signature scene, a representation of the grasping, greedy climber made adorable by Roberts’ naive sweetness.

As Roberts matured, her roles tended to vary, but her iconic status worked most effectively in films that reflected on her persona—her commitment-phobic Runaway Bride (1999), her superstar-marries-a-commoner character in Notting Hill (1999), the reverse-snob triumph of using sex and lies for good in Erin Brockovich (2000). Even Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) became more than a cultural blip because of the way her rich neoliberal character separated her heavily mascaraed eyelashes. In Eat Pray Love (2010), she played a success who throws it all away to find enlightenment, forming a dead-on critique of the characters she played at the start of her career on just another type of shopping spree.

Sleeping with the Enemy is a bit of an aberration in the Roberts canon, showing as it does the downside of being a trophy wife. The film capitalizes on all those things audiences love about Julia Roberts, but allows her to be a woman who uses her tenacity to survive and strive for authenticity. Although Sleeping with the Enemy is a Hollywood movie and a hack bit of filmmaking, it is interesting as perhaps the definitive anti-Julia Roberts vehicle.

Laura Burney (Roberts) has been married for 3½ years to Martin (Patrick Bergin), a filthy-rich investment counselor who calls her “princess,” but sees her more like the bust of Nefertiti he bought her on their honeymoon—his possession, a symbol of his status. They live part-time in a huge beachfront mansion on Cape Cod that appears to have been designed by Luigi Moretti, one of Mussolini’s chief architects. Martin tells Laura what to wear to a party, signals her with a look when it is time to leave, and grabs her for sex when they arrive home. Laura is very good at appearing to be happy when Martin is watching, but the film reveals rather quickly that she looks at sex with Martin as rape and stands in terror of a beating for everything from having her pantry items carelessly stacked to taking off to bury her dead mother without his permission.

Martin likes to sail, but Laura is deathly afraid of the water. Nonetheless, he prevails upon her to go out for an evening sail with their neighbor (Kyle Secor), whose casual remark that he has seen Laura looking out from their home garners her a beating from a jealous Martin. Although the weather report called for calm waters and clear skies, a sudden squall forces them to turn back. When the boat is nearly home, the jib comes loose, and the two men run to the bow to secure it. When they turn around, Laura is gone, and an intensive search for her only turns up her life vest.

Of course, Laura has faked her death. Conquering her fear of the water, she took swimming lessons, preparing for a moment when Martin wouldn’t be watching her. Swimming toward the gap in the boardwalk lighting she made by breaking the bulbs, she runs to their house, dons a wig, grabs a prepacked bundle, and rides a bus to Cedar Falls, Iowa. She rents a house next door to handsome drama teacher and future lover Ben Woodward (Kevin Anderson), gets a menial job at a library, and starts flashing her dazzling smile and naturally curly hair all over the place.

A call to Martin from one of Laura’s swim classmates, however, sets him and his considerable resources on her trail. He tracks down Laura’s mother (Elizabeth Lawrence), who did not die but rather was moved to a nursing home near Cedar Falls. When Laura goes to visit her disguised as a man, Martin is there. She narrowly misses running into him, but we know it is only a matter of time until he shows up on her doorstep.

Based on a book by Nancy Price, Hollywood has upscaled the story to Julia Roberts proportions, making the crummy beach house in the book into a monument to the money-no-taste 80s. The scene during which she fakes her death is the epitome of convenient scripting, and Martin never emerges as anything other than a male version of Glenn Close’s monster in Fatal Attraction (1987). In the final denouement, every horror film cliché gets trotted out as Laura goes to investigate strange noises in the house, looking at her disheveled cupboard with relief, only to return to it shortly and find everything lined up with terrifying regularity. Anyone as frightened of her husband as Laura would run at the first sound and ask questions later.

In addition, the producers at 20th Century Fox felt the need to throw in a Julia playing dress-up scene, using the costume room at Ben’s theatre as an appropriate substitute. I hated being manipulated this way, but I must admit that having Kevin Anderson in the scene improved on it considerably. He’s a wonderful actor who understands how to portray just a guy who comes to understand how he might be frightening Laura, and why. He’s rejected for sex during a heavy makeout session, and accepts no for an answer, but not entirely gracefully. With a lesser actor, Ben would have been a complete gentleman, too good for words. Sadly, Bergin, who is a good actor, was given a character with less opportunity for nuance. It is an unfortunate fact of Julia Roberts films that the script is often formed to create the cardboard theatrics the bean counters demand to ensure success. It happened at the end of Erin Brockovich, and it happens here, too.

Nonetheless, Laura is an interesting character. She would seem to have it all, except that she’s just like millions of women from all classes and walks of life who are abused physically and psychologically by men close to them. Laura acknowledges to a woman she meets on the bus that she stayed with her husband too long, and feels that she is a coward. This is an interesting statement—clearly she was strong enough to get some things for herself while under his thumb, such as a part-time library job, and to hatch an elaborate and risky plan to leave him. It seems clear that her cowardice may be tied to her desire for the luxurious lifestyle he offered, or perhaps just her lack of self-confidence. Laura is a very real woman in recognizing these feelings in herself.

Her romance with Ben is also too fast. As onlookers, we think two such good-looking, age-appropriate people should be together (and, after all, that’s what the Hollywood shell of this movie sets us up to expect), but in truth, Laura is revealing the depth of her lack of confidence by hooking up after only a short period of caution. This is a woman whose lack of skills, as evidenced by the minimum-wage job she lands shelving books, forces her to rely on men to take care of her. Laura is a sister under the skin to Francine Hughes, and was lucky to have held onto her sense of self so that her torment lasted under four years. Fran was put on trial for killing her husband, but Sleeping with the Enemy makes sure there’s a witness to Laura’s attack to ensure that her murder of Martin will be deemed self-defense. So it looks like we have our Julia Roberts happy ending after all, but for once, she gave us a woman who punctured her gassy image.


21st 11 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Trollhunter (Trolljegeren, 2010)

Director/Coscreenwriter: André Øvredal

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Like many other “pennyheads” from “The Land of Lincoln,” when I want to get away from the urban bustle of Chicago, I look to the north. Wisconsin holds many delights for urbanites looking for an uncluttered landscape that still offers high-quality creature comforts—the North Woods for outdoor activities like fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling; artisan cheeses and beers, including one beer so desirable that a New York City bar owner lost his license and was fined $250,000 for selling it; and charming towns that cater to the tourist trade by peddling their heritage for fun and profit.

One such hamlet is Mount Horeb, home to about 7,000 people of mostly German and Norwegian ancestry. Until it moved to the Madison suburb of Middleton in 2009, the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum—in reality a shop where I used to stop to buy some of the hundreds of unusual mustards they stock—was the town’s big claim to fame. However, even before it lost the museum, in fear that the US 18/151 bypass would kill the downtown retail district, the town decided to market itself in a new way. Playing up the Norwegian part of its ancestry, Mount Horeb became the self-professed Troll Capital of the World. A number of businesses have put “troll” in their names, and Schubert’s Diner and Bakery, the most popular breakfast place in town and a must for visitors, is liberally decorated with trolls of every size and type.

The trolls are amusing and a bit nostalgic for anyone who received, as I did, a troll doll to play with when they were young. But following a viewing of Trollhunter, some might think twice about visiting Mount Horeb. Despite the mordant, self-deprecating humor on display, director André Øvredal manages to find a Cloverfield kind of horror movie inside this Norwegian mockumentary that offers audiences some real moments of dread.

Farmers near the Norwegian town of Volda have been plagued with livestock killings, and Finn Haugen (Hans Morten Hansen) from the Nature Management ministry has been sent to investigate. Amateur documentarians from the local university in Volda, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), are on the case, too. After pursuing Haugen, the trio notices a craggy man who seems to be everywhere Haugen is. After the discovery of the corpse of a bear blamed for the attacks—not killed on the spot, as Haugen tells the media, but obviously dumped there—the filmmakers smell a rat and begin following the man as he drives his beat-up Range Rover hauling an even more beat-up trailer to his encampment.

Despite his repeated brush-offs, they follow him into a wooded area, see some bright flashes of light among the trees, and then find themselves running for their lives after Hans screams “TROLL!!!” Their quarry, Hans (Otto Jespersen), finally decides to open up about his activities by introducing them to his quarry—trolls. Warning them that following him is dangerous, he agrees to talk about his work in order to expose the scorched-earth policy the Norwegian government, and specifically the TSS (Troll Security Service), has towards trolls. The rest of the film follows Hans and the film crew as they scour the countryside in search of trolls that have broken out of their territories and pose a threat to human populations.

Trollhunter is a dead-on mockumentary that creates its own relatively believable universe within the confines of troll and hero mythology. The film crew is initially skeptical about the existence of trolls, even after Thomas is bitten by one, and, incidentally, patched up with the universally useful duct tape. They greet the sight of a huge three-headed troll that is felling trees with a mere push of its hand with jubilant amazement, while Hans tells them that two of the heads are actually growths the troll uses to attract females and scare other trolls fighting for territory; the trolls, the film tells us, are animals, not oddly shaped people, and that they have territories just like wolves or bears. They can be killed by exposure to sunlight, which turns the older ones to stone and causes younger trolls to explode. Amusingly, a forensic scientist (Urmila Berg-Domaas) explains this reaction by asserting how intolerance to Vitamin D causes the two different molecular reactions in the troll’s body. Unlike the often-preposterous science in many horror/scifi films, this explanation sounds plausible, which shows the care with which Øvredal constructed his universe, and forms one of the links in a carefully forged chain that sucks us into believing the story.

Another part of troll mythology that gets a humorous workout is their supposed connection with dark paganism. Hans asks the students if they are Christian or believe in God—if so, the trolls will be able to smell them, even if they are cloaked in the putrid “troll scent” Hans gives them to rub all over themselves. When we see one of the crew members rubbing himself furiously with scent while hiding in a cave from some mountain trolls, his terrible secret (“I’m Christian!”) is revealed. He doesn’t fare well among the mountain trolls; his replacement is a Muslim, about which the mythology makes no mention. Hans says cavalierly, “I don’t know. Let’s give it a try!” It’s a funny send-up of belief systems, but also makes us nervous about what will happen to the replacement, thus ratcheting up the suspense.

The film also makes clever use of the physical landscape to advance its story. For example, the filmmakers make note of the power grid, which Hans explains is electrified fencing for the trolls—a hilarious assertion that could feed the mind of a conspiracy theorist for weeks. Trees that have been blown down by storms become convenient props to show that a troll was in the area. After Hans turns a troll to stone with one last blast of light from his “light saber,” he blasts it to bits with some land mines; thereafter, scattered rocks take on the aura of being troll remains.

Jespersen is excellent as Norway’s only trollhunter, a solitary ex-serviceman with no real life outside of his work (perhaps because he and his trailer stink of troll from the skins he has hung inside for camouflage?). In one scene in which he tries to extract blood from a rabid troll, he wears a jerry-rigged suit of armor, looking like low-rent version of a medieval knight of myth and legend. He goes after errant trolls in workmanlike fashion, deploring one government-ordered massacre within troll territory like a worn-out, disillusioned Indian fighter in an American Western. In a brief glimpse, the crew members see Hans without his shirt, his back cross-hatched with scar tissue. Again, the story is ridiculous, but Øvredal knows how to build suspense for the horror half of his film that keeps us with him all the way.

The film crew members seem like believable college kids, excited by their adventure at the same time as they are taking their role as reporters oh so seriously. Thomas doggedly pursues Hans after he has told them to get lost, and Kalle says from behind the camera that maybe they should give up. Thomas retorts, “Would Michael Moore give up if he didn’t get the story on the first try?” Almost simultaneously, the hubby and I had the same thought: No, he’d just make up something and call it a movie. It was a funny joke for us, but I’m not sure Øvredal was going for that punchline.

The camerawork of Hallvard Bræin is absolutely brilliant. Norway’s breathtaking scenery, cascading waterfalls, atmospheric snow fields are pure eye candy in front of his steady, albeit handheld, lens. He switches to the green haze of a night-vision camera for many of the great troll effects. Every scene that contains a troll is exciting, a little funny, and seemingly real. I genuinely bought into the reality of these creatures and the danger they represented to our stalwart crew.

Still, the real villain of the piece is (of course) Finn Haugen. The more the students wonder why the public is being kept in the dark about the TSS, the more threatening he becomes. Clownishly trying to explain why a Russian bear, its tongue sticking out like a cartoon creature, was found in Norway (a hilarious bit with a Polish delivery crew that supplied the bear “under the table” has to be seen to be appreciated), he turns into a bigger danger for the camera crew than the 200-foot-tall troll they just saw Hans dispatch. The obligatory title cards at the beginning and end of the film about the circumstances under which the footage that makes up Trollhunter was found, and pleas to help authorities locate the students shown in the film, give this horror film the mock/ironic edge that makes it so biting and fun.

Nonetheless, on the off chance that trolls do roam the earth, I’m going to write to the Norwegian authorities and suggest they search in Mount Horeb.


30th 10 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

The opening seconds of Jaws are more indelible and menacing than many entire movies: with the lead actors’ names appearing on dense blackness and the sounds of marine animals’ sonic vibrations teeming in the dark, the iconic deep cello throbs of John Williams’ score gives instant, malefic portent to the roving, hungry point-of-view shots sliding through the deep. A jarring cut to a beach party, flavoured with perfect mid-‘70s faux-counterculture indolence, as the rich-kid refugees who make up Amity Island’s seasonal resource party the night away, and the exchange of long hard glances between Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) and Tom Cassidy (Jonathan Filley) presage familiar mating rituals, except that Chrissie, flush with youthful, randy energy, decides to go swimming and leaves the pie-eyed Cassidy on the beach. Chrissie’s swim, of course, becomes not a frolic but a close encounter with a primal force for which a human is just another food source. One touch here that sells the terror of this sad death just as much as the screams and struggling of Chrissie as she’s torn to bits by a monster and cries for the aid of a god who doesn’t answer, is the cutaway to Cassidy lying snoozing on the beach under a Winslow Homer dawn, utterly ignorant of what’s transpiring. Thus commences a drama where complacency and obsession become opposed, destructive forces hemming the conscientious in on both sides.

Now thirty-six years old, Jaws has hardly aged a day. Certainly, aspects of it are very much irremovable from the mid-’70s zeitgeist it both recorded and captivated, and yet the film’s inexorable style and salty screenplay vibrate with a still-fearsome kind of perfection. Jaws is widely regarded as the movie that begat the contemporary blockbuster. That’s only partly true: the first film to follow the template of a studio’s expensive tent-pole production designed to pay for other ventures, based on popular pre-existing material, was actually The Godfather (1972). All Jaws did was tweak the marketing formula. But Jaws did, arguably, introduce a certain hard-charging, pulp narrative attitude, the idea of story as means to motion and special effects as a major creative tool, which had not quite crystallised with such perfection before in Hollywood’s awkward efforts to rebuild its commercial brands after the long interregnum of the ‘60s. And yet Jaws is as distant from the idiocy of the worst modern examples of the blockbuster mentality as The Godfather is from Dick Tracy.

Steven Spielberg’s first huge hit, and still one of his three or four best films, Jaws is flavoured with a perpetually beguiling mixture of old-school writing and cinematic virtues and more modern varieties, facilitated by Spielberg’s particular capacity to meld classical Hollywood and New Wave techniques fluently, from the almost neo-realist use of the small town of Amity, to film school gimmicks, like the famous zoom-in-pull-back shot, that are perfectly contoured into the storytelling, unlike, say, in his contemporary Brian De Palma’s work, where such effects become, in their way, the story. In terms of the genre it most properly belongs to, the horror film, Jaws is a rare hybrid: it’s a monster movie, with elements of action and adventure, political satire, and domestic comedy-drama. Jaws followed hard on the success of The Exorcist (1973) in delving into another, even more deeply phobic subject matter for the mass audience: fear of the deep, of animal terror, of a Jungian unknown, of nature as a raw and careless power. There’s also always been a not entirely accidental link between Jaws’ success and its socio-political moment: it came out as both the Vietnam War and Watergate had entered their final anticlimactic moments, and the film’s themes, of trying to effectively recapture faith in institutions and win a war against a nameless evil in spite of politicians, could hardly have summarised the period mood more acutely.

The ironies of Jaws’ immense popular and aesthetic success proliferate, considering the film’s arduous shoot. As the movie was rushed into production, the script, first penned by Peter Benchley, author of the source novel, had to then be quickly worked over by playwright Howard Sackler, co-star Carl Gottlieb, and Spielberg’s friend John Milius, with contributions from Shaw and Scheider making the cut too. Spielberg, not yet thirty, was already out to regain his footing after his first feature film The Sugarland Express (1974) opened to poor box office on the day cameras started rolling on the new film. It was also a revisit of territory he had staked out with his telemovie Duel (1972), and Jaws in many ways stands in relation to the earlier film like Deep Red (1975) does for Dario Argento and his debut film The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), or The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) does for a few of Hitchcock’s earlier films: a semi-remake with which the director comes firmly of age. Where The Sugarland Express saw the wunderkind filmmaker draw a curtain on the early decade’s beautiful loser mystique, Jaws looks forward to the reasserted centrism of the ‘80s, in following essentially Everyman protagonist Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) as he contends with the obstructive realities of his society, and then far more primeval and urgent dangers.

Whereas in Benchley’s novel, crammed with bestseller elements the film thankfully mostly divests, the political subplot has overt underworld links, the film rather portrays the clash of intent between Brody and the town’s mayor, and major real estate figure Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), on a more humdrum, if no less urgent, level, pitting concerns of safety against prosperity, reconfiguring Watergate-era political paranoia from outlandish conspiracies into something more realistic and recognisable, capturing a perpetual schism in modern American (and elsewhere) political life: to a certain extent, contemporary environmental debate is only this one writ large. Contributing to the early outlay of social dimensions is the swiftly sketched yet firm portrait of Brody and his family as refugees from New York, and their discomfort with negotiating the clannishness and rigged decks of Amity islanders. Casting Scheider, later invariably associated with this part, nonetheless plays on his casting in The French Connection (1971) and that film’s pop-culture cache as a portrait of urban rot, as Jaws points out that things aren’t necessarily easier out in the sticks, as the Brodys discover, in having traced the wagon routes of white flight, that the bucolic surf and sea can cover up dread dangers that make muggers look homey.

The first half-hour of Jaws is a little whirlwind of exposition and tension-building, introducing Brody, wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary), and sons Michael (Chris Rebello) and Sean (Jay Mello) in their domestic muddles, and Brody at work, where the usual business of his job is today exemplified by contending with the petty complaints of shopkeepers about rambunctious kids. Brody snaps into action when he and his deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer) discover Chrissie’s remains on the beach, entangled with seaweeds and fed on by crabs. Social tension creeps in ineluctably, where the town’s parasitic relationship with the rich summer folk is threatened by the more immediate kind of predatory behaviour going on in the surf. Vaughn and his clique, catching him on the car ferry he commandeers to call in a bunch of boy scouts, corner Brody in a situation where he’s doubly unsure of himself, being as he is as uneasy on the water as he is in negotiating small-town politics. Previously certified fact is reconfigured to suit the requirements of a well-oiled machine, as Vaughn, in his slick and ingratiating fashion, gives a quick lesson in the power of words – “You shout ‘barracuda’, everybody goes, ‘Huh? What?’” – and the arts of spin.

Brody’s acquiescence to a minor cover-up is uneasy but understandable, as no-one really expects the lightning-strike moment to repeat, but Brody keeps his eyes peeled and becomes witness to a second attack, when Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is consumed before a busy beach. Here, the little gems that coalesce character and story continue with Spielberg’s editing and shooting particularly keen – Ellen being told that she’ll “never, never” be an islander by local matron Mrs Taft (Fritzi Jane Courtney), as the chief is made fun of by Harry Wiseman (Walter Hooper) for his refusal to go near the water, and vignettes so casual they seem snapped by a weekend cameraman, from Sean building sandcastles to a young man playing with his dog, and Alex’s mother (Lee Fierro) fretting over his pruning fingers. It’s only when the dog vanishes that the lurking presence is suggested, and by then it’s too late.

The singularly grim fate of Alex, and the image of his mother darting along the sands in panicked realisation that her son is the one missing from the pack, provides even more voluble emotional heft to what follows, and it also provides a cold-blooded twist to genre niceties, following up the familiar death of the sexually available young woman with the taboo annihilation of youthful innocence. The point, that the lurking death and terror respects no human laws, offsets the continuing, desperate attempt by the community to keep business operating as usual, shark-like itself in that it has to keep moving or die. Whilst many films of the era made political or business malfeasance a background enemy (eg The Towering Inferno, 1974), the question gains almost Ibsen-esque ramifications in Jaws through this coherent twinning, and because of Brody’s sense of culpability, which comes to a head when Mrs Kintner gives him a slap in the face for failing in his responsibility, a guilt Vaughn tries to relieve him of but one which he still holds close to his heart. Brody’s overwhelming sense of responsibility then becomes the core human value that holds the drama together. One of the strongest and yet least analysed Spielberg motifs, first embodied by Brody, is that of the burden of a duty of care, and the corruption and cleansing of the institutions that take up that duty, as individuals are forced to question their fortitude and values in relation to protecting others. There’s also classic movie myth working here: Brody invokes not only the “enemy of the people” in Ibsen’s play but also Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane in High Noon (1952), destined to head off to his own death-duel with a deadly foe, except that Brody does actually get some help, in the form of ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled WW2 vet and professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). As well as the seriousness with which he takes his job, Brody’s fear of the water ironically makes him the most sensitive barometer of the shark’s presence, and its most genuine nemesis, as he senses the menace that lurks underneath the pristine seas everyone else has turned into a playground.

Of course, the social conflict of Jaws is an adjunct to the real drama of first trying to save people from the beast and then going out to fight it in its own turf, as Brody browbeats Vaughn in letting him hire Quint, and they and Hooper head out to sea in Quint’s boat, the Orca, turning from Ibsen to Melville. Thanks to the notorious difficulties in getting Bob Mattey’s mechanical shark to work properly, Spielberg was forced to sustain the opening scene’s tactic of not showing the monster much longer than originally intended, an idea that fortunately deepened the tension and mystery immeasurably. Proofs and hints of the beast’s incredible strength and savagery are employed, from Hendricks, upon finding Chrissie’s remains, first whistling urgently for Brody and Cassidy to come running before collapsing in a sickly heap, to the two idiots who try catch it with a bait chained to a dock which it then pulls apart, and the huge tooth Hooper finds in the hull of the boat of local fisherman Ben Gardner, whose severed head then bobs out to give Hooper the fright of his life so far. Hooper’s own horror of seeing Chrissie’s remains inspires a memorable harangue, after he enters the film radiating good-humour but also a rock-steady professionalism, providing an immediate counterpoint to not only the obfuscation of the Amity locals, but also the bullying of the fishermen who haul a Tiger shark out of the sea after a chaotic fishing jamboree. Vaughn and coterie are happy to pass this off as the killer, but Hooper almost immediately proves that it isn’t, commencing another build-up to tragedy.

A large part of what makes Jaws work, and indeed almost unique in this sort of film, is the sheer overflowing sense of life it gives off. As in The Sugarland Express and again in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and 1941 (1979), the younger Spielberg’s view of American life as a kind of carnival of eccentricity and magnanimity blended with aggression and corruption is in constant evidence. Such attentiveness, offsetting Spielberg’s overt gamesmanship and Movie Brat intuitiveness, extends from the gabbling, arguing businesspeople and selectmen at the town hall meeting, to the flurry of yahoos out to catch the shark and receive Mrs Kintner’s $3000 bounty. The montage of the arrival of the July 4th crowds, scored by Williams with a semi-ironic baroque elegance, sees the processional of tourists of all stripes disgorged by ferries to cram hot dogs and ice cream in their faces and lounge on the beach, whilst Brody and Hooper work frantically to put together a force to protect them. Another aspect of the film is its rich sense of humour, which in many ways operates not dissimilarly to An American Werewolf in London, as comedy is carefully employed to not only offset tension but contribute, and to deepen character and milieu. Co-screenwriter Gottlieb was rightly proud of one of the film’s most effective moments, that of the shark’s first appearance, coming right on the tail of a funny line. Before I traded in old VHS recordings for DVDs, for a very long time the copy I had of this film on tape was actually an American network TV cut, with several sequences that I can never not consider part of the movie proper (on DVD as deleted scenes), including the hilarious moment of Quint bugging a clarinet-playing kid in the music store where he buys piano wire for fishing, and Hooper raving about his nympho former girlfriend’s phone bill. Both moments give more substance to these characters in giving a glimpse of them beyond the parameters of the immediate drama. But even without these, there’s a tangible sense of actuality to the characters without which the film would be just another shaggy dog yarn.

Spielberg’s prodigious, metamorphic sense of cinematic form is in constant evidence throughout Jaws, but it’s also one of the few films where his specific influences seem close to the surface: from shots that quote ‘50s monster movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953) and The Monster that Challenged the World (1957), and more serious works, with a sense of detail and Yankee maritime flavour redolent of John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick (1956), whilst the film’s general aesthetic owes a tremendous amount to Hitchcock in general and The Birds (1963) in particular, through utilising an overwhelming sense of sea and space for claustrophobic ends. For all the moments of overt fright-mongering like, truth be told, the slightly cheesy scare of Gardner’s head, there are few moments as chilling in movie history as that in which Quint’s fishing line first begins to tick, something having taken the bait, but just what still a mystery as Quint silently begins to prepare himself for the fight. Likewise the spirit of Val Lewton and his team hovers approvingly over much of the early action, sustaining as it does a similar aesthetic to much of Lewton’s work before the shark becomes a more overt menace in the film’s final phases. Chrissie’s death has a frisson intuitively similar to the anecdote Jacques Tourneur cited as the inspiration of Cat People’s (1942) pool scene, when he almost drowned when swimming alone at night. Spielberg was given a technical crew of tremendous experience, including cinematographer Bill Butler and editor Verna Fields, and he shied away from working with them again as word was spread around Hollywood that they had been responsible for saving the film. Nonetheless, their work is impeccable. The style is rarely showy, and yet there’s tremendous kinetic force in it, through such barely noticeable yet powerful gimmicks like the edits that sustain Brody’s point of view in the first beach attack scene, and the panning zoom shots of Brody moving through the beach crowd when responding to a shark sighting, repeated with Ellen when she leaves him at the Orca’s dock, entwining the couple with a visually manifested anxiety.

The domestic, sentimental side of Spielberg emerges in the naturalistic yet concise scenes of Brody and his family. The dinner table scene that follows Brody’s humiliation by Mrs Kintner is in many ways the heart of the film, where Sean imitates Brody in a fashion immediately familiar to parents the world over, and Brody’s sense of guilt and regret over Alex’s death, and the way his son encapsulates everything he stands for, informs his semi-drunk sentimentalism. It’s a scene that radiates outward through almost everything Spielberg has made. The arrival of Hooper shifts gears as a friendship begins to bloom, and Brody gets specifically liquored up to go out and take a look in the Tiger shark’s gut. It’s as finely crafted a piece of writing, acting, and directing as anything in American cinema. Just as good is the lengthy scene of male bonding aboard the Orca, where Hooper and Quint display bodily scars from their rugged lifestyles whilst Brody, in a casual moment that never fails to crack me up, can only consider his appendix scar, in spite of the fact that he’s the one who has perhaps most often put body and soul on the line in his working life. The mood and dramatic tension here shifts as lightly as a butterfly, from a virtual holiday booze-up to a sense of eerie isolation as Quint recounts the horrors of his experience of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and whale song echoes sonorously up from the deep, before the shark returns to visit and bashes at the hull as if to remind the humans that they’re still on his playing field. Quint’s disquieting monologue in this scene demanded the labour of all those writers, indicating its crucial import for the story’s depth. What’s really sad is that today neither these wonderful scenes would be included as a matter of course in a modern Hollywood film of this type.

Hooper and Quint form with Brody a triangle of divergent temperaments and life experiences, even as they dedicate themselves to the same quest of finding and killing the shark. Brody, Hooper, a rich kid (“How much?” “What, personally or the whole family?”), and Quint, an emotionally scarred WW2 vet (“You’ve got city hands, Mr Hooper. You’ve been counting money all your life.”) come to seem like the American national superego arguing with itself whilst trapped in a small boat, moving from quarrel to camaraderie and back again. Vietnam overtones resurge in considering the film’s final third, with Quint as the arbiter of old-school war-craft and dominant machismo, Hooper as the technological agent with a touch of the gentleman hippie to him, both of whom ultimately fail to bring the beast down, getting one of them killed and the other very nearly. For one passage, however, that in which Quint has the scent and the boys finally give chase to the shark that seems at last in their grasp, there’s a sense of high-flying joy in the battle, a joy that however soon curdles as the shark, responding to the Orca as a rival predator, begins to fight back.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Quint is several cans short of the proverbial, waging his private war against the species based in his Indianapolis experiences, an event tied to an earlier conflict and the commencement of American hegemony (“Anyway…we delivered the Bomb.”), and Quint grinds his boat to pieces in his refusal to swerve or change tactics in dealing with an enemy far cleverer than he expects, thus reproducing in many essentials the failure of the American war machine against the Viet Minh. In such a fashion, whilst Jaws is certainly based on Benchley’s book, it seems to channel more effectively the spirit of Norman Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam?, which likewise portrays a crisis of American bullish spirit on a Melvillian hunt as a ticket to understanding the underlying obsessiveness of that war. Quint also evokes another classic Western character, Red River’s Thomas Dunson, as a deathless portrait of alpha male hysteria: Quint’s machismo and relentlessness finally prove self-destructive. Shaw’s performance, much like Daniel Day-Lewis’ in Gangs of New York (2002), sustains a note of actorly high-wire daring in trying to render a character who seems a remnant of a pre-modern age in terms that are both palpably grandiose yet also still emotionally bodied, a kind of realistic-grotesque. Hooper’s attempts to use a cage and poisoned spar against the monster likewise flop as the shark smashes the cage open and tries to pick out Hooper like the innards of a walnut. Unlike in the book, he survives, as the shark gets caught in the cage’s suspension and struggles to free itself, a showcase for the real-life footage taken by Ron and Valerie Taylor.

At last, as political, social, even personal concerns fall away, Jaws boils down to one of the most elemental dramatic situations imaginable, and therefore the most resonant, as Quint is finally consumed by his living animus, and Brody is left alone with the shark. Quint’s death, whilst the shark is showing its origins a bit too much at this point, is nonetheless a remarkably visceral moment, perhaps the most vicious in any Spielberg film, as the shark crushes the life out of Quint with screams that shake the world and his mouth spouts a fountain of blood, even as he hacks at his nemesis with a machete until the last breath. The fate which the young Quint was permanently fixated by at last catches up with him, and to a certain extent he brought it on himself. Brody, on the other hand, becomes Saint George with an M-1, forced to face the dragon and overcome it with smarts and raw skill and survival at stake. Brody’s final whoop of joy when he at last dispatches the animal right on the edge of his own death possesses a tinge of irony: Brody can’t believe his harebrained last-ditch plan has actually worked. When he and Hooper swim back to shore, seen struggling onto the beach as the end credits role, Brody does it not just as a man who won, but as virtual redeemer for his kind of man, the man in the middle, the man doing his job. Whilst no deity reached down to save Chrissie, Brody becomes the first of Spielberg’s many righteous avengers.


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