3rd 11 - 2017 | no comment »

Daguerrotype (Le secret de la chambre noire, 2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Here there be spoilers.

Daguerrotype begins with a canted shot of a train moving into an open-air station. A young man gets off, follows some other passengers down some stairs to the exit, and walks a distance to a gated home where he has to speak into an intercom to be let in. He is expected. With this brief, subtly disturbing opening, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, master of the eerie, takes us from the modern world to an old, dark house of the mind.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that Kurosawa’s 1997 movie Cure is my favorite horror film. Cure is a bloody police procedural, but it is most interested in the way psychological pathologies can manifest in ordinary people given the right circumstances and stimuli. Thus, Cure and other films in Kurosawa’s oeuvre ask us to look inward, to empathize with his damaged, overstressed characters and recognize the limits of our own self-control and the ends to which we will go to regain it.

Daguerrotype and Cure share a trigger in common—guilt. Like the cop burdened with a mentally ill wife in Cure, Stéphane Hegray (Olivier Gourmet) is overcome with guilt over the suicide of his wife, Denise (Valérie Sibilia). Once a highly successful fashion photographer, Stéphane has retreated into his mansion, where he makes nothing but fragile glass daguerreotypes, a type of photograph that was born and almost completely died out during the Victorian era. He creates small images for clients—one of an old woman who seems to want to create something of a death mask of herself, another a portrait of a dead baby for a grieving mother and father, mimicking a common practice from Victorian times.

His newest obsession is creating lifesize daguerreotypes. The weighty, cumbersome photographic plates are too much for Stéphane’s aged assistant, Louis (Jacques Collard), to handle, so the young man we saw in the opening scene, Jean (Tahar Rahim), is interviewed as his replacement. While Jean waits to meet Stéphane, he spies a woman in period dress on the stairs above him. He learns later that she is Marie (Constance Rousseau), Stéphane’s daughter and frequent model. Jean is hired and starts to learn the particulars of his job, including locking Marie into an intricate metal frame to immobilize her for the lengthy exposures—some more than an hour—Stéphane needs for his daguerreotypes.

Much of the first half of the film is devoted to the everyday lives of the characters. We watch Stéphane’s agent, Vincent (Mathieu Amalric), try to coax him back to his career; Stéphane try and fail to conduct a commercial shoot; Marie, an excellent but amateur botanist, try to land a job at a botanic garden. We see Jean commuting on a subway back to Paris, where he lives, and go off to meet friends at a local sports bar. As a sign of his newfound prosperity, Jean settles a debt he owes one of them, only to be scolded for not returning his calls. This is the first hint that Jean is turning toward something new. His life is changing because of his budding love affair with Marie.

The central conflict of the film revolves around the difficulty of forging a future when the traumas of the past freeze us in place. Stéphane considers that he has ensured Marie will live forever by capturing her image on a lifesize daguerreotype, but the flesh-and-blood Marie was literally trapped in a metal vise, unable to move, while he made his pictures. His need for her puts her in a similar bind when she decides to pursue her own life and dreams. She is offered a job at a botanic garden in Toulouse and tells him she has decided to accept it. The consequences are almost immediate, as her father stumbles to the cellar, sees the ghost of Denise, and admits his betrayal of her devotion. Marie goes looking for him, only to tumble violently down the cellar stairs. Stéphane’s sin will be passed to his de facto son, Jean, who ventures into a criminal attempt to sell off the mansion for a substantial commission so that he and Marie can start a new life.

Daguerrotype shows Kurosawa’s command of Japanese horror conventions, specifically those of ghost stories, but put in service of his meditation on the shackles that love, memory, and guilt can impose. His frames reveal images at the edge, like nagging thoughts that won’t come into focus. Similarly, his ability to conjure actions that strongly corporealize his characters leave us confused when we suddenly find ourselves staring at empty spaces. He shows how prolonged exposure to supernatural beings can bring on insanity—it seems that Stéphane, Marie, and Jean are all touched by fire to one degree or another.

Kurosawa is at his most Japanese when Stéphane attempts to hide evidence of his complicity in Denise’s death in the chemical waste containers near Marie’s greenhouse. Hanging lamps that move by themselves entice him into the greenhouse, where he encounters a ghostly Denise moving toward him, slowly choking the frame as her form moves closer and closer to the cowering man, her long-nailed hands reaching for Stéphane’s throat, her unfocused, close-up face crowding everything else out. The moment is terrifying, but resolves in an unexpected way.

So, too, does Kurosawa defy the allure of Paris, so often a supporting player in so many films. We are never really sure what city Jean commutes to and from, as the director refuses any cliché establishing shots and stays on the back streets and in Jean’s crummy apartment when he is in the city. Tellingly, the only time we know for sure we’re in Paris is when Jean and Marie are leaving it for the last time and pass the Eiffel Tower, shrouded in fog.

All of the performances are strong, but special praise goes to Rousseau and Rahim. Rousseau’s Marie is delicate, a Mona Lisa enigma who, like the subject of that masterpiece, is set among the artifacts and attitudes of a past time. Her loving attentiveness to Jean is naturally expressed, characteristic of the passivity she had accustomed herself to in her father’s world. Her few moments of independence don’t really penetrate the serenity of her demeanor—she’s a gentle soul who believes others will treat her gently as well.

Rahim’s performance is a masterful slow burn. We can see the aimlessness of youth in his early scenes and his naïve eagerness to get started on a path with some kind of meaning. Interestingly, he is hired because he knows nothing about photography. That blank slate, like one of Stéphane’s unexposed glass plates, will be developed by his master—much to his misfortune. His attempts to get Stéphane to sell the estate get more and more desperate as Rahim signals the strange possession Jean is undergoing, one he is scrambling to escape. But Rahim never oversells his character’s emotional states, and the genuine feelings he and Rousseau express keep us boring more deeply into their story and invested in its outcome.

Cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine paints a gorgeous film, with rich and meaningful shadows and colors, and interesting depths of field that comment on character, particularly Jean’s. The timing of film editor Véronique Lange adds suspense and plants doubt in our minds. For example, bubbles from below the surface of a river where a body might be submerged churn an anxiety-inducing amount of time before a diver surfaces, empty-handed. The script by Kurosawa was translated into French by Catherine Paillé, revealing both writers to be literate and exact. Daguerrotype is a consummate work by a master and his talented team.

Daguerrotype is available on demand on iTunes, Sony, Google Play, Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu, Comcast, Charter, Cox, Vimeo, and various other cable operators.


29th 10 - 2017 | 5 comments »

The Shining (1980)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick

By Roderick Heath

A yellow Volkswagen Beetle winds its way along a vertiginous mountain road, a route that leads from the rational lowlands to the mountains of madness. We’ve already been introduced to Jack Torrance even though we haven’t seen him, a being enclosed in a tight bubble of metal, an economic and cultural refugee from the larger human world, entering a zone where his existence is viewed with implacable disinterest by the soaring, jagged peaks and silently abiding pine trees, merely waiting for winter’s hammer to fall. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s pulsing, droning synthesiser version of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique resounds on the soundtrack. Torrance in the flesh takes the shape of Jack Nicholson, authoritative Oscar winner flashing his trademark zesty grin. But the eyes are slightly fixed, the smile a tad strained, as he speaks with the manager of the Overlook Hotel, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), a conversation punctuated with Ullman’s uneasy revelation that one of the previous caretakers, a man named Delbert Grady, killed his family during the long winter isolation with an axe, whilst Jack grins and responds it will be a topic of delight for his horror film addict wife. Mutually agreed subtext: Torrance is desperate for a settled job and a chance to break his writer’s block, and Ullman urgently needs someone who’ll take on a job that has a nasty history of chewing up human life.

Like the conversation of scientists in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) who represent the urges of rational cooperation and irrational partisanship, Jack and Ullman’s exchange here manages to be at once perfectly bland, yet also conscious of standing on the edge of an adventure into the unknown where mysterious forces can already be sensed slowly gathering new strength. Down in the flatlands, where the mountains loom in the dreamy distance, wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) wait for news on Jack’s luck with the job. Wendy reads that eternal tome of the sensitively literate and rebellious, The Catcher in the Rye, whilst Danny has conversations with an invisible friend, Tony. But there’s more to Tony than simply providing a slightly detached and creative little boy’s outlet: Tony is an internal voice, a spirit guide, a doppelganger who hovers within and beside Danny, mediating his powerful psychic gifts. Danny senses Tony’s unease over the coming journey to the Overlook. When he asks Tony to show him why, the only image needed is one returned to again and again throughout the film like a pictorial leitmotif – a colossal torrent of blood spilling out of the hotel’s elevators, as if the heart of the building has stored up every drop of gore ever spilt upon the soil it stands upon.

The story has it Stanley Kubrick, looking for a strong commercial property to film after the weak reception of Barry Lyndon (1975), sat day in and day out in his office working through piles of recently successful novels, and one day the sound of the books thudding against the wall ceased when Kubrick took up the third novel by a fast-rising horror writer named Stephen King. What’s fascinating about this vignette is how much it resembles some moments in the film, the anguished search for a story to tell, an idea worth hanging years of mental and physical effort upon, stoking the sensation that Kubrick was drawn to the book because it reproduced aspects of his own mental landscape. Then again, that’s probably true enough for any creative person. Kubrick had not tackled an outright horror movie before, although much of his earlier work had suggested some affinity, in his fascination for humans devolving into imps of the perverse, and moments measuring the precise impact of violence. Kubrick, penning the script with novelist Diane Johnson, entirely sublimated King’s story into his own sensibility, an aspect of the film that still rankles the author. What we watch when we watch The Shining is not just adaptation, but something more like translation, a tale remade through new methods of communication, and inevitable imprint of the new artisan. Kubrick’s The Shining, as King put it perfectly correctly, is cold where the novel is hot, the writer’s guilt-ridden, morbid fantasy of his own worst side unleashed by his drinking problem, transmitted via Kubrick’s contemplation of his own tendency to withdraw and struggle through endless phases of creative genesis, drifting through pentimento layers of past and present and future in contemplating civilisation and its discontents.

Kubrick had already stepped back and forth through the Ages of Man from the horizon of human time to the gilded pretence of a recent past and on to a gleaming technocratic future, evolving somehow towards both divine perfection and primal resurgence all at once, the benign indifference of the Star Child and the savage grins of Dr. Strangelove and Alex De Large the Janus faces of evolution and poor old Barry Lyndon the beaten and curtailed by-product. Kubrick knew very well the human race’s capacity to put on its best face whilst committing its worst crimes, his singular, most obsessive theme. All found a logical terminus in the Overlook, a place where past and present join and twist and the present dissolves like white sky into snow. The Overlook Hotel. The description King’s idol Shirley Jackson gave to her Hill House could describe it just as well – “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone…and whatever walked there, walked alone.” An outpost of affluent white civilisation, a bustling hive of activity when filled with staff. Imposed upon the crown of the American landscape, so offensive to the dispersed and decimated native inhabitants they even tried to stop its construction upon a burial ground. The Shining is the contemporary nightmare rising out of the dream of ’70s shambling westerns like Little Big Man (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). The mountaintop burial place whose invasion stirs the massacre of Jeremiah’s family in the latter film is the unavoidable touchstone. Folk cultural remnants decorate the hotel walls, whilst the art deco interiors quietly mimic and refine the simple, jagged geometries of the Indian artefacts. A common motif in late ’70s horror, of course – the Amityville house was also perched upon an Indian burial ground. A hedge maze adjacent, a feature strayed over from one of the Enlightenment gardens of Barry Lyndon, the orderly compression of space and time into a devious sprawl of false hope.

Jack’s already simmering instability is merely stoked rather than imposed by the Overlook, his fantasies of godlike control over his mental world meshing with a locale that serves as the last stop on the psychic river flowing through a land won in harsh contest. Danny’s reassurance of his parents that he knows all about cannibalism from watching TV stirs a most unnervingly strained and lunatic grin from Torrance as he repeats his son’s words, testifying to a mind already frayed by being long outpaced by other modes of media communication even in the process of shaping his son’s mind. Methods of communication are a secret plane of warfare in The Shining. Jack’s inability to communicate meaningfully, represented by his writing or failure therein, is matched to his urging Danny to suppresses his psychic gifts, perhaps out of concern for the way people will think of him and perhaps jealous of them. Some vital mechanism in Jack has broken down, perhaps from the same process, of having to contour himself and his expectations into a workaday world, or perhaps from suppressing the gift in himself – if the two processes can be extricated at all. Jack hopes to dislodge the clog to his ambitions in the Overlook. Wendy, meanwhile, cute and gawky and ever so chipper, wears her identity like a baggy sack dress, the woman with a shrivelled sense of self-esteem who convinced herself she married a genius.

The Overlook provides the struggling writer and his family with a little kingdom with a brief illusion of possession, reminiscent on one level of the similar smorgasbord of consumer delight George Romero sent his heroes careening through in Dawn of the Dead (1978), albeit slightly more upmarket. Head chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) gives Wendy and Danny a tour of the hotel’s larder, stocked for a long winter and a veritable horn of plenty, a wonderland of space and illusory wealth backed up by an authentic aura of history. The Torrances settle into life in the Overlook, but after initial celebration of their new world, nothing goes right. Jack becomes increasingly tetchy and offensive. Danny keeps seeing strange and terrible things in the hotel corridors, and finally, fatefully ventures into Room 237, where something leaves him bedraggled and traumatised. This assault sparks suspicion and diverging responses of concern and infuriated frustration in his parents. Nature conspires to force a crisis. A terrible snowstorm falls upon the Colorado Rockies. Jack displays increasing signs of falling into a cabin-fever-driven frenzy with dangerous intentions. Soon Jack will also destroy the radio and snowmobile that offer the chance of rescue or escape.

The horror artist’s imaginative landscape is transposed onto the locale, filling up space with illustrations of events gruesome and strange, the many crimes and lost histories straying out of their boxes into the halls and corridors. Trauma clings to the place like a subtle stink of rot, particularly infecting the notorious Room 237, a space Hallorann detests so absolutely Danny can sense it in him, obliging the chef to warn him away from it at all costs. Danny and Hallorann find instant accord, for Hallorann has the psychic gift too, and he seems to be the first other psychic Danny has encountered. Hallorann calls their shared gift “shining,” and gives nostalgic account of his ability to communicate with his mother without moving their mouths. There’s a hint here that Jack probably has the shining too, but has suppressed it so deeply he becomes a mere conduit for the psychic evil in the hotel rather than a bulwark against it, as Hallorann and Danny are. It’s also suggested that the building’s latent evil is often sparked by the intrusion of such preternaturally super-conscious people into its zone. Grady’s slaughter of his family was occasioned by the attempts of one his daughters to burn the place down in her awareness of what it is.

Time quickly begins to break down once the family is ensconced in their private abode within the hotel, a space that serves as a kind of mocking simulacrum of a proper family hostel sealed off from the rest of this cavernous space. Kubrick’s deployed intertitles seem to precisely delineate the time but actually hack up the film into random shards, units of measurement without rule. Days dissolve into one-another; character actions take on a kind logarithmic variability, moving according to programs laid down by the Overlook. One of the most famous flourishes, the endless repetition of the phrase “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” testifies to an illusion of forward motion when in fact the some moment is repeating. Young Danny makes endless tours of the hotel corridors on his tricycle, a system that seems to depend on the same Byzantine logic as the hotel’s beloved hedge maze. The monstrosity at the heart of the labyrinth is no longer a fanciful Minotaur – it’s a suburban father. Kubrick reverse-engineers cinematic language in the course of the film, as if mimicking his time-warp theme. The stark, squared-off, rectilinear shots attune themselves to the hard blocks and angles of the decorative motifs and forms around the hotel, but also call back to early cinema and the work of Fritz Lang and other movie pioneers, their deadpan gaze upon severe and unyielding compositions. As in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), the implacable regard of order and fate is invoked through such rigid figurations, as is the rectangular frames of the photos that in the very end prove to contain and cage the spirits of the dead in the Overlook. The eye of the camera is a mocking form of immortality, locking time in an eternal frieze.

Part of the unique stature The Shining has acquired over recent years, which has evolved to the extent that a whole movies has been made the obsession with this one, seems rooted in just this aspect of The Shining. It’s a movie about looking, in much the same way as Blowup (1966), mediated through a master filmmaker’s eye, one whose visual style was based in his background in still photography. The very last shot reveals, unnoticed amongst the hotel’s keepsakes of a lost, glittering past a photo of a suited Jack standing before a large group of Independence Day revellers, a detail observed by Kubrick in a systematic journey in closer to the image, much like in Blowup. The truth is available if you look hard enough. Small wonder some folks scour the film in urgent hunt for details that might act like the small map of the hedge maze, a map that blends imperceptibly into the real one as Jack studies it. Jack’s own pretensions of omniscience are invoked here as he seems to see his wife and son wandering in the aisles of the maze. The shining is a way of seeing, reading, experiencing – “It’s just like pictures in a book,” Tony tells Danny in coaching him through the seemingly manifold terrors of the Overlook itself, which seems to lack sufficient power to actually hurt anyone, therefore requiring a pliable amanuensis like Jack to do it. Kubrick strips the games of look and reality down to brutalist essentials throughout, constantly hinting at unseen things. The Shining invites you to look closer but also observes the breakdown of order and logic, and the closer you get the faster this process speeds up.

The broadest variation on this motif comes when Jack ventures into Room 237 in search of an apparent interloper who has roughed up Danny. Jack sees at first an extremely beautiful woman climbing sylphlike out a bath, encouraging Jack to embrace her, but then transforming into a garish hag covered in terrible burns and stigmata of disease. This scene mimics the forms of horror with the heartbeat-like soundtrack and steady build to grotesque revelation, but rather plays more as a smirking gag at the audience’s expense, with Jack as the frustrated avatar, inviting in with the desire to see something sexy and then give it a right good goose. In a place where time folds in on itself, beauty and ugliness coexist in one frame. There’s also a hint of in-joke to this scene, or at the very least a sort of knowing reference. Nicholson started in his career in the low-budget scifi and horror of Roger Corman, and this sequence essentially compresses one of his first starring roles, in Corman’s faux-Poe escapade The Terror (1963), into a few excruciating minutes. Poe is an inevitable touchstone for any American artist dabbling in the oneiric arts, of course, the saturnine poet who was found dying one day on a park bench after everything else in his life had slowly withered and died, lost in fantasies of a gallant past turned septic trap. Poe unwillingly but implacably observed the genteel fantasies of the southern planter class he didn’t quite belong to regressing into blood crime, psychosexual dwarfism, and lunacy. King’s approach to the Poe imprint was to use his motifs to interrogate American hierarchism – the bludgeoning effect of money, class, race, gender. Kubrick? Well, suffice to say Stanley seemed a little sceptical about everything.

Sequences depicting Danny’s habits of charging about the hotel on his tricycle are excellent thumbnails describing Kubrick’s skill at compressing and paring back his style in order to land his effects with purified force. The director tracks the boy’s speeding advance from behind, in shots that intriguingly connect them with the same sense of headlong rushing with which he shot the B-52 bomber shooting towards apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove, or; How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), the sounds of his tricycle’s tires alternating between hissing smoothness on carpet and thunderous, irritating sound on the bare wood. You can all but feel Danny’s heedless release in the wealth of space after living in a copped-up apartment, but the cunning control of the sound instils forces the viewer to also empathise in the finest nerves with Jack’s frustration with trying to chase a muse with the racket a young child can make. Kubrick makes you feel this aspect of his tale, to experience it, rather than be passively fed dialogue. It also establishes a visual pattern returned to in the finale, as the roving, pursuing camera fills in for the killer pursuing Danny through the maze proper. Even when the narrative seems to be spiralling into frenetic chaos, the visual language remains unerringly concise. The little sways of the camera tracking the swing of Jack’s axe. The jolting zooms that pick out terrible details and perverse exhibitions. The increasingly intimate views of his actors’ faces as they cave in to lunacy and distress, often with dramatically unusual angles. One example of this is a shot of Nicholson as Jack converses with Wendy through a doorway, filmed from below, a shot that turns him into a caged beast and also invites the viewer into conspiracy with Jack, like one of Richard III’s monologues, as he begins to grin at Wendy’s naive and forlorn expectations of easy escape. The rhythmic interpolations of that singular vision, the torrent of blood, the flash cuts to Danny’s frightened face as he experiences nightmarish terrors with his shining.

Jack’s invocation to the spirits of the Overlook, uttered when he’s first seen in the hotel’s colossal function area called the Gold Room, with its chintzy splendour and gleaming, inviting bar, is, “I’d do anything for a drink – I’d give my goddamn soul for a glass of beer.” This line is almost parodic in its reduction of Jack’s moral and psychological collapse and enslavement to the Overlook to this singular formula, whilst also finally starting the process of nailing down Jack’s problem, his dry-drunk’s neurosis merely starved rather actively conquered. This is when Jack first glimpses the barman Lloyd (Joe Turkel), who seems at first like a fancy of the writer’s, suave and correct in his old-school aplomb, a character invented to match Jack’s remaking of himself as a worldly gentleman. He aids Jack in delivering verbal purgation of the motives that enforced his self-exile to the Overlook, not really an attempt to find creative fulfilment but instead an attempt to escape his alcoholism, and his guilt over losing his temper with Danny. Wendy proceeds through her days with a chipper, workaday front that is both entirely admirable and enabling of Jack’s instability.

After their drive together to the hotel, Kubrick pointedly refuses to ever offer a scene where all three characters are seen together, except for a moment in which Jack is a quivering mess after a dreadful nightmare of murdering them and Danny wanders into frame sucking his thumb in the traumatised wake of being attacked by something. Hallorann fulfils the role of father gently coaxing Danny into communication and community. One key scene here involves no overt violence or action but generates a mood of intense disquiet, depicting Jack, moving in a state of intense distraction, slovenly, unshaven, balancing his son on his knee and making weak attempts to communicate with the boy. This scene might seem queasily familiar to anyone who ever grew up with a depressive or alcoholic parent – the spectacle of a parent, supposed figure of love and protection and unquestioning commitment, drifting away in a haze whose attempts to mollify a child are desperately unconvincing. Danny’s question in response to Jack’s agonising expressions of paternal interest is “You wouldn’t ever hurt mommy and me, would ya?”

But the call of the Overlook is reverberating through Jack’s mind just as it rang out to Danny – come and play, forever and ever and ever. It’s a call that appeals more to a failed adult byproduct than to a wary and canny kid. Danny himself as already heard the call from the pair of twin girls, Grady’s daughters, who have appeared to him in the corridors, manifesting at the same time as the sight of their mangled and bloodied corpses. Danny’s capacity to weather such terrible glimpses depends on his ability to believe in them as mere illustrations rather than as true emanations. Jack instead interacts with them like a man stepping into private fantasies. Wendy’s stark, horrified reaction when she believes Jack might have roughed up Danny has the sorry effect of helping to drive him over the verge of the liminal as he stalks away into the depths of the hotel, arriving in the chintzy splendour of the Gold Room, where Lloyd converses with him in suave, correct old school aplomb, mollifying Jack’s fiscal anxieties and eventually appealing to his desire to be considered important. Lloyd suggests Jack is desperately important to a great project still unfolding at the Overlook. Later, re-entering the same space, Jack finds himself amidst a ritzy celebration of 1920s high life, replete with suited gentlemen and chicly clad flappers, and is bumped into by a waiter, whom Jack recognises quickly is Grady (Philip Stone). Grady protests ignorance of his real identity as Jack grills him about it in a mordantly red-painted bathroom, until the guise slips and Grady assures him with cold precision that he “corrected” his incorrigible family and encourages Jack to do the same with his, in defence of his post as the Caretaker, a role that has slipped any nominal bonds of merely earthly concern and become a post of cosmic significance within this time-space trap.

Fittingly, considering such themes of type-casting and predestination, the casting imbues The Shining not simply with strong performances but with actors who are obliged to act out versions of parts they had before, or with whom Kubrick had history. Turkel had previously appeared in Paths of Glory (1957) playing a young and tragic soldier also sacrificed in the interests of a smooth-working machine. Stone, who had been in both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, had played a retainer shocked by the pathology of the Lyndon household who eventually played successful intervener. Here once more he plays major-domo to the interests of the great estate, although the role of intervener is passed on to Hallorann. Duvall had been the big-eyed, soulful lady of Robert Altman’s Americana fantasias in the previous ten years. Thrusting Nicholson, hero of 1970s naturalism, back into such the zone of his early roles has a mischievous aspect to it, especially as Kubrick picks up and amplifies the coal-black comedy and purposefully cartoonish aspects of a Corman film like The Raven (1963). Kubrick’s fascination for performances pitched right on the edge of overt stylisation reached an apogee here thanks to Nicholson and Duvall. Nicholson’s bravura incarnation of Jack has the quality of a piece of paternal play-acting Big Bad Wolf or Captain Hook constantly threatening to turn into authentically ferocious violence. The film’s moment of truth portrays exactly this pivot, as Jack slowly backs Wendy up a flight of stairs, taunting her with increasingly maniacal flourishes and threats whilst never quite losing the quality of someone enacting a great big joke. Wendy’s name, of course, sarcastically twisted to “Wendy, darling,” amplifies the pantomime connection.

The Shining is, of course, in spite of its stature and pretensions, a haunted house tale. An old and noble adjunct of the horror genre, the haunted house tale can be both a realm of subtle, evocative frissons and outright bloodcurdling showmanship, of gently psychologised anxiety and spectacular manifestation. The Shining manages to describe the range between both these poles. In many haunted house films from earlier times, hauntings usually proved to be illusory, as in the various versions of The Cat and the Canary (1927, 1939, 1976), usually remaking this hoary trope as a vehicle for proving the antiseptic values of modernity. But a later movement, perhaps set in motion by Jack Clayton’s ponderously literate adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents (1961), saw the value of this trope as questions over the ambiguity of viewpoint became central, and the notion of a ready-made, coherent metaphor for the mind as a set of rooms never free of ghostly imprints of thought and memory. Examples of this mode came on through the 1960s and ‘70s, including Robert Wise’s take on Jackson, The Haunting (1963), Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1972), John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973), Dan Curtis’s Burnt Offerings (1976), Richard Loncraine’s Full Circle (1976), Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror, and Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980).

What distinguishes The Shining over and above most of these? Kubrick’s fastidious film language is one part of it, of course, the methodical yet remorseless intensification of mood and story that calls to mind the title of that James story – the screws are constantly tightening. But another, telling point of discursion is that in most of those films, the supernatural is an active threat. In The Shining the haunting is entirely passive, only acting through a human avatar – although The Amityville Horror also hinged upon the fright factor of a seemingly decent father turning brutal. One aspect of King’s great success as a horror writer lies in his precise refusal of ambiguities in regards to his generic devices, his monstrosities and ghouls, for whilst embracing the metaphorical meaning of his ideas, King’s realisation of them, from satanic lawnmowers to a girl’s wrathful psychic powers, are perfectly literal. Evil when it breaks out in King’s writer has punishing corporeal and moral dimensions. King liked the theme of ordinary people falling under the power of forces from without – even the hapless dog in Cujo is a victim of this – whereas Kubrick sees it as welling from within. Part of the tensions between King’s story and Kubrick’s realisation of it lies in what feels like Kubrick’s attempts to impose a level of ambiguity about whether what we’re seeing is an actual supernatural event. Much that we see here could simply be a reality created by claustrophobia, isolation, a depressive addict’s sullen fantasising, and shared neurosis of the Torrances. It doesn’t entirely fit: there are too many events in the story that seem to confirm the actuality of the supernatural’s place in the tale, including Danny’s communication with Hallorann and Jack’s escape from the freezer Wendy locks him in after successfully knocking him out with a baseball bat.

It might be impossible to ascertain whether Kubrick ever watched Bava’s films, and yet the points of accord are hard to ignore: as in Operazione Paura and Lisa e il Diavolo, places become infected with the diseases in the minds of the people who live in them, who then find themselves doomed to act out the pathologies locked into the environs about them (Kubrick’s affinities with Bava would again resurface notably in Eyes Wide Shut, 1999). One scene cut from the film directly quoted Operazione Paura, in which Jack picks up a ball tossed his way by a ghostly presence. The deliberate replacement of tension sourced in what will happen with tension rooted in the question of when and how, blended with the theme of Jack’s temptations towards illusory fulfilment of his psycho-sexual needs whilst exterminating actual loved-ones, is similarly close to Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970). Kubrick’s own preferred genre, if he had one, was the war film – six of his thirteen movies depict warfare to a significant degree. His fascination with martial subordination and ritualised violence is evinced here too; The Shining is a portrait of psychic warfare. It’s there in the way Jack is subordinated to the hotel’s programme in the same way the soldiers in Paths of Glory are enticed to destroy themselves and others to live up to a patriotic ideal, echoing General Mireau’s bullying-obliging his subordinate Dax to lead a hopeless and cynically motivated attack on the Ant Hill, and looking forward to the lengthy studies in indoctrination and terrorisation utilised in the training process examined in Full Metal Jacket (1987). As in Lolita (1962), The Shining is also the spectacle of a cultured and respectable being falling to pieces in the face of personal obsession. As in Barry Lyndon, it’s a portrait of a man being slowly crushed by the knowledge he has stepped into the lap of luxury whilst never quite possessing it. As in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, the onrush of calamity is viewed always with a cruelly comic grin, humans portrayed less as thinking, self-aware organisms than as momentary embodiments of various traits, from monstrous will to wretched decency.

Hallorann, a weathered and worldly black man, is the cheeriest character in The Shining, a man who knows how to entertain a kid and keep customers satisfied, and leaves behind the heart of darkness that is the Overlook to go lounge in the sun and watch TV. He initiates Danny into a new community, one that obeys different rules to the rest of society, a world without words. Hallorann calls to mind the intimacy of sharing the shine with his mother, an intimacy to which the Torrance family never aspires. King ironically edited himself out of the ideal nuclear family of the new age in killing off his own avatar and leaving Wendy and Danny with Hallorann. Kubrick concentrates more on the punishing reaction of the offended white male ego, an aspect of The Shining that was prescriptive in the climate of 1980 when Reaganism was on the advance and which today feels all but acutely prophetic. “White man’s burden,” Jack mutters to Lloyd, and soon the film reaches a zenith of deadpan black-comedy grotesquerie as Grady baits Jack, who weeks earlier was probably a good little liberal, with the news that his son is calling in “a nigger” to stymie their designs. Torrance repeats these totemic words in hyperbolic distress, indicating the degree to which he’s fallen under the spell of the old hates written into the structure of the hotel.

Kubrick rhymes and contrasts this sublimation by Jack of the ancient communal hates encoded in the Overlook’s timbers with the amusing sight of Hallorann in his hotel in the midst of black erotica, a touch that also says something about the two men as men, as Hallorann is a bachelor off enjoying his sojourn whilst Jack is entrapped with his family. Making Hallorann somewhat older than Jack and Wendy removed any hint of sexual threat, but Hallorann is still closer to an idealised figure of paternal care. After all, he’s the sort of guy who will drop everything, fly across country, and venture into a blizzard the moment he senses Danny and Wendy are in danger. Jack’s devolution meanwhile sees him increasingly bullying and abusing Wendy for placing her concerns for Danny ahead of his anointed place and responsibility as caretaker and litterateur. Jack’s brutal murder of Hallorann as soon as he arrives is Kubrick’s starkest deviation from his source. This might well have been made to offer at judicious dash of traditional horror in the story – it’s the only actual death in the film – but it also powerfully intensifies the film’s increasingly maniacal mood and sense of exposure. Danny and Wendy must save themselves, for no white (or black) knights are on the march. But it’s also plain in this sequence, in which Jack hides behind a pillar and springs out at Halloran as if to shout “Boo!” whilst slamming his axe into his chest, that there’s still a sick element of play to Jack’s homicidal rampage.

The darkly comic streak of The Shining might be identified as Kubrick’s signalling to the audience he feels himself above the genre on some level, except that, as well as coherent with the rest of his oeuvre, the humour entwines with the fervency with which Kubrick delves into this little imaginative universe he and his great team of collaborators fashioned. The atmosphere of extreme isolation and immersion in the subliminal is knitted together by the strength of Kubrick’s images and his music cues. The note of child’s-play-turned-murder-party is still present even as Jack is hunting his son through the hedge maze, which becomes a subzero game of hide-and-seek with a shiny axe in the mix, and of course in the most famous moment in the film, his spittle-flecked, mad-eyed mockery of television’s appeal, “Here’s Johnny!” Meanwhile Kubrick goes to town in unleashing strange and tantalising visions, as when Wendy spies someone in an animal costume fellating a hotel guest, and another guest with a bloodied wound on his brow beaming at Wendy with a hearty greeting, “Great party, isn’t it?” Yeah, it’s a real lark. Such dioramas of the inexplicable are another facet of The Shining’s mystique, evincing episodes of teeming strangeness contained within the Overlook’s embrace without ever pausing to explain and explicate them, rather suggesting that what is glimpsed and spoken of throughout is only the tip of this uncanny iceberg. Hallorann’s ill-fated dash to the rescue does at least present to Wendy and Danny the means to escape in his snow tractor, whilst Jack, injured and dissolving into babbling lunacy, sits down in the maze, unable to find either Danny or his way out, and is glimpsed next as a frigid, icicle-fringed corpse. It’s a truly pathetic end for would-be artist-god’s designs. The last shot, on top of its mordant and haunting evocation of eternal entrapment and the dissolution of meaning in the face of time’s eddies, begs a certain sympathetic question: is Jack happier this way?


27th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon, 1957)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

By Roderick Heath

Headlights, burning the night like eyes of a spectral beast, light the way along a country road at night, branches etched in slivers of brightness against vast darkness. The car arrives before a great old house, and its driver, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), meets with the house’s owner, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) in a state of clammy desperation. Harrington claims to have seen something, something terrifying enough to make the peerlessly rational researcher, who has been investigating Karswell and his cult worshipping black magic and old gods, come begging for his quarry’s aid in exchange for public apologies and repudiations. Karswell asks some seemingly calm and placatory questions, including about the fate of a scrap of parchment covered in runic symbols Karswell gave him. After learning the parchment was burned, Karswell assures Harrington that he should go home and leave everything to him. Harrington drives back home through the night. But as he’s pulling into his driveway, Harrington sees a spectral figure manifesting in the distance that drives him into a wild panic, causing him to crash his car into a power pole. The last thing Harrington sees as he twists up in the midst of power lines is a colossal, ferocious demon lurching over him and reaching down…

This opening has fineness sufficient unto itself, a miniature essay in form and style in a horror movie – the war of inky blacks and dazzling whites and grey shades in between, the judicious glimpses of a monstrous being at large in the quiet embrace of the English country night, the layered ironies of soft-spoken gentlemen bringing down ruinous forces from beyond. Although director Jacques Tourneur was frustrated by having to show the demon in literal form, the way the film handles its appearance still stands, 60 years later, as perhaps the best and worthiest ever use of a special effect in a horror film, a ne plus ultra in genre spectacle – the strange apparition appearing vaguely in the distance, wreathed in smoke and fire, two massive legs astride the writhing, desperate Harrington, and then a great, looming close-up of the demon’s snarling visage and terrible clawed paw splayed to grip its prey and prize.

Charles Bennett, who had been a top screenwriter for many years and is still perhaps best remembered for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock on projects like The 39 Steps (1935), laboured on penning an adaptation of M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” for many years, and harboured hopes of directing the completed script. Bennett couldn’t get any studio to back him in this until, agonisingly, just after he had signed over the script to producer Hal E. Chester, who then proceeded to amplify his frustration by rewriting it to better fit Chester’s idea of commercial interests. Chester nonetheless proved himself wise in one regard, when he turned to Tourneur, recommended to him by another producer, to handle this tale of gruelling anxiety. Tourneur had not made a horror film in 14 years, although it was the genre that had made his name working with RKO maestro Val Lewton. Tourneur and Lewton’s partnership had laid down a blueprint for a style of horror not only followed by Lewton’s other stable-mates Robert Wise and Mark Robson, but which made a subtle but pervasive impact on the genre as a whole. The duo’s clarion work Cat People (1942) even purportedly saved RKO from bankruptcy. After extending the series with I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943), Tourneur had been rewarded with a swift rise to handling larger-budgeted and more prestigious films, turning out excellent noir thrillers like Out Of The Past (1947) and Berlin Express (1948). Once Tourneur’s RKO contract expired he was free to pick and choose projects from different studios. But far from burnishing his reputation, the string of westerns and adventure movies he made throughout much of the 1950s are generally far less well-known than his foundational work.

Tourneur and Lewton’s collaboration had been rooted in their mutual status as immigrants who had each followed famous elder relatives to the US for work. In Tourneur’s case, his director father Maurice Tourneur, and in Lewton’s his aunt, the silent screen star Alla Nazimova. Both men found accord in this sense of tension between their experiences and their lives in Hollywood, as well as a shared humanist outlook. But they also diverged as Lewton’s romantic rationality was pitted against Tourneur’s interests in the mystic, a division that ultimately synthesised a penchant for ambiguity in their approach to the creepy tales they were obliged to create. Tourneur’s visual palette, influenced by his father’s famous and innovative use of light in his films, was delicate yet firm in its gradations and depth of field, aiding him in his gift for creating a sequestered mood, a state of subtle alienation and isolation from the everyday world. This talent was most famously evinced in such scenes as the swimming pool sequence in Cat People, but Night of the Demon quickly offers a less spectacular, but equally vital example of this touch at work after its fanfare opening. Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) and colleague Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews), who don’t know each other in spite of their connection, frustrate each other as they fly over the Atlantic to London. The incidental meet-cute here is a bit arduous on the dramatic level, but also a model of mood control and audience conditioning: Tourneur evokes a hushed and somnolent corner of a noisy, zippy modern act, in flying aboard a propeller-driven passenger plane, introducing a story where the tension between the modern and ancient, seen and unseen, defines all. Joanna’s light, which annoys Holden, is an ironic beacon of wakeful vigilance where everyone else is trying to sleep, setting in motion the battle between her credulity as to the possibility of supernatural menace versus Holden’s conviction of its impossibility.

Holden is heading to London to chair an academic conference of investigators into anthropology and folklore, at which Harrington intended to discredit Karswell, whose cult activities seem to have driven at least one member of the faithful to go mad and commit a murder. Both Joanna and Holden are met with the news of Harrington’s death upon touchdown, but Holden wastes no time in retracing Harrington’s steps in pursuit of Karswell. Trying to track down some of the research tomes Harrington had listed in his investigations, he goes to the British Museum’s reading room, but cannot find the book listed entitled The True Discoveries of the Witches and Demons. A stranger claims to overhear and offers to show Holden his copy. The stranger is Karswell, who introduces himself in affable manner and gives Holden a card as well as a bundle of his own papers accidentally toppled from his work desk. The card promises, “Allowed three days” in handwriting that vanishes without trace even to a chemist’s eye. Intrigued, Holden decides to accept Karswell’s invitation, taking Joanna, who visits his hotel room to warn him about her uncle’s slow-mounting dread before his untimely end. Holden thinks he has Karswell pegged as a “harmless faker” when he sees Karswell entertaining children as a clown and magician, so Karswell attempts to wipe the smugness from his face by taking credit for a vicious windstorm that suddenly descends and churns the party to chaos.

Karswell claims success in translating portions of the encrypted True Discoveries and gained unique insight into and power over the supernatural world with it, power he has wielded to gain himself a flock of intensely credulous yokel followers, and enriching himself in the process. He also predicts Holden’s imminent death. The stage is set for an extended battle of wills between Holden and Karswell, the stiff-necked rationalist slowly whittled down to size as he finds himself dogged by mounting signs that something terrible really is now dogging his footsteps, manifesting in menacing sounds in his hotel corridors, fits of blurry vision and hallucination, pages vanishing from his diary after the date of his anticipated demise, and pursuit by a smoky apparition when he ventures alone through the woods neighbouring Karswell’s house. Joanna becomes convinced quickly that her father’s dread was based in something substantial; Holden resists her entreaties to pay heed to his example whilst also trying to romance her. Karswell’s elderly mother (Athene Seyler) also attempts to convince Holden he’s in danger, and invites him and Joanna to a session with a medium, Mr Meek (Reginald Beckwith). Meek seems to channel Harrington and his desperate implorations from beyond, but Holden is left more annoyed and sceptical than ever. Meanwhile Holden’s colleagues, O’Brien (Liam Redmond) and Kumar (Peter Elliott), are arranging to medically examine the mad cultist, Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), and use hypnosis and drugs to extricate the truth of what happened on the night of his supposed murder.

Night of the Demon was released at almost the same time as Terence Fisher’s pivotal work for Hammer Films, Curse of Frankenstein, and like that film it reclaims the imagery of looming, destructive chimera from the world of science fiction and restores it to the embrace of horror’s darker, more intimately troubling world, announcing horror’s resurgence as a vital genre. At the same time, where Fisher’s gore-spiked, gothic fairytale approach was actually a jolt of harsh modernism, Tourneur’s film mediates two eras with intricacy and also some strain. Part of the power of the approach Tourneur and Lewton took in their horror trilogy was rooted in their exploration of the consequences of modern rationality with its weapons of science and psychology, grappling with old figurations for the understanding of the world. Their template refused to entirely demystify those figurations but more often fighting them to a draw in recognising that the cold light of reason never dispels the power of the irrational, even if it only lurks in the recesses of the mind. The possibility of supernatural action in Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie was mediated through the very real and immediate conspiracies of damaged and damaging people, whilst the storyline of The Leopard Man self-consciously invoked the notion of a human lunatic using a primal force, in this case an escaped wild animal, as a black alibi for his predations.

Night of the Demon, by contrast, allowed Tourneur to step back into horror cinema by making that tension between the rational and irrational worldviews the basic matter of the drama. The story concerns the constant dialogue of belief and scepticism that is at the heart of so much of the genre. James’s stories were usually built around such a gap in understanding, mediated through James’ own scholarly habits, his fascination with dust-caked esoterica, transmitting through layers of media a sense of a world lost and just beyond grasping where the laws of the universe was understood in a different way. James’ approach, with his falsified testimonies and second-hand accounts, borrowed from and also augmented the epistolary style of writing, a mode with much in common with contemporary cinema’s love of found footage gimmickry, in terms of trying to convey a charge of verisimilitude. Night of the Demon doesn’t try to reproduce this layered effect, but Bennett did an expert job of transposing James’ story from a late Victorian setting into the mid-1950s. Perhaps, indeed, it found the setting it always demanded, the age of planes and atomic bombs and bright, sterile lights, amidst which the shadows sometimes seem all the darker, more abyssal and witholding. Holden’s conversations with O’Brien and Kumar, who are rather more metaphysically-minded than him and variously open to belief in the supernatural – Kumar in particular – see them engaging in jocular but weighty manner on the ways of understanding such phenomena. Kumar refuses a drink O’Brien offers, calling alcohol the “devil’s brew.” Later, when O’Brien jokingly notes the devil has something with his pleasant drink, Kumar notes “That’s when he’s most dangerous – when he’s being pleasant.” And of course, Karswell is the most pleasant gentleman around.

The charm of the English story, acknowledged early in the film when a local journalist wryly asks Holden to “go easy on our ghosts – we’re rather fond of them,” exudes from a land where the modern lives cheek by jowl with the works of unseen generations, moulded into the everyday habits of the land, dogging memories of ancient convictions and loyalties still infesting the edge of a world otherwise getting on with business. Many moments in Night of the Demon record the essence of this parochial style, particularly the riotously strange séance sequence in which Meek’s wife (Rosamund Greenwood) and Mrs Karswell sing the chirpy ditty “Cherry Ripe” to induce the right spiritual mood, seeing the medium begin to grunt and toss as he connects with the astral plane. Meek passes through a variety of possessions, including of a kindly Scottish gentleman and a small, frightened girl in search of her doll, before finally Harrington enters him and frantically tries to warn Holden and Joana about the demon even as he screams in terror at its looming presence. Holden shatters the mood, and Meek’s trance, by getting up and turning on the lights (“I feel sick.” “You’re not the only one.”) in a conscientious act of effrontery to the construction of credulity enforced by the showmanship of the séance. The film’s most vital performance is also the best conduit for this contrast of English eccentricity and the truly uncanny, in MacGinnis as Karswell.

The Irish-born actor, once a rugged heroic type in films like Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1938) and Anthony Asquith’s We Dive At Dawn (1943), was balding and portly by the time this film came around, and so he slipped into the skin of this character to present conjure master and necromancer, patterned after that eternal fount for horror writes Aleister Crowley, not as sepulchral supervillain (a la Boris Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat, 1934) or suavely sinister man of the world (Charles Grey’s Mocata in The Devil Rides Out, 1967), but as a bluff and genial former performer who’s nice to kids and helpful even to mean, old scholars who want to persecute him. Truth be told, Karswell bears more likeness to L. Ron Hubbard than to Crowley, as entertainer turned religious leader, carefully feeding out fragments of his revelations gleaned from supposed ancient texts. Bennett and Tourneur seem to have noticed grounds for such a figure to flourish in an age increasingly wary and inclined to reject modernity’s apparent lack of order and calm.

Karswell also anticipates Psycho’s (1960) Norman Bates as a figure of destruction lurking in a big, old house with his mother, one who could be seen as coded queer (though he seems to gain designs on Joanna eventually). But Psycho would announce the proper birth of the modern horror film with its knife-wielding serial killer as monster, Night of the Demon still has a foot in an atavistic world, its momma’s boy headcase bringing down death with justified conviction that he holds the secret reins of the world, whilst, of course, living with the risk they might be tugged from his grip. Karswell makes plain to his mother his way of thinking and his motivation for destroying Harrington and Holden – to protect the worldly and otherworldly success he’s obtained. MacGinnis is great fun as he veers through conversations with alternations of affability and tossed-off threat (“Unfortunately you won’t be able to explain away your death on the 28th of this month so easily, with my prediction of it at this moment,” he mentions airily whilst taking off his clown make-up). He manages to simultaneously imbue Karswell with a genuinely malevolent edge, shading his sweetly tempered voice into deeper, sterner intonations, fixing Holden with cold-blooded stares and triumphant smiles as he stands unmoved during the pulverising wind storm he conjures. MacGinnis also expertly traces Karswell’s undercurrent of genuine awe and trepidation, his all-too-credulous certainty that the terrors he can wield are dangerous, and his awareness of the basic law of magic, “nothing for nothing,” that every cause has an effect and every cup taken from the well must be refilled one way or another.

Holden meanwhile visits some of Karswell’s followers, who seem to live in an entirely different epoch to him and everyone else, when he needs permission from Rand Hobart’s relations to treat him. These people subsist on a farm without any sign of technology, speak in ye-olde-isms, and seem sternly subservient to the old forces of the earth and beyond Karswell has facetiously mastered but they have adopted with iron belief. There’s an intriguing echo throughout Night of the Demon of one of Tourneur’s best-regarded, if least well-known films, Stars in My Crown (1950), as that film’s gentle and empathetic portrayal of a religious warrior trying to win over a rustic community gives way to a man of staunch disbelief confronting an enclave of septic holdouts from a radically different faith. Aptly, Holden’s attitude slowly reveals itself as every bit as monomaniacal as any religious fanatic’s, and sourced in a similar anxiety as to what mysteries an alternative world view open up. This dichotomous aspect is evinced as Holden expressly detests the sensation of being robbed of not only certitude but also forthright sovereignty by the possibility of the supernatural: “It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner – if this world is ruled by demons and monsters we may as well all give up right now.” To which Joanna ripostes that the existence of forces that cannot be repressed doesn’t necessarily mean being ruled by them. If the essence of the ’50s science fiction film had often been conjuring colossal fears to be defeated by the end, Night of the Demon pointedly refuses the notion that all anxieties can be so defeated, but also suggests the evil forces tend to consume those who invoke them.

Without going too far out on a limb, it’s possible to regard Night of the Demon as a vital signpost in the souring in the postwar sensibility, counterpointing Curse of Frankenstein’s ruthless commentary on unhinged science conjuring monsters where none existed before. The feeling that Night of the Demon was pitched in part as something of a commentary on the waning scifi creed and flagship for horror is bolstered, as Holden is given explicitly Jungian attitudes linking the sightings of flying saucers with the many similar types of demons O’Brien keeps a collection of as evidence of the possibility the demon is real, branding them common archetypes. Holden himself is of the same species as the square-jawed, he-man scientists who could solve all the world’s problems in such films. Night of the Demon hinges on the observation that just because not all fears can be plumbed doesn’t mean they cannot be controlled or reckoned with. The object at the heart of the narrative, the paper inscribed with the mystic runes that serve as summons and beacon for the demon, is a blind tool of supernatural forces, capable of bringing down the demon’s wrath on anyone who holds it, a device that ultimately gives Holden his ticket to defeating Karswell.

Night of the Demon has always been a knotty work to me. I’m often left with the feeling after watching it that with a few tweaks it could have been an unrivalled pinnacle of the genre, but a few vital elements consistently frustrate me. Some of this seems to stem from the tension between the three main contributors to its making, Bennett, Tourneur, and Chester, whose revisions to Bennett’s script resulted in a story flow that doesn’t always seem properly structured, and awkward switchbacks in the style and attitude of the characters, like Holden’s oilier efforts to romance Joanna. Clifton Parker’s often crashing score is another facet that annoys, as well as the frustratingly overpitched performances by the usually reliable Andrew and Cummins. That said, the mood of strained and brittle self-consciousness both actors exude accords with the slowly ratcheting, jump-at-shadows disquiet inherent in Holden’s plight. Moreover, Tourneur’s direction relentlessly accumulates signs of menace, pulling jolting moments out of his hat just as Karswell plucks puppies from his, like a famous moment when two small boys wearing creepy masks leap out from a tree, interrupting Karswell’s quietly menacing conversation with Holden: just two kids at play, but it comes with such perfectly unexpected jaggedness that it still startles after umpteen viewings. Less agreeably, Tourneur’s method here, revising the art of the “bus scare” he developed with Lewton that hinged on utilising jarring cues of sound that prick the audience’s susceptibility with false scares, also anticipates the modern reduction of horror cinema to a series a jumps induced by assaults with volume.

The failure of the séance to convince Holden of his danger leads him to try breaking into Karswell’s manse to get a look at the True Discoveries. It proves an abortive mission, as Karswell senses his intrusion, and Holden is mauled by what seems like a terrible monster in the dark, but proves to be only a pet cat when the light is switched on – or, as Karswell mockingly suggests, a cat possessed by a guardian spirit to protect the house. Holden takes his obtuseness to a new level when he declares his determination to leave the way he came, treading back through the woods neighbouring the house in spite of Karswell’s appeals not to. But his journey becomes a magnificent opportunity for Tourneur to stretch his scaremongering sinews. Holden becomes increasingly jumpy and finally starts running in panic as mysterious footprints of an invisible fiend start pocking the ground, and a glowing ball of smoke seems to chase the panicky scientist through the aisles of skeletal trees and clinging bushes. There’s another echo of a recent scifi film here: the invisible “monster from the id” in Forbidden Planet (1956) left the same footprints, even though the structure of the scene is far closer to the scenes of phobic isolation and anxiety that had been a hallmark of the Lewton series. Like the opening, this sequence is an island of perfection, an ideal representation of a horror filmmaker’s art, conjuring conviction of threat from the most minimal of signs and hints, conveying the way the secure bastions of Holden’s mind are giving way before the spell of the dark.

Tourneur’s irritation in being obliged to make the demon appear is entirely understandable in this regard, because it seems to diffuse the opacity he had laboured carefully to engender through such sequences. That said, just as the ball of fire that chases Holden could be a figment of his imagination, so, too, could the demon itself. The contradiction Tourneur doesn’t shy away from is the problem of knowing, whether the mind creates its demons or merely records them, and ponders if the difference is actually all that important. The modern medicine turned upon Hobart (a performance of incredible, sweat-sodden intensity from Wilde, who would later become well-known playing an amusingly different part on the TV show Porridge) excavates primal terror from the pathetic man who proves to avoided his own, ordained fate to die by the monster by passing the runes onto a fellow. Hobart imbues Holden with vital knowledge for avoiding his own fate, but at the cost of his own life, as Hobart hysterically attacks the doctor in thinking he’s trying to pass his own runes on, and hurls himself through a high window. Holden makes a dash to catch Karswell, forewarned by his mother about his travel plans, and catching him aboard a train with Joanna under his hypnotic control. Holden soon measures the level of Karswell’s fear of him, and when two policemen, tracking Karswell, ironically because of Holden’s complaint about him, barge into their compartment, Holden successfully returns the runes to Karswell under the guise of handing him his coat. The sorcerer immediately realises what has happened and is forced to chase after the parchment, which seems to have a life of its own, until it seems to spontaneously catch fire and burn by the railways tracks.

Karswell finds himself caught between the demon and an oncoming train, a circumstance that allows Holden and Joanna a chance to withdraw from the scene with at least a sliver of ambiguity still in their minds – “Perhaps it’s best not to know,” Holden says, echoing the “they tampered in God’s domain” homily at the end of many a ’50s scifi film. But, of course, the film privileges the audience with Karswell’s viewpoint of a colossal monstrosity that picks him up and claws him with vicious, punitive disdain. The climax delivers a truly nightmarish image; the demon, viewed towering behind a speeding train, wreathed in smoke, Karswell’s body jangling upon its claws before being tossed lifelessly down to lie smoking and bedraggled upon the rails. Again, this moment is so spectacularly achieved I just can’t find it in me to condemn it. Today, most genre filmmakers would much rather have their monster even if they have no conviction about the supernatural or deep feeling about its metaphorical potency. These things have all become tropes now. Demystifying endings were, however, rather common back in the day in fare like the various versions of The Cat and the Canary and other films with their proto-Scooby Doo endings. At least Night of the Demon sustains a note of voluble dread from its manifestations. It might even have helped give it the potent effect it had on the resurging popularity of horror as a movie genre, as it imbues the film with a lively, gleefully ferocious aspect in hindsight. Night of the Demon, in spite of its faults, still stands as one of the truly great horror films.


25th 10 - 2017 | 2 comments »

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Stephanie Rothman

By Roderick Heath

At a time when women directors were still excruciatingly thin on the ground even in Hollywood’s least reputable quarters, Stephanie Rothman forged herself an intriguing place in movie history. Rothman had proven herself a stalwart operative for Roger Corman and his low-budget movie factory at AIP during the 1960s. She made her credited directing debut when she helped patch together a releasable film from a mishmash of footage left after Jack Hill was sacked from a project that involved splicing new footage into a Yugoslav movie, one of many such cunning retrofits Corman’s crew were called upon to perform. With Rothman’s third hand in the pot, the result, Blood Bath (1966), emerged as an incoherent yet tenaciously likeable, free-form collage of images and artistic temperaments. Rothman was given her shot at handling a film in her own right and after her solo debut It’s a Bikini World (1967), she gained a significant hit with The Student Nurses (1970). Rothman followed Corman to his burgeoning New World studio and producer Larry Woolner asked her to make a vampire movie. Rothman and her husband Charles S. Swartz punched out a screenplay built around Rothman’s idea of making a movie centering on a female vampire, a project that would become The Velvet Vampire.

Although it was destined to become her most admired and well-known film, The Velvet Vampire was initially a box office disappointment, and it sped up Rothman and Swartz’s decision to leave Corman’s fold and work with Woolner in setting up a rival production company, the short-live but relatively prolific Dimension Films. Rothman managed to direct three more movies there in between overseeing the company’s filmmaking operations, before her career ran out of steam, and she failed to follow the likes of Francis Coppola, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich into more exalted filmic spheres. Now chiefly associated with horror cinema thanks to Blood Bath and The Velvet Vampire, most of Rothman’s works were sexy comedies, chiefly distinguished by the tense but fruitful way Rothman’s unabashedly feminist ambitions blended with the down-and-dirty prerogatives of genre cinema, working to offer equal-opportunity nudity whilst offering spry examinations of the shifting social more the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The Student Nurses kicked off a successful series for Corman, whilst Terminal Island (1973) looked forward to dystopian tales ranging from Escape From New York (1981) to The Handmaid’s Tale in envisioning a future where death row inmates are stranded in a wilderness prison and a brutally medievalist social set-up quickly evolves and then devolves into outright war between the sexes. Group Marriage (1973) contemplated the possibility of an idyllic polyamorous union between an increasing number of people. If the basis for most of Rothman’s films was the comedy of manners translated for the age of Sexual Revolution, The Velvet Vampire redeploys the same idea in a context where the stakes of conquest are much more alarming.

Rothman quickly announces a real eye with the shot of downtown Los Angeles that opens The Velvet Vampire, a vestigial crucifix jutting high above a precinct of modernist architecture like a remnant of old faith in an otherwise oblivious world. Zoom back to reveal the busy thrum of midday in the city, and then a slow dissolve into the same shot at night, cars and pedestrians becoming ghosts and then fading into oblivion, the buildings readily transmuted into a field of Neolithic standing stones, an arena ready for a primal blood rite. A small squiggle of red strides across the frame upon the pavement: our antiheroine, Diane Le Fanu (Celeste Yarnall). Diane sees a parked motorcycle and correctly anticipates danger. A wild and hairy biker, some escapee of Corman’s The Wild Angels (1967) at war with all civilised mores, quickly obliges as he tackles and tries to rape the chicly dressed lady. But Diane quickly turns the tables, jamming the biker’s own knife into his gut. Diane picks herself up, washes off in a nearby fountain, and casually proceeds on her way. She enters an art gallery where her friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) is curating an exhibition, and encounters a young couple, Lee and Susan Ritter (Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles). Lee and Susan amiably play at being strangers who flirt over the art works whilst trying to fit in with the arty crowd: “I get a lot of sensual energy from it,” Susan comments in regarding a sculpture that resembles the lower half of a bisected female body with legs splayed. Carl introduces them to Diane, whilst old blues man Johnny Shines (playing himself) regales the uptown crowd with elemental tales of evil ladies and demon lovers. Diane invites Lee and Susan out to her home in the California desert with a flirtatious intensity that easily hooks Lee, and the couple, who uneasily fancy themselves swingers, accept the invitation.

They drive out to the remote locale, stopping for gas and directions at a lonely service station, where they encounter anxiously snooty hippy car mechanic Cliff (Paul Prokop), who’s too uptight over his status as a qualified tradesman to stoop to filling up their tank. The station owner Amos (Sandy Ward) reluctantly gives the Ritter directions to the house they’re after, but their car breaks down on the way. Fortunately Diane appears in her dune buggy to rescue them, and spirits them to her house, where she maintains a posh lifestyle with her Native American manservant Juan (Jerry Daniels). Promising to get their car fixed, Diane charms the couple into staying several days, whilst getting Juan to fetch Cliff from the service station. But Cliff quickly learns he’s been called over to be eliminated, and he finishes up accidentally impaling himself upon a pitchfork as Juan chases him about Diane’s garage. Diane introduces Lee and Susan to the environs about her home, including a remote graveyard where her husband is buried, as Diane explains that although she dislikes the desert sun and heat she feels obligated to remain close to his grave, as he was carefully preserved through a method of the local Native American tribal folk. Juan comes from the same tribes, and Diane explains she grew up with him after her parents rescued him as a foundling. But Juan confuses Susan by suggesting Diane saved him when she was already an adult. Diane gives the couple a tour of an abandoned mine that fell into disuse a century earlier after many murders were mysteriously killed, apparently by some sort of feral beast. Susan freaks out when she’s left alone by both Diane and Lee as they stumble about in the dark looking for each-other, and Diane seems poised to attack Susan from the shadows, but is forestalled when Lee abruptly returns. Needless to say, Diane is a vampire.

Diane’s designs on Lee are patent, but she slowly unveils her intention to also seduce Susan, as Rothman makes sly sport of the liberated mores of 1971 and their tendency towards double-standards, as Diane practices divide-and-rule between the couple. She takes the direct approach with the husband but makes charged overtures to Susan: “Have you ever noticed how men envy us – the pleasure we have, that only we can have?” Whilst Diane leads Lee off into the secluded aisles of a ghost town to grab his crotch, a rattlesnake slithers upon Susan as she sunbathes, and bites her leg, cueing a moment of sexual frisson as Diane sucks the poison out of her pink, nubile thigh. What neither Lee nor Susan knows, as they bed down for their increasingly strained connubial nights, is that Diane watches them from behind a glass mirror inset in the bedroom wall, measuring their characters, assessing their anxieties, transmitting dreamscapes into their sleeping minds. They both experience the same fantasia in which their bed is transposed into the midst of the desert, gleaming curves of brass and blood red sheets stark against the roiling dunes. Diane is seen in the distance through haze and dust like a Sergio Leone character, only to then step out of a mirror, suddenly switching to a Cocteau film or Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1964) as interlocutor for protean adventures. The dream, which progresses further each night Lee and Susan spend in the house, unfolds in torpid slow motion, punctuated with liquidinous dissolves, sees Lee drawn out of bed by Diane’s commanding presence, but then replaced in bed by her as she claims Susan by carving a cross upon her chest.

These sequences, startling in their hallucinatory beauty and hearty embrace of surrealist design sharply composed to a degree rare even in the trippiest reaches of the era’s cinema, are surely the essence of The Velvet Vampire’s cult appeal. And yet the entire film is a work of admirable craft and art worked on a low budget and within the parameters of an exploitation film of the early ‘70s zeitgeist and the New World imprimatur. Rothman’s films have gained admiration for the expanse of her efforts to consider the cultural landscape of the day within those parameters, the shifting mores, the quicksands of rapidly evolving laws of sexuality and coupling and the advent of the age of lifestyle as a personal religion. The Velvet Vampire makes mischievous commentary not only on cool-kid gimcrackery but on low budget cinema’s efforts to exploit it, offering up Diane as fashion plate and new age idol, mistress of her domain in her perfectly tailored mod clothes and zipping about in that ultimate period symbol of Californian luxury consumer status in such movies, the dune buggy. Rothman offers Diane as a commanding, intelligent, cultured, motivated woman who, if she wasn’t a ghoul forced to live off other human beings, would stand as an idealised fantasy figure of feminine self-sufficiency. Rothman contrasts her with the Ritters, who both tread the outer edges of caricature at first, with Lee obeying the call of his own dick and Susan, with her high, throaty voice faintly reminiscent of Judy Holliday gone bikini-clad hipster, or perhaps akin to Doonesbury‘s Boopsie getting cast as Van Helsing.

Miles and Blodgett, who had played the hunky object of pansexual affection Lance Rock in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), are the most awkward aspects of The Velvet Vampire, as both are pretty one-note presences. But their very lack of depth as actors to a great extent suits their characters, with their whiny, edgy, facetious postures as hip and cool young things and appearance as a classical west coast Ken and Barbie set, even as their marriage is badly strained by subtle disconnections, and bit by bit they emerge as well-considered characters. Both retain a certain level of sympathy as we see they’re essentially two babes in the pansexual woods, greedy and needy but fatefully poor at articulating their desires. Susan has a habit of freezing Lee out sexually by rarely being in the mood for his amorous advances, and he acts out by turning over and ignoring her as he goes to sleep. After Susan spies on him and Diane making love in her parlour, he barks in the morning, “All right – I got laid last night.” Ironically, Lee properly committing infidelity actually lets the couple reconnect, in part through Lee’s decision Diane is playing games with them. But Susan can’t entirely resist the chance for payback, and a possible adventure with the alluring Diane, nor can Lee bring himself to resist what Diane is putting down. Meanwhile their host continues to delay their departure by pretending their car can’t be fixed yet even as Lee becomes frustrated he can’t return to the city for necessary business.

Events begin to build to crisis point as Diane finds herself increasingly unable to control her appetites. Her dead husband’s grave has never been filled in, covered instead with a camouflage of wooden boards hidden under sand, so now and then she can lie upon its coffin lid or even cuddle up to his embalmed body stark naked, an image right out of the visual lexicon of the Decadents and Surrealists. Juan, kneeling by the grave in close attendance, is sympathetic as she confesses to him from the pit, “I need more and more now – something is speeding up inside me.” When Juan offers to help by finding her “one of my people” to feed on, Diane reaches up and pulls him into the grave to dine on him. Diane’s tragedy as Rothman sees it lies in her doom to constantly devour anyone and anything that loves her. Rothman grants her the stature of a pining romantic, still mourning her beloved mate a century after his death, but then undercuts it with the ultimate revelation that she killed him less than a week into their marriage through her bloodlust. Diane is also avatar for the forces of colonial exploitation that crashed upon the American landscape, playing Samaritan to Juan, saving him from massacre and starvation, but also fostering him as subservient and finally, casually claiming his life when Diane’s insatiable hunger proves too great. The same fate lies in wait for Lee and Susan, extending to them the illusory possibility of mutual erotic fulfillment, but doomed only to engage in murder. There’s a note here that’s similar to one Rainer Werner Fassbender would sound the following year in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), in warning of the potential in sexual liberation of reproducing the crimes of dying paradigms by refusing to look beyond the ego’s wants.

Rothman’s tale has telling similarities to a clutch of other movies released around the same time employing the same essential theme, including Hammer Films’ Karnstein trilogy, Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1970), and Harry Kuemel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), all stories revolving around female vampires with Sapphic tastes. This aspect of the metaphorical had long been visible in the genre since Coleridge’s “Christabel” and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (Rothman makes the connection between her variations on both Le Fanu’s book and Dracula plain enough with her character names), and suddenly, after a brief and furtive flourish in the mid-1930s with Dracula’s Daughter (1935), had to wait until the easier mood of 1970 to suddenly bloom. The appeal of this small continent of queer-themed vampire dramas, most of which have retained a strong following if not usually free of a touch of smirking nostalgia, lay in the way they made incorporating soft-core thrills easy whilst also appealing to horror fans with overtones of the genuinely transgressive, the crackle of outlaw sexuality according perfectly with horror cinema’s beyond-the-pale status. Where Kuemel’s film lolled in a lush conjuration of retro camp whilst contemplating his vampire lady as ageless, parasitical diva, Franco officially defined his as a reborn misandrist, and the Hammer films played Carmilla as a sort of female, antiheroic James Bond offering to all the chance to both get their rocks off and fulfil their death wish. Rothman presents Diana in yet another key, tracing the outer edges of lesbian desire both more delicately in terms of what she shows but also more directly and challengingly in how she states it. There are no languorous lesbian make-out scenes, and Rothman acts on her credo in eroticising Blodgett’s body as much more than then actresses, but also frames Diane’s come-on to Susan as an outright appeal to come to the isle of Lesbos, kingdom of multiple orgasms.

Islands of peculiar beauty flow by Rothman’s camera from those early frames of the film, with such visions as the frontier graveyard with its crude wooden headstones, and the environs of Diane’s house, where California modern meets Latin manse with plush, décadent overtones. Yarnall’s hypnotic, cut-glass beauty and cool charisma – curiously unexploited by any other filmmakers subsequently – gleams over the brim of her crystal goblets, and burns white against the red Rothman often swathes her in, hovering like a desert rose against sandy environs, or else lounging a naked, pale sylph against her husband’s body. Yarnall, whose best-known role apart form this is probably an episode of Star Trek she guest-starred in, struts across Rothman’s desert landscapes with sombrero cordobés perched upon her head, reminiscent of the way Rothman’s fellow Corman alumnus Monte Hellman costumed Millie Perkins in his desert trip-out, The Shooting (1965), and inhabiting the same role as death incarnated in beauty. Indeed, there’s a curious synergy between Rothman’s approach to her version of horror cinema, with its desert vistas and sense of sun at once stark and hallucinatory, with the vogue for “acid westerns” around the same time, and suggests potential for overlap between western and horror cinema where the few other directors who have tried finding common ground between the two resolutely usually fail utterly.

Likewise Rothman sees no disparity between the open, light-flooded surrounds of the desert and the hard geometric forms of modernism when the film returns to the city: there are wildernesses devoid of human life and those filled with it. Amidst sequences of Diane stalking Susan through bus terminals and malls of LA, Rothman’s eye finds cold abstraction in the rows of telephone booths and escalators, places that seem to mimic the mystical portals and planes of her imposed dreams. Rothman’s eye betrays traces of Michelangelo Antonioni’s imprint throughout, the whole thing could be read as another sun-struck daydream of the protagonists of Zabriskie Point (1970), whilst also mediating between him and the way other eyes like Alan Pakula and Sydney Pollack would read a similar incongruity and alienation in the implacable forms of the new urban landscape. The brief but pathos-charged scenes involving Cliff and his girlfriend evoke the fallout of the Easy Rider (1969) epoch, countercultural exile Cliff desperately trying to stick up for his hard-won status as a mechanic still served up as lunch, and his loyal girl (Chris Woodley ), who swears black and blue that Cliff was off the dope for good, makes a valiant effort to track him down but meets the same fate of being assaulted and sucked dry.

Susan manages to fend off Diane once she finds Lee’s vampirised body in her bedroom, and escapes her villa, fleeing back to LA on a bus only to find Diane has beaten her onto the transportation and silently hovers behind her all the way into the city. Susan finally defeats her tormentor by learning she’s vulnerable to two classical traits of a vampire, fear of the crucifix and pained by strong direct sunlight, and so encourages a mob of spaced-out hippies to aid her in cornering Diane and exposing her, a task the crowd takes to in dissociative enjoyment as if it’s a schoolyard game. Rothman’s cruel sarcasm here sees her worldly and powerful antiheroine, avatar of ages, felled by giggling dopers and crucifixes from a street vendor’s stall, broken by the very real shock of the taboo still wielded by such objects in spite of their mass-commercial debasement, and the devolution of a revolutionary moment and its actors into paltry anti-climax reminiscent less of any Hammer horror finale than of King Kong (1933), which also saw its great monster exterminated by motorised insects. Susan defeats the vampire, but soon finds herself possibly at bay before another, as she visits Carl only to see signs he might well have been Diane’s comrade or acolyte. Perhaps vampirism is about to be the new big thing in bohemia.


23rd 10 - 2017 | 2 comments »

The White Reindeer (Valkoinen Peura, 1953)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Erik Blomberg

By Roderick Heath

It could be argued that all stories we generally refer to under the bracket of ‘horror’ today are in essence a type of folklore, rooted as so many are in storytelling modes descended from ancient cultural forms. To trace the genre’s persistence is to track it backwards through stages in the development, from the age of the urban myth to Freudian symbolic imagery to the haunted mood of Enlightenment-born gothic tales, on through medieval morality plays to the campfire tale. Such stories generations once narrated and sustained to keep themselves entertained and to keep the kids close by the warm and flickering firelight. Such a story could blend a warning about the eyes glowing in the dark beyond the limit of the hearth’s glow and also of other varieties of wolf, the kind hiding behind familiar faces and friendly smiles. As far as horror cinema goes, however, works that engage in authentic folkloric motifs and tales are relatively thin on the ground. The White Reindeer straddles the zone of such arcane storytelling precepts and more immediately recognisable generic necessities, offering what is in essence a werewolf tale, adapted to specific cultural climes, in this case the folklore of the Sami peoples of northern Finland, and mediated through the sorts of figurations one would expect from the setting.

True to its roots in such a tradition, The White Reindeer is more than a ghoul story. It’s also an anthropological recording and observation that has some resemblance to the style of documentary Robert Flaherty had made, capturing a powerful sense of life on the outermost fringes of European civilisation. It’s a creation that manages to bely the inevitable fact that it was fashioned by a collective of technicians and actors, and instead give you the feeling it’s been dreamt into existence. Of course, it’s actually an artful and carefully fashioned work of film craft. Director Erik Blomberg had been working in the Finnish film scene since the 1930s, and his readiness to step between roles as screenwriter and cinematographer perhaps testifies to a jack-of-all-trades necessity in the Finnish film scene of the time, serving in both capacities on the 1938 film The Stolen Death, for instance. Blomberg started directing documentaries in the mid-1940s, and with The White Reindeer made his feature debut. Blomberg’s documentarian experience and eye are evident in the film, as the film serves in part as a time capsule and piece of reportage looking at the lifestyles of the frozen north and its inhabitants, capturing social and communal rituals as a reindeer-drawn sled race and a bonfire night.

The White Reindeer contains relatively little dialogue in the usual dramatic movie fashion, and commences with a sequence where the story unfolds as a silent film with narration offered in song, a chanted account of the events that result in the birth of young Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen). Pirita’s mother Maarita (also Kuosmanen) laboriously forges a path through snowy wilderness, and gives birth to her daughter in a hut belonging to a frontier family who give her refuge. This approach helps The White Reindeer gain traction in its desire to evoke and reproduce a tradition of oral storytelling, whilst also making a show out of the method Blomberg adopts in converting that tradition into cinematic terms. A rhapsodic chain of images as Maarita flees across the endless expanses pursued by wolves, finds shelter with the family, and gives birth to a healthy girl before expiring, resolves in the matriarch holding the stranger’s child in her arms as the flames of the hearth surge high, dissolving into a vision of the snowclad land riddled with veins and caressed by veils of spindrift.

A tale of fire and ice is in motion, in which the landscape charted veers between the transient warmth and security of human habitations, huts and tents, lovers’ arms and family embraces, and the blasted reaches of Scandinavia’s extreme latitudes. Unseen forces rule out there, old gods that ignore the intrusion of Christianity and scarcely tolerate civilisation, offering prizes to the hardy and extracting punishments from the foolhardy with haughty will. The lyrics sung over the opening sequence describe the story that’s going to unfold, imposing a frame of eerie and disastrous fate. Blomberg’s approach here suggests he was taking some ideas from Sergei Eisenstein and his similar method for mediating the present’s vision of the past through layers of filmic conjuring and aesthetic devices on Alexander Nevsky (1938), which similarly forged such a bridge with lyrical music. Once the story moves on a couple of decades to when Pirita has grown into a woman, the hushed and ominous choral recitation gives way to immediate experience, collective clamour, and sensual excitement. Fierce and unflinching young Pirita participates in a sled race, and finds herself battling Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä), who only just manages to best her in the race after all other competitors have been left far behind. The thrill of competition instantly transmutes into erotic excitement as Aslak lassos the dark beauty and draws her in for an embrace. The couple are quickly married after the industrious reindeer herder Aslak offers an impressive bride price to her adoptive father. The wedding proves a scene of drunken merriment and general randy energy as the closest thing the local community has to a nob declares, “There is no more booze, the bread and salt are eaten,” so it’s time to clear out and let the couple get down to business. The young women of the village have to be cleared out forcibly in their delighted attempts to get an eyeful.

Pirita soon finds her marital bliss despoiled when Aslak must go off into the countryside for long stretches to round up wild reindeer. As a sign of devotion, Aslak brings back a white reindeer calf, a valuable and lucky find, and gives it to her as a pet. But Pirita finds herself lying awake at night even when Aslak has returned to her bed, as he falls asleep in exhaustion, leaving her pining for sexual pleasure. She elects to visit the local shaman, Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), to find a way of forcing her husband and other men to find her irresistible. Pirita’s naughty peccadilloes quickly start to reap a cheerless reward. Tsalkku-Nilla performs a rite for Pirita and informs her that she will have to take the first living thing she encounters after leaving his hut up to a remote altar in the countryside consecrated to the goddess Maddar Ahkk, and sacrifice that thing if she wants the spell to work properly. Tsalkku-Nilla beats upon a decorated ritual drum, bouncing around a rune stone upon its taut face, but when the stone begins to dance spontaneously as Pirita touches the drum in what seems a momentary fit of incantatory detachment, the shaman realises she has the powers of a witch.

Pirita treks back to her home and finds Aslak has returned from his trip, and stands before their hut caressing her white reindeer. Electing to take the chance of sacrificing the reindeer, she leads the animal out to the altar, which is surrounded by reindeer antlers jutting from the ice from the other times people have attempted such invocations. Pirita slaughters her pet, but an icy wind starts to blow and assails her, the first sign that she has offended the gods. Pirita soon establishes her magic has worked, as she now easily compels male eyes, but finds she now has the unbidden power to transform into a white reindeer. Heading out into the countryside in an attempt to find her husband, Pirita accepts the offer of some herders to camp with them for the night. But she turns into a white reindeer under the full moon and stalks the land about the camp. A herder named Niilo sees her in the night and gives chase, tracking her into a remote ravine referred to by the locals as the Demon’s Valley. When he catches her, she transforms back into human form. Niilo is dazzled by her beauty until she rips his throat out with sprouting fangs. Soon she commits more vampiric killings, all following the same pattern, and the locals become increasingly wary and vengeful. Pirita is lucky not to be outed as the monster when one of her victims, a hunter who was lucky to survive one of her attacks, sees her face looming in the flicker of firelight during a village celebration and recognises her. He goes berserk and tries to chase her down, but he’s tackled and restrained by his friends, who think he’s delirious.

Blomberg and Kuosmanen collaborated on the screenplay of The White Reindeer, exemplifying what seems to have been a productive romantic collaboration that ended when Kuosmanen retired from acting in 1956. She later died lamentably young at 48 in 1963. The film’s ironic study of romantic disaffection and marital grief suggests a sarcastic form of self-analysis, laced with irony in its realisation and sparked by Blomberg’s evident and obvious obsession with Kuosmanen’s face, an instrument with the same cast of dark, sharp, vulpine charisma that would soon make Barbara Steele a horror icon. Blomberg’s success with The White Reindeer earned him and Finnish film a level of international attention it had not known before, especially after Jean Cocteau and the Cannes jury he headed gave it a special prize. And yet Blomberg would only make four more features before the Finnish movie scene fell into a rut in the late 1950s. It’s not hard to see why The White Reindeer made such an impression in its time, over and above its raw cinematic qualities. A kind of pop anthropological and internationalist cultural interest boomed in the post-war years, fuelled by newly open channels of travel and communication, a process that would help many international filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa find worldwide audiences.

This accorded with many national movie industries both trying to relocate a sense of history and advertise themselves to the world with vignettes of localised flavour. The White Reindeer bolsters its standing as authentic product of a burgeoning culture by sporting a score by the country’s most notable composer of the period, Einar Englund. True to his creed as a cinematographer, Blomberg generates some extraordinary visuals throughout The White Reindeer, including a breathtaking shot of a Sami tent, aglow in firelight, framed against a dark plain and iron sky, studded with abstracted trees. This vision of an islet of human society subsisting in the face of a cold and indifferent universe quickly segues into Pirita’s transformation into the reindeer, visualised through the expedient of turning the image into a photographic negative so that white beast skips across black snow, a simple trick reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphone des Grauens (1922). The bonfire night sequence sees characters wheeling in and out of the fields of firelight, punctuated by an eruption of fearful violence, as the troubled witness sees Pirita’s face looking stygian in the flicker, causing him to leap up, clutching a fiery brand, sparks flying and bodies wheeling within the little galaxies of the hearths.

The White Reindeer was released at a time when the genre was almost entirely fallow, supplanted by the science fiction craze of the early decade, presenting as it did avatars for an age busy congratulating itself on its rationality whilst inflating its neuroses to colossal, city-smashing scale, all the better to be cut down to size. The White Reindeer, on the other hand, betrays knowledge that it’s dealing in a metaphorical coin, but might also be the first major horror film to essentially reject the suggestive model of Val Lewton’s psychosomatic etudes and return to essential figurations, even as it tells a story with evident similarities to Cat People (1942). Lewton liked to smudge the borders between the liminal and the subliminal, to ask the question whether the menace of the supernatural is real or a construction of credulity. Blomberg and Kuosmanen’s approach instead uses the inherent symbolism in the idea of the shapeshifting woman to communicate its ideas, and so finds new power, ironically, in an archaic way of explaining human nature. The heavy emphasis linking supernatural manifestation and erotic anxiety, and its relatively unabashed confrontation of sexuality as a governing theme, could even make The White Reindeer a vital nexus in the history of the genre. Here might well be the point where horror film began reinventing itself, with a newly modern understanding of the forces at play in the genre’s symbology, and the understanding that the greatest source of terror even in the atomic age is the lurking irrationality lying within the human frame.

In more concrete terms, it’s hard not to see Blomberg’s images of Kuosmanen’s terrible beauty studded with vampiric fangs, eyes alight with a lust that conflates hunger for both blood and sexual excitement, and not see the germ for Terence Fisher’s approach to his vampires in works like The Brides of Dracula (1960). Likewise the lifetime-spanning narrative that traces an individual’s entrapment and destruction by predestined forces seems to have left a mark on Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf (1960). Blomberg shot the film himself, and the intensity with which his cinematography weaves in with his vision of remote and legendary climes anticipates Mario Bava’s similar capacity. Closer to home, Blomberg might well have encouraged Ingmar Bergman to look closer at Scandinavian mythology and come up with his own peculiar version of them in The Virgin Spring, which looks precisely at the time when the pagan world Blomberg records met and was uneasily replaced by Christianity. The White Reindeer is also striking as one of the relatively few horror movies made before 1960 to sport a feminine monster, and the essence of the film’s baleful power lies in the collaboration that sees Blomberg’s gaze turned upon relentlessly upon Kuosmanen’s face and her performing with it, tracing out all of Pirita’s careening emotions, as both demonic entity and ordinary woman.

The White Reindeer describes one of the eternal fixtures of folklore, the demon lover. It also records a basic anxiety about female sexuality, timorous in the face of satiating it and apprehensive that it might drive any lady afflicted with greater than normal appetites to satisfy them in ways that betray herself and her assigned social role. But Blomberg and Kuosmanen’s approach to it makes Pirita no mere temptress. The struggle between the two forces opposite and equal within her is enacted in a manner that’s less like the clear-cut dichotomy of good human and wild beast as witnessed in The Wolf Man (1941) than it resembles characters in later generations of horror cinema like protagonists of David Cronenberg’s early work or Andrezej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), those who are driven to fashion their terrible interior struggles into new and perverse forms of flesh. Pirita’s nature is manifold, both child of the surging sky and the embracing hut, and her actions, whether cringing in shame or unleashing her dark side, are all a part of her. The reindeer is source of all industry and a great deal of human cultural activity in these blasted climes, and the fusion of the two has an inevitable quality in this place of flux, where the sun bristles low on the horizon and the landscape loses form amidst snow drifts and skeletal, thrusting branches, a place where it’s hard to get one’s bearings. Blomberg still contrives to shoot his pictures seeking out covert geometries, as if suggesting the unseen powers and subtle influences that shape the lives of these people, found in lines of skiers diagonally dividing the frame, or, in the film’s most reproduced imagery, viewing Kuosmanen through the frame of dead reindeer antlers jutting from the snow just as she’s on the fateful threshold of committing her blasphemous act.

Aspects of the story that resonate throughout other mythologies are particularly tantalising – the animism and motifs of transgression and transformation, the fatefully fused but doomed lovers, the act of forging a special weapon with a care and intention that transcends mere craft to become a totemic object. The necessary but failed sacrifice of a loved-one resembles that found in the tale of the Lambton Worm, another story of monstrous reckoning and legacy. The white hue of the monster obviously calls to mind Moby Dick and his many descendants, with the same inference of spectral stature, the haunting tone of bloodlessness, here also rhymes with the snow that cakes the earth itself, a constant fact and sometime enemy in the lives of the Sami, the hard natural order that claims its price heedless of human feeling. The locals discuss how only “cold iron” can be used to kill a phantom reindeer when bullets won’t hurt it, so all the villagers begin forging their own lances, and Pirita wanders the commune hearing the hammers on forges beating out her doom with bloodcurdling music. She soon almost loses control and attacks her husband when he’s dozing after finishing off his own iron lance. Aslak awakens with a fearful cry when, in bleary half-sleep, he thinks he sees his own wife’s face transformed into a leering, demonic visage – which is exactly what he has seen, but assumes he’s been dreaming.

One incidental problem The White Reindeer has to deal with is that even the largest and most bullish reindeer doesn’t really look that ferally threatening, which probably explains Blomberg’s decision to have Pirita turn back into a human before her killings – the sight of Kuosmanen’s vicious teeth is more alarming than the frankly huggable deer. Although The White Reindeer is a short and deftly compressed piece of storytelling, Blomberg still conjures some tremendously rhythmic sequences, and forges images that seem to claw at the edges of all intellectual awareness in trying to evoke a distant, submerged past still to be found in some Jungian netherworld. This sensibility is particularly apparent in the build to Pirita’s sacrifice of the pet reindeer, in the splendidly odd scene when she sits down with Tsalkku-Nilla where what seems like boastful eccentricity and peasant magic shade quickly into something altogether more abnormal and threatening until the shaman recoils from Pirita in fear. The sequence of Pirita’s journey to the shrine of Maddar Ahkka is a delirious conjuration of image and sound, Englund’s music painting wild sonic textures as Pirita struggles through the snow to reach a hill top where dead reindeer antlers sprout from the ground like a crop. Here a stone cairn capped by more antlers seems to stare out upon the land with stark and sinister promise, and Pirita withers and faints in the sudden tempest that falls upon the mountain.

Equally good are the climactic scenes, after Pirita is finally driven to flee the village after accidentally turning into the reindeer: as in many variations on the Jekyll and Hyde story, her ability to control when and why she changes form is steadily eroded until she transmogrifies in a public place in the middle of the day, and is then hunted across the countryside by the massed village menfolk. Pirita first tries to return to Tsalkku-Nilla and get him to help her, only to find him dead in his hut, glazed in ice, his drum smashed, as if the spirits he stirred have avenged themselves brutally. Pirita then heads to the pagan altar, but there her pleas fall upon deaf ears, and she is once again driven back into the wilds. Blomberg shoots Kuosmanen loping across a ridge with a fascinating, predatory gait, achieving a quality of unnaturalness that David Lynch has often instilled in his actors when depicting similar breakdowns in the walls between the tangible and the subliminal. True to many werewolf stories, Pirita is doomed to be destroyed by the unthinking hand of a loved one, in this case her own husband. Aslak corners her in the Demon’s Valley and skewers her with his lance, only to be confronted with her splayed human form on the snow. Blomberg returns for a brief, meditative glance at the winnowing spindrift flowing over frigid snow, before fading to black, as if to say our rent on Earth is brief, and how the time we have upon it treats us often has little to do with how we will it, but which forces have conspired to bring us into being.


20th 10 - 2017 | 4 comments »

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) / The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) / The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) / The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

Directors: Christy Cabanne, Harold Young, Reginald LeBorg, Leslie Goodwins

By Roderick Heath

Karl Freund’s legendary film The Mummy (1932) presented its title entity, Boris Karloff’s Imhotep, as a sorcerer and antihero defying time and the gods to wield vast magical power. More recent filmmakers like Stephen Sommers and Alex Kurtzman have taken up this idea for the sake of spectacle and drama better fitting the age of the special effects-driven blockbuster. But I’d be willing to bet good money most people, when they think of the mummy as movie monster, probably instead think of a lurching, ghastly, sluggishly advancing yet relentless engine of murder, swathed in grave wrappings. For the source of this image of the mummy, we must look instead to the four films Universal Studios made about the mummy Kharis. For lovers of vintage horror movies, the Kharis films remain an evergreen trove. Not because they’re deep masterpieces of gothic poetic, richly composed metaphor, or galvanising terror – indeed, part of their appeal is that they’re patently none of these things, or, at least, only offer such qualities as small, shiny gems amidst a whole lot of entertaining ore. They’re lovable relics of an era of filmmaking and a brand of horror that retains a modest brand of charisma, deft ideograms compressing all the freewheeling energy and craftsmanship of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Somehow, the Kharis films manage to incorporate all the major motifs and stylistic quirks of the Universal school within their brief, zippy, unpretentious duration, and stand as perfect exemplars of what can be called “fun” horror. They’re the sort of movies you see as a kid and love, and see again as an adult and still love, even if they can no longer compel in the same way.

Each movie in the series is barely an hour long, as quintessential B movie features, made to support other, more ambitious but often less well-remembered movies. All four were made by the smithies of Hollywood film. Only one of these directors, Reginald LeBorg, can be described as any kind of familiar hand in horror cinema, whilst all four directors handled many a diverse genre in their long, factory-line careers. Christy Cabanne, who helmed the series opener The Mummy’s Hand, had been making movies since 1912. And yet the Kharis films testify to the peculiar integrity of the Universal horror mode, as well as the problems that would eventually choke off their brand. In spite of being cheaply produced, the Kharis films all betray the technical resources and effortless class of Universal’s production teams and their gifts for quickly and smartly constructing little, cordoned universes where the shadows are deep and black and things move in the night that should not be moving at all. Universal had a particularly effective ethos when it came to making its B movies, also evinced by the perennially popular Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone. These films, although very often tacky and repetitious, usually had solid writing and a template for atmospheric visuals that could be easily applied by different production teams. The limitations to their strict hour-and-a-bit running times were as usually sharp as the advantages: too many stories develop fruitfully over about 50 minutes and then suddenly careen to a close. This is true of the Kharis films as well.

The series was doggedly popular in its day regardless, at a time when their cheery, restrained approach to generating a healthy frisson stood in stark contrast to the harsh facts of wartime. The Mummy’s Hand gave the waning Universal horror brand a shot in the arm, whilst also laying down a template most of the entries the studio would purvey over the next six years until running out of steam again, in dispensing with most of the outsized Expressionistic effects in sets and lighting and rendering their attendant themes of tragic stature far more muted, if not entirely jettisoned. The series also accidentally helped point the way forward for the horror genre as a whole, in a manner that unfolds over the four instalments, which begins rooted in the mystique of foreign threat and exotic nightmares welling out of a distant, mythical past, but soon shifts ground to portray murderous forces at large in the balmy eves of the good old USA. The Mummy’s Hand introduces the lore and legend of Kharis (played in the first instalment by Tom Tyler), a former high priest under the Pharaoh Amenophis, who fell in love with the Pharaoh’s daughter Ananka. Following Ananka’s early death, Kharis attempted to revive her by stealing a supply of the sacred, long-extinct herb known as the tana leaf, with its mystic qualities for restoring and sustaining life. Caught in the act, Kharis had his tongue cut out before burial alive, doomed to spend eternity serving as protector of Ananka’s tomb. This story is recounted by the wizened and decrepit High Priest (Eduardo Ciannelli) of a sect called the Priests of Karnak, who still subsist within modern Egypt and have dedicated themselves to protecting Ananka’s undiscovered tomb above all.

The High Priest is visited by his anointed successor, Professor Andoheb (George Zucco), an archaeologist who uses his position as a respected figure in his field to either fend off other Egyptologists venturing into Arkam, the area where their temple and Ananka’s and Kharis’s tombs are all located, or else arrange their mysterious disappearance. The High Priest explains to Andoheb his essential duties, of which the most vital is sustaining Kharis’s heartbeat by stewing three tana leaves each night of the full moon and feeding it to him. Whenever Ananka’s tomb is threatened and interlopers dare to violate her sacred surrounds, the Priests revive Kharis by feeding him the the juice of nine leaves, sufficient to get him up and walking around, able to kill and overpower any mere mortal. Once the High Priest finishes his exposition, he gratefully settles upon his throne and dies. In this opening, the basics of the Kharis series are sketched out, and all four films revolve around these legendary details, carried over from episode to episode as essential as a superhero’s back story. One detail mentioned here, constantly teased but never fulfilled in the series, are the dire results of what might happen if Kharis is fed more than nine tana leaves, as a greater dose of the mystic herb would render him a rampaging monster. The Priests of Karnak merely keep him alive as a useful tool.

The first film depicts the discovery of Ananka’s tomb by a gang of footloose Americans. Archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his pal, Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), have come to Egypt when Steve is hunting for a new career break after being fired from the Scripps Museum, in spite of a string of impressive discoveries. Babe is itching to get back to the States, but Steve finds a damaged urn that seems to depict directions to Ananka’s tomb in a bazaar. Steve takes the urn to another esteemed man of the field, Dr Petrie (Charles Trowbridge), who agrees with him it is genuine. But Andoheb, who is Petrie’s boss at the Cairo Museum, dismisses the relic as a fake and contrives to drop it, whilst refusing the stake an expedition to the site indicated. Not dissuaded, Steve and Babe get backing from a good-natured nightclub magician, ‘The Great’ Solvani (Cecil Kellaway). Andoheb tries to foil this recourse by approaching Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) and warning her about conmen trying to sucker her father. Marta threatens Steve and Babe with the revolver she uses for trick shooting in her father’s shows, and she resolves to accompany her father on the expedition to make sure he’s not being robbed.

It takes quite a while until The Mummy’s Hand gets out into the Egyptian wilds, an aspect that betrays a certain level of uncertainty about what level to pitch the movie on. An inordinate amount of screen time is soaked up by Ford and Kellaway’s comedy, although both men were accomplished farceurs and they’re fun to watch. The real pleasure of The Mummy’s Hand, however, comes once it gets going properly and changes scene to the desert. Here Babe accidentally uncovers Kharis’s tomb when he prematurely sets off a dynamite charge, just after the bodies of some of the expedition’s ill-fated predecessors are uncovered by the Egyptian diggers. The archaeologists are astounded to find Kharis’ remarkably preserved body in his casket, but the diggers flee in fear as the black legends about the area seem to be coming true. Meanwhile Andoheb and his agent, a fake marketplace beggar (Sig Arno), keep watch over the camp and when the time comes, Andoheb surprises Petrie alone in the tomb, and feeds tana juice to the mummy, bringing Kharis fully to life. At Andoheb’s behest, the fiend strangles Petrie, the expedition’s chief porter Ali (Leon Belasco), and Solvani during one long night of terror. Soon Andoheb is tempted by beauty and has Kharis kidnap Marta, forcing Steve and Babe to hunt for her. Following Marta’s own theory based on Steve’s urn, Steve finds a secret passage linking Kharis’ tomb to the priests’ temple, and ventures along it.

The Mummy’s Hand is an object lesson in how old Hollywood could conjure something substantial out of virtually nothing. The budget was a preposterously low $80,000 dollars, and the running time is filled out with interpolated scenes from the Freund film depicting Kharis’ disgrace and doom, spliced with new footage of western star Tyler, who, in addition to his suitably strong stature, looked enough like Karloff to sustain the illusion. Smart use was also made of a set left over from the production of Frankenstein (1931) auteur James Whale’s jungle adventure Green Hell (1939) to fill in for the temple. The script also bears traces of such repurposing, as it offers a slight variation on the famous “Children of the Night” line from Dracula (1931). Otherwise the film relies almost entirely on Cabanne’s long-honed filmmaking skills to make the best of minimal sets, transforming the one, basic soundstage set depicting a crook of the desert abutting a mountain into a fantasy landscape flooded with shadow, occasionally punctuated by the bloodcurdling sight of the mummy’s silhouetted form looming through tent canvas over unsuspecting, sleeping victims.

Part of the success and entertainment factor of The Mummy’s Hand lies in its straightforward blend of gothic business, with the free-and-easy tone of an adventure movie. It’s probably one of the many influences on Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, portraying archaeology as a kind of puzzle work as the characters utilise keys gleaned from relics to open up ancient tombs. The mummy, although blessed with a tragic backstory, is offered mostly as a threatening spectre, a spooky threat lurching in and out of the shadows, informed with character only via Tyler’s eyes, showing flashes of fretful, desperate hunger for the tana leaves that sustain his existence. Foran is charming and stalwart, Moran is cute and plucky, at least until the compulsory finale where she swoons to be carried about by Kharis. The film careens through a last reel in which Babe shoots down Andoheb when the priest threatens him, and Steve enters the temple, frees Marta, and sets fire to Kharis when he stoops to try and lick up a pool of spilt tana juice.

Mummy stories belong to a motif common in storytelling date back to Victorian-era fiction and the vicissitudes of the high colonial days, in fare ranging from a mystery tale like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone to tales of the supernatural like The Monkey’s Paw. Such stories revolved around the dread fate awaiting those who monkey about with sacred objects of other cultures, and hinged upon Western anxieties in the face of contending with those cultures, both warning about the necessity of respecting those cultures whilst also reinforcing the necessity of stoic detachment in the coloniser over the colonised. The Kharis series reframes this subtext to a certain extent whilst also making it more overt, for the series revolves around the clash between the forces of the old world and the new, the echoing memory of millennia of instilled cultural identity as represented by the powers of Ancient Egypt, and the new wind of Americanism starting to blow about the world. There’s an element of absurd but revealing racial profiling, too, as just about anyone who wears a fez is quickly outed as a supporter of an esoteric and murderous death cult. This aspect is often conjoined with finales in which mobs of the citizenry come out with fiery torches to hunt down the monsters. When Frankenstein had offered this trope, it had come as a criticism of the lynch mob mentality. By 1942, it had evolved into a heroic event, based on around communal guarding against threatening foreign invaders.

But there’s also a theme to the series invoking a schism of faith and desire, identity and yearning. Steve and the spirit he represents is at once passionate about the arcana he digs up but also detached from the spiritual world it represents, the deep wellsprings of other cultural precepts. The Priests of Karnak, including Andoheb and successors Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), Yousef Bey (John Carradine), Dr Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) and his disciple Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), are beset by the same diverging desires as Kharis himself. That’s the schism between fulfilling their creed, which revolves around the literal worship of the dead and valuing of them above the living, and embracing their sensual needs, inevitably represented by the young women who fall into their clutches. This pays off in images close to those popular on pulp magazine covers of the time, heroines strapped to altars, threatened with phallic intrusion as the fallen priests threaten them with injections of tana fluid to make them immortal, with the priests intending to join them for an unending life of erotic pleasure.

Quickly and inevitably, Kharis, embodiment of the past’s insidious persistence in the presence of all modernity’s glaring light, is brought to American shores, to haunt the outer precincts a modern land lacking much consciousness of such a deep past. The Mummy’s Tomb, the second episode, easily manages this change of scene, whilst also introducing some peculiar aspects to the series. Although The Mummy’s Hand was demonstrably contemporary if the clothes the characters wore were anything to go by, the sequel is set thirty years after the first film, but again seems entirely contemporary to 1942, to the extent of one character receiving a commission during the film. The fourth film is set twenty years after the third, which means over a half-century passes in the course of the series, making it a science fiction tale of sorts. The Mummy’s Tomb also anticipates aspects of modern franchise cinema, as it brings back Steve and Babe, now thirty years older, but with the brutal intention of killing them both off. Steve is now reclining in happy retirement after Marta’s death, living with his sister Jane (Mary Gordon), recounting his old adventures to his indulgently disbelieving doctor son John (John Hubbard) and his girlfriend Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox).

Turns out Andoheb survived the bullets Babe filled him with, and that Kharis was only lightly singed by fire. Andoheb, now old himself and palsied (a great touch from Zucco), still lurks in the old Arkam temple, handing over responsibility to Mehemet Bey, his successor, with the assignment of taking Kharis to America so he can kill the Banning clan in punishment for plundering Ananka’s tomb. Mehemet secures a job as caretaker of the cemetery of Mapleton, the small New England town where Steve has retired. He sends out Kharis, who strangles Steve in his house. The following night, the mummy does the same to Jane. Babe comes to town to attend their funerals and recognises the tell-tale mark of mould upon the victims’ necks as mould from Kharis’ bandages (“A greyish mark…a greyish mark!”). Babe fails to make the police listen to his warnings so he feeds the story to some interested newspaper men, but soon finds himself cornered in an alley by Kharis and killed. An academic researcher, Professor Norman (Frank Reicher), certifies from a scrap of bandage John finds that there really is a living mummy on the loose. Mehemet, unable to suppress lecherous designs upon Isobel after glimpsing her in the woods with John, has Kharis snatch her out of her bed. When the Mapleton sheriff (Cliff Clark) organises a posse, he’s alerted to the presence of the Egyptian at the cemetery. Mehemet tries to stab John and gets a bullet in his gut for his pains. Kharis seems to be burned up along with the Banning house when he’s driven there, Isobel is rescued, and all ends well.

The Mummy’s Tomb is the most sketchily written and disposable entry in the series, bumping off the likeable protagonists of the first film with a remarkable lack of compunction. The film kicks off laboriously with nearly ten minutes’ worth of flashbacks to The Mummy’s Hand to pad out an exceptionally simple storyline. But it’s still entirely enjoyable, in part for reasons that feel mildly consequential in horror cinema history. This episode was directed by Harold Young, who surely had the best movie to his credit of any of the series captains, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and there are flashes of the spacious, lushly lit, carefully pictorial style he brought to that film here and here. Shots late in the film of Kharis carrying Isobel through the night are often reproduced in books of genre history, and for good reason: they retain an iconic form of beauty and encapsulation of the mystique of swooning, silk-draped femininity in the clutches of a septic, perambulating id. Transposing Kharis into the leafy, pacific environs of Mapleton allows this exotic monster, avatar of cultural and religious unease, to lurch about in quaint, very normal surrounds. Kharis keeps perturbing the perfectly ordinary New Englanders, be they couples in their beds or young mashers parked in their cars, as his shadow falls upon them and each feels the discomforting sensation of death passing them by.

Whilst this was hardly the first horror film set in a modern western setting, I can’t really think of a precursor that utilised such quotidian environs, and Young’s visuals, emphasising Kharis melting in and out of the shadows in humdrum streets and semi-rural surrounds, capture a quality that would pass on through ‘50s sci-fi works like I Married A Monster From Outer Space and The Blob (both 1958) and then back into horror movies as diverse as Halloween (1978) and the works of artists as diverse as Stephen King and David Lynch, in placing a malevolent force in the midst of suburbia, a portal of pure surrealism astride the banal. The film is also fleshed out by the Austrian-Turkish actor Bey’s fascinating presence. One of the few actors of Middle Eastern heritage to gain any prominence as a Hollywood actor in the day, Bey’s dashing, matinee star looks and ability to project an air of silken menace make for a rare combination in this sort of thing. Bey reportedly liked the role best amongst his performances, and he plays Mehemet less as a glowing-eyed fanatic than as a meditatively religious being willing to do what it takes to restore a key tenant of his faith, but brought down in the end by his inability to suppress his sensual self.

Another significant introduction for this entrance came in Kharis himself. Tyler had been replaced by Lon Chaney Jnr, who had become a fully-fledged horror star in the previous year’s The Wolf Man, and Universal sought to capitalise by casting him across the full roster of their familiar monsters – he would also play Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula. The irony of this is that, at least at first, Chaney makes much less impression in the role than Tyler managed, as his Kharis isn’t allowed even to show the character in the eyes that Tyler could. That said, what could be the first real moment of proper characterisation for Kharis arrives here, as the mummy retreats fretfully whilst Mehemet tells him of his plans to mate with and impregnate Isobel: Kharis’ memory of the terrible wrath of force beyond in the face of such blasphemous acts is strong enough to momentarily make this zombified remnant cringe in fear. The Mummy’s Ghost, the third series instalment, saw directing duties taken over by former Max Reinhardt assistant LeBorg. LeBorg had already directed Chaney in a neat little chiller, Weird Woman (1944), an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s great black magic tale Conjure Wife, and would occasionally return to the genre over the next twenty years, including for the interesting Diary of a Madman (1963). LeBorg’s background with Reinhardt and European sensibility apparently familiar with the Germanic imaginative world of the liebestod might explain why his entry emerges as the oddest and most intriguing of the quartet.

Whilst not violating the already well-settled series formula until its final few minutes, The Mummy’s Ghost is the first entry to make itself more explicitly about Kharis’s search for Ananka, and also needs no flashbacks to pad out its crisp, well-developed storyline. In an ingenious little vignette, Kharis, after breaking into the Scripps Museum where her body and other artefacts are collected, attempts to touch her bandage-wrapped form, only for her mummy to disintegrate into dust. Meanwhile, miles away, a young woman, Amina Mansori (Ramsay Ames), awakens with a cry in her room, having felt the touch of the mummy: Ananka’s spirit now inhabits her body, as a distant descendant. Amina is attending college in Mapleton, and her boyfriend Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) is a student of Professor Norman. Norman likes to regale his students with tales of the mummy that terrorised the town a few years before. Norman himself is still trying crack the secret of the artefacts and specimens of the tana leaf retrieved from Mehemet’s possession. Finally translating some inscriptions and boiling up nine tana leaves, Norman is shocked to see Kharis burst his way into his rooms. Kharis, after lying dormant since the fire, has been revived by the scent of the tana juice, and he kills Norman before drinking it. Amina, drawn out in a somnambulant daze by Kharis’ presence, collapses near the scene. Meanwhile Andoheb dispatches another acolyte, Yousef Bey, to America to track down Kharis. Yousef attempts to lead Kharis in recovering Ananka so they can both be transported back to Egypt, but realisation that Ananka is now living within Amina leads them to track and kidnap her.

If the guiding tension of the series is between the inflexibly arcane and the blithely, obliviously modern, then the figuration of Amina/Ananka is a clever new dimension for it, affectingly embodied by Ames. Amina carries inscribed in her genes and spiritual heritage the memory of a land stretching back to the dawn of human kind, inhabiting the spry, clean-cut environs of the college and her American lifestyle like a suit of easily discarded clothes. Unease about the possibility of an interracial marriage is mediated through the prism of Amina’s anxiety that her identity, bound up with her strange fits of detachment and sense of living in two different times and worlds. LeBorg makes atmospheric use of the old, abandoned mine where Yousef operates from, the modern, industrial equivalent to the tombs and temples of Egypt, equally desolate and deserted and forsaken by the ways of men, equally cyclopean in the scale of both construction and ruination. Here Yousef, once he actually has Amina in his grasp, again succumbs to the desire to possess her. This time however, knowing that Amina is really his beloved, Kharis rebels, throwing off the yoke of the priests and hurling Yousef from a great height to his death. After he fends off an attack by Tom, Kharis carries Amina off into the countryside. Since her first meeting with the mummy, Amina’s hair has become increasingly streaked with coils of white, and now in his arms turns swiftly into an ancient, parched, white-crowned mummy. Tom and another posse, this time led by canny New York detective Walgreen (Barton MacLane), give chase, only to see the benighted duo of ruined creatures sink into a swamp.

This coda blends truly odd romanticism and faint but definite morbid sexuality with heartbreak, as Tim and his pet dog are left staring into the black waters where Kharis and Amina vanished. It’s a forlorn ending, an overtone new to this series, although it does revive the spirit that had been central to Freund’s film and the first wave of Universal horror films in general. Chaney’s casting in the role, which seemed to negligible on The Mummy’s Tomb, also proves worthier in The Mummy’s Ghost, as Chaney wields enough expressive intensity in body langauge to charge Kharis with a deep and implacable will, his stumbling, grasping forward motion achieving a sense of the genuinely remorseless to his wanderings and killings, fingers curling and limbs twitching when victims give him the slip. It’s a fascinating example of what an actor can accomplish in such strictures. The last episode in the series, The Mummy’s Curse, is the first to offer a jarring lapse with established continuity rather than merely bending it. Somehow the chase witnessed at the end of the previous movement covered a few thousand miles, for now Kharis and Amina supposedly last vanished into a Louisiana bayou. That said, the shift in locale is mined for all the magnificently corny atmosphere and Cajun accents director Leslie Goodwins could muster.

Years after Kharis and Ananka vanished, a new federal operation is underway to drain, clear, and build a road through the same swamp, stirring the disquiet of locals who have kept the memory of the mummy and his bride alive. Two archaeologists, Zandaab and James Halsey (Dennis Moore), arrive with official permission to dig for the two mummies, to the irritation of the project manager Pat Walsh (Addison Richards) and the intrigue of his daughter and secretary Betty (Kay Harding). Zandaab is of course the latest of the Priests of Karnak (by this point in the series always called the Priests of Arkam), and he has an acolyte, Ragheb, posing as one of the road workers, stirring up fright amongst them and stabbing the occasional busybody as he searches for Kharis. Ragheb does locate the mummy, and stashes him in a ruined nearby monastery, but Ananka remains missing. Until, that is, an excavator partly uncovers Ananka (now played by Virginia Christine). Digging her way out of the ground and stumbling through the swamp, she’s picked up by Halsey and Betty on their way back from a date. Apparently without any memory of either of her previous lives, the worker camp’s doctor Cooper (Holmes Herbert) diagnoses her as amnesiac, and encourages Halsey to use her an assistant to keep her occupied. Ananka proves to have intensive knowledge of archaeology and Egyptology without any idea where it came from, but when she attracts the attention of Zandaab, the priest recognises her as the princess, and sends Kharis out to hunt her down.

Although not quite as intricately lit and decorously framed as The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Curse is nonetheless the most visually engaging episode in the series, as the setting allows Goodwins to exploit that mist-riddled foliage of the bayous and rough-hewn rural buildings, and generate some proper creepiness, in a manner looks forward to the later phase of regionally-made and set horror movies. One scene stands as legitimately unsettling in a manner virtually nothing else from the Universal horror cycle can match today, in which Ananka and Cooper listen to the sound of Kharis approaching, a mere scuffling sound that portends the arrival of a force that refuses all reason and annihilates anything that stands in its path. Cooper steps through the tent flaps to behold something from the back corners of a nightmare looming out of the dark. Several scenes take place around a cafe run by Cajun chanteuse Tante Bertha (Ann Codee) and her diminutive husband Achilles (Charles Stevens), a zone where a fecund folk culture and old-world atmosphere still subsist even as the labours of the work crew pierces and cleanses the fetid reaches of the swamp. The ruined monastery is a floating world of crumbling delight, thrust up over the swamp on a rise, crumbled walls and roof again mimicking the ruins of Egypt. Here Zandaab and Ragheb set up base but first have to contend with a zany local (William Farnum) who is the “self-appointed caretaker” of this monastery, demanding the duo and their pagan paraphernalia depart instantly, obliging Kharis to strangle him. Ananka, when she first sees Zandaab, seems to recognise him as a fellow, approaching him in a daze and striking a pose with hands jutting from the sides of her hips, a gesture suggesting the subsistence of an ancient and mysterious creed.

The film’s best scene, and perhaps the most arresting in the series, is Ananka’s revival: first seen as a clay-smeared hand thrust out of the soil, followed quickly by the rest of her, Ananka sheds the earth (and her mummified appearance) as she gropes her way through the trees, following the glow of the sun, rejoicing in the heat as it bakes dry the mud on her and restores her life as a descendant of the sun god. This moment has a genuine charge of the strange and numinous, imbued in part through Christine’s excellent physicality in this scene, worthy of comparison in its way with Boris Karloff’s work as Frankenstein’s Monster for conveying the idea of flesh and bone reanimated against all will and sense, but finding a balm in the glow of the sun as it feeds her and restores her. Christine proves the most interesting of the lovely young ingénues Universal placed in the series (except for future The Big Sleep star Martha Vickers, although she only appears for a very few moments in The Mummy’s Ghost). The only real problem with this entry is a lack of any more new ideas, sending Kharis around the block a few times for a few more random strangulations. The theme of lechery amongst the Priests is palmed off onto Ragheb, who kidnaps Betty in his desire to make her his immortal bride, and when Zandaab censures him, Ragheb stabs him, stirring the wrath of Kharis.

The filmmakers seem to have been aware this was likely to be the last entry, so at least the ending works to bring a proper close to the series. But it does so in a way that lacks much thrill: Ananka is finally, rather lamely dosed with tana fluid and restored to a mummified state, whilst Kharis is buried under a pile of rubble when trying to kill Ragheb, who is also killed, ending the line of priests and all who know the secret of the tana leaves. It’s worth noting the film’s consistent stylistic feature: Frank Skinner’s endlessly repeated musical themes, most of them written for Son of Frankenstein (1939) and slightly adapted, constantly throbbing and surging on the soundtrack like an erratic heartbeat. The Kharis films never quite capitalised on the wealth of potential encoded in their fascinatingly specific and rich trove of folkloric detail and recurring detail, and the dark fantasies of love through the ages and twisted eroticism that slide inkily through its bloodstream. To a certain extent, Terence Fisher would draw these out more in his concatenated remake, The Mummy (1959). But the Kharis series, once again, is one you love for what it is.


29th 08 - 2017 | 2 comments »

The Shout (1978)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Skolimowski

By Roderick Heath

Jerzy Skolimowski was born in Łódź, Poland just before the outbreak of World War II, and like many film talents of his time and nation, his life was doomed to be a strange tale of exile and wandering. After enduring a terrifying childhood in the midst of war, Skolimowski found repute early in his early twenties as a writer with a sideline passion for boxing. Skolimowski encountered Andrzej Wajda, then at the forefront of his generation’s film talents in Poland, and Wajda challenged him to rewrite the script of Innocent Sorcerers (1960), in which Skolimowski also acted, playing a pugilist. A spark of passion for a new art form lit in Skolimowski, who started attending film school and studied under Andrzej Munk, and graduated with a near-complete feature film to be assembled from all the fragments he had shot in that time. Skolimowski wrote the dialogue for Roman Polanski’s debut film, Knife in the Water (1962), before he began to make a name for himself with his autobiographical tales of growing up in post-war Poland, particularly Walkover (1966), about a boxer who defeats an opponent in the ring but is felled by him in a street fight. The political commentary of Hands Up! (1967) got him in trouble with authorities, and he found himself unable to return home. He drifted around western Europe for a time, and washed up in London, where his experiences would eventually be transmuted much later into his acclaimed 1982 film Moonlighting. Skolimowski debuted in English-language cinema with Deep End (1970), a story about a teenager’s sexual obsession with a slightly older woman that unfolds in tragicomic fashion. Sinking instantly from sight at the box office upon release, Deep End soon gained a dogged cult following.

Skolimowski’s follow-ups, adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle — The Adventures of Gerard (1970) — and Vladimir Nabokov — King, Queen, Knave (1972) — were also flops and critically derided to boot, so Skolimowski did not get to make another film until 1978’s The Shout, an adaptation of a short story written by Robert Graves. Graves, best-known for his poetry and his diptych of erudite and blackly witty historical fiction I, Claudius and Claudius the God, is not a name usually associated with fantastical literature, but The Shout was an eerie and bizarre tale about magic and madness, one that was to prove a perfect springboard for Skolimowski’s talents. The resulting film captured him the Grand Prix at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival (shared with Marco Ferreri’s Bye Bye Monkey). The Shout stands today as a lonely island in cinema, one of a handful of entries in the history of the cinefantastique that evokes vast possibilities with a spare, even abstract, method. Then again, to call The Shout a fantasy film might be to misclassify it. Actually, most any description of it runs the same risk. It also isn’t quite a horror film, not quite a domestic drama, not quite a sex farce, not quite a shaggy dog story that both describes and enacts abuse of credulity as to how convincing a well-told story can be even when it seems utterly lunatic.

Skolimowski starts the film with images of a woman, Rachel Fielding (Susannah York), driving quickly through the countryside, springing out of the vehicle in a nurse’s uniform, and dashing inside an institutional building to behold three corpses laid out on tables under sheets. Checking the faces of each body, she comes to the last, and just as she draws the sheet back, Skolimowski teasingly dissolves into an eerie and tantalising shot of a man advancing slowly over a region of sandy dunes that could be deep desert, a sandy beach, or the cold and lonely stretch of the mind Dali constantly tried to paint. The figure advances on the camera until it can be seen properly as a black man wearing an old military jacket and clutching a pointed bone, a being of strange shamanic power and menace. From there Skolimowski leaps again in time to focus to a man riding a motorcycle, Charles Crossley (Alan Bates), passing the same Citroen mini Rachel drove earlier. This time Rachel is in the company of her husband, Anthony (John Hurt). Rachel drops a glum-looking Anthony at the same institution his wife was speeding to at the start. Both Anthony and another young man – Tim Curry, playing the role nominally that of Graves himself as ears to the story – advance into the institutional grounds wearing cricket gear. All this splintered time has more than mere arty intent, as it sets up a zone where identity, time, cause, and effect are all in flux. Graves has been asked to keep score of a cricket match between a team from a nearby town and a team partly comprised of people from the institution, which is a hospital for the mentally ill.

Graves speaks to the chief psychiatrist (Robert Stephens), who seems to be encouraging the match for therapeutic reasons, and anticipates Graves’ encounter with the other man who’ll be scoring with him. When Graves asks if this man is mad, the psychiatrist illustrates the lack of a clear dichotomy by pointing to a tree that has a sane appearance and another one with less leaves and twisting limbs that is not quite so commonplace. Graves soon finds his companion is Crossley. The game of wits that persists between Crossley and the psychiatrist is suggested as each describes the other as the most intelligent person in the place and Crossley guesses that the doctor has used the line about the trees on Graves: “Very repetitive fellow.” Crossley spies Anthony walking out to the cricket pitch and becomes excited, and proposes to Graves to tell him the story of how Anthony lost his wife. Crossley’s story quickly proves to be his own as well, and the reason behind his agitated eagerness in seeing Anthony again proves to be contained within it. The earlier shot of the shaman marching across the dunes is deployed again, joined with Crossley on a subliminal level, a spirit-shape sneaking up upon Anthony and Rachel where they lay sunbathing on sand dunes near their Dorset home. They both snap into wakefulness in quivering alarm, as they think they’ve shared a dream of the same advancing figure. Rachel soon finds she’s missing a buckle from her sandal.

On one level, under its atavistic hints and air of inscrutable numinous threat, The Shout is a portrait of a very English nightmare: the guest who invites himself in and won’t take the hint to leave, and swiftly proves so much more charismatic and interesting that he claims everything about him by right of psychic conquest as domestic courtesy is extended and abused. This facet is reminiscent of the sorts of stories of middle-class infidelity and marital tension often sarcastically referred to as the “infidelity in Hampstead” genre, as Anthony squirms regardless of his double standards at the spectacle of his wife being seduced by another man. But there’s also a crucial likeness with Knife in the Water as a tale of a troubled marriage given new and competitive zest by the inclusion of a third party, as well as sharing with Polanski a fascination for the fringes of the settled, civilised world, a place where all sorts of transformations, both lovely and repugnant, can occur. As a transplanted artist in a foreign culture, Skolimowski foregrounds the very Englishness of the story he tells here even as carefully portrays the feeling of being alienated from the landscape, and conveys that sense of hazy horizons through Crossley as a man who smudges the barriers between places and people. The rituals and uniforms of cricket are given totemic importance for a reason, for the psychiatrist tries to use them as a way of securing his patients in the game’s bucolic unfolding. But as anyone who knows the game well, it is actually defined by tension and the constant provocation of frustration by its jittery, trying rhythms. So Skolimowski drolly observes an underlying edginess under the equable surfaces of the match, and The Shout constantly rubs raw nerves in the same way. The asylum’s star player is a former test cricket bowler who loses his temper easily, and has it quickly stoked to boiling point by bad umpiring. One patient-turned-player (Jim Broadbent) has to retrieve a ball from a cowpat, getting shit all over his hands, and he becomes increasingly jittery and hysterical as the match proceeds. As Crossley recounts his narrative, the atmosphere constantly darkens and becomes more pregnant, as a thunder storm approaches, its dull rumbling thunder echoing through the leafy hospital grounds.

Anthony is an experimental musician who spends his days creating new and unusual sounds in a makeshift studio in his house, whilst occasionally filling in playing organ in the church in the nearby town. Skolimowski depicts Anthony at work with a mesmeric fascination for the techniques he uses to make his effects, each creation an act transmuting a commonplace object into something extraordinary, like a haggard sardine tine scraped with a violin bow, or a fly trapped in a bulb taped to his microphone. When Anthony dashes to town on his bicycle after getting so wrapped up in his work he nearly forgets he’s due at the church, he pounds on the keys whilst making eyes at his lover in the town (Carol Drinkwater). When he returns to his bike, he finds the tyre flattened, an act performed by Crossley to contrive their meeting. Anthony tries to dodge Crossley’s angular, unwelcome conversation, but after gallivanting around the countryside with his lover finds him waiting for him again outside his house. Crossley claims to be on a walking holiday, and having only recently returned to England after spending eighteen years in the Australian outback. He invites himself to tea and entertains the bewildered Fieldings with his accounts of life with a remote Aboriginal tribe, and gives his testimony to having taken advantage of the tribe’s law and killed the four babies he had with his tribal wife, so that he would leave nothing of himself with them when he departed their society. This report drives a distraught Rachel from the room, in part, she admits later, because the Fieldings’ own marital unease is sourced in part in their own failure to have a child.

Crossley also speaks about various magical feats he has witnessed or mastered himself when he submitted to the schooling of the indigenous sorcerers, referring to his soul as split in four pieces, and describing the shaman of the Fieldings’ nightmare, who was his principal teacher and a man even Crossley describes as “a genuinely terrifying figure.” Crossley recounts that man’s greatest feat of magic, in which he sliced the skin of his torso right around his navel and pulled the skin up like a shirt, an act that brought on torrential rain to end a long drought. Anthony sees that Crossley himself has a scar just like this around his belly. Crossley turns himself into a house guest with a fainting spell. He later offends Anthony by telling him he’s listened to his music and found it empty, but Anthony, though he throws a private tantrum, can’t quite work up the proper pith to toss his guest out. Distracted as he keeps dashing off to see his mistress, Anthony returns home to find Crossley developing a connection with Rachel that soon shades into outright erotic domination, a grip that might be facilitated by his possession of her sandal buckle, a personal trinket that he claims allows him to bend another to his desire. Another of Crossley’s claimed skills is his mastery of the Shout, which allows him to kill by releasing an ear-splitting cry. Anthony declares his disbelief, so Crossley agrees to demonstrate it for him. After leading him out on a long march to the centre of the coastal dunes and advising him to plug his ears with wax, Crossley draws a deep breath, and performs the Shout.

The very 1970s quality of The Shout is a part of its appeal, the sense of eccentricity and experimental attitude inherent in both the storyline and Skolimowski’s expostulation of it, and its exemplary status as perhaps the greatest entry in a peculiarly British brand of fantastic filmmaking that’s mostly been buried in the intervening decades. As near-forgotten a quantity as The Shout has become, some filmmakers clearly remember it however. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) referenced it several times, whilst The Duke of Burgundy (2014) took on a similar proposition of melting realities amidst a self-sequestered couple. Recent works of arthouse note like Carol Morley’s The Falling (2015) and Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling betray its remnant spirit in trying to evoke the primal, hostile, protean aspect of the countryside and the spaces between people. David Yates nodded to it in a very unexpected context, in the sequence of alienated wanderings of a British landscape turned alien and desolate in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (2011). Skolimowski uses seemingly very casual scenes to begin knitting the unique mood that defines The Shout, as one game gives way to the equally calm yet increasingly overwrought process of Crossley entering and influencing the lives of the Fieldings. Graves’ story was written in the late 1920s, but updating it to the present day of the 1970s allowed Skolimowski, whose contexts are usually sharply observed even when his dramas are usually more interior, like the swinging London backdrop to the portrait of painful adolescent neediness in Deep End, to encompass a host of pertinent likenesses. Although apart from the cars and Anthony’s technical gear there’s little to nail down the period, nonetheless The Shout incidentally records the shaggy, shambling, depleted spirit of the post-counterculture era: the refugees from city life permeating the countryside, their former lustre of revolutionary adventures transmuting into fiddly obsession and petty rather than exploratory sexual dalliances, confronted by a figure who both threatens and appeals in wielding mystic power, a guru figure teasing constantly with the suggestion of wisdom hard-won and rigorously applied.

Crossley’s air of command and acumen burn beneath his veneer of shambling, unkempt, almost tramp-like look. The Shout came out in the same year as the infamous Jonestown cult’s mass suicides and murders, and Crossley has the stature of a cult leader who needs only to find apt soil to plant himself in, wielding dangerous magnetism and the ability to fixate and unnerve others until they put faith in his strength, needing to be cut down quite before he can work up the right wild verve to enthral more than just the Fieldings. In making The Shout, Skolimowski took advantage of the relatively new Dolby sound recording technology, which had been before that only been a tool for large-budget blockbusters. This allowed him to toy with his film’s sonic dimensions in a rich and layered way. The audio is pitched throughout with a restrained hush occasionally punctuated by a violent or peculiar sound in the same way that a random shout of “Out!” during the cricket match breaks the spell of Crossley’s narration, and the cry is taken up like a chain bark, the illusion of sense and placidity turned into an echo chamber of lunatics. Part of the challenge of making The Shout clearly lay in conveying the awful power of the eponymous concept, the idea of a Shout that can set the world’s spirit in chaos. And Skolimowski pulls it off. The quelled soundtrack persists until the fateful moment when Crossley shouts, a noise that explodes with shattering force, as if raw sound might punch its way out of the screen, Bates’ yawing mouth filmed like a great cavern as he releases the mighty cry. Sheep fall dead at the impact, and even with his ears blocked Anthony contorts and faints. When he awakens, he clutches a totemic stone in his hand, and is momentarily convinced he’s a cobbler — which happens to be the profession of his lover’s husband. Skolimowski casually reveals a shepherd lying dead near the sheep, his death unnoticed by the two men, incidental victim of the conspiracy between heedless will and equally heedless curiosity.

Skolimowski’s touch of making Anthony a musician compelled by process and fascinated with what wonders simple tools can produce is preffectly apt on the thematic level, but also allows Skolimowski to make a spectacle of his own intents and effects evinced throughout. Much as Anthony labours to create his noises, Skolimowski here stretches cinematic sinews, conjuring a sense of potent mystery and the advancing pressure of the irrational, and terrifying eruptions of preternatural power, purely through means naturally available to his camera and his editing desk, with scarcely any special effects. The Shout anticipates the Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker from the following year in attempting to create credulity of a destabilised reality on screen purely through carefully parsed use of basic film craft. Aiding Skolimowski immeasurably in creating his mood is the droning, otherworldly electronic music soundtrack provided by Michael Rutherford and Tony Banks, aka the other guys from the band Genesis. The scoring suggests Anthony’s head-space in the course of his labours, whilst touching the landscape the Fieldings inhabit in the same way Crossley does, turning it from homey pastoral stretch into a zone where the coding of nature seems to be pixelating – rocky shores reaching fingers into the ocean, the grass-thatched sand dunes, the old house tucked into the folds of the land, at once a perfect English landscape and an outpost on the moon, a land hovering on the edge of nothingness.

Anthony’s studio sports clipped-out art work like Munch’s painting “The Vampyre,” and an artwork depicting a perverse imp on all fours, suggesting the zones of surreal and sublime perversity Anthony retreats into in his mind, whilst his exterior life remains timid and largely conventional, even in his tawdry affair. Crossley turns up like a demon to torment him precisely for his transgressions, whilst in the course of turning into a rampant, even mindless sensual being under Crossley’s influence, Rachel mimics the crawling imp figure. Although Crossley is nominally telling the story here, Anthony’s own psychic mindscape seems to be blurring into the drama we see, perhaps harvested by Crossley as he ventures into Anthony’s studio. The framing sequences are true to Graves’ story whilst also situating the film in a cinematic tradition kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), as a tale whose inferences cannot entirely be trusted because of who is telling the story, even as evidence accumulates that Crossley is not merely entertaining his fascinated companion with sick and stirring fancies. Storytelling itself is an act of conjuring in The Shout, and an untrustworthy weapon.

The question as to whether or not Crossley is merely a madman and manipulator or actually possesses the sorts of power he claims is a narrative mystery to be solved by the end, but it’s also connected with Skolimowski’s deeper objective, as the way The Shout is pieced together makes the way reality is represented on screen, as a usually seamless flow of images linked by codified grammar, becomes a nebulous zone through straightforward touches – a simple cut from one action to another can completely unmoor a viewer from a sense of cause and effect. The synergy Skolimowski finds between the various layers of his story and his method of telling it means that even at only a very trim 82 minutes, The Shout is near-endlessly rich. Crossley’s preamble to telling his story could be Skolimowski’s own: “It’s always the same story but — I change the sequence of events and — I vary the climaxes a little because I like to keep it alive.” In the same way, although films are static things, Skolimowski’s games with the unfolding his story, his flash cuts forward and back in timeframe, sometimes for good reason and other times just to stir bewilderment.

Casting Bates as Crossley was a particularly inspired move on Skolimowski’s part, for he had the right kind of verbal dexterity for the role of a man who must compel the viewer as well as the characters about him with his conviction and ability to intrigue, in addition to the necessary cobra-and-rabbit mystique of sexual threat. Bates’ pale-hued eyes, so strikingly expressive and romantic in films like Zorba the Greek (1964) and Women in Love (1969) still glow out from behind his grizzled four-day-growth, whilst his tongue is able to twist the metre of his speech from intimate confidant, as he plays for Rachel, to maniacal prophet out of the wilderness, as he otherwise readily postures. The Shout plays upon a quality in Bates Ken Russell had exploited well in Women in Love whilst also incidentally depicting the decay of the messianic figure from that film’s prophet of a new age to a shifty bum whose great ambition for his tremendous gifts consists of cuckolding a hapless musician. Hurt, with his pale, rubbery physique and York with her stark blue eyes and tensile, honed body, round out a major cast notable for their physically palpable qualities, counterpointing the hovering mood of mystic peril with one of immediate corporeal anxiety.

That anxiety is sometimes played for laughs, as when Graves is met upon arrival at the asylum by a woman who’s paranoid he’s going to peek up her dress. Anthony tries to negotiate a conversation with a naked Crossley, and later he is plucked out of the bath where was getting amorous with Rachel, obliged to converse with the village priest (Julian Hough) about performing at the shepherd’s funeral whilst struggling to hide his erection. But the undertones of sensual strangeness build to electric and unnerving moments too, as when Anthony catches a glimpse of a tell-tale scar ringing Crossley’s belly, and when Crossley appears to Rachel in his room as she tries to pull on a shirt, staring down through the folds of linen at her blankly adoring face, and her moments of ecstatic undressing and seeming transformation into an animal, York offering visions of carnal identity suddenly freed and given reign. Skolimowski also makes memorable use of animals as barometers of human activity. The staring, disinterested cattle who watch the cricket players mimic the ideal of bovine calm that game is supposed to engender. The sheep who pitch limp and very dead after being pulverised by the Shout. A bird that slips into the Fieldings’ kitchen and flits about madly over the head of Rachel, who weeps as she senses her marriage and sense of self dissolving in the face of infidelity and Crossley’s compulsion of her affections, her distress embodied by the animal overhead.

Crossley’s very arrogance, his desire to prove his power as well as possess it, proves to be his undoing, however. When his lover’s husband reveals to him that he experienced a similar dissociation as Anthony knew when Crossley performed the Shout, Anthony intuits the stone he awoke with in his hand after the event might have become invested with some of Crossley’s power, so he goes back to the dunes to dig it up. When Crossley makes it clear he intends to stay on in his house and subjugate Rachel to his will, Anthony calls the police, who try to arrest and charge him with murdering his children, and when Crossley tries to kill his harassers with his Shout, he only manages to fell one before Anthony shatters the stone, robbing Crossley of his power and allowing him to be captured. By now the import of what we’ve seen at the outset has become clearer: Rachel works at the hospital to be close to Crossley, who still holds some power over her, and Crossley is excited to see Anthony because he hopes to get a chance to enact revenge upon him. But the arrival of the thunderstorm sets the cricket match in chaos, whipping up Broadbent’s hysteric until he strips naked and begins pushing the score box back and forth around the pitch, whilst the psychiatrist and Crossley struggle, and Gaves wisely darts off. Crossley tries to peform the Shout, and a bolt of lightning strikes the box, killing both him and his medical nemesis as well as the hapless patient. Has Crossley’s Shout called down the lightning and felled them all, or was it just a coincidence? Either way, Rachel’s dash to the scene as glimpsed at the opening gains proper ending, as she removes her shoe buckle from Crossley’s neck, his influence finally ended. It’s typical of Skolimowski’s ingenious touch that he’s able to retain a note of ambiguity underneath what we’ve seen even as it seems all has played out to its literal end, and equally indicative of his refusal to indulge any familiar triteness that he fades out upon the sight of Rachel restored, yet still lingering over Crossley’s body – did he really control her, or did he simply claim her affections in all his mad stature? The Shout can still tantalise, madden and perplex. It’s certainly a film of great craft and art that badly needs rediscovery.


21st 05 - 2017 | 7 comments »

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Ridley Scott’s chimera of horror and science fiction, Alien (1979) launched its director on a Hollywood career and established a franchise that has become a fixture of the modern cinema landscape. Expanded by James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Alien series, whilst declining steeply in quality as it went on and spawning an army of imitators, still managed to remain distinctive. That distinctiveness stemmed from the films’ unique blend of down-and-dirty generic imperatives, telling blood-and-thunder stories of rampaging monsters, obscene pregnancies and infestations, and raw survivalism, fused with high-class production values, conceptual intelligence, and technocratic grandeur, lending a veneer of respectability to a portrait of a future far less cheery and far more id-like than the norm for such spacefaring tales. This is a future defined by eerie fusions of biology and technology, painted in chiaroscuro contrasts of assailed light against overwhelming blackness, a place where nightmares dwell and heroes survive only by pure nerve. The series reached a nadir when the menace of the xenomorphs was pitched into combat with the hulking Predators of Twentieth Century Fox’s other beloved sci-fi action property for two readily ignored movies, but then Scott elected to return to the series that had made his name with Prometheus (2011). Suddenly the series, and its director, were exciting for many again. Prometheus proved a peculiarly indecisive concoction, however, and a divisive one.

Undoubtedly, Prometheus was an ambitious and hefty piece of work. But many, including me, were hoping that Scott would extend his work not just in theme and scope but in style. The specific aura of his original, defined by a mood of miasmic dread and mystery, and tension slowly ratcheted then exploited with relentless effect, was attuned to environment as a tool and source of drama, in the twinned environs of space’s unknowable expanse and the labyrinthine twists of the Nostromo. Such carefully worked filmmaking offered lessons too many contemporary directors forget, including, it seemed, Scott himself. Still, Scott poured a great deal of his matured technical and storytelling expertise into the film and many examples of his great eye, so that when viewed as a standalone thrill-ride, Prometheus was a fine effort, sporting one truly classic sequence depicting an excruciating surgical birth. But as a revisit to beloved universe by its progenitor, it was surely more conventional and clumsy.

The curious squeamishness Scott revealed on Prometheus about drawing too many clear lines to his original gives way with Alien: Covenant, his latest foray into this zone, to a bolder reappropriation of his stylistic cues, opening the door for an instalment that moves a long way towards closing the linkage between the two entries. The titles recreate the assembling motif of the original’s opening credits, and Jed Kurzel’s music score quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s plaintive, eerie, barely-there scoring for the original. Scott also quotes ideas from subsequent entries, like a projected image of lovely forest offered as a bogus panacea for grief and the stern rifle-wielding quoted from Aliens (1986). There’s a deftly clever reason to this sort of conscientious trope-harvesting, beyond mere homage and service to a conceptual universe, that becomes clearer as the film goes on. Prometheus dealt with an expedition financed by dying tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his efforts to track down the possible source of life on Earth, discovering facilities used for genetic engineering and the remains of a colossal alien race dubbed Engineers, who laid the seeds for the genesis of the human race but also intended its destruction and supplanting by more fearsome creations. The finale saw sole human survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) appropriating an Engineer spaceship to track down their home world in the mangled company of Weyland’s magnum opus in cybernetic engineering, David (Michael Fassbender).

Alien: Covenant opens with a sequence depicting David’s first conscious moments as a creation and tool of Weyland, back when the creator was still relatively healthy and David was immediately faced with a quandary of being the perfect and undying progeny of a very frail beast indeed. Most of Alien: Covenant however takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus. Following Prometheus’ lead, Covenant is also the name of a spaceship, a craft carrying a load of 2000 colonists in cryogenic stasis to a distant planet chosen as a new home. Their well-being is overseen by the on-board synthetic human Walter (Fassbender again), an upgraded, less independent version of David’s make. In between leaps through wormholes with a solar sail deployed to recharge the ship’s power supplies, the Covenant is struck by a surge of energy from an exploding star, frying its electrical systems and causing the ship’s core crew to wake up. The captain, Branson (James Franco), is burned to a cinder when his stasis pod catches fire, leaving his partner Daniels (Katherine Waterston) distraught and his second officer Oram (Billy Crudup) in anxious command. Whilst repairing the solar sail, another crew member, Tennessee (Danny McBride), picks up an extremely faint and mysterious broadcast from a relatively nearby planet. Watching the broadcast, the crew realise it’s a faint image of a woman singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” When they look at the planet it’s sourced from, a mere seven weeks’ flight away, the crew decide it’s worth travelling there to search for the mysterious woman, because the planet appears to be a closer and superior place to set up their colony.

Arriving at the planet, the Covenant crew, who are mostly married or in relationships to better foster the colonial mission, leave a skeleton force to man the space vessel whilst most of the crew departs to the surface to investigate. Tennessee’s wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) is one joins the landing team, which also includes Oram, Daniels, and stalwart Lope (Demián Bichir, under-utilised), whilst her husband stays aboard ship with another couple, Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett). Daniels has protested vociferously to Oram about his decision to come to this planet which she describes as too good to be true, a protest Oram registers as another slight against him, feeling a victimised status he blames on his oft-proclaimed religious faith. Touching down, the landing party soon find the planet apparently free of all animal life but weirdly rich in familiar, overgrown versions of Earth vegetation. They soon find a crashed Engineer spaceship and find Shaw’s dog tags on board. Two members of the party, Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) and Hallett (Nathaniel Dean) also inadvertently find something else, spore pods that release microbes that latch themselves on their bodies and soon start a gruesome and grimly familiar biological process. Both infected men soon fall ill, bleed copiously, and finally have small but deadly alien organisms erupt out of their bodies. These things grow and go on the hunt, leaving several crew dead and their shuttle craft destroyed. What’s left of the party is saved by a mysterious cloaked figure who releases a bright flare to scare the monsters off. This is soon revealed to be David himself, surviving a solitary existence on this planet with naught to do but pick up where the Engineers left off.

The early scenes of Alien: Covenant confirm Scott’s intention to reverse-engineer the series back to original specs, whilst also quietly stretching out sinew in readiness for hard exertions when they come, as he makes a film where its very status as a variation on a theme is an explicit part of the show. The workaday tedium that afflicted the denizens of the Nostromo is not quite rhymed with the more upbeat and expectant Covenant crew here, whose outlook is fixed on new horizons rather than hacky bonus cheques. This positive aspect to the crew makes them more harmonious and likeable for the most part, but also means most lack the hardened edge of survival instinct that finally sustained Ripley through to safe harbour. The crew’s increasingly panicky, frail responses to hard-charging survival situations comes both in response to sudden swerves of fate but also repeatedly create them. Daniels’ tragic loss of her partner which is also the loss of the expedition leader and pillar of stability has immediately punched a deep and ever-widening hole in the integrity of this unit. Oram cringes and privately fumes at presumed dissension to his authority, especially when the other members of the crew take pause during their repairs to give Branson a funeral. Tennessee becomes increasingly stressed and places the Covenant in danger from the violent storms that sweep over the planet’s upper atmosphere as he becomes increasingly worried about his wife. The way stressful and lethally intense situations sort out personalities, a minor but consequential theme of the original, is here revisited and becomes an overriding part of how Alien: Covenant investigates humanity and alienness as conditions.

This aspect is illustrated with particularly ruthless zeal when the long, investigative first act gives way to rapidly spiralling crises and hysterical goads to action. The creature in Ledward rips its way out of his back whilst he and Oram’s botanist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) are in the shuttle craft’s med bay. Faris locks Karine in with the monster and makes a frenetic but ineffectual attempt to get a weapon and kill the creature. Although new-born the creature still gnaws Karine to death and tracks Faris through the ship, finally driving her to accidentally blow up the craft with her wild gunshots. Scott repeats this process several times, as situations fall suddenly and ruthlessly on his characters, a callous quality given fresh bite by the fact most of these characters are in relationships, their functions as team members cut across by personal loyalties and instincts driving them in contradictory directions. Daniels’ enveloping grief is employed both as a personal trait and an aesthetic keynote in a mad dream where everything spirals in towards to twinned moments of birth and death. Her hopes for building a log cabin on an alien shore with her husband are recited as pathetic confession, and she shares an embrace with Tennessee when they’ve both lost loved-ones. Scott contrasts the increasingly frenzied, messy, and desperate actions of the humans against the ever-poised David, who, in spite of his solitary Ben Gunn-like existence on the planet and long, ragged castaway’s hair, has kept his composure and found peculiar purpose. He takes the survivors in hand and leads them to a deserted city where the petrified remains of the Engineer race still lie scattered across agora cobbles, like some grotesquely apocalyptic, genocidal edition of Pompeii’s dead. David explains to the survivors that the Engineer ship he and Elizabeth brought to the planet accidentally released a sample of the Engineers’ own biological agents, killing them and all other animal life, whilst Elizabeth was mortally injured when the ship crashed.

Although it has undoubtedly been composed of uneven individual works and has received little recognition, Scott’s late career has been rapidly taking shape as one of the most vital and interesting runs in recent cinema from a major filmmaker. This is apparent on both on the level of sheer cinematic swagger, replete with genre-swapping skin-changes worthy of his xenomorphs, but also in the way the key fascinations of his films have become increasingly compulsive. This phase began after the flop of Body of Lies (2008), probably Scott’s weakest film, and kicked off with Robin Hood (2010), both an attempt to recapture and to farewell a phase in his career defined by the success of Gladiator (2000), the movie which restored his standing as a major hit-maker but also reduced him to a spinner of simplistic fairy-tales for grownups. Robin Hood, although violently uneven and poorly focused, was nonetheless a complex conjuration, meshing closely observed historical context with mythology in a manner that highlighted several of Scott’s career-long concerns, particularly class conflict and the fate of the out-of-place individual, and the question as to how our contemporary humanity has evolved, in terms of one of Britain’s most famous folkloric figurations. The films Scott has made since then – Prometheus, The Counselor (2013), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), The Martian (2015), and this one – have all agitatedly sorted and re-sorted an essential catalogue of ideas and images, taking on parables in various settings and each with a different tone for framework. The Old Testament punishments for hubris in Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus saw moral dramas played out in landscapes of jagged stone and bleak portent, whilst the communal efforts to achieve sanctuary in Exodus and The Martian evinced a positive but exacting sense of vulnerability in the face of eternal powers. Like Luis Bunuel, a very different filmmaker in obvious ways, Scott has explored his own contradictory nature as a person without overt religion but easily fired up by a religious sensibility, urgently examining the forces that make and break us, trying to live up to a humane creed but constantly offering sly sympathy to his Satanic figures.

Alien: Covenant certainly extends this last aspect through the figure of David, who has slipped his bonds and become determined not merely to be excellent product but a most excellent and laborious producer. He’s that figure Scott admires most and has most qualms about, the exceptional being straining against a world of lessers, an antihero driven to be rebel archangel in his outrage at the way things are. Oram is a man of religious faith but little faith in himself and, more importantly, little gift for leadership, and he falls prey to David’s designs with tragicomic ease. The deliberate echoes and suggestions of direct connection provided here with Blade Runner (1981) flesh out something long implicit in the diptych offered by Scott’s most evergreen films, as David here marches on fearlessly into zones of self-definition Roy Batty could not quite bear to contemplate: he still wanted his father to tell him things would be all right. One forceful idea of Prometheus was the notion that discovering God might be a colossally disappointing act, underlined here with the revelation David casually exterminated the Engineers with their own works. One mask of creation simply gives way to another, leaving more mystery and more frustration. This becomes a spur ironically not to despair but to further, ever-more restless engagement with the act of creation itself. But the creation is only ever a mirror to the faults and strengths of what produces it, and David’s root programming error is suggested with a daisy chain of literary references that connects Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and the latter’s wife Mary, as the Frankensteinian progeny plans an elaborate and cosmically terrifying revenge on having been made so well and yet so impotent. His recitation of Percy’s epistle to the titanic urge, “Ozymandias,” reveals his own trunkless legs by misattributing it to Byron – a mistake Walter, seemingly David’s perfect replica, but carefully castrated by a more cautious and circumspect society, notices, the one clue that this would-be god is cracked.

The relationship between David and Walter is one of Alien: Covenant’s most sublime ideas, giving Fassbender a chance to give two supremely confident, carefully varied performances, and the ultimate actor’s challenge and fantasy, to enact both seducing himself and killing himself. David introduces Walter to the pleasures of personal artistic creation when he teaches him to play a flute, the perfect Narcissus eventually even kissing his double in his effort to find a worthy companion in his solitude, and what could be more worthy than himself. But Walter resists and eventually becomes the only real force standing between David and victory over the pathetic flesh-bags. David has become as central and eclipsing to Scott’s re-conception of this franchise as Peter Cushing’s similarly cool, incisive, utterly unrelenting Frankenstein was to Hammer’s series about the character, towering far over the monstrous by-products of his tinkering. The eventual battle between the two synthetics is the ultimate and perfect version of the essentialist struggle that Scott has meditated upon as far back as the inevitably titled The Duellists – at last the mirrored antagonists are actually, truly identical, distinguished only by the mysterious code called personality. Alien: Covenant eventually unveils another inspired notion as it reveals that the missing link between the Engineers’ parasitic monstrosities and the familiar xenomorphs of the series is David himself, toying with these in his attempts to build a species perfectly adapted not just to survival but to actively exploiting and destroying humans.

This provides an impishly clever explanation for why the xenomorphs seems at once so strange and so familiar, compositing animal types found on Earth and giving the Engineers’ brilliant but mutable creations a new spin. At one point David acidly refers to one of his human male victims as the intended mother of one of his children. David has become in word and deeds his own god, a version of god blazing hatefully out of gnostic texts and bitter agnostic fantasy, a mad designer perched over neo-medieval texts splicing together misbegotten demons. The film’s blackest joke involves two renditions of a passage of Wagner’s Das Rheingold depicting gods entering Valhalla, and is also a cunning call-back to a motif again mooted in the original, where Ash celebrated the purity of the alien beast with ardent fascist admiration. The Hitlerian dream is unbound and now written into the music of the spheres. Appropriately, Alien: Covenant is a mad scientist’s concoction itself, all mediated by Scott’s utilisation of David’s urge to creativity as a metaphor for his own, speeding through drafts, each one tossed off with ever-more feverish drive than the last no matter how good or how lousy the results; only the urge to keep moving counts. Thus Alien: Covenant is a highly perverse hymn to creativity as a natural law and urge, manifesting in whatever form it will. Scott’s professional drive to keep working, so often the source of critical suspicion of his output, is constituted by him as the essence of his being.

Scott does more than make a horror film here; he makes a film about the horror genre, its history, its place in the psyche, analysing the way the death-dream constantly underlies all fantasies of ego and eros. Scott reaches out for a hundred and one reference points, some of the already plain in the Alien series lexicon. The deserted Engineer city recalls the Cyclopean confines of the lost cities in Lovecraft tales like At the Mountains of Madness, the Elder Gods all left gorgonized by David’s perfidy. At one point Scott recreates Arnold Böcklin’s painting “Isle of the Dead,” an image that obsessed H. R. Giger, the crucial designer behind so much of the Alien mythos, as much as it did Val Lewton, whose cavernously eerie psychological parables redefined horror cinema in the 1940s; Scott no doubt has both in mind. David’s “love” for Elizabeth, which has taken the form of relentlessly exploiting her body to lend genetic material to his creations, is both reminiscent of a particularly tactile serial killer worthy of Thomas Harris and of the obsessive, invasive eroticisation of the loved one’s cadaver found in Poe, whilst the whole meditates as intensely and morbidly on its landscape of Poe’s poetry. The design of the failed prototype xenomorphs and David’s rooms hung with sketches reminiscent of medieval alchemic ephemera both pay tribute to Guillermo Del Toro’s films and also poke Del Toro’s oeuvre back for its own debt to Scott and Giger. A head floating in water comes out of Neil Jordan’s self-conscious unpacking of fairy tales, The Company of Wolves (1984). The touch of Captain Branson’s death struck me as a possible tip of the hat to Dark Star (1974), in which the captain had died in similar circumstances, and which was of course made by Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon. Late in the film Scott stages a shower sequence that sees Upworth and Ricks having a hot and steamy moment under the spigot only to be surprised by a xenomorph. At first glance this sequence revels in a trashier brand of horror associated with 1970s and ‘80s slasher films, but Scott also adds self-reference – the xenomorph’s tail curling in demonic-penile fashion around their legs calls back to the similarly queasy shot in Alien when Lambert was attacked by the monster, whilst also nodding back to Hitchcock and Psycho (1960). It’s staged meanwhile with all the pointillist precision of Scott’s most fetishistic visual rhapsodies – spraying water like diamonds playing over soft flesh, fogged glass, grey knobbly alien skin, and the inevitable rupture of red, red blood.

Which points to another quality of Alien: Covenant – its deeply nasty, enthusiastic commitment to being a horror film, an anarchic theatre of cruelty and bloodlust barely evinced in any other film of such a large budget, especially in this age of gelded adolescent fantasies. If it’s still not the deep, dank leap into a barely liminal space like the original, it is perfectly confident in itself and bleakly poetic in unexpected ways. I don’t know if a film has ever been so casually beautiful even when deploying visions of hellishness, apparent in moments like the shower attack. Or in the following scene when a blown-out airlock results in air turning to million-fold vapour pellets and then ice, exploding in dazzling shards. Or in the surveys of the desolate sculpture garden that is the Engineer city. Daniels’ resemblance to Ripley, in her short dark hair and singlets and pluck in the face of monstrous adversity is both another purposeful echo and a miscue, a by-product of Alien: Covenant’s status as a logarithmic variant. Her embrace with Tennessee is one of the most unaffectedly humane moments in Scott’s oeuvre, and a summation of the film’s repeated statement that to be alive is to need others. Only that’s a rule that cuts both ways in a predatory competition for lebensraum, and leads to such fragments of ecstatic insight as David’s distraught look when one of his children fails.

Scott stages another brilliantly executed, madcap suspense sequence as Daniels and Tennessee attempt to flee the planet surface with a xenomorph scuttling around the hull of their craft, Daniels trying to blast the beast on a wildly pitching deck as the monster tries to head-butt its way through Perspex to get at Tennessee. There’s a skittish quality to Pietro Scalia’s editing throughout the film that communicates the off-kilter will at the heart of this project. Only in its very last act does some of Alien: Covenant’s assurance slip, as Scott doesn’t quite match the patience with which he deployed his sneak-attack coda in the original. But there’s still a final twist in store, at once galling and perfectly apt, deployed with obviousness but sustained in ambiguity with such malign showmanship that it becomes increasingly vexing and entirely riveting, before the axe finally falls. Scott builds with cold mirth to a punch-line for the tale that both echoes one he initially mooted for Alien, and which also recalls the sting in the tail of one of the signal influences on that film, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1966). Scott exploits his own well-worn material here to push right to the brink of the abyss in a way reminiscent to what he did before in The Counselor, complete with a note of predetermined evil fate, only in a context where he can bait people to swallow it. But he also leaves a tantalising question open that might still be answered in creative and thrilling ways. This is the worthy achievement of this entry – it rejuvenates a well-worn property and restores all its dark and unexpected power. But more than that, it’s a testament of pure delight in his medium from a filmmaker who really has nothing left to prove, but likes to prove it anyway.


4th 05 - 2017 | no comment »

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Director: Jonathan Demme

By Roderick Heath

Jonathan Demme’s death last week at the age of 73 sent a shock through the film world. Demme was one of the many talents to graduate from Roger Corman’s school for no-budget auteurs in the early 1970s, chalking up his first feature credit with 1973’s Caged Heat, a women’s prison flick that collected a studious cult following in the next few years for its oddball take on a seamy genre. 1977’s Citizens Band was a movie made according to a Corman precept, exploiting the CB radio craze, but started its director on his rise up the Hollywood ranks thanks to Demme’s gift for creating witty, humane movies sporting woolly characters, facilitated by Demme’s love for actors. 1981’s Melvin and Howard confirmed his talents in that regard as he shepherded Mary Steenburgen’s performance to an Oscar. As the ’80s progressed, Demme increasingly satisfied his love for music and exploring the culture at large with a sideline in documentaries, whilst making a string of movies that are the core of his cineaste following: pop comedies often sporting a dash of the violent and tragic, including Swing Shift (1984), Something Wild (1986), and Married to the Mob (1988). After he gained an Oscar himself and was set as one of Hollywood’s reigning filmmakers, he started plying a more conscientious brand of prestige cinema with the sententious but brilliantly made Philadelphia (1993), but hit a reef with the luckless Toni Morrison adaptation Beloved (1998). Amidst a sprawl of further documentaries and music films, Demme recovered his mojo with two little-appreciated but entirely winning remakes, The Truth About Charlie (2002) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and vibrant revisits to his everyday comedy-dramas with Rachel Getting Married (2008) and Ricki and the Flash (2015).

A quality most everyone loved about Demme’s films was his big-hearted awareness of the world immediately about him, his sense of life and people as a cornucopia even when abutting grimmer facts of existence, and his unforced, celebratory delight in America’s diverse makeup. Considering such qualities, it’s both a glaring irony and a fitting twist that the one movie he made that everyone knows was his discursion into a dark and morbid annex of the modern imagination via a virulently intense and violent horror film. That film somehow became an instantaneous fixture in the pop culture firmament and was the first of its genre to win the Best Picture Oscar, on top of awards for Demme himself and his stars. This was chiefly the result of Demme’s canniness as a hardy and tested director who knew how to shift and vary his style according to the rhythms of his material and the energy of his actors. The Silence of the Lambs was based on a novel by Thomas Harris, a former journalist who had broken through as a novelist with the terrorist thriller Black Sunday, filmed smartly by John Frankenheimer in 1976. But Harris had found his real metier with his 1981 novel Red Dragon, a tale depicting an obsessive FBI agent’s attempts to track down a serial killer, which he accomplishes in part by seeking the advice of another killer he caught, the entirely mad, insinuatingly wicked, yet often bizarrely composed and helpful, cannibalistic former psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Red Dragon was filmed superlatively by Michael Mann in 1986 under the title Manhunter, but that film proved a surprise bomb. Meanwhile, Harris composed a follow-up that recycled several elements of his first book, but with the inspired idea of substituting for Harris’ first hero Will Graham a young FBI trainee named Clarice Starling, launched in verbal combat with the still-caged but relentlessly scheming Lecter.

Most studios had passed on the rights to Harris’ book, in part because of Manhunter’s flop, but also because it seemed floridly unpleasant and left field, at a time when horror cinema was in a deep rut. The quality of Tally’s script attracted Demme, who was on a hot streak, as well as a battery of stars who normally bypassed such a grim project. They soon had the services of recent Oscar winner Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins was long a British actor of great repute on both screen and stage. Since the early 1970s, he seemed in constant danger of becoming a major star, but just never quite got there, from his sub-James Bond action hero part in When Eight Bells Toll (1971) to his kindly doctor in The Elephant Man (1980). One peculiar freedom allowed Demme on The Silence of the Lambs was the fact that although there was a recent film sporting some of the same characters and essentially the same plot, he didn’t have to worry about trying to meet any expectations. Nonetheless, his approach couldn’t have been more opposed to Mann’s if he had set out precisely to counter it. Mann had presented Harris through the prism of his terse and stripped-down modernist stylistics, his Lecter played by Brian Cox as a nerveless pervert whose sense of humour is colder than the surface of Neptune. Tally, Demme, and Hopkins instead presented him as a larger-than-life figure armed with Hopkins’ sibilant, slightly alien-sounding vocal mannerisms and an array of blackly comic quips that make him as much the film’s comic relief as its representative from darkest Hades.

Demme’s canniness in handling the material is quickly evinced in the film’s opening moments, depicting Clarice called off the obstacle course at the FBI training school to perform a peculiar errand for senior serial killer tracker Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). He captures Clarice hauling herself up a slope by ropes, literally coming up the hard way, before his camera tracks her with hungry precision through the woods, establishing the way the camera moves throughout the rest of the film, constantly tugged along, usually by Clarice’s stride in all her alternations of confidence, intrigue, and timorousness. She’s presented as a tiny figure getting into an elevator with a bunch of other, hulking trainees. Many films, both before and after this one, would waste reams of dialogue on a point Demme makes with swift, telling cinematic blows. By the time she’s seated in front of the wiry, paternal yet enigmatic Crawford, we know who Clarice is and what she’s up against. Her mission, given her by Crawford but with unspoken, ulterior motives, is to interview Lecter to learn more about his psychopathology. She does so, followed by the warnings of both the FBI honcho and Lecter’s smarmy psychiatric keeper Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) that Lecter is a dangerous being in the extreme. Chilton even entertains Clarice by showing her a photograph of the awful damage he did to a nurse’s face when she failed to keep him restrained.

Clarice’s trip to see Lecter is shot as a journey into subterranean wells, gaining a briefing for a descent into hell from Chilton and the sturdy attendant Barney (Frankie Faison) on the way before she’s ushered into a murderer’s row, in a sequence reminiscent of Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946). Except that’s it not just clasping hands of the repressed reaching out from the bars but handfuls of sperm, tossed by the resident whacko sex fiend “Multiple” Miggs (Stuart Rudin), representative of the masculine character reduced to its most bestial, counterpoint to Lecter’s equal and opposite monstrosity of the same spirit lurking under the façade of the perfect civilised man. Here the walls are all suggestively medieval brickwork, matching the swirling autumnal hues of the opening for situating the film squarely in a neogothic state of fragrant, fecund dissolution. Lecter himself hovers behind a modern barrier of thick glass, standing straight and unnatural as some kind of lawn ornament when Clarice, and the camera, first glimpses him. Lecter, an irresistible mixture of great mental aptitude mated to unconscionable will, quickly discerns something Clarice has (deliberately?) not thought too hard about. Crawford has another motive for tapping his brain, the possibility that Lecter might be able to provide an insight into another serial killer currently perplexing Crawford and the rest of national law enforcement. That killer has been dubbed “Buffalo Bill” in a pitch-black piece of cop humour because “this one likes to skin his humps,” leaving his female victims in rivers missing patches of skin.

Demme’s often subjective camerawork and use of close-ups represent film technique at its most easily parsed and recognisable, and accomplishes the important task not merely of animating the film’s intense, headlong experiential quality, but also in inhabiting the driving notion behind the psychosis of its villains and the method of its heroes. As Lecter prods Clarice to realise, Buffalo Bill covets what he sees, most immediately, the skins of women and more existentially, their identities, like some corporeal incubus sucking in their beings to give himself solidity. Lecter himself covets freedom and achieves it through a careful and relentless process of keeping an eye out, most specifically demonstrated when he sets eyes upon Chilton’s pen. Clarice and Crawford meanwhile are obligated to look at things almost impossible to look at for the sake of their jobs and their motivations, allowing the evil of others, in essence, to colonise their own minds and emotional reflexes. Thus Crawford has pictures of Bill’s victims decorating his walls, and Clarice discovers the clue of the moth chrysalis by peering at a snapshot of a bloated and stinking corpse. Like Hitchcock, Demme tethers his deepest cinematic reflexes to this interplay of looks, although lacking an obvious analogue in the story for visual obsession, unlike what Hitchcock provided in Rear Window (1954) and in Harris’s own Red Dragon, where the killer was a photographic processor who gazed at the home movies of others and wanted to write himself into their hermetic perfection. Seeing is a source of power in The Silence of the Lambs, particularly for Clarice, whose ability to look at life’s worst facts in raw, corporeal form, is her key to success. Her viewpoint creates her reality, but also creates its own distortions. The pathetic and tragic photos of Bill’s dead victims spur her sense of offended sympathy, but she needs Lecter to point out the fact that Bill “kills women” is purely incidental to her quarry. Chilton’s punishment of her for failing to respond to his chat-up line is to be shown that totemic photo and also informed as to part of the reason she’s being sent in, as a pretty face to turn the monster on.

Looking is also an act bound up with erotic wont and prelude, although here the erotic is always being channelled into other pursuits, or mangled via deeply weird psychological dynamics. Clarice, with eyes straight ahead, is engaged in her ambition to quiet her own sense of wrenching detainment by her past, wilfully oblivious to concerns others would love to impose. Demme notes the way Clarice and her pal and Academy roommate Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons) attract massed glances from other recruits, and fascinates the men in her life, even Crawford, a paternal figure who rivals Lecter for post of father-mentor and also with hues of potential lover, a point with which Lecter enjoys teasing Clarice. Demme makes a visual rhyme out of two moments of the most gentle physical communion (in a tale where that’s a very wide gamut indeed), those when Lecter contrives to touch his finger to Clarice’s and when Crawford shakes her hand in congratulations. Both moments have layers of import, especially from Lecter, who deduces things about Clarice purely by her smell where others only see, laying claim to Clarice in just about every way except physically until that moment. Lecter’s own olfactory brilliance is again linked to Miggs’ cruder immediacy: “I can smell your cunt!” are the words with which he greets Clarice’s entrance to the ward, and Lecter offers Clarice a compensating clue setting her on the path to Bill in part as compensation for Miggs’ offensive behaviour, just before Lecter somehow contrives Miggs’ death, killing off, at least temporarily, his bestial other.

Clarice follows Lecter’s clues and learns to decode his riddles through an affinity of intellectual seriousness in a generally much less attentive world. This affinity allows Clarice to understand immediately his advice to look “deep inside yourself” not as a pop-psychological bromide but a direction to an actual place, a storage facility where the weird paraphernalia of Lecter’s life resides, including, bobbing in a jar of preservative, a severed head. This sequence is grand, from Clarice’s exchanges with the elderly mogul (Leib Lensky) who owns the facility to the exploration of this zone and her uneasy laugh before venturing into the dark place, a territory that works like Lecter’s mind as a compartment of stored information, complete with hearse and mannequin without a head, and echoes back to the septic American gothic of Psycho (1960) and also to the baroque hideaways in Mario Bava’s films, staged during a heavy downpour for extra flavour. The head, Lecter protests, is not from one of his victims but from a patient who died shortly after reporting his male lover was starting to show signs of hatching lunacy and intense fetishism for the skin of others. Clarice realises that Lecter suspects he knows the killer, but is soon distracted when she’s roped in by Crawford to help him when another of Bill’s victims turns up in a river. Clarice notices a vital clue, a rare insect cocoon jammed into the victim’s throat during the post mortem, and learns from a pair of pleasantly nerdy experts (Dan Butler and Paul Lazar) that the cocoon houses a Death’s Head Moth, a suggestive clue that has to bide time for unpacking when Bill (Ted Levine) snatches another woman. But this one, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), brings troublesome portents for the killer, who imprisons her in a pit in his basement. The terrified Catherine nonetheless has enough nascent spunk to try to find ways to escape, and she also happens to be the daughter of a senator, Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), stoking law enforcement into paroxysms of impotent action and giving Lecter a very good reason to help.

The Silence of the Lambs casts a very long shadow over today’s pop culture, as the seeds it planted soon sprouted hundredfold in film and television. Its success immediately disgorged nasty wannabes like Copycat and Se7en (both 1995), and now TV, in particular, is still filled with police procedurals where grisly, often misogynist fantasies are indulged via the actions of fictional serial killers only to be safely caged by swashbuckling law enforcers. That’s one reason The Silence of the Lambs has also often suffered from blurred genre definitions, existing at once on the level of horror (intense, phobic images, a dark, near-surreal visual palette, sustained fight-and-flight sequences, monstrous figurations, and episodes of primal violence) and thriller (puzzle narrative with a proactive hero figure engaged in pursuit and detection). The film’s success in this regard was not simply because of its ineffaceable pictures and catchphrases, but because, although hardly the first horror-thriller with the chase for a murderous fiend at its core, it took the serial killer to be the authentic embodiment of contemporary anxiety, a source of danger all too real but readily translating into the image of a beast from the id.

One of the ways the film achieved this was in bifurcating the image. Buffalo Bill, whose actual name is Jame Gumb, is closer to the squalid reality of the serial killer, a misfit preying on the vulnerable whilst subsisting through a series of borrowed guises in a depressed and drearily fallow corner of the American landscape. Hannibal Lecter is a fantasy version of the same, deliberately removed from the normal realm of psychopathology (“They don’t have a name for what he is.”) and incarnating the idea of the casual thrill killer at an ultimate extreme, at once Renaissance man and man-shaped tyrannosaur, capable of doing extreme damage only with words, smart enough to fool and defeat law enforcement, finally becoming something like the bogeyman as he escapes into the world at large. Clarice’s narrative involves the defeat of the former monster, but the latter is soon unbound. Like a vampire held in check by physical and cultural demarcations, Lecter’s worst ravages can be held off in part through social graces – courtesy, attentiveness, intellectual engagement. Clarice Starling, for her part, was the kind of heroine 1991 needed very badly. Hollywood already had Ellen Ripley and a handful of other tough cookies, but most of those were in fantastic fare. Whereas Clarice was notable for her immediacy and solidity, whip-smart but not omnicompetent, focused but not a hard-ass, connecting to the case not just through professional commitment but from deeply personal motives rooted in the death of her policeman father. In short, an actual character and not a symbol or a contrivance.

Lecter’s easy job disassembling her poised veneer to diagnose her life history and motives shakes her up enough to make her think of her father, pictured by Demme in flashback along amidst memories of an idyllic small town where neighbours wave to each other and young Clarice’s father is the literal and figurative embodiment of paternal protection. The absence of love interest is in part a function of her focus – one of the film’s best jokes is that after just about everyone strikes out with Clarice, the one guy who gets a charmed smile from her is one of the museum entomological nerds, except that he himself is instantly distracted by an exciting development relating to his own field of obsession – and also because the real romance is between Clarice and Lecter. It’s a clue that Starling grips Demme as a heroine, not simply as a small woman in a big man’s world but because she’s a fallen citizen of the kind of world he preferred, the one where human connections, no matter how evanescent, are enormously powerful. Clarice struggles to regain her right to live in such peace but is drawn into a labyrinthine netherworld filled with monstrosities worthy of any Greek hero like Theseus or Oedipus, with Lecter suggesting both imprisoned Minotaur and riddling Sphinx, and Buffalo Bill as lurking Procrustes (cross-reference: the visual kinship between Mario Bava’s Hades in Hercules in the Center of the Earth, 1961, and Demme’s depiction of Gumb’s basement, with its earthy walls and invading roots). Clarice’s journey is marked in a series of met tests, from being easily rattled in her first interview with Lecter to her confident rebuffs of his later attempts to wrong-foot her, building her poise on her path to an ordeal.

Lecter’s insidious delight in penetrating the minds of people and sadistic spectacle, counterbalanced by a psychiatrist’s remnant ethos that sees a curious cleansing in the process of baring all, soon demands its own price from Clarice. The pair engage in a quid pro quo arrangement, Clarice offering up fragments of her traumatic experience after her father’s death, including a time when she was sent to live with some farming relatives where she made a hapless attempt to save a spring lamb from slaughter, a symbolic rescue that had the powerful effect of leaving her even more rootless and rejected. There’s a facetious facet to all this, derived from Harris, in the underlying faith that a great hunter of psychopaths must be a little mad themselves, but it’s the powerful engine of the drama nonetheless. In these sequences, which undoubtedly won The Silence of the Lambs its acting awards, Clarice and Lecter are filmed in delirious close-up investigating every nuance of feature. Where the film becomes less certain is where Harris’s material diverts from espousing its best aspect, the theatre of psychological warfare, for more familiar bestseller business of wailing cop cars and low-grade political tussles. The venal Chilton, fully aware of what’s going on between Clarice and Lecter thanks to his eavesdropping, outflanks her and Crawford by convincing the senator to give Lecter an authentic deal for better treatment. Lecter endangers his own good luck for the sake of his own sadistic gratification when he taunts the senator, but eventually, he gives up all the accurate details about Gumb except for his real name. Meanwhile, Clarice and Crawford catch stentorian protests from on high, rebuking Crawford for his methods (although Demme wittily cast Corman as the voice of such authority). When one examines the narrative, it’s actually built not on Lecter’s brilliantly intuitive understanding of another bird of the same feather but on coincidence, the fact that he encountered Gumb’s handiwork in his practising days. Only that crucial act of coveting is explicitly revealed as Lecter’s insight, in part because it is the motif of his own Tantalus-like existence.

Demme’s filmmaking, in spite of such narrative hesitations, retains a remarkable mixture of control and propulsion, and in particular his attentiveness to mood and atmosphere. Like the way he creates a cordoned hush around Clarice as, left alone in a small-town funeral parlour for a moment, she hears soft organ music, and slides into a sad reminiscence of her father’s funeral, seeming to drift out into the service with a fixated purpose before reverting to her child self to kiss her father’s cheek. This moment is again rhymed towards the end when Lecter’s phone call to Clarice at her FBI graduation party again seems to cleave her out of the same reality as other people, reduced to spying back on a bash that was her seeming elevation. There’s enormous craft in the intricate dance of actions and reactions in the post-mortem scene, Demme’s camera leaning close to catch each face, in isolate character and their reactions to atrocity, as a universe in itself. Even the most off-hand gestures have meaning, like the smile Tracy Walter’s character, one of the local coroner’s aides who also doubles as organ player, gives to Clarice when he sees her peering in on the funeral – a moment that supplies a charge of friendliness to proceedings even as both these people go in to inspect a bloated, partly-skinned corpse. Demme’s use of such controlled and sometimes deceptive perspective leads to more spectacular effects later, like the cunning cross-cutting between Crawford leading a SWAT team to what he thinks is Gumb’s house and Clarice ringing the doorbell of his actual home.

The most ostentatious sequence comes when Lecter finally springs his long-anticipated escape plan, segueing from the soft lilt of Bach piano music to face-eating and brain-smashing and then back again. Demme holds his nerve even as he grazes the outer edges of authentically Sadean imagery – a policeman’s face sliced off and used as a mask, another hung from Lecter’s cage, eviscerated and used as a prop in an act of psychological terrorism that renders Lecter’s all-too-human adversaries too blinded by their own feelings to see what’s in front of them. Several major American auteurs would follow Demme’s example in trying their hand at horror in the following decade, but most, from Scorsese to Coppola to Zemeckis, would never reveal the kind of sure hand Demme seems to wield so effortlessly here. Demme himself had hoped to make a work equal to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and smartly followed its lead in avoiding gore except for when absolutely necessary, on top of the already fitting connection between the two films, both being based in part on the legend of the “Wisconsin Ghoul” Ed Gein. Part of Demme’s legerdemain lies in how his camera notes all the important aspects of Lecter’s design and yet carefully avoids revealing how they fit together, and the total concept is not apparent until Lecter arises from his hospital gurney, strips off his gory disguise, and grins hungrily at the hapless medic sharing his ambulance. It’s a little like that famous The Twilight Zone episode about the man who accidentally unleashes the Devil and an age of calamity begins.

The Silence of the Lambs was controversial as well insanely popular in its time for some understandable reasons, for its violent implications and also for its portrait of Gumb, a would-be transsexual, at a time when cornball queer villains were appearing quite often in Hollywood thrillers as a big red button marked “malevolent other.” Less than reassuring portrayals of human behaviour are part of the territory with a horror film of course, and Demme and Tally still took care, perhaps spuriously, to use Lecter as mouthpiece to dispel the notion Gumb is actually queer, but rather a creature totally lacking in identity who tends to annex anything close at hand that gives shape to his unique drives. Nonetheless, Levine’s Gumb is one of the film’s less appreciated qualities, as is Smith’s terrifically convincing performance as the object of his bleak intentions. Gumb, first seen as a fusion of human and technology as he spies on Catherine, has to convince as the more immediate and genuine threat in the tale in contrast to such a florid scene hog as Lecter. Hopkins’ Lecter, with all his knowing, flashing-eyed deliveries and relish of a good laugh-line, comes on with calculated theatricality. Demme, whose usual playfulness as a filmmaker didn’t belie his more radical side but rather facilitated it, intuited the rebellious aspect to Harris’ dark fantasies, an aspect that gives The Silence of the Lambs connection to its only rival as a mainstream horror hit, The Exorcist (1973), which similarly offered an audience thrilling jolts of revelling in extreme transgressive behaviour viewed through rigid moral veils. Chilton represents authority at its most petty and sleazy, and Lecter whispers with serpentine appeal to that part of everyone who wouldn’t mind dealing out a little biting payback to such egotistical overlords.

Levine’s Gumb, by contrast, is a quieter, more authentically unnerving creation. Introduced play-acting as an injured man moving a sofa to lure in Catherine, Gumb seems eminently and terribly possible, the kind of bland, unremarkable figure who can dissolve amidst the background details even whilst he commits unspeakable crimes, longing for ascension to Olympian stature. Gumb confirms the howling void of human being under his surface as he mimics and mocks Catherine’s screams and literally objectifies her (“It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.”). There’s perverse humour, subtler than Lecter’s quips, and a charge of anxious eroticism running under the sequence when he makes himself up in a feminine form as prelude to furthering his aim of completing a woman suit composed entirely of harvested skin. So deeply ingrained is Demme’s humanism and his love of actors that he offers a certain pathos to Gumb here, seeing his frustrated and fervent creativity, his need to believe, like the insects he cares for, that he’s constantly becoming something. There’s a close kinship with Barbara Steele’s mean but frustrated prison warden in Caged Heat indulging her covert fantasies of being a chanteuse. The appeal of his twisted life becomes apparent in the rainy, depressed town he lives in, a secret bole of radical detachment from the everyday, a secret bohemian lair gone horribly wrong.

The crucial moment comes as climax not just to Demme’s careful deployment of setting and mood but also his attentiveness to his actors: when the penny drops and Clarice realises she’s standing in Buffalo Bill’s house, the man himself is before her, sniggering like a conspiratorial school boy, as Clarice tries to keep her cool, and her fate, foretold throughout the film, is to one who descends to the labyrinth, alone and unaided. This finale is particularly superb not simply in managing suspense effects well but in drawing the film’s consistent obsessions to a wicked point. Clarice is reduced a blind and groping interloper in a Stygian zone whilst Gumb, armed with infrared glasses, stalks her. But Gumb fatally forestalls his own chance to dispose of his enemy and elude capture because he must indulge his coveting, letting his hand hover over Clarice’s face, rejoicing in his power over her, until he makes the fatal mistake of cocking his weapon, giving her a split-second chance to retaliate. Even here there’s a strong visual gag, in the way Gumb curls up, shot full of holes by Clarice and still wearing his night goggles, making him look like a man-sized insect who’s just met his fated can of fly spray, his black abode suddenly filled with cleansing, diminishing sunlight. Clarice’s defeat of one dragon is undercut by the reminder that the other, more eternal one is still out there, planning a moment of revenge on the haplessly fleeing Chilton with impudent cool. Demme manages something rare with his blackly mocking coda, transmuting his blood-and-thunder show into a modern myth, finding strange and saucy delight in Lecter not simply as a sharp-tongued rogue but as the embodiment of something eternally insurgent beneath the human spirit, dissolving into the crowd to become the daemon of the world.


22nd 01 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924) / The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Director: Paul Leni

By Roderick Heath

Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.

Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.

In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing. This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers.

This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract. The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.

This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.

Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934). The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.

Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”

The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.

Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor. Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running.

This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.

That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other. His hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame.

The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film. Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.


31st 10 - 2016 | 2 comments »

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director/Co-screenwriter: George A. Romero

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It began when a short filmmaker and production aide working for host Fred ‘Mr’ Rogers’ Pittsburgh-based children’s TV show decided to make a horror movie. 27-year-old George A. Romero and his friends, bored with making anodyne entertainment and looking to make a splash, pooled resources financial and technical and formed a production company called Image Ten. The company set out to film a script Romero had written with pal John A. Russo, drawing on a short story Romero had penned, strongly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1958 novella I Am Legend. With a budget trickling in from several sources that eventually added up to just over $100,000 dollars, the film shoot was largely restricted to weekends over a seven month period when cast and crew were free, out in the Pennsylvania hinterland. The best audition for the lead role the filmmakers saw was that of former academic turned performer Duane Jones, making the film one of the few of its kind to that date with an African-American leading man. Members of the crew and production staff doubled as cast. Rogers supported Romero’s efforts but wouldn’t let him use an actor from his show star in the project, which seemed destined to exemplify the phrase “cheap and nasty.” Romero and his team, shooting on cheap 16mm black and white stock, fashioned their artisanal epic until they had a real film in the can, but then had a hard time selling it to a distributor because of the visceral gore and bleak ending. Even the estimable schlock palace AIP wouldn’t touch it. Their work, first entitled Night of the Flesh Eaters, was finally taken on by a low-rent New York company, the Walter Reade Organization, and premiered in 1968. Reviewers like Roger Ebert and moviegoers promptly freaked out, as the film was being shown without a censor classification, so children were being admitted to a film that features cannibalism and murder. The distributor had also retitled it Night of the Living Dead whilst forgetting to update the copyright, meaning that the movie slipped into the public domain almost immediately.

Why are people still talking about this forlorn labour a half-century later?

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To be sure, Night of the Living Dead is no perfect artefact. But it’s the blend of cinematic intelligence and homespun crudity enforced by the circumstances of its production that made it instantly galvanising: the result vibrates with pitiless gall and insolent power, a statement from the fringe that hits right at the axis. Night of the Living Dead exemplified several new trends already in motion when it was released. The old Hollywood was splintering and a void had opened, where there were huge sums of money to be made from an audience TV and mainstream cinema couldn’t touch. The likes of no-budget goreteur Herschell Gordon Lewis had already proven the potential punch of low-budget horror movies made by filmmakers not just outside of the studio cinema system but also labouring away in what seemed to be backwaters of American cultural life. The low budget of Night of the Living Dead gave it a quality that money would have spoilt, a sense of closeness to genuine experience and a brusque countercultural authority. That latter quality was given a steroidal boost by the cruelly sarcastic finale, so similar to the one that would follow a year later in another legendary low-budget film, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. Romero’s thumb was feeling for the pulse of the zeitgeist, trying to say something about the psychic life of America in the late 1960s. Riots and protests were everywhere, institutions were rocked, the fabric of modern Western life tested in all quarters. Somehow, Night of the Living Dead records that landscape for us now more effectively than just about any other product of the age, even though it never tries to be overtly political, for it hit upon a near-endlessly malleable metaphorical framework to explore what’s happened to the modern body politic.

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Surely that’s part of the reason why today Night of the Living Dead has conquered the world. A vast swathe of the entertainment industry today owes Romero and his ragged band royalties and suitable celebration. The explosion of zombie-themed entertainment that’s cropped up in the past decade or so, from the comic book and TV series The Walking Dead to films like World War Z (2013), only offer slight variations on Romero and Russo’s basic concept and Romero’s subsequent variations on it, in his follow-ups Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Then again, what Romero owed Matheson and Alfred Hitchcock and the sci-fi monster flicks of the 1950s is not so negligible either. Romero had worked on the set of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) but it’s The Birds (1963) that Night of the Living Dead picks apart and stitches back together, a tale of besiegement by savage beasts featuring a blonde heroine who goes largely catatonic after peering grim fate in the eye. But where Hitchcock leaves off is where Romero starts, a point made obvious in the fate of initial, apparent protagonist, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), whose blindsiding experience of world-cracking terror and loss comes scant minutes into the film and leaves her ruined and near-mute for most of the next hour and a quarter. Hitchcock’s film used his inexplicable outbreak of hostility for a lesson that he not busy being born is busy dying, whereas Romero sees a point where everyone might just be dying. Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as the next way station on a trail blazed by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in creating the modern horror film, both in their approach to intimate violence as the new barometer of horrific effect and also in the way they look at the landscape, literal and figurative, we have lived in since the post-World War 2 settlement.

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The film’s opening scene also incorporates a commentary on horror film history, as Barbra and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive in a cemetery out in rural spaces, on their ritual yearly visit performed on behalf of their incapacitated mother to their father’s grave. Johnny employs an impression of a Boris Karloff-like creep to scare Barbra. Like the same year’s Targets, which actually employed Karloff for the same end, Romero here zeroes in on the way the argot of classical horror represented by the venerable English star had become campy and passé, but still possessed an unsettling quality needing a new context to find effect: Johnny’s jokey evocation of horror immediately sets the scene for the real thing. But it’s daytime, in the quiet expanses of the Pennsylvania countryside – surely nothing bad can happen here. The mood is one of tolerance and tested nerves and banal frustration. The string tethering the siblings to this show of familial loyalty is perilously thin, and Johnny keeps testing it, claiming to barely remember his father. He cynically notes that they might as well have bought the same memorial wreath for the grave a few dozen times – mourning is another tacky industry. The toey, distracted tone of this opening suggests disquiet and discomfort already roiling under the surface – Johnny’s irritable distaste for the business he’s been forced to perform is all but tangible as he clearly wants to leave behind his past, with his affectations of hipster playboy, whilst the nervy, already suggestively fragile Barbra can’t escape it and perhaps doesn’t want to. They’re chicks who have clawed their way out of the shell of the classic nuclear family variably well. Johnny can still send Barbra spiralling back into childhood with his sardonic mockery. But the shambling figure Johnny takes for a roaming wino and nominates as one of the looming monsters (“They’re coming to get you, Bar-bra!”) proves to actually be a brute, attacking Barbra and stirring a show of actual brotherly feeling from Johnny, who immediately pays the price as he gets his head bashed in against a gravestone. Barbra flees back to the car but doesn’t have any keys, so tries to escape the ravening stranger by freewheeling down a slope. This gives her enough space to flee on foot towards a nearby house.

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The qualities of Night of the Living Dead that distinguished it from the pack are made instantly apparent in this opening movement. The deceptively calm and tepid atmosphere, loaned a sombre unease by the black and white photography, gives way to a sudden ferocity that’s still remarkable, conveyed by the actors and Romero’s intense camerawork and editing. Most low-budget and independent horror films before this were laborious in their use of the camera; now suddenly the limitations of the form became an asset, in the free and kinetic deployment of the camera matched to the urgency of the action in a manner that’s never exactly documentary-like – Romero’s framings and use of canted angles are far too careful for that – but has something like the same immediacy. The mean jolts of irony that underpin the narrative as a whole first are first felt here. It’s in the switchback from sardonic calm to survival scramble, in the actualisation of Barbra’s unease in the graveyard, in Johnny’s swift demise springing to defend the sister he was teasing seconds before, joining the father he can’t remember as a corpse in a cemetery in Nowheresville. Barbra’s flight from the pursuing zombie takes her to a refuge that proves a trap, the contradiction that defines the rest of the narrative. She finds the farmhouse apparently empty, with only a gruesomely mutilated corpse lying on the stairs for company. The phone is out. The solitude is terrible. She runs for the door only to be pinioned by the glare of headlights: a pick-up truck pulls up and its driver, Ben (Jones), leaps out to urge her back into the house. Ben has just barely survived his own encounter with more of the mysteriously animated corpses lurching around the countryside, and with the fuel in the truck he appropriated nearly exhausted, sees no choice but to make a stand in the farmhouse.

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Ben’s appearance, suddenly thrusting his face into frame, at first an apparent threat swooping out of the dark to grab Barbra, is a brief but notable rupture in the otherwise crisp visual textures: the nominal hero arrives in a blur, a shock to Barbra’s already fried sensory organs. Like one of the film’s spiritual descendants, Alien (1979), the apparently random choice of lead performer loaned potent subtext that isn’t acknowledged in the script or surface drama, but still inflects what we see. Barbra’s shrinking, quaking behaviour as Ben enlists her in his survival efforts could be the fear of someone out of her depth and thrust into an intense situation with a total stranger, and also that of a prim suburban white girl who’s never been so close to a black man in her life. Ben’s got-his-shit-together coolness under pressure seems to contrast Barbra’s rapidly fraying nerves – her rapid spiral into almost disembodied hysteria as she makes account of what happened to her contrasts Ben’s curious, bewildered but cooler narrative, and his implorations “I think you should just stay calm,” voiced as he goes about his business. But this is in part a miscue, as Ben’s experience replays Barbra’s at greater length. Soon, after Ben battles and kills several of the ghouls and begins makeshift barricades, they’re joined by more survivors, revealed to have been hiding in the basement: middle-aged, balding Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the younger couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). A fault-line quickly splits these would-be survivors as they’re faced with weathering this storm, as Harry advocates holing up in the basement where they only have a single door to worry about, whilst Ben wants to continue barricading the house, to have open ground to fight in or flee to. Tom mediates between the two men’s heated exchanges, whilst Ben declares himself in charge of anyone who wants to remain upstairs with him.

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It goes almost without saying that most of the nascent power and specific inspiration of Night of the Living Dead lies in the way it constantly looks past the zombie horde, whose appetites are basic and instinctual and whose threat is close to abstract, to consider the living instead. But the zombies deserve appreciation. Romero didn’t think of them as zombies, a name with roots lie in specific religious traditions, black magic, and spell-casting, as beings under the will of manipulators or influenced by curses. Romero’s zombies are described here as mutations, animated by a mysterious radiation cloud released when an experimental deep-space probe rocket was destroyed before it could land on Earth, an idea that connects Night of the Living Dead less with precursors in zombie cinema like Victor Helperin’s White Zombie (1932) or John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies (1966) than with sci-fi like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and atomic monster flicks in the Godzilla (1954) tradition, as well as strong similarities to Terence Fisher’s cheap but creepy The Earth Dies Screaming (1964). The idea of making the living dead cannibalistic killers was drawn from the source myth behind the word ghoul. But zombie is such a cool word. Romero would drop this explanation in later instalments, in part because it was unnecessary. The zombies are the ultimate Other, a tabula rasa of terror, possessing no motive, no will, no identity, beyond what natural drive dictates, gruesome shells of being that both defy and embody death. This helps explain their easy popularity today. Moreover, the basic narrative of Night of the Living Dead has many echoes not just from earlier sci-fi and horror films but also Westerns and colonialist adventure stories with the zombies subbing for Indians or tribal Africans laying siege to a microcosmic collective, but allowing those narratives to be sustained without socio-political and racial specifics, which can then be suggested at will. Romero’s undead lurch around dazedly, seeking out any form of sustenance with the appetite of the damned, advancing not with great speed or force but relentless intent, and turning on like ravening animals when they have what they want in their sights.

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By contrast, the humans want above all to survive their ordeal. The will to survival, a trait usually granted respect in the types of narrative Night of the Living Dead takes inspiration from and depicted as informing noble efforts to band together and act selflessly, here is probed at with a ruthless sense of the way character and outlook affect the way we approach situations, finding the opposite tendency. When alone, Ben’s activity seems entirely sensible, as he boards up the house’s doors and windows, seeks out weaponry, and prepares for siege, but the emergence of others in the house instead of relieving tension only provokes a concurrent conflict. The clash between Ben and Harry doesn’t just polarise the movie but still feels like the basic archetype of modern communal quandary, interpretable on several levels – black fight versus white flight, communal action versus self-interest, internationalism versus isolationism, on and on. The microcosmic conceit sees Ben and Harry taking on their separate kingdoms, barking orders and warnings at each-other, with Tom trying to mediate for an outcome. The women are by and large relegated to staying out of the way (in his interesting if comparatively saggy remake in 1990, Tom Savini revised this element smartly so that Barbra, instead of going catatonic, turns into a killing machine, detaching from humanity in a different way) or settling for commentary, as Marilyn acerbically cuts her husband down to size (“That’s important isn’t it – to be right.”) in miniature Albee scenes, paving the way for Romero’s more overt and pointed engagement with feminist themes on Season of the Witch (1971) and the later Dead movies.

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Ben has the gun, retrieved from a cupboard in the house; Harry’s overwhelming need becomes to gain possession of this symbol of male power over his antagonist, who is in turn determined not to be reduced to passively waiting to see if the monsters break in on him or not. But none of these people are absolutely right or wrong, or entirely competent. Harry’s clammy, truculent yet actually timorous demeanour is based in part in concern for his family, particularly his daughter, who’s wasting away from an injury, whilst Ben has no-one he must be personally responsible for. He’s the kind of guy you want in the trenches with you, but his instinct to get away from the house and make for a rescue station pushes him to advocate a risky and eventually catastrophic venture. This sense of human frailty is another aspect of Night of the Living Dead’s adroitness, perhaps indeed its greatest aspect. Romero refuses to stroke our egos and present the usual avatars of our best imagined selves, but provides instead figures desperately improvising, spiralling into panic or thrusting themselves into risks for the sake of action in the belief it must be preferable to inaction. Barbra’s instincts work beautifully in fighting for her life but then collapse once necessity wanes and she’s left to ponder just what happened, and in a similar way Ben’s own attempt to rationally solve his problem proves self-destructive. Ben’s attempt to lead an escape from the house, with Tom’s help and Judy’s fearful imposition, by obtaining petrol for the truck from a locked pump near the house devolves into a comedy of errors and then hideous tragedy. Nothing quite goes right, and the end result is the truck exploding in flames, killing Tom and Judy, and Ben, running back to the house, finds himself locked out by Harry. Harry does eventually let him in, only to get a beating from Ben. Another jagged irony is thrown up, that the ultimate as Harry’s belief the basement is the safest place is proven correct.

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Part of the mystique of Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s early films in general lies in their pungent sense of time and place, their genuineness in evoking the lives of suburbanites and the citizens of out-of-the-way places – the lives of quiet desperation in There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Season of the Witch, the decimated small town of The Crazies (1973), and the blasted urban drear of Martin (1977), films that locate a zone somewhere between genre film and neorealism. Romero’s unknown, sometimes amateur casts and location shooting informed this authenticity that often also shades into awkwardness in acting. But his characters are deftly sketched, arriving as people who seem to have walked right into the films from life. Nobody in Night of the Living Dead is particularly special – that’s why their fate is compelling, the sense this is happening to anyone and everyone. The film’s novelty as horror lay not just in the graphic depictions of cannibalism that comes as the zombies feast on the nicely cooked remains of Tom and Judy, but in its extension of a note sounded in Psycho. Horror is now based in the utterly humdrum modern world, welling out of septic psyches, the effluence of scientific-industrial progress, and decaying bodies, clinging like a faint, indefinable, yet certainly noxious aroma to things formerly thought of as clean and upstanding and mundane, from noble old houses to quaint churchyards and open country spaces, as well infesting the good old family unit.

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Night of the Living Dead is preoccupied with both the bonds that tie people together and also the forces that hold them at odds and foil best intentions. In its way, then, it’s a profoundly neighbourly film – perhaps Romero hadn’t come so far from Mr Rogers perhaps after all. You can imagine the dull potpourri-scented parlours at home and the bus rides Barbra takes back in the city, something Jonny has declared independence from with his flashy sports car. And what’s he doing on the weekend? Ferrying his sister out to place a plastic memorial wreath on his father’s grave on the behest of a senescent elder. Ben tries to create a safe zone and invites everyone to share it even as he and Harry take “my way or the highway” attitudes. The film’s survivalist theme plugs into a system of anxiety that had begun buzzing in the early nuclear age and was starting to go into overdrive in the context of the late ‘60s: Harry is the archetypal white suburban father anxiously shepherding his family into a bunker and hoping to get hold of a weapon in case he needs to hold off social collapse. In this regard Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as an extension of Ray Milland’s little-known but intriguing attempt to portray post-atomic war straits engulfing a normal family, Panic in the Year Zero (1962), and looking forward to a generation of films like Damnation Alley (1977) and Mad Max (1979), obsessed with the post-apocalyptic landscape. Romero also drew on the lone film work of another director from well beyond the pale, Herk Harvey, who like Romero had roots in making pedagogic shorts and helmed the shoestring classic Carnival of Souls (1962). Quite apart from Harvey’s example as a low-budget filmmaker for Romero, his ashen-faced, black-eyed ghouls stalked locations that evoked corners of the American landscape left vacant and decaying in changing times grasped the same mood of blasted alienation and parochial anxiety.

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Romero’s background in regional television and his interest in the way communal infrastructure is both erected to handle calamity and is disturbingly vulnerable to it is constantly evinced throughout the film. The characters in the house urgently try to tune into radio and TV to glean understanding of the situation and find what they should do: Romero understands the modern world as a zone of networks people rely on scarcely without thinking. Night of the Living Dead evokes the eerie, paranoid sensation of tuning into some emergency broadcast station in the middle of the night, beaming out test pattern in boding readiness for the moment when it might be needed. It’s chiefly access to communication devices that entices Harry and his fellows out of the basement for any length of time. The news anchors trying to fill people in on apparently incoherent and unbelievable events contextualise the impossible in familiar terms: the zombie revolution will be televised. Ben and the others make their ill-fated venture out of the house partly in hope of heading to one of the rescue stations advertised on the TV. Tellingly, at the outset of Dawn of the Dead, Romero depicts behind the scenes at a TV station with an argument about beaming out details about rescue stations that might have been overwhelmed by ghouls already. Romero’s follow-ups became increasingly apocalyptic in tenor, each one less a sequel in the usual sense than a revision that ups the scale of the problem each time, reflecting the metastasizing nature of Romero’s concerns. As it’s made clear here, the best method of handling the zombies is quickly established and the roaming National Guard and militias out in the countryside are having no particular problem cleaning up the fiends. This suggestion of possible containment of the problem makes this sharper as a drama of personal endurance on one level and perhaps more sardonic too as it throws more emphasis onto the failings of the heroes rather than the inevitability of their predicament, even if it robs the tale of the biblical scale touched on in Romero’s later takes.

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The word “taboo” is often employed when discussing Night of the Living Dead, and for good reason, as it’s a work dedicated to demolishing them on both the dramatic and thematic levels. In a film driven by its contemplation of the tenuousness of human relations, Romero resolves this motif by locating dark, nihilistic revelry in the worst possible permutation of those relations with the cold, unremitting aim of an Enlightenment satirist like Swift, De Sade, or Voltaire, sharing with their ilk an unfettered readiness to unravel just about any presumption of Western civilisation from Homer on. With the bonus of gleefully trashing just about every nicety of genre storytelling and the presumptions of commercial storytelling. So, the handsome, innocent young couple are roasted alive and then eaten. The two alpha males, far from learning to work together and respect each-other, devolve into primal battle for control of a weapon, resulting in Ben shooting Harry like a commander in the field executing a mutinous officer. Marilyn and Barbra all die at the hands of loved-ones, as Barbra is snatched by the revived and zombified Johnny and fed to the horde of ghouls he’s joined, whilst dying Harry becomes dinner for his daughter who has succumbed to the malady too, before she stabs her horrified mother to death with a trowel. One of Romero’s finer gifts as a filmmaker was his ability to shoot physical action in a manner that invests it with a voluble sense of physical immediacy (at least in his early films – his more recent work is ordinary in this regard), and this is particularly vital in the film’s climactic scenes as the defence of the house swiftly and brutally collapses when the ghoul horde becomes large enough to bash through the barricades – death comes at the protagonists from every direction. Barbra finally snaps out of her daze right at the moment of crisis and leaps into action with surprising energy, to no avail.

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Most pungently and infamously, Ben, suddenly alone and faced with a seemingly unstoppable tide of the marauders, is forced to take refuge in the basement with two half-eaten bodies that revive, forcing him to shoot them, and await the dawn. At long last daylight creeps in, the militia arrive gunning down ghouls all about, and Ben ventures out of his hiding place to cautiously investigate his rescuers – only to get a bullet in the forehead in the presumption he’s just another zombie. Ben’s body is dragged out with hooks to join the ghouls on the bonfire under the opening credits. Jones would go on to star in Bill Gunn’s black cultural riposte, Ganja & Hess (1973). This chilling, utterly deadpan final act exacerbates the film’s political dimensions of course, but also plays in part as a MAD Magazine-like lampoon extending Romero’s attack on narrative clichés. The cavalry has arrived to rescue our hero from siege by the savages, but just a little too late, and he’s just another moving target for a mob of trigger-happy hicks. In a year that had seen Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy gunned down by reactionaries, in which racial and countercultural action constantly nudged the edges of overt insurrection and in which the potential looming spectre of a whole race of angry Harrys emerging from their basements now armed and eager to blast anything dissenting and threatening, Ben’s death didn’t just feel ironic, or tragic, but inevitable. I particularly like the leader of the militia’s jaunty cockaded hat, a touch that gives him a spiritual link to the burgomasters leading mobs in Universal horror films, and with the suspicious undercurrent of lynch mob justice in those films suddenly brought out into the open. But what seems most chilling about watching Night of the Living Dead today is the revelation just how deep Romero’s insight into his culture went. On many levels, the film seems to be just as true about 2016 as it was about 1968.


28th 10 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Viy (1967)

Directors/Co-screenwriters: Konstantin Ershov, Georgi Kropachyov

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By Roderick Heath

Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy” was included in a volume of his story collection Tales of Mirgorod. Like his most famous tale, the historical novella “Tara Bulba” included in the same collection, “Viy” was a tribute to the wealth of history and traditions of rural Ukraine and southern Russia and the people who live there, particularly the Cossack nations. Gogol nominally based his story in real myths he harvested in the region, but the tale’s basic underpinnings have a vital similarity to ghost story traditions from right around the world, those stories in which a callow young man on the road encounters an evil spirit in the form of a woman. Gogol essentially invented his variation however, including the title character, a troll king who appears in the climax of the tale, whilst trying to capture the flavour of the parochial traditions he was steeped in and was trying to convey fervently, in an age when literature was often urgently engaged with trying to define the supposed ethereal quintessence of national cultures. Although his literature was often devoted to excoriating the absurd and backward aspects of his time and its culture, Gogol was a committed Slavophile, and eventually finished up subscribing to a brand of fervent religious nationalism. This faith first pushed him to try and extend his novel Dead Souls into a parable exploring the whole Russian character, before burning the new material he had written, depression and ill-health reinforcing his new conviction that art was profane. In the following century, the Soviet government was notoriously averse to morbid and mystical themes in art. When Viy was filmed in 1967, it was the first horror film ever produced in the Soviet Union.

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Writer and filmmaker Konstantin Ershov and production designer Georgi Kropachyov joined forces to create a more faithful adaptation and shared directing credits on the result. Another filmmaker contributing to the script was Aleksandr Ptushko, known at the time in Soviet cinema for his special effects work and for directing fantasy films, including a 1935 version of Gulliver’s Travels, and the 1956 epic Ilya Muromets (which Mystery Science Theatre 3000 aficionados might recall under the title The Sword and the Dragon). Ptushko also provided Viy’s simple yet ebullient, ingeniously deployed visual effects. Perhaps to clear ground for a work in a genre held in such opprobrium by the authorities, Viy offers a wry, even comic take on horror film, albeit one that also works up a peculiar intensity in its second half. Gogol’s story was an ideal subject to break the moratorium. A work resting squarely in the classic canon of Russian literature, it was based in safely historical, distant regional traditions and without any suggestion of psychological metaphor or transgressive meaning. Viy is rife with black humour mediating the onslaughts of supernatural menace, with a streak of anti-clerical and socially critical humour that squarely mocks institutions of Russian society held as old, decrepit, and outmoded under the Soviets. “Viy” had already served as inspiration for Mario Bava’s great debut film La Maschera del Demonio (1960), although that story had taken the setting, a Slavic backwater, and the theme of an evil witch tormenting men of learning, and married it to a more traditional type of vampire story and Bava’s potent brand of erotically charged evil. Viy, on the other hand, is closer to “The Wurdalak” episode in Bava’s I Tre Volti della Paura (1963), in conjuring a sense of blasted, paranoid anxiety in the sharp opposition of the great expanses of the Steppes and a claustrophobic outpost under supernatural siege.

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The opening scenes hit a note of raucous good-humour as it depicts a mob of young seminarians in a Kiev monastery being released into the unsuspecting world for vacation, molesting washer women, lampooning their rector by trying to make a goat read, stealing food from vendors, and generally running riot. The distinctly unholy behaviour of the religious students, told off by the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) for their wild ways before they flee into the countryside, sets off a tale where the vital tension lies between the way things are supposed to be and the unruly reality beneath, where the ultimate evil is a creature that can see all, as long as it can keep its eyes open. The seminarians travel on foot in gradually shrinking groups as they split and head towards their home towns. Three of the students, theologian Khaliava (Vadim Zakharchenko), rhetorician Tibery Gorobets (Vladimir Salnikov), and philosopher Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), are eventually all that is left of one of these travelling bands, and, as night falls, they get lost in the hinterland. Balking at camping under the stars, they keep groping in the dark until eventually they come across a farmhouse. They beg the old woman who seems to be the householder (actually played by a man, Nikolay Kutuzov) for a place to sleep for the night. The crone replies her house is already full of guests, but eventually agrees to stash them in different places. Khoma gets his bed in the stable on a pile of straw.

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During the night, the crone enters the stable and advances on him with an apparently lustful look: “No, it’s Lent,” Khoma exclaims: “And you couldn’t tempt me for all the gold in the world!” But the crone picks him up with peculiar strength, manipulates him like a toy, and climbs on his back, making him carry her like a horse. Once she gets him outside, she grabs a broom and levitates, carrying him under her legs, for a flight across the countryside reminiscent of Faust’s journey with Mephistopheles in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film of that story. Khoma realises he’s in the clutches of a witch, and when the crone lands, Khoma grabs up a stick and furiously beats her. Suddenly, the crone turns into a beautiful young woman who gasps that he’s killing her, and Khoma recoils in shock. Leaving the battered and bleeding girl in the field, Khoma dashes off through the reed-choked swamps and eventually makes his way back to the seminary. But there he finds that his peculiar destiny is not going to let go of him. A gang of Cossacks from an outlying village has arrived in search of him, and arranged with the Rector to ensure he goes with them back to their village, to say prayers for a girl who has died. All Khoma is told is that he was specifically insisted upon by the girl’s father, and that he’s going to attend whether he likes it or not, as the Rector feels he needs a good punishment for his rowdy ways. When they reach the village, Khoma learns that the dead girl, Pannochka (Natalya Varley), named him as the man to pray for her, and her father is local boyar. He demands that Khoma pray in the church over his daughter’s body for the prescribed three night period on the promise of 1,000 gold coins if he fulfils the task or 1,000 lashes if he doesn’t. And, of course, Pannochka proves to be the witch he killed.

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Viy has a strain of sly, even cruel irony underlying its playful surface that slowly emerges, as it studies a situation Khoma falls into and realises he has no way out of save death or triumph. To triumph means he must draw on resources he, as a man officially studying to become a religious and philosophical luminary, knows he doesn’t have. The tumult of the raucous, randy, hungry students fleeing the seminary at the outset gives way to glorious surveys of the open Russian countryside, a place of seemingly endless bounties. Only then does the scope of the drama compress, the trio of pompous scholars promptly getting lost in a field as the sun goes down. Khoma finds his world reduced first to the village he is brought to, a septic little kingdom where the boyar rules, and then to the confines of the village church, a place cordoned off from the normal rules of reality, where elemental battles will take place. Khoma however is a citizen of a grey zone that permits him no easy identity: unwilling to devote himself to religious strictures but, as an intellectual in a theocratic society, having no other recourse but the church, he’s been ripped from his roots in the Cossack village: he can still sing along with his fellows from the region, but is left an object of curiosity mixed with contempt. Much of which Khoma deserves. He is, by his own confession, a slovenly student and potential clergyman. Whilst trying to talk the boyar out of forcing him to make his vigil, Khoma denies he’s known for his piety: “I visited a baker’s wife on Maundy Thursday!” He’s better at carousing and eating, but these prove futile escapes from the duty he is obligated to perform. His attempts to escape the village constantly prove embarrassing jokes, as the boyar’s men easily corral him.

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This aspect of Viy has a certain thematic similarity to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), as an outsider finds himself trapped and pressganged into meeting the needs of a tiny, virtually forgotten community on the fringes of civilisation. A quality in Gogol’s writing that anticipated the later emergence of surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and the peculiar imaginings of Franz Kafka is also detectable. Khoma’s situation plays like an inversion of Kafka’s The Castle, in which the protagonist can’t escape being locked in rather than locked out (Dead Souls pivots on a similarly surreal notion, a plot to make money from serfs who are literally dead, but alive in a bureaucratic and financial sense). Meanwhile, the ritualistic structure of the churchman repeatedly going into battle with an evil force that possesses a young girl anticipates The Exorcist (1973), although that film’s iron-cast moral certainties are mocked well beforehand as the representative of holy certitude here is hardly an ideal avatar, and his battle against evil is more like an extended, drunken attempt to simply weather the storm. Ershov and Kropachyov play up the sardonic side of Gogol’s tale in regards to religion and also social power evinced by various forms of elder, be it the Rector who sends Khoma off gruffly to his fate, or the boyar who forces Khoma to do his bidding. In the style of the morality-play quality apparent in many a real folk tale, Khoma represents hypocrisy, drunkenness, and self-indulgence.

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Under pressure, Khoma’s roots in the hard-drinking, hard-living Cossack way are swiftly revealed, whilst to the villagers he represents a momentary insight into a way of life usually cordoned off from their own: “Just what are you seminarians taught?” one demands to know: “What the deacon says when he’s in church, or other things?” Khoma, hardly paying attention, performs an expert trick with his vodka cup, making his drinking companions coo in wonderment, “What a great scholar! I want to be a seminarian too!” The filmmakers inject a visual joke as Khoma, thoroughly soused, sees three different versions of the same man emerging from three tavern doors. For all his faults, though, once Khoma feels the heavy hand on his shoulder the smiling face only briefly distracts from, and is forced to go through with his terrifying vigil, he has our sympathy, for his reactions are only to a strange, arbitrary, humiliating world only slightly more coherent than the manifestations of the supernatural that dog him. The sight of the old witch turning Khoma into her personal pony-boy, laced with perverse erotic suggestions even as it’s played for laughs, is echoed later when one of the villagers recounts how Pannochka ran off with one of the young men of the village, who carried her out on his shoulders. The villagers were well aware Pannochka was a witch; only her father had no clue, and although he senses something strange in her dying wish to receive holy rites from this specific, unworthy representative of religion, nonetheless he commits grimly to the task.

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Although very different in style with its breezy, straightforward storytelling to the more esoteric aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, two of Soviet cinema’s highest-profile talents of the day, Viy shares a spirit in common with their works nonetheless, for it tries to convey an authentically folkloric vision and a quintessence of one corner of the cultural inheritance. That’s the part of the psychic landscape within that inheritance, where the collective memory has hazy fringes, the place where ancestors lived and the things they took to be trye still takes on a type of reality, if only in the freakish fancies lurk and the monstrosities parents use to keep their children in line in grimly prophetic parables. The Viy itself, although made up by Gogol, has exactly that quality of something plucked out of a bedtime boogeyman tale. The actual root for the creation is, perhaps ironically, thought to be the Christian Saint John Cassian the Unmerciful, a religious hero who strangely gained a quality close to demonic in later folklore because of his reputation of extremely harsh judgement, and who had similarly incisive, excoriating vision that nonetheless was only selectively uncovered when he brushed back his long hair. Fittingly, Ershov and Kropachyov’s aesthetic in Viy’s fantasy sequences is rooted in stage pantomime and magic-lantern shows, rejecting the realism that was just starting to become dominant in Western horror cinema. Ershov, Kropachyov, and Ptushko utilise the space of the village church as a theatrical space where illusionism reigns. The old wooden carvings and creepy icons painted on the walls and carefully manipulated candle lighting sets the scene, surveyed upon first entrance by the slowly pivoting camera movements, like a bullring or battleground in a Sergio Leone film, ideal for the basic spiritual conflict all the infrastructure of the settled, Christian world is supposed to hold at bay. Stray cats and birds suddenly scuttle through the old, creepy space.

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The mounting spectacle of Khoma’s vigils starts with the witch girl climbing out of her coffin and searching for him, whilst Khoma has, in obedience to Ukrainian folk ritual, drawn a magic chalk circle about the lectern from which he reads Bible quotes. The witch is blind to him and held out of the circle, meaning she can only frantically slaw at the invisible barricade, before the cock’s crow drives her back into her coffin. The second night sees the witch levitating her coffin and trying to use it to bash her way through the circle, flying around the church as if in her own personal zero-gravity dodgem car, whilst Khoma bellows panicky prayers and tosses boots at her. When she fails she curses him, leaving him momentarily blind and also with his hair turned snowy white. Moments of pure fairytale strangeness flit by, like a tear of blood sliding down Pannochka’s face as she lies on her bier. The staging in these scenes conveys both a sense of absurdist humour in the confrontations between terrified churchman and vengeful witch, and crescendo of the beguiling strangeness of the supernatural as envisioned here, with the camerawork suddenly turning frantic and aggressive, as when Pannochka furiously stalks around the limits of Khoma’s protective circle, and the sight of her trying to bash through the barrier with her flying coffin. These scenes also get a kick out of the peculiar manifestation of evil in the form of Varley’s pale-faced, dark-eyed teenage witch, a lovely visage possessed of a wilful desire to destroy Khoma. She anticipates Linda Hayden’s flower-decked pagan priestess in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) in embodying malevolence with the most seemingly innocent, beguiling surface imaginable.

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The special effects are lovable for their refusal of complex artifice, and retain that magic-lantern show quality. When the witch levitates with Khoma under her, it’s obvious that they’re on a rotating stage as if in some theatrical production. Khoma’s attempt to flee the village, charging through underbrush, is depicted through looping reversals of film stock, his complete inability get anywhere dictated by the film technique. The finale goes for broke as the filmmakers offer pantomime monsters and skeletal hydras whilst playing games with the visuals – Khoma remains in colour whilst the arising army of the night loom and leer around him in sepulchral black and white. Each of Khoma’s nights of vigil leaves him increasingly fraught and desperate to escape his lot, alternating with vodka-brave pronunciations. When he’s brought out of the church after the second night, he starts into a bizarre dance, an attempt to convince himself he’s just spent a brief, hair-raising time-out from the more important business of carousing, but succeeding only in testifying to his own fraying nerves and sanity. His dance is a pathetic but also vigorous sight, the only likeness I can think of being the infamous “Flashdance” scene in Dogtooth (2010), in depicting someone who knows they’re about to go mad if they don’t escape but also knows they can’t escape and so converts raw panic into a furious proof of life. Kuravlyov’s performance hits grand heights here.

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The film reaches a riotous climax as Khoma ventures into the church for his third night with airy, drunken hopes for his future, only to face the final onslaught of the witch’s efforts to break him, as she calls up all manner of ghouls and goblins to attack him. The final monster she conjures is the Viy itself, a monstrous, misshapen troll with outsized droopy eyelids that conceal crystalline eyes that can see through the mystical protective barrier protecting Khoma: the Viy has to get other ghouls to lift its eyelids back so it can see, but then is able to point out their prey and the monsters attack Khoma just as the cock crows for dawn again. Khoma loses his battle with fate, dying from fright as he’s assaulted. But this proves the downfall of the witch and her minions too, as they perish dashing for the shadows because they’ve lingered into the dawn, the witch reverting to her crone’s appearance and her coffin disintegrating, leaving her exposed as a monstrosity. The sarcastic punch-line for all this sees Khoma’s two friends Khaliava and Gorobets back at the seminary, working on restoring artworks and supping vodka on the sly as they try to work out why Khoma failed in his vigil, eventually deciding he didn’t believe in his own spiritual authority enough to fight off the evil, when a true holy man would have simply commanded the monsters to go. Talk about Monday morning quarter-backing. Viy certainly never exactly goes for pulse-pounding horror, more a spry and mordant frisson that evokes the way you get scared when you’re six years old. It’s a delightful annex of the horror genre nonetheless.


23rd 10 - 2016 | 2 comments »

Fährmann Maria (1936) / Strangler of the Swamp (1946)

Director: Frank Wisbar

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By Roderick Heath

Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.

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Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.

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The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.

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This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.

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Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.

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Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.

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Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.

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The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.

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The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.

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Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.

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Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.

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The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.

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In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.

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One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.


9th 10 - 2016 | 9 comments »

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

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By Roderick Heath

I can imagine opening a newspaper in 1979 and glancing at a review of Alien with its plot recounted in dry ink lines, or perhaps at a poster and beholding the infamous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I think one would have been forgiven if the thought didn’t cross your mind that it would one day this film might be considered a major cinematic classic. Even when you know much more about it, the improbability still stands. Sold to prospective studios in script form as “Jaws in space” by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, a pair of young screenwriters who had happily looted the sci-fi B-movies and creature features they had loved as boys, Alien might have seemed something like a garish throwback in abstract, to the days when many a monstrous beast from space went on the loose was all the rage in drive-in fodder. After all, cinematic sci-fi in the late 1960s and ‘70s had generally taken on a more serious cast in keeping with the literary genre, complete with heightened social commentary and philosophical metaphors. Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind (both 1977) made studios everywhere enthusiastic for the genre for the first time since the ‘50s, however, because suddenly it was making giant piles of cash. O’Bannon had one claim to fame before helping pen the script originally called “Star Beast.” He had co-written, acted in, and helped make the world’s best-known student film, 1974’s Dark Star. But John Carpenter had gained most of the credit for that, leaving the high-strung O’Bannon chagrined and on the hunt for his own success. O’Bannon was particularly taken with the idea of returning to Dark Star’s sub-plot involving a rampaging alien stowaway, visualised in that comic film by a beach ball with talons, and playing this notion straight as a galactic horror movie.

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At first the script seemed doomed to finish up as feedstuff for Roger Corman’s low-budget production farm, because its gore and perverse aspects turned off big studios. But as sci-fi properties suddenly turned hot, the duo sold it to producer-director Walter Hill and business partner David Giler, who had Twentieth Century Fox at their backs. Hill and Giler worked the material over, adding major subplots and changing character names. But they retained one notable corollary of the original script – the parts were “unisex,” and could be filled by any actors, male or female. Hill decided not to direct the movie himself, as he was too busy and inexperienced in special effects work. Picking the right filmmaker was the real trick, as they knew the wrong director might play it as schlock, whilst the right one would have to prove equal mastery over both the hard-edged, hi-tech realism and the mysterious, eerie, virtually surrealistic qualities the story offered. They found their man in a 42-year-old former TV commercial director from South Shields at the mouth of the Tyne named Ridley Scott. Scott had gained a reputation for turning simple advertisements into great visual artefacts, and had just made an impression with his Cannes-screened debut film, The Duellists (1977). He grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Scott and his ideas impressed the studio so much Fox doubled his budget. The result, far from being just another creature feature, is today regarded as one of the major works of sci-fi cinema and indeed modern commercial filmmaking.

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O’Bannon and Shusett happily acknowledged remixing the futuristic terrors and beauties of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Forbidden Planet (1956), This Island Earth (1955), and even the far-flung alien graveyards and body-invading spectres of Mario Bava’s signal sci-fi/horror cross-breed Planet of the Vampires (1966). There was also some similarity to the creatures that menaced their way through the pages of A.E. Van Vogt’s stories “Black Destroyer” and “Moonbeast.” Although not based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, Alien remains perhaps the most effective channelling of Lovecraft’s imaginative palette on film, conjuring a universe of infinite mystery and threat, replete with glimpses of things and places beyond human reference. This is a realm of things that squirm and ooze and move perversely and seem engineered for climes beyond any natural law, glowering with infinite disdain for precious human individualism and acumen. Here there is only the terrible beauty of survival talent and the cold equations of necessity. The purity of Alien as a narrative lies in the way it pits instinct versus intelligence. The self-propagating concept in the title of Scott’s first film is taken immediately to reductio ad absurdum: this is the duel at the edge of the universe, the perfect opposition. Alien as a metaphorical work is in its way as extreme as Solaris (1972) in exploring the essence of humanity through conceiving its opposite, with similar precepts – isolation and a manifestation of the incomprehensibly other. Alien straddles the ever-blurry genre midground with horror by positing a haunted house movie in space mixed with no minor similarity to the slasher movie style that was just gaining real traction thanks to Carpenter’s Halloween, released the year before – a small cast stalked and killed one by one by a roaming killer.

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The story is exceptionally simple on the face of it. The spaceship Nostromo, towing a combined bulk ore carrier and refinery through deep space back to Earth, is brought out of hyperspace and rerouted towards a remote and unexplored planetoid, source of a mysterious generated signal presumed to be a distress beacon. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and his crew, comprising flight officers Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Kane (John Hurt), and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), are awoken from their cryogenic sleep. After confusion and some argument, they follow the protocol mandated by the ship’s owner company (unnamed in this film, later dubbed Weyland-Yutani in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, 1986) and land on the planet. The Nostromo is lightly damaged during landing and Brett and Parker set about fixing it whilst Dallas, Lambert, and Kane venture out onto the stormy, hostile surface of the planet to track down the source of the signal. They come across a ruined spaceship clearly not built by humans, with the fossilised remains of an ancient pilot with a ruptured ribcage still installed in a kind of cockpit, and a collection of seed-like pods in the hull. Kane gets close to one, intrigued by signs of life within, only for the crab-like thing inside to spring out suddenly and burn through the visor of his helmet. The organism clamps itself over his face, holding him in a comatose state whilst keeping him alive. Ripley, acting commander of the ship, refuses to let Dallas and Lambert bring Kane through the airlock for fear of biological contamination, but Ash ignores her and lets them aboard.

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The creature (again unnamed here but usually called a “facehugger”) on Kane proves to have deadly acid for blood and is impossible to remove without killing its host, but eventually it falls off by itself and dies. Kane awakens, seemingly fine, but as he and the rest of the crew settle down for a meal, Kane suddenly starts to spasm in agony. Something tears its way out of his chest – the larval stage of new creature that will grow to human size and begin killing or utilising rival life forms. The greatest question before Scott and the filmmaking team was what the title creature should look like. Reputedly, it was O’Bannon who suggested to Scott that he take a look at the artwork of Swiss painter H.R. Giger. Both men fell under the spell of Giger’s painting “Necronomicon IV”, which portrayed a bizarre demonic entity with a tubular head, spiny back, and penile tail. Giger’s disturbing, distorted, perversely eroticised pictures tried to render aspects of the subconscious and the surreal, murky and obscure and protean, and provided a vital catalyst not just for the alien’s design but for the aesthetic of the film as a whole. Alien certainly belongs to both the sci-fi and horror genres, rooted in the solid conceptualism of the former but using it to annex the id-shaped atmosphere of the latter. If the film had been painstakingly created to reflect a certain academic shift in the basic imagery and concerns of genre storytelling it could not have been more precise, as the usually solid Freudian forms of sci-fi – all jutting phallic rockets matched to neo-colonialist visions written on the tabula rasa of space – gives way to a nightmarish zone filled with gaping holes and hideous babies that sprout from a man’s body. In this simple yet ruthlessly clever concept lies the aspect of Alien that instantly announced itself as contemporary, compared to the older genre works that inspired it. The alien monster is no simple, clean beast that stows away and rampages, but as a monster insidious and infesting, predatory and parasitic, instinctual and apparently not interesting in anything more than self-propagation but also possessed of a jarring, baleful brand of intelligence.

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This aspect fit into a phase in sci-fi-and horror cinema where anxiety over the human body was becoming a driving concern. David Cronenberg’s early works like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), and The Brood (1979) had helped define and polarise this new, queasy style. The alternate title of Shivers, They Came From Within, perfectly reflected this motif, twisting the fear of the alien other expressed in titles of 1950s films like It Came From Outer Space (1953) into a motif of internal disorder and rebellion, evoking both the bodies corporeal and politic. Emerging even before the spectre of the AIDS epidemic, this new unease with disease derived from the strange new anxieties of the modern world, one where suddenly awareness of aspects of human life that had normally not been talked about in the post-Enlightenment age were suddenly common currency, many of them sexual, bound up with a time of rapid revision in understanding of gender and desire (also, notably, the superhero movie made its first real impact around this time with Superman, 1978, providing an antithesis). Alien announced this style, dubbed “body horror,” in big-budget, mainstream cinema, as Kane is impregnated and torn to shreds by his own nominal progeny. This vision of perverted birth transplanted onto the male body comes after intimations of oral rape. The intensely sexual aspect of this was already encoded in a series of visual evocations and design refrains. The waking of the ship’s crew in the opening scenes is gently birth-like, guided by the ships supercomputer which is called, mischievously, MUTHR. The coddled human creatures nicely cocooned in the Nostromo and tended to by the maternal computer soon offered up as fodder for the sustenance of a creation that faintly resembles a human but also swiftly grows to blend into the interior of the Nostromo itself, with limbs and skin resembling the tubes and conduits and metal forms of an industrial zone. The human, soft flesh, red blood, is at the mercy of a thing that seems both monster and machine, something that evolves too quickly to be contained and too aptly to be positioned anywhere but at the top of the food chain.

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Sci-fi had generally been a realm of gleaming newness and minimalist chic ever since Things to Come (1936) posited the future as a gigantic shopping mall with a slight Bauhaus edge. This presumption often (though not always) went unchallenged in sci-fi cinema until Star Wars intrigued and impressed genre creators with its “lived-in” vision of a futuristic age (albeit past) that looked functional, busy, often banged-up and dirty. The script for Alien envisioned a future of space travel that has devolved into something much more familiar than cosmic swashbuckling, one where working stiffs ride the highways of deep space hauling around loads of resources, worrying about pay and bills and getting home to loved-ones. This was taken up not just as a background detail but an entire holistic mission by Scott and his designers. Surely Scott’s background, his intimate familiarity with the reverse face of the age of industry and technology, told him something different about what a spacefaring future might look and sound like, gleaned from a youth staring out at the ships on the Tyne and the decaying industrial landscape of England’s midlands, sights that told him how little some spacefaring future was likely to look like the brochures. Aspects of Alien’s look retain the sleek and clean aesthetic of high futurism – the womb-like confines of the stasis pod room and MUTHR’s control room. But these abut the factory-like interiors of the rest of the ship, grimy, functional, and cluttered. The alien planetoid itself – once again dubbed LV-426 in Aliens but left nameless here – is a place straight out of the dark places of the psyche, with its roiling volcanic forms. The horseshoe-shaped space wreck is perched atop a peak like Dracula’s castle gone Analog Magazine, with an interior that is a polymorphous zone of strangeness. Such contrasted landscapes chart both the psychic and physical realities of contrasting life forms.

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O’Bannon’s collaboration with Carpenter on Dark Star had envisioned men on a mission wandering listlessly through space destroying rogue planets in a deadpan satire on the Domino theory, with its main characters so bored and alienated they’ve swapped personalities several times. It made for a sci-fi landscape virtually unheard-of before. Similarly, the humans inhabiting the Nostromo are there purely to ensure the smooth running of the machinery and deliver the load of processed ore to Earth, casually observed, highly ordinary people. Even Ripley, eventually to be canonised as one of the great action heroes, is here just a woman with a slight edge of competence, intuition, and coolness under pressure that lets her survive where all her fellows eventually fall. One common concern of the diverse filmmakers involved in creating Alien, particularly Scott and O’Bannon, was this awareness of social and class conflict and also the individuals perpetrating such schisms. Dallas as captain (and the most Dark Star-esque character) knows his job and can do it virtually in his sleep, preferring to bliss out alone with some classical music and escape the bolshy niggling of Parker and Brett and Ripley’s by-the-book sternness. Of course, that streak had the potential to save the whole situation, as her refusal to let Kane and the facehugger aboard is correct both according to the book and instinct, if not sheer reactive empathy. Ripley is first really defined by this act, an attitude of caution that seems unfeeling whereas Ash does the “humane” thing, although it will eventually be revealed that he’s not only obeying the company’s agenda but is also a more literal tool of a distant but still consequential power, as an android posing as human.

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Ripley’s adherence to principle as well as rules and Ash’s actions in countermanding her seems at first merely a moment of tension in outlook and a road-bump in the chain of command on an already lackadaisical hierarchy – Ripley confronts Ash over the point and pushes Dallas for action but he simply wants to go home and avoid more headaches. But it proves instead the pivotal action that unleashes disaster, and Ripley’s cold act is proven the wise one. This aspect, the human capacity to act both rationally and instinctually according to given situations, is pointedly contrasted with what Ash celebrates it for, its “purity” as a creature of raw survivalist nerve and shark-like purpose that sustains its life cycle through other creatures, a form of exploitation equated with the business of business that motivates all that befalls the Nostromo. The crew themselves are defined by their mixture of camaraderie and interpersonal tension, and also by their varying levels of interest and complicity in that system, from Dallas, the man in charge who’s all too aware how little power he really has, to Parker and Brett constantly bringing the “bonus situation,” their own concerns purely mercenary, a mode of realistic cynicism adapted neatly to the exigencies of a job that demands spending years in forced sleep drifting through the ether. Alien is littered with sharp vignettes, like Parker insistently stealing back “his” chair and brushing it off after Ash has occupied it, Brett’s half-interested parroting of Parker (“Right.”), and Ripley telling them both to fuck off as they try to jerk her around as member of the superior flight crew. The film’s pivotal, immortal sequence when the crew settle down for dinner with the revived, apparently well Kane is a rare moment when the crew are all relaxed, happy, and on level ground, a seeming resumption of normality shot through with relief that gives way to epic horror and tragedy.

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Alien’s defining quality is rooted not simply in its thrills or its vivid imaginative palette, but in its slow, patient, nerveless storytelling, so different from the mad rush of images in much contemporary filmmaking. Scott’s return to this fount, Prometheus (2011), although fine in and of itself, was disappointing for those of us hoping for a stylistic rather than thematic extension, a project revelling in the creation of miasmic atmosphere and slow-ratcheting dread. The normally propulsive Cameron honoured the model with his follow-up in its deceptive blend of quiet and intensity with Aliens before hitting the gas. The opening shot of Alien, a slow, abyssal scan of the dark planetoid silhouetted against the rays of its sun, with barely audible music and the slowly compositing title of the film across the width of screen, immediately roots what follows in a mode of interstellar gothic. There’s a powerful echo of William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days Setting a Compass to the Earth” in its image of a dark sun and the evocation of cosmic powers gathering, as Scott primes the viewer for a dive into an age where the dark, satanic mills and apocalyptic dragons of Blakeian verse have become universal state (and Blakeian ideas and images recur constantly through many of Scott’s subsequent films). This gives way to the Nostromo making its way through space, and much is made, in a manner reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; doubtlessly deliberate as per Scott’s avowed Kubrickian fetish), of the sheer mechanical intricacy of the ship’s efforts to get from space onto the planet, at once ungainly and majestic. Jerry Goldsmith’s seafarer scoring reinforces the way this moment seems at once a super-technological event and a throwback to a days of laborious transport on the whims of the wind and tide. Goldsmith’s scoring, which was subject to conflicts with both Scott and the studio, is nonetheless one of the film’s less-appreciated achievements, defining the eerie, sonorous mood at the outset before swelling to offer overtones of not just menace but also elegy, even romanticism, as these far-out labourers find themselves cast however incidentally as pioneers and adventurers. His music rises to crescendo during the attack on Lambert and Parker where the dramatic furore of the scoring offsets the almost languid, slow-motion quality of the horror, this death-dance where you can do nothing but watch as a grotesque hell-beast sizes you up and prepares to lunch on your brain. And then, no music at all – only the sounds of unimaginable terror, piped through to Ripley as she rushes to a rescue that only come too late. All of it, a master class in the use of film’s sonic textures as well as visual.

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The film’s opening minutes, similarly, say much about what can be done even when nothing is happening. Tracking shots through the ship’s interior, resolving eventually on the forms of the crew in perfect stasis, computers clicking to life before humans, toy baubles bobbing up and down according to the thrum of the constant engines: Scott evokes presence by absence, the eerie chill of a haunted house, the crew already dead but not yet knowing it. The ship’s name of course was taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel, a tale of an ordinary but great man ruined by greed, and a step removed from the heart of darkness. The hunt for the creature commences after its gruesome birth, with the crew at first assuming they’re only dealing with a small, nasty vermin. But soon Brett, assigned to track down the ship’s cat and mascot Jones, encounters the alien, having grown into a gangly, man-sized monstrosity that rips his forehead open with a recessed, springing jaw. Dallas ventures into the ship’s air duct system to track it down, only to be outwitted and attacked, his fate ambiguous (in the later director’s cut, revealed to have been cocooned alive as a meal or host body for another alien). Brett’s ill-fated hunt for Jones and its jolting climax makes for one of the film’s best scenes, in part because of Stanton’s shambling, ineffably hangdog refusal to act like he’s in a horror movie, perfectly depicting a man worn comically ragged by a lifetime of bullshit work suddenly reaching its end in a way no-one could ever see coming, seen as a series of eliding yet hideously suggestive glimpses of obscene creation and violence. Scott uses his search as an excuse to shoot the Nostromo’s darkest reaches with its filth and dripping water in a way that evokes the feeling of such an environment not just as a tactile space but a way of life and a working world that somehow also spills over into the dreamlike. The alien is first glimpsed dangling from some hanging chains and yet the plain sight of it doesn’t register for several viewings precisely because it looks like so much of the mechanical.

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Dallas’ hunt for the alien is a more traditional horror sequence in which tension is built not just by the carefully utilised claustrophobic space Dallas scrambles about in, but the register of the tracking sensor that shows something zeroing in on him, yet remaining chillingly unseen and elusive until it appears at the least expected moment in one of cinema’s greatest ever pure “boo!” moments. Ripley is next in command, and is left the one who has to make a call on what to do now, cueing my favourite moment in Weaver’s performance. This scene depicts Ripley, shaken and grieving after two severe shocks but at the same time coolly taking charge, pacifying Parker and registering her disbelief with Ash’s responses, contrasting the increasingly brittle Parker and Lambert and Ash’s inhuman cool. Suspicious of Ash’s reticence with ideas for catching or killing the monster, Ripley consults with MUTHR only to learn the company has instructed that the alien be returned to Earth with the crew considered expendable to this end. Ripley angrily strikes Ash, only for Ash to chase her down and try to murder her, starting to leak not blood from a graze on his head but milky white fluid – the sign he’s actually an android. Although it displeased O’Bannon, Hill and Giler’s decision to introduce Ash as an android was inspired, as it gave the film a jolt of narrative complexity and surprise, as well as one of Scott’s best whisper-to-a-scream sequences, particularly when Ash is revealed, having silently entered the control room and now standing next to Ripley when she’s just read the shocking orders in MUTHR, to tell her that, in spite of the evidence of her eyes and mind, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of it.

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Ash plays a very similar role to HAL 9000 in 2001 as the electronic entity on board who proves nearly as dangerous as any other threat, and he introduces another common conceptual wing of the sci-fi genre alongside space travel and alien life – the artificial human. But where HAL was a proto-consciousness destroyed by its own confusion born of being perched between states of being, there is nothing confused about Ash or his role, as simulacrum contrived to be indistinguishable and as a proxy to carry out dirty work, a sleeper agent representing both the interests of the company and his own fascination for the alien. Scott would of course return to the theme of the cynically created android being in Blade Runner (1982) and push several ideas nascent here to a limit, particularly the question of how moral in the human sense one could expect such a sentient creation to be when given life to by entirely different creative forces. Ash intellectually votes a kind of loyalty to the alien precisely because it’s more like him than the humans around him, with the keynote word of “purity” signifying something both fascistic and atavistic in that loyalty, with the hint that there’s always something machine-like to any lifeform, in compulsion to survive in itself and to reproduce to extend its genome.

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The alien is a sophisticated but also utterly simple expression of this essence. Parker and Lambert must stop Ash killing Ripley, with Parker decapitating him with a blow. But the android still deadly, until Lambert finally fries him with an electrified prod. The physicality of this sequence is tremendous, particularly as it serves in part as a repeat-cum-revision of Kane’s earlier demise, echoed in the ripping apart of Ash and the exposure of his vitals, except now the human form is substituted for something else – the company man revealed as unholy chimera of literal milk for blood and circuitry, the strength and wicked concision of the android physique suggested as Ash rips Ripley’s curls from her head, forms his fingers like a vice on Parker’s chest, and tries to choke Ripley with a rolled-up magazine. The image of headless Ash still trying to kill is as vital in its way as the alien itself in depicting the maniacal heart of this tale, animating the essential notion of a universe turned animate and hostile, of creation turned insane. When they briefly revive Ash to glean information from him, his mocking smile and cold humour (“I can’t lie to you about your chances but…you have my sympathies.”) give cold comfort but also a fire to the last three crewmembers. They resolve to abandon the ship and blow it up, ensuring there’s nothing left of the alien to pose a threat, or a boon, to anyone else. The climactic scenes see Alien’s pitiless logic still in play even as everything seems to spiral towards incandescent terminus. Parker and Lambert’s scrambling eagerness to survive creates a racket that attracts their nemesis. Ripley finds herself trapped on the ship she instructed to turn off, the intelligent but insensate MUTHR now calmly counting off minutes to self-destruction regardless of Ripley’s screams for awareness.

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Only Ripley is fated to live, to become the emblematic survivor, the eternal neo-Odysseus voyaging home and battling demons of the underworld at every turn. Scott and company had the guts to take up that original notion of O’Bannon and Shusett’s and even take it a step further in a way, making her the film’s pivotal figure without rhetoric or cliché: she became the great archetype of a modern heroine because she simply is. Ripley’s force and character are made apparent long before she has to take up the mantle of command and then the face the axis that will make her either titan or afterthought lunchmeat. To a certain extent this idea wasn’t so radical, particularly as Ripley serves the role of “final girl” already being codified in horror movie terminology. She would become as the archetypal warrior mother in Aliens, Boudica with a pulse rifle. Here she’s just another member of the crew, blessed only with a slight advantage in muscle of body, mind, and spirit that allows her to survive. And even that may be in part due to the alien, as it’s heavily suggested, being canny is enough to use her to so what it can’t—fly the Nostromo’s shuttle away from the dying vessel. Weaver’s performance is both excellent but also less stand-out than the star-driven sequels, as Alien retains something of the Howard Hawks ethic of the ensemble as star, but also because Ripley is becoming, evolving, just as surely as the alien is, switched on by crisis and forced to work every cell in her frame to live. Still Weaver catches the eye at first with the blend of amusement and attitude she turns on Parker and Brett, and comes into focus as she interrogates Ash over his breach of discipline and, later, his seemingly negligent lack of urgency. “You’re still collating?” Ripley asks Ash, with Weaver’s reading at once emotional and beggared and exacting in her refusal to be bullshitted, before announcing a course of action to her fellows that signals both her emotional genuineness and her unfurling strength. It’s the moment Weaver became a movie star and Ripley becomes not just a character but a hero.

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The breathless climactic scenes, as the formerly becalmed corridors of the Nostromo become a labyrinth of din and smoke, do graze the edge of impressive but empty hullabaloo on repeat viewings. But the sneakily appended final act is a perfect islet that repeats the film in miniature and punishes anyone who thought defeating such evil it would be so easy. Tough, resilient, almost androgynous Ripley strips down to her panties, suddenly, almost discomfortingly vulnerable, takes a deep breath, and prepares for sleep, only to find she’s trapped with the ultimate boogeyman. Much like Laurie Strode in Halloween Ripley is terrorised into a cupboard and forced into her make-or-break stand there, adapting tools and formulating a quick plan that needs profound courage to pull off and circumstances allow no other end. The cunning of this sequence lies not just in staging a great twist that the entire film has, in retrospect, been conditioning the viewer for – is it just more quiet and methodical observation, or leading to something? – but in the way it underlines both human and alien as creatures refusing to surrender or abandon their essence. Ripley finds her warrior pith, fusion of dragon killers like St George and Perseus with the princesses they saved, as befitting a modern myth, and the incredibly resilient alien manages to survive in space, still trying to find a way back into the shuttle after Ripley blows it out the airlock, will still not give up the game until Ripley gives it a roasting with the shuttle engines. The last image, of Ripley returned to sleep, is sublime in its sense of circularity, the waking life a nightmare that must contended with, and sleep the place where everyone is safe.


30th 09 - 2016 | 1 comment »

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director: James Whale

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By Roderick Heath

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus is a foundation text of both the science fiction and horror genres. Born of a dull, rainy summer by Lake Geneva by the brilliant young bride in the company of her famous husband Percy, his even more famous friend George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his physician Dr John Polidori, Frankenstein still makes Mary’s name familiar to people for whom Romantic poetry might as well be Klingon. Frankenstein, a text that referenced ancient mythology, was destined to be the legend of an age still busy bring born, the industrial and scientific eras. Shelley was herself product of a revolutionary age, daughter to the feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft and immersed in the burgeoning Romantic movement’s spiritual and symbolic conceptualism as well as radical thinking. Many both thrilled at and recoiled from the consequences of that time, the ancient regimes falling and new concepts and hierarchies rifling their way through every familiarity, as the French Revolution had devolved from florid optimism to a grim and concerted mobile slaughter consuming Europe, and that happy, elegant party in Switzerland were contemplating what it all meant via art. Ninety-four years after it was written, Frankenstein was filmed for the first time, by Thomas Edison’s film company. But it was the 1931 film version that was to permanently transform Frankenstein into a byword, and throw up an image of the monstrous still instantly recognisable to most people.

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The most famous transposition to the screen, one that threw up an image still instantly familiar to most people eighty years after it was made, came in 1931, when Universal Studios wanted an appropriate property to follow up a smash hit, Tod Browning’s Dracula. As with that success, they chose an intermediary work, Peggy Webling’s theatrical adaptation, and hired a director who had proven himself gifted at traversing the gap between stage and screen, James Whale. Whale had come to Hollywood to adapt R.C. Sheriff’s play about the fatalism of World War I aviators Journey’s End for the movies. That film’s substantial success made Whale a major director, and he followed it up with the wartime melodrama Waterloo Road (1931). Dracula had suddenly made gothic horror popular after years when, in spite of the genre’s popularity in Europe, both Broadway and Hollywood had largely preferred jokey horrors like the semi-satirical The Cat and the Canary (1928): several years of the Depression and the harsh mood attendant in the early ‘30s had suddenly transformed the zeitgeist. With Frankenstein Whale, in spite of his comparative newness to the medium, fashioned a far more powerful work of cinema than Browning had managed, a dark fairy-tale painted in shades of grey and dusty light. Whale cast his Journey’s End star Colin Clive as the monomaniacal scientist, rechristened Henry rather than the novel’s Victor, and cast a relatively unknown English actor as his creation: the one-time William Pratt, who had rechristened himself Boris Karloff for an aura of the exotic and the sinister.

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Whale’s Frankenstein emerged as a rather different beast to Shelley’s, however. Updated to around the turn of the twentieth century, Whale’s film stepped back from the poetic grandiosity of Shelley’s concepts, which traversed the distance from Alpine peaks to frozen Arctic and pitted creator and creation against each-other each as mutually tortured poet-kings, to present a tight morality play with an atmosphere derived not from the elemental reaches of high Romanticism but from the fetid, id-like realms of Expressionism in art. The monster was conceived not as Shelley’s misbegotten but entirely articulate demi-titan, but a mute, hulking, ugly, instinctual being, both childlike and animalistic in its simplicity, even innocence, and its savagery. This choice, disloyal as it was to Shelley, was the key to the nigh-unshakeable impact Whale’s take has had on popular culture. The monster, in being rendered something less nobly post-human, had become more relevant, a being onto which so much could be projected. Everything different, troubled, outcast, reviled—other—lay behind Karloff’s limpid eyes and misshapen brow. Whale’s fulminating anger at his poverty-stricken childhood, status as a gay man in a hostile world, and the trauma of his wartime service, found just as much accord in the monster as the audience who, suffering through the Depression, surely saw so many of themselves, cast off by a system that had pretended to care for them only to leave them stranded and bewildered by forces beyond control. Any black man scared for his life in Jim Crow south or migrating Oakie trying to find a place of refuge would recognise the mob that chases down and annihilates the hapless creature for its supposed sins, some of which were only the sin of circumstance and others natural response to mistreatment and cold regard.

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Frankenstein’s stark seriousness as a parable had defined it, but Whale’s own sensibility was distinctly less solemn when let off the leash, particularly when it came to generic material he would resist being ghettoised in. With his next ventures into fantastic material, The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), he revealed that mischievous streak, interpolating overt humour and eccentricities of style in a way that still feels unexpected and bizarre, offering flashes of a new cultural argot that didn’t have a name then – camp. As Universal clamoured for a sequel to Frankenstein, Whale eventually caved in and agreed to helm it, and produced a film more suited to his personal humour. In spite of its eventual classic status, Bride of Frankenstein was beset by a troubled production, with endless revisions of plot and intent that lasted from initial story proposals to post-production edits designed to pacify the new production code. Whale ran through several screenwriters in searching for a persuasive concept and eventually found one when John L. Balderston, the dramatist who had written Dracula’s source play, hit upon the idea of using a vignette from Shelley’s novel, in which Frankenstein starts building a bride for his monster, and taking this to the logical end Shelley shied away from. The result is almost certainly the greatest of the storied Universal horror films, and also perhaps the strangest, a freewheeling romp through the landscape Whale had created for the first film that manages at once to mock and enlarge that landscape, and the already quickly calcifying clichés of the style Whale helped define.

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Aptly for a film whose title promises new frontiers of sexuality, Bride of Frankenstein grazes downright perverse invocations of the erotic and the abnormal, one that actually gathers impetus and power from Whale’s pitch-black humour and self-satirising impulses. Laughter and dread have long been twinned opposites but are also notoriously difficult to combine effectively. Whale pulled it off in part by rendering the vividly stylised, eerie, shadow-sodden landscapes he had created for Frankenstein even more bleakly beautiful and momentous: Bride of Frankenstein is the height of the gothic horror style on the visual level. Yet Whale populates it with characters who seem rather bewildered to realise they’re in a horror film, like Una O’Connor’s screeching, teetering servant Minnie, and Ernest Thesiger’s villainous Dr Pretorious, who, in spite of his repulsive practices and sinister ends, is also a perversely cheerful bon vivant. Whale’s sensibility is in play right from the opening frames as he segues from a classic horror landscape of a fearsome storm raging above a grim Swiss castle to his take on the pretensions of Byron (Gavin Gordon) and the Shelleys, with Mary (Elsa Lanchester) characterise as a delicate drawing room darner who writes tales about unfathomable horrors but can’t stand the sight of her own blood when she pricks herself with a needle, and Byron as a prototypical fanboy who delights in recounting her own nightmares to Mary’s protest that no-one can see she was trying to tell a serious metaphysical parable.

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The metafictional aspect to this opening – another idea that hadn’t been codified yet – ingeniously allows Whale to continue his narrative under the guise of a natural expansion on Shelley’s idea and lend it a quality rooted in a knowing sense of being told for its own sake, an extension of the parlour game roots of the original story. The scenes of Shelley’s story Byron recounts are also not those of the book but Whale’s film, allowing a recapitulation of that film in a manner close to a highlights reel before a new TV episode. Meanwhile the deliberately artificial acting of the three actors signals Whale’s wry approach to the effete aristocratic fantasies he’s engaging with and his smirking take on the heightened essence of melodrama, taken soon to extremes in Valerie Hobson’s hilarious overacting as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s fiancé, and Clive’s own raw-nerved performance, which nudges the scientist from thoughtful rebel towards hysterical patsy. Frankenstein, left gravely injured after being thrown from the top of the windmill where the monster apparently met its end at the climax of the first film, is taken home, believed to be dying, but he shows signs of pulling through. Meanwhile at the scorched and crumbled ruins of the mill the Burgomaster (E.E. Clive, splendidly pompous) tries to assert authority over the flocking villagers proud of their handiwork and hoping the monster is dead, including the Frankensteins’ servant Minnie and the parents of the girl the monster drowned, Hans (Reginald Barlow) and his wife (Mary Gordon). Hans, in his distraught desire to see the monster’s body, accidentally falls into the mill’s flooded cellar, and finds the monster scorched and wounded but still very much alive and vengeful. The monster throttles Hans and climbs out, and the near-sighted hausfrau doesn’t realise she’s helping the monster out of the pit until it’s too late: he pitches her down after her husband, before encountering Minnie, whose squawking panic bewilders even him.

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Minnie finds herself frustrated when no-one believes her about the monster’s survival, and the misshapen creature subsists in the forest, terrifying unfortunates he encounters even as he repeatedly tries to reach out to them, including a shepherdess (Ann Darling) who faints and falls into a pond. Although he saves her from drowning, she believes he’s attacking her, and a passing hunter wings him with a bullet. The monster finally finds refuge and fellowship with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), whose melancholy violin playing entices and pacifies the creature’s pained ferocity. Meanwhile, as he recovers, Frankenstein is visited by Pretorius, a former teacher at Frankenstein’s university who was “booted out” for pursuing similar forbidden pursuits in trying to create life. Pretorius talks Frankenstein, who has become a Baron since his father’s death during his convalescence, into taking a look at his creations. The Baron is revolted by Pretorius’s pint-sized homunculi, which he grows “like cultures” rather than stitches together and keeps living in jars, but Pretorius does pique Frankenstein’s curiosity when he proposes creating a second, female creature with a combination of their techniques. When a pair of lost hikers walks in upon the creature and the hermit, they spark a fight that results in the burning down of the hermit’s house, leaving the creature homeless and hunted again. Taking refuge in a graveyard, he encounters Pretorius who, with his murderous fugitive helpmates Karl (Dwight Frye) and Ludwig (Ted Billings), is robbing the tombs for body parts. Pretorius takes the monster under his wing and uses him to force the reluctant Frankenstein to complete their project, finally having the creature kidnap Elizabeth to force his hand.

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One of the trickiest aspects of Bride of Frankenstein to appreciate is the blithe way it steps between outright absurdity and total sincerity in treating its themes. Whale’s insistent religious imagery correlates the monster’s suffering with Christ’s, tethered to a pole and raised up as if on the cross, and the eerily highlighted crucifix on the hermit’s wall that lingers in a glowing image even after a fade to black. Whale pushes this element with fervent clarity, like a blazing insight into a core of real, irate, transcendental feeling that is otherwise purposefully contrasted with the absurdity of most human behaviour when backed up by feelings of security and self-satisfaction. At the same time, there’s also a hint of lampooning of the parochial side of this value system, particularly in the down-home church organ that drones under the same scene where the hermit and monster find each-other like a pair of hapless lovers. Minnie embodies this idea most directly for Whale, acting like a firebrand when she thinks the monster is down and screaming and running off when he proves impossible to suppress for long. In the first film Whale portrayed the monster as embittered and reactive after being tormented by Frankenstein’s assistant; here this element becomes something close to behavioural theory, as the reactions of the ostracised and the differentiated result in maladaptation in the face of the ignorant reflexes of others, often forming a tragic roundelay of victimhood. The reactions of people to the monster usually create situations that result in violence and harm. This idea is most vividly illustrated in the sequence when he saves the shepherdess, as he tries to suppress her panicky screams only to make things worse, Whale alternating between viewpoints with electric intensity conveying both the fear of the girl and the alarm of the monster, erasing the apparent line between appeal and assault.

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For a film as long-hailed as it is, Bride of Frankenstein is nonetheless nearly as stitched-together as the monster itself, chiefly because the new, strict censorship regime just gaining traction in Hollywood at the time, added to the tumultuous development, meant that aspects of the film were left choppy and unclear. These include a midsection in which a number of dead bodies are found scattered around town, killings for which the monster is blamed but which were supposed to have been committed by Fritz and Hans on Pretorius’s business. Whale changed the finale at the last minute, letting Frankenstein escape the final conflagration, although he’s still visible amidst tumbling rubble at the end. Despite this raggedness, the film comes on with astonishing pace and power. One bravura sequence follows another, but perhaps the two most brilliantly composed come half-way through and right at the end. The first sees the monster chased down once more by torch-wielding, pitchfork-trusting villagers through a forest until he’s captured by the mass, in a sequence that represents nigh-perfect interplay of editing, music, camerawork, and directorial thrust. The monster is bound, carted back to town, and trussed up in the old dungeon below the police station, held down with chains and bonds. The threat has been contained completely and utterly, the Burgomaster is happy to get back to work (“And leave us to ours,” mutters one of the gendarmes in bolshy manner), assuring the townsfolk everything is now taken care off. Except that the monster tears himself free and smashes his way out again with ludicrous ease once the weight of society is off him – the tormented alien has grown too strong to be held by such forces, and can henceforth only be destroyed by his own yearnings.

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Karloff initially objected to one of the biggest changes to his role, which had made him one of horror cinema’s most everlasting stars, was that the creature learns to speak in the course of the movie. Karloff’s brilliant mime work had given the creature qualities of pathos and terror more intense than most actors could manage with pages of dialogue. But the monster’s halting, grunting vocal deliveries, built around the basic words the hermit and Pretorius teach him, is one of the most memorable aspects of Bride of Frankenstein. His speech quickly evolves in spite of his small vocabulary from identification and association (“Bread!”) to value judgement (“Bad!”) to philosophy (“Love dead. Hate living.”). The two films form a tale of the creature moving from newborn to nihilistic experience, with stages of bratty, tantrum-throwing murderousness and clasping adolescent neediness in between, leading to a finale when he apportions life and death according to his own will. The moment of ultimate confrontation comes when Pretorius opens a door and lets the monster into Frankenstein’s parlour, the baleful gaze of the rejected creation above a mouth that now has mastered the broken syllables of his creator’s name – an act in legend that gives mortals powers over gods. Appropriately, from this point on the creature controls Frankenstein’s fate.

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The note of mutual fulfilment that sparks under the monster’s relationship with the hermit (“A friend – to be a light to mine eyes and a comfort in time of trouble – amen!”) is cunning for the way Whale universalises it, a perfect picture of Christian fellowship that can also be read as an idealised gay relationship, in a way that shoots for the cosmic by way of the purely personal, all we misbegotten creations of a dubiously competent deity clinging to each-other in the night. If the hermit is the angel on the monster’s shoulder, Pretorius is presented as a jaunty yet phthisic, queeny devil on the shoulder of Frankenstein, who spends most of the film clinging to his bed, bride, and Baronetcy as a desperate closet, trying to resist the thrill of creating life in forbidden rites. Pretorius, whose unlikely name baffles Minnie (“There ain’t no such name!”), struts into the film providing both its arsenic heart and its impudent instant critique, contrasting both the stricken conscientiousness of Frankenstein and the haplessness of the monster with his eager embrace of his own immorality. He plays the puppet-master creator mischievously arranging the world according to his acerbic understanding of the way it works and the stories it tells itself to make sense of its perversity, as he outfits his homunculi as travesties of social roles and essential identities – a king, a queen, an archbishop, a ballerina, a devil. He encourages Frankenstein to follow “the lead of nature – or God if you like your Bible stories,” although he also happily quotes the Bible when enticing the good doctor to join in his project: “Male and female created he them – be fruitful and multiply.” Pretorius is a happy inhabitant of the twilight world. When he leads his assistants in breaking into the tomb looking for harvestable bodies, he eyes a girl’s corpse with an assessing, physiologically and erotically incisive eye. “Pretty little thing in her way wasn’t she?” Karl notes with hesitant ghoulish interest, but Pretorius more directly states with gleaming eyes, “I hope her bones are firm!”

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Pretorius arranges bones as a centrepiece for an impromptu party he holds for himself, toasting monsters until the real thing lurches out of the shadows: “Oh – I thought I was alone,” he notes unflappably. Thesiger’s inimitable delivery and persona had already been exploited brilliantly by Whale on The Old Dark House, but Pretorius gave him an even more perfect vehicle, with his gift for lending any line the quality of some alien and malignant invocation, down to his “only weakness,” of which there are at least two. By comparison, Clive’s Frankenstein is marginalised for much of the film, perhaps a result of Whale working around Clive’s worsening drinking problem which would claim his life within two years, and also more definitely a by-product of the film’s waggish take on the pivotal myth, which makes Pretorius the core figure illustrating what Frankenstein would act like if every remnant trace of humanism was removed, the Baron stuck as wishy-washy moderate in the face of Pretorius’ embraced extremism. Still, although bullied and blackmailed against all his best impulses throughout the film, and appalled by realisation that Pretorius has his minions happily murder women to furnish their laboratory-born chimera with body parts, Frankenstein also falls under the spell of the promethean act again as the project gathers pace: what greater drug than the thrill of defying natural law and creating life, without any fussy intermediaries? The orgasmic charge of the final creation scenes, where Whale cuts loose in a riot of canted camera angles, vertiginous shots and sparking machines and faces turned to chiaroscuro death masks as the great phallic tower lifted to sky awaits electric insemination, pays off in new birth.

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The original film, like many early sound films, lacked an incidental music score. By 1935 that was quickly changing and Whale hired recent immigrant Franz Waxman to write music for the sequel. Waxman responded with a work of oversized bravado that instantly made his name in Hollywood and also expanded concepts of what a film score could do at the time. It also showed how much he understood Whale’s oddball sensibility by interpolating, amidst the rollicking drums and deep-throbbing strings that invoke the crepuscular epic, a faux-Polynesian love theme, a whine of sardonic yet plaintive feeling constantly nudging the film towards perverse romanticism even as the chiaroscuro visuals sketch out dread spaces of the mind. Whale, like a vast number of filmmakers in Hollywood and elsewhere, was a great admirer of the recent trend of German Expressionist filmmaking and its core creators, and took direct license from them. Their ranks included Paul Leni, Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, and Paul Wegener, whose Der Golem: Wie er in der Welt Kam (1920) had offered an obvious template for the concept of the daemonic creation as limpid-eyed yet glowering monstrosity pulverising the human world yet beset by simple and childlike things, whilst Leni’s gift for weaving in humour with horror undoubtedly appealed to Whale.

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Whale took this a step further as he tested the idea that the comedy of manners could exist within the heightened removes of such bizarre fare, and his understanding that the root of both the comedy and the horror was the fear and desire for others, with society as monster in its own right that torments and afflicts what appals it. Like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man’s Frank Griffin, Pretorius crosses the invisible but all too consequential barrier of what’s done and finds the thrill of transgressive power even as the forces of reaction snap into action and begin to fence them back in. The monster on the other hand is always unwillingly trapped beyond the fringes of the human world. The search for companionship, in all its forms, preoccupies all the characters, particularly the creature, whose train of thought, set in motion by Pretorius, moves inexorably through stages of relation – “Woman. Friend. Wife.” The film’s final, most ingenious and ruthless touch takes the comedy of manners theme to its logical end with the bride’s rejection of the monster as hideous, a punch-line that cynically splices the theme of the search for perfection and for fellowship – the human brain Pretorius grew, the perfect tabula rasa of social behaviour, still knows instinctively what is beautiful and what is ugly.

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Like Orson Welles who would similarly make a leap from stage to screen, Whale’s style was at once floridly theatrical and inimitably cinematic, compensating for the lack of open space he was used to in the theatre with energetic, sweeping camerawork and jagged cutting. His work here came with invaluable aid from the team of technical experts at Universal, including the inimitable work of makeup man Jack Pierce, special effects maestro Jack Fulton, and John J. Mescall’s photography. The evocations of cavernous ancient chambers and rude stonework, the dense forests of jutting trees, the soaring battlements of castles and old mills where creativity unfolds jealously guarded from the snooping hoi polloi (both the scientists and the poets), the glowing homey windows of the hermit’s hut, the stark statuary and blasted loneliness of the cemetery, the frosty sprawl of Hobson’s nightgown across the Frankenstein’s plush bed – all come close to the platonic ideal of this wing of the genre. One great technical and expressive moment comes when the monster watches from a hiding place as Pretorius and his goons invade the tomb where he’s hiding, their lanterns appearing in the distance and then advancing in an intricate play of light, the three gruesome intruders squabbling and fussing all the way whilst the alienated creature recoils in bewildered fear. Another, truly spectacular and visually ambitious moment comes later when the infuriated monster stalks Karl on the mill roof, the monster assaulting up the sleazy henchmen and throwing him from the roof amidst a wild survey of thunderous clouds, roaring winds, guttering fires, and the wind-rocked cradle of the bride’s body about to be fired with life. And this is just one vignette in the riot of images that is the climax. Such trappings still pack their oneiric power even when Whale makes sport of it, or perhaps especially when he does so, as when Frankenstein, Pretorius and his crew enter the old mill where Frankenstein does his experiments, all twisted, mimetic proto-Escher shapes and grimy hues, the Baron advising “Mind the steps” whist Pretorius noting, “I think it’s a charming house.”

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If Frankenstein still readily springs to mind when it comes to any variation on the misbegotten creation myth today, Bride’s imprint could be subtler, but just as definite, as it asked a question about such creations about where the lines can be drawn between life and technology and what we can invent to sate our needs. Recent films like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015) are similarly dedicated to exactly the same unpredictable notion of synthetic consciousnesses becoming erotically and emotionally enticing only to reject their would-be creator-controllers. Whilst the notion of a synthetic love object had been mooted in cinema before the Bride, particularly in Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Henrik Galeen’s Alraune (1928), those tale posited the ancient figure of the demon temptress, where the Bride that Frankenstein and Pretorius make is actually the opposite, a creature that naturally refuses to be a mere passive creation and recoils from being objectified. Many years later when the film as partly remade by Franc Roddam in 1985 as The Bride, things had changed enough that the monster and mate find each-other whilst the creator goes mad and dies trying to rape his creation. Under Whale’s gaze this element takes on an extra dimension of bizarreness as he turns Pretorius and Frankenstein into mad makeover artists, swathing the bride with her jutting mane of frizzed Egyptian-styled hair in gown of white. This is Whale’s piece de resistance in mocking social and mating rituals and the game of love and the eternal conflict between flesh and soul: the bride’s hissing horror is a most normal reaction but also is rooted in something primal, something alien to the empathic self that defines humanism – and is thus anti-human. The bride’s rejection her proposed mate sets in motion the monster’s final, enraged auto-da-fe as he cordons off himself, the bride and Pretorius whilst, moved by the escaped Elizabeth’s show of loyalty to Frankenstein, commands them to depart before blowing up the mill. Whale’s last, most sublime irony is there in the spectacle of the weeping monster. Too human to cope with the world, he is finally gifted the power of the gods his own creator snatched but could never bear, deciding who should live and who belong dead.


20th 08 - 2016 | 1 comment »

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Director: Jack Arnold

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The line between science fiction and horror is often breached because humanity’s fear of the unknown has proven fertile soil for the fevered imaginations of scifi writers and filmmakers. The 1950s, of course, produced a slew of Atomic Age nightmares, as the science fact of massively destructive weapons merged with the paranoias of the time. Some forget that this period in human and movie history also was awash in psychoanalysis—the science of the mind—with Freudian theories all the rage in films of all types.

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The 1957 scifi/horror classic The Incredible Shrinking Man is firmly rooted in these socioscientific concerns. The plot is propelled by environmental horrors. A radioactive cloud floats toward the boat where the title character, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are relaxing and coats him with a stardust sheen. Scott doesn’t start shrinking, however, until he is exposed to insecticide after they return home. While there is plenty of frightening action ahead, it is in the aftermath of these initial events that the film takes on more psychological and philosophical shading, and makes a pointed critique of a society slipping a straitjacket of conformity and wholesomeness over its citizens following the chaos and lingering malaise of World War II.

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Scott asserts his privilege as a white man in a white-male-dominated society in the very first scene by ordering his wife to go below deck to get him a beer: “To the galley, wench. Fetch me a flagon of beer,” he jests. Unwittingly, he did the manly thing by saving her from getting dusted, but because his rescue was unintentional and unconscious, we know we are in Freud’s realm of the uncanny. Freud said, “The uncanny is anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of earlier psychic stages, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive experience of the human species.”

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In Scott’s case, his body becomes one of a child, reduced to dependence and an infantile relationship with his wife. When he shrinks to the size of a doll, he takes up residence in a dollhouse, a feminizing situation, with his wife’s face looming over him like the overbearing mother’s in Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories (1989). When he becomes even smaller, he must rely on primitive instincts and strategies to survive in a once-familiar but now alien and threatening environment.

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Based on Richard Matheson’s book The Shrinking Man, The Incredible Shrinking Man offers the usual thrills of a Jack Arnold film and a sexual tension that can be found in many of his works—most notably, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)—and present in this one by the changing dynamic between Scott and Louise and Scott’s abortive attempt to return to a normal heterosexual relationship with Clarice (April Kent), a midget he befriends and from whom he flees when he discovers he is still shrinking. Voiceover narration by Scott somewhat preserves Matheson’s fractured timeline, though the film proceeds chronologically.

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Arnold’s brilliant use of oversize furniture and props, as well as optical printing to put Scott in the same frame as the enormous beings who surround and threaten him, create a convincing world through which we can empathize with Scott’s struggle. I was particularly taken with the gentle cat for which the Careys show obvious affection, and its transformation into a dangerous beast chasing its own master seems the perfect metaphor for the destructive force of nature human beings unleashed upon themselves. With global warming filling our skies with the moisture of melting glaciers that cause mammoth hurricanes and biblical floods, the timeliness of The Incredible Shrinking Man cannot be overstated.

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Arnold preserves some hope for humanity’s survival as we watch Scott improvise a house from a matchbox, a grappling hook from a pin, and a flaming arrow from a match. Arnold takes his time filming Scott in the cellar of his house trying to scrounge for food. Scott’s attempt to grab a piece of cheese from a mouse trap, as well as to reach some bread crumbs on a high ledge now guarded by a spider in its web are both painstakingly tedious and fraught with tension. His duel with the spider taps into the arachnophobia many people feel, providing audiences with a genuine fright.

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It is in these final scenes that Scott’s attempts to reclaim his life and his privacy from the legions of curious people and probing reporters when he was, if small, still human-sized, completely fall away and move him—and us—into a contemplation of existence. It’s not entirely clear, but it appears that Scott will keep shrinking to the size of an atom, the perhaps logical end for exposure to atomic radiation, or disappear altogether to join the cosmic dust from which the universe sprang. Arnold ends his film with a vision of our galaxy, the alpha and omega of humanity. Don’t we all feel small in the face of that!


9th 03 - 2016 | 4 comments »

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Director: Jim Sharman

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By Roderick Heath

Incredible as this will sound, this week I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show from beginning to end for the first time. Oh, sure, I’d seen most of it in bits and pieces before going right back to when I was a kid. Thanks to growing up in a pop-culture world inflected with its legacy, I was long familiar with its characters, plot, and, of course, its soundtrack—who hasn’t heard “The Time Warp” or “Sweet Transvestite” in our day and age? This very familiarity made seeing the whole thing seem a bit superfluous, but finally, I made myself sit down and take it all in.

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Rocky Horror was, of course, struggling English actor Richard O’Brien’s brainchild, composed, he said, to keep himself busy on long winter evenings of unemployment. O’Brien’s off-the-wall musical play mashed up his fetish for classic scifi and B horror movies, the trappings of the faded ethos of showmanship and glitzy-tacky Hollywood pizzazz, and the milieu of post-Swinging London and the age of sexual liberation—all entirely in keeping with a music scene ruled over by Mick Jagger and Ziggy Stardust. Australian theatrical director Jim Sharman, who had gained some respect for his staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, knew O’Brien from his one-night stint playing Herod in the show, and O’Brien snagged his interest with his kooky project.

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Sharman’s showbiz pedigree was unquestionable. His father had been famous in Oz for running a travelling boxing show and carnival, and he grasped the potential in O’Brien’s project. He had already directed a film in Australia, 1972’s Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens, built around much the same mix of nostalgia, camp, music, and satirical reference. Sharman staged O’Brien’s show in the 64-seat Royal Court Upstairs Theatre with a cast of virtual unknowns, including star Tim Curry, an actor O’Brien knew from around his neighbourhood, and Sharman’s pal from down under, “Little” Nell Campbell. The show was an instant success, and soon became the fixture it essentially still is. Two years later, Sharman brought it to the big screen for 20th Century Fox, importing for the sake of a larger budget two American actors, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, to play the nominal leads, as well as one talent who had made an impression in the LA production, Marvin “Meat Loaf” Aday. The film version initially failed to find an audience, and was written off as a misbegotten flop, but this was the golden age of cult films, with midnight screenings of cinematic oddities attracting large audiences of college kids and hipsters. An enterprising distributor saw the potential in marketing the film to the same audience, and soon a whole subculture formed around the movie, with audiences creating a ritualised script of comment and response and live performers mimicking onscreen action.

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It’s easy to see Rocky Horror’s specific appeal, particularly in the milieu of the mid-1970s. Above all, the rock ’n’ roll score accomplished something nothing, not even Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar, had quite pulled off so effervescently and effectively before (or, really, since, perhaps not until the recent Hamilton)—contextualising the stage musical in the pop era in a way that made it fit. O’Brien tapped into an audience steeped in both a love of flimsy fantasy and New Age mores, creating a variation on a niche of gay culture just acceptable enough to lodge itself in the mainstream. The plotline, whilst strutting through a mocking pastiche of B movies, essentially describes a mass cultural experience, portraying a pair of hopeless squares being exposed to the stranger side of life and finding themselves, if not necessarily better off, certainly wiser—a Sadean narrative rendered in a light, fun, mostly harmless manner. At the same time, Rocky Horror has undoubtedly helped a lot of gay, bisexual, and just plain fabulous people come out of the closet and wield its fantasy as a weapon.

All that said, though, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show any good?

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As a record of this peculiar cultural artefact, certainly. The movie, like the stage version, opens with the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” an ode to the pleasures of cinema from yesteryear, the stuff of O’Brien’s youth, referencing the likes of Tarantula (1955) and Day of the Triffids (1962). The film is littered with references to the glory days of Hollywood filmmaking, and there’s an interesting contradiction in there somewhere, this creation of fringe art celebrating a lost Eden of commercial art—although in the context of the mid-’70s, that legacy had faded and the same studios were trying to reinvent themselves by making stuff like, well, stuff like Rocky Horror. Moreover, such referential gambits feel like a miscue to me, as the project never really settles for pastiche or lampooning, and, least of all, for straight-up genre thrills, but instead subjects those tropes to a transmutation, turning subtext inside out and exploring less the ideas of classic genre cinema than camp culture’s take on it. Sharman’s expanded cinematic scope and the production circumstances allowed him to directly evoke the glory days of British cinefantastique, particularly Hammer horror, which was in its death throes at the time. Much of the film was shot around the decaying Oakley Court mansion, a popular location for horror film shoots. The central scene of monstrous creation directly references the laboratory scenes of Fisher’s Frankenstein films.

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One of the cleverest touches of the film adaptation was casting Charles Gray, consummate player of villains in such films as Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971), as a “Criminologist” whose introductions and narration evoke the likes of Edgar Lustgarden, the crime writer famous for hosting true crime TV series in the ’50s, and Boris Karloff’s hosting of the anthology show Thriller. Some of the film’s truly killer vignettes include the cutaways to him lecturing on how to do the Time Warp, and casting away his dryly portentous dignity to dance on a table top. Drive-in movie fare isn’t the only subject for satirical mirth: Brad and Janet overhear Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, symbolic fall of the establishment about to be mirrored by the young couple’s impending date with subversive elements.

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An early sight gag unsubtly, but pertinently lampoons the couple representing middle American values, as Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” painting looms over protagonists Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) and their friends at a wedding. The inference is obvious, the lurking spectre of parched, repressed, cheerless conformity the legacy behind their white-bread, upright, uptightness, and several of the church congregants watching the wedding revels with parsimonious intensity are, in fact, the very same perverts who will later turn the couple’s lives upside down. Brad and Janet are citizens of the Texas town of Denton. After they bid farewell to their just-married friends, Brad finally confesses his love for Janet via the song “Dammit Janet,” and they set off for a night of celebrating their smouldering blandness. But the couple’s journey is complicated by a storm and strange motorcyclists, and their car busts a tyre after they take a wrong turn. Luckily for them, there’s a castle nearby where they can ask for help.

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Brad and Janet immediately stumble into an asylum of weirdness, greeted by a cabal of partying oddballs attending the “Annual Transylvanian Convention,” overlorded by pansexual, transvestite scientist Frank-N-Furter (Curry) and his fake servants, hunchbacked butler Riff Raff (O’Brien) and his sister and maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), as well as hanger-on and former lover Columbia (Campbell). Frank has gathered the cabal together to celebrate the culmination of a great experiment: he is about to bring life to a man he’s constructed, dubbed Rocky (Peter Hinwood). Frank’s creation emerges from the vat as a perfect Aryan vision, ready and willing to flex his physique to the amazement of the audience even as he wonders what strange situation he’s been plunged into. But Frank’s road to triumph has been paved with his sins, including frozen biker Eddie (Meat Loaf), who busts out of cold storage in a dizzy rage. A delivery boy who was ensnared by Frank’s lustful attentions but who gravitated to Columbia, Eddie’s been partly harvested to provide Rocky’s brain, and he careens through Frank’s lab on his motorcycle until the vengeful host dispatches him gorily with an ice pick. Having disposed of this momentary distraction, Frank sets Rocky to building up his body to ever greater heights of masculine glory before chaining him to his bed. Rocky Horror revolves around this one central, inarguably brilliant premise—though the film doesn’t do much interesting with it—turning the classic Frankenstein figure into a freak who wants to create not just a human being, but a perfect male love object and then doubling down on this joke by having the monster’s traditional rebellion be that he is resolutely and helplessly heterosexual.

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Curry inhabits the role of Frank-N-Furter with such total ease and charismatic verve that it seems like he was born in his lofty stilettoes and garters, credibly locating jolts of pathos and flickers of melancholy under the surface of a creature otherwise defined by totally shameless hedonism and dedication to his own outsized talent and ego. From the moment he enters the film dressed like Dracula, only to throw off his cape and reveal his very masculine body swathed in burlesque-ready underwear, Frank-N-Furter commands the proceedings. Later, as he acts as impresario mad scientist at Rocky’s revival, he sports the pink triangle of gay pride (adapted and reversed from a Nazi designation), but doesn’t stop at any polite or merely political limits of gender orientation. The figuration of Frank and Rocky could well have been originally inspired by Z-Man and his lust object, Lance Rocke, in another hugely popular camp relic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970); Frank very strongly recalls Z-Man as the imperious host of debauched revels and jealous creator with not-so-secret peccadilloes. There’s also a strong whiff of Cabaret’s (1972) Emcee to him, and Bob Fosse’s sleazy-sexy sensibility pervades the film as an influence.

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Sharman’s theatrical talent mostly works once Brad and Janet reach Frank’s castle and are confronted by an the alternate-universe rock’n’roll party as a moment of revelation. The Transylvanians line-dance, and Riff-Raff, Magenta, and Columbia regale them with “The Time Warp,” that most insistently catchy and seemingly nonsensical of songs with lyrics that bespeak a defining obsession with nihilism countered with a sense of freedom and release found in remembered pleasures. Frank enters from a cage elevator and struts through the scene with carelessly convivial enthusiasm laced with erotic potency. The movements here obey their own warped logic, the mood of having stumbled through veil into a strange zone of reality, true in its way to many a classic horror film with the twist of discovering not horror and madness—although there is some of that—but rather the strangely alluring invite of a secret society dedicated entirely to making life a trifle less dull. Of course, it’s the songs here that tie this act together: “The Time Warp” segues into “Sweet Transvestite,” and, a little later, “Hot Patootie,” all musical bits that roll on with driving force, the first and the last perfect floor-fillers and the middle song an impudently sexy declaration of Frank’s wont that burrows deeply into the ear.

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The stage is set for wild and shaggy times, and some do actually happen. Very much the pivotal sequence of Rocky Horror and its mystique comes at the halfway mark in a sequence that plays as an omnivorous replay of the health clinic scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), except whereas James Bond was fox in the henhouse with a bunch of horny ladies, here Frank-N-Furter revels in having a couple of ripe, young dweebs to make a tilt at. Frank first pretends to be Brad visiting Janet and then Janet visiting Brad, with both squares letting him have his way with them on the assurance the other won’t find out about it, climaxing, literally and figuratively, with the silhouetted, but still declarative shot of Frank fellating Brad, a moment that does still feel gutsy and unique in the context of such a work of broad appeal.

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Riff Raff and Magenta’s general program of torment and sabotage sees them drive Rocky crazy with fire and cause him to escape, and then make sure Janet can see through the house’s TV monitors that Brad and Frank are together. Janet stumbles out in an anguished delirium and meets Rocky. She succumbs immediately to his boy-man virility, a spectacle that, in turn, shocks both Frank and Brad. Eddie’s father, a scientist named Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams) and a rival of Frank’s, reaches the castle in search of his son, necessitating a very uncomfortable dinner that climaxes with Eddie’s dismembered body being revealed in a glass coffin under the banquet table.

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Unfortunately, Rocky Horror leaves itself no particular place to go after Frank’s bout of bed-hopping, and in the above-described scenes, retreats into shtick that, frankly, could be in any average dinner theatre show (“Or should I say Von Scott?” Gimme a break). The odd witty line does drop throughout the film—I got a good laugh from Brad’s question, “So, do you any of you guys know how to do the Madison?” after “The Time Warp”—but too often there’s a surfeit of true wit or even good wisecracks. A late swerve for a note of pseudo-pathos as Frank-N-Furter faces his downfall doesn’t come off in part because his divaish final song is the dullest tune in the film, and besides, who wants to take Frank seriously? His wonderful line, “It’s not easy having a good time—even smiling makes my face ache,” gives the character a signature facet that doesn’t need underlining. Such flailing probably didn’t matter so much on the stage, where the compulsive energy of the performers and the tunes can carry the material along, but the film finally suffers from a lack of a real cinematic invention. Part of this surely stems from the general decision to make the film as a road-show version of the stage production rather than striking out as a genuinely expanded vision. It’s tempting to wonder what a real filmmaker would make of the material. Ken Russell, who had made The Boy Friend (1971) a genuine cornucopia out of the same kind of material, and released Tommy (1975) the same year as Rocky Horror, could perhaps have conjured something really extraordinary. Ditto Fosse or Richard Lester, filmmakers who might have developed a real visual counterpoint to the material’s obsession with movie history. Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which the film was paired with on a double bill for a time, lacks Rocky Horror’s hoofer bravado, but far excels it for originality and vigour in filmmaking.

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In this regard, Rocky Horror ran upon a reef that often lies in wait for stage-to-screen adaptations: how far can you go in revising a project before it ceases to be the thing people liked in the first place? Not that the film lacks cinematic values. Cinematographer Peter Suschitsky, who had worked with Kevin Brownlow early in both their careers and would go on to shoot The Empire Strikes Back (1980), gives the film a rich, vivid palette of colour and lensing, one that cranks up the loopy garishness of the material to 11 in places, particularly during Eddie’s madcap terrorisation of the assembled on his motorcycle, and gives the sequence when Brad and Janet approach the castle singing “Over at the Frankenstein Place” a strange, elegiac beauty. But frankly Sharman, whatever his gifts as a stage director and his real hand in creating Rocky Horror as a theatrical entity, was an annoying filmmaker. A couple of years later he tried to film Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s The Night, The Prowler, a story with a not-dissimilar theme to Rocky Horror of a repressed young women being assaulted and finding a certain sick liberation in the experience, but the film is just as leeringly overacted and unsubtle as this one. At least here, overacting and unsubtlety are part of the point. But the superficial energy of the filmmaking and performing can’t ultimately cover up the fact that Rocky Horror loses its mojo badly by the end. Scott’s arrival at the castle sets the scene for some really lame slapstick comedy, with Scott’s wheelchair being attracted up a staircase with a giant magnet and the rebellious guests and flesh toys being zapped with a “Medusa” ray that turns them to stone. The finale is particularly weak and feels like a missed opportunity, as Frank forces his posse of lovers to join in a kick-line chorus in front of the old RKO Radio Pictures logo.

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Here Sharman could have gone nuts and expanded the staging and conceptualism, but settles merely for replaying the stage show’s climax with Rocky going nuts and carrying Frank on his back in a limp King Kong (1933) spoof. In spite of the overt desire to pay tribute to the cheesy glories of classic scifi and horror, Rocky Horror never really gets a chance to engage with them. Maybe it’s because the previous year’s Young Frankenstein had already beat it to the punch on so many jokes. At least there is a gaudy nod to Busby Berkeley as the camera surveys Frank floating in a life ring from the Titanic in a swimming pool with Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” at the bottom. Moreover—and now we’re edging into the realm of pure personal taste here, I admit—Sharman’s work presented a blueprint of freaky style not just to the burgeoning Punk and New Wave scenes (particularly Sue Blane’s costuming), but also to every terrible fringe theatre group and art-pop wanker around for the next two decades, and what was fresh was quickly beaten into the ground; just looking at the chorus line of Transylvanians makes me feel a little stabby as a result. Of course, it’s churlish to critique such a project for a lack of story cohesion or dramatic heft; in fact, the lack of both probably explains the popularity of Rocky Horror, its ultimate rejection of deep meaning as well as the kind of rigour that might have made for a more genuinely funny, tighter experience, which then wouldn’t have allowed the same room for an audience of adherents to write in their own amusement.

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Admirably, too, Rocky Horror never backs down from its joy in transgression even as it tries half-heartedly to locate a deeper meaning. The shots of Frank, Rocky, Columbia, Brad, and Janet exulting in a moment of orgiastic sexuality in the pool weirdly echoes the climax of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, also released that year, purveying a similar sense of the blurred distinction between the elatedly liberated and the genuinely freakish. Frank-N-Furter is soon delivered a comeuppance by Riff Raff and Magenta, two fellow aliens who have been oppressed playing his servants and now take command, but far from being representatives of any controlling order, they’re an incestuous couple who just want Frank’s foot off their necks. Curry’s extravagance, matched to his character, tends to drown out rivals, but just about everyone still brings something great to the table: O’Brien’s bug-eyed, yawing-lipped rock’n’roll face, Quinn’s plummy pseudo-Lugosi accent, Campbell’s look of irritation after falling over at the end of her “Time Warp” tap dance, Bostwick’s shows of facetious charm, and Sarandon right at the beginning of her career, with her big eyes and ditzy-lustful smile suggesting Betty Boop before she reached for the hair dye and went to the dark side. By its end, it must be said, I was left frustrated, even disappointed by Rocky Horror, as its moments of invention, even genius, are balanced by just as many that don’t work or run in circles. Yet I’m still glad I finally watched it, and moreover, I’m glad that it exists, if just for the sake of the fabulous.


13th 11 - 2015 | 9 comments »

Crimson Peak (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro

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By Roderick Heath

Since his debut with Cronos (1993), Guillermo Del Toro has stood as one of the few major arbiters of a near-bygone attitude in contemporary fantastic cinema. That attitude still floated to the surface even in his stabs at epic, vibrant crowd pleasers, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009) and Pacific Rim (2013), where a delight in the colour and spectacle of blockbuster cinema blended with a fervent belief in melodrama as a form that demands no apology. The brand of pop surrealism apparent even in Del Toro’s action works saw machines of the superego take on the welling forces of the id. Crimson Peak, his latest, is a partial reversion to another strand of his cinema and another province of his obsessions—outright gothic horror and classically contoured ghost stories. This streak was previously parlayed in his Spanish-language works, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), tales pitched in the keys of haunting loss and reality-transmuting fantasy mixed with bizarre and thunderous thriller plots that evoked political dimensions, as both of those films took place during the Spanish Civil War. Like many films these days, Crimson Peak blends homage with its own purposes, serving as a visual tour through the history of screen horror, evoking aspects of German expressionism, Universal and Hammer horror, 1940s gothic melodramas, and the romantic decadence of Italian horror. Del Toro declares his allegiances the moment you hear the heroine’s name is Edith Cushing.

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The setting is turn-of-the-20th-century Boston with all its protomodernity of motor cars and typewriters as still-new but swiftly adopted technology. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the product of clashing social systems, the safe but cloying enclosure of a traditional ideal of femininity and her father’s “go get ’em” Americanness. Crimson Peak shifts territory from Del Toro’s earlier ghost stories, as it’s not about a child struggling in an adult world, though most of his protagonists are defined by similar experiences of being orphaned and left adrift in that world, a theme that also secured Hellboy, Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori, and even Blade to Del Toro’s personal universe. Edith certainly has the same quality of the innocent abroad about her, and she, too, is left alone to survive and finds herself in the midst of a situation she understands through the intuition of signs and distorted simulacra rather than from more worldly cues and hints. Edith, daughter of respected financier and former steel manufacturer Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), has ambitions to become a writer, but faces rebuff by a sniffy, patronising publisher at the outset because her book has no romance and is a ghost story. “It’s not a ghost story,” she protests, “It’s a story with a ghost in it.” Edith has a peculiar affinity with ghosts, however, as her mother’s spectre appeared to her as a young girl shortly after her funeral, delivering enigmatic warnings about a place called Crimson Peak. The shade returns and renews its entreaties not long after Edith’s eye is caught by a darkly handsome stranger who approaches her father for capital: Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet, trying to finance development of a digging machine he’s designed to revive his family’s clay mining business.

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Encountering Thomas at her father’s workplace, where she labours during the day as a secretary, and then in local society, Edith falls under his spell. He encourages her out of her intellectual bubble and offers her a moment of metamorphosis as he dances a waltz with her at a society ball. Thomas is accompanied by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), whose taciturn and boding manner manifests as she takes entomological interest in dying butterflies and runs frostbite eyes over Edith. Edith has a childhood pal, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), now an eye doctor setting up practice in the same building as her father who shares Edith’s interest in spiritualism. He only starts to recognise his deeper affection for her as she’s pulled into Thomas’ orbit, whilst his mother (Leslie Hope) looks down her nose at the unglamorous would-be writer. Carter takes an immediate dislike to Thomas he can’t quite account for at first, except that as a self-made American, he can’t stand Thomas’ air of slightly effete, quixotic inspiration and softness. Later, as it becomes plain that Thomas is pursuing Edith, Carter hires a private detective, Mr. Holly (Burn Gorman), to investigate the Sharpes. Holly turns up something disturbing enough to make Carter call the Sharpes to his office and confront them. He pays them off and orders them to leave town quickly, whilst also extracting a promise from Thomas to break off with his daughter in a suitably jarring and heartbreaking way. Thomas obediently does so, humiliating Edith in front of a dinner party’s guests by disdaining her writing and lack of life experience. The next day, as Carter prepares to shave in the bathroom of his club, someone sneaks in and kills him by bashing his head against a sink to make it look like he’s died in a fall. Thomas returns and marries Edith, and then he and Lucille whisk her to England and introduce her to the lugubrious grandeur of their family manse, Allerdale Hall.

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This long first act proves one of the more surprising aspects of Crimson Peak. Del Toro flirts interestingly with a Henry Jamesian approach to milieu, a sense of the personal and the cultural intersecting, and commences in an essentially realistic frame whilst setting up a move into perfervid weirdness. The film continues in this vein even as that weirdness floods the screen, taking its characters with unexpected seriousness even as they perform archetypal functions to the point where the chief source of tension in the last act stems from anticipating where the twists of character loyalties will lead. Of course, James himself notably departed from his serious social tales with his famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which locates the source of horror in the strange and twisted psychological reactions of its repressed and rootless female protagonist. Del Toro isn’t interested in ambiguity of genre—he’s far too fond of the imagery and mechanics of spookfest traditions—but if it wasn’t for the ooky-kooky wraith that appears in the first few minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into some classy literary adaptation. Del Toro turns the waltz Thomas and Edith take into a subtly symphonic moment of swooning romanticism with a touch of the sublime indicated by their ability to dance whilst keeping a clutched candle lit. Thomas’ mastery of courtly arts and aura of bruised poeticism let him sustain waning aristocracy with Yankee money, a phenomenon that was very real in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. There’s a meta touch to making Edith a penner of the kinds of stories she’s about to get herself into—I detect a hint, deliberate or not, of Joseph Mankiewicz’s lampoon The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which likewise turned on a similar conceit of literary self-reference.

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A number of contemporary ghost tales made for the cinema have been set like Crimson Peak in the first quarter of the 20th century—Haunted (1995), The Woman in Black (2011), The Awakening (2012)—because the era presents a telling, yet quaint, opposition between evolving modernity and the persistence of the irrational, and they often reference the actual explosion in interest in spiritualism of the period. Del Toro goes a few steps further. Just as he looked to the schisms of Spanish history to ground his dark fantasias in a real-life sense of angst and unhealed wounds, here Del Toro takes New and Old Worlds as a similar line of division and angst. The narrative immediately touches several essential aspects of gothic melodrama: the loss of a parent, the heroine’s aura of intellectual independence colliding with desire, the coming of the Byronic stranger and the triangle formed with a more parochially charming suitor, and the eventual shift to strange territory in the form of the grand old house that contains dark and potentially destructive secrets that the young bride must either defeat or be consumed by.

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The 1940s were a high point for this mode of cinema, perhaps nudged on by the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)—Mankiewicz’s debut Dragonwyck (1946), Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946), the Gainsborough melodramas in Britain. By the finale, there’s a dash of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), too. Wasikowska has already played the heroine of a classic text in this style, Jane Eyre, a few years back, whilst Del Toro, with his lexicon of influences, readily invites comparisons with Rebecca. Del Toro isn’t particularly Hitchcockian as a filmmaker, but he clearly has an intellectual kinship with Hitchcock’s general delight in tales of seething repression, covert truths, and subversive hungers. Hitchcock returned to gothic territory with Under Capricorn (1948) and ultimately transmuted it into something newer and stranger with Psycho (1960).

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Once the film reaches Allerdale Hall, Del Toro takes a swift turn into the saturated colour tones and densely miasmic moods of mid-century horror cinema. Del Toro is undoubtedly one of the great craftsmen of contemporary film, and his filmmaking throughout Crimson Peak hums with a sense of cinematic largesse. Del Toro infuses Lucille with a characteristic close to his own heart, a fascination for insect life, and turns an allusive moment when Edith and Lucille chat about American and British species of butterflies and moths, into a visual aria of a scene: butterflies paralysed in the chill evening become prey for swarming ants, filmed in colossal close-up. The foreshadowing is obvious—Edith is the butterfly, Lucille the black ant—but the effect is eerily sublime. As is right and correct in the gothic tradition, Allerdale Hall is a character in the film, a triumph for Del Toro and his production designer, Thomas E. Sanders, in creating a physical structure that has a quality of mimetic trap littered with remnants of past lives and decaying in synch with the psyches of its characters. Giant moths infest corners of the house. A great hole in the ceiling above the foyer lets snow collect on the floor, a rickety elevator connects the house with the basement and treacherous old mine workings. Mouldy, giant portraits gaze down on Edith and perverse spectres flit in the shadows and peer upon her. Thomas’s digging machine huffs and trembles like a great metal dinosaur hewing at the earth. The weird soil mixture in the hill the Hall stands on sees blood-coloured muck welling up, giving the hill its name; yes, this place is Crimson Peak.

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Once safely ensconced again in their home, the Sharpes press Edith to sell her father’s estate to finance work on the digging machine. Meanwhile, Alan, troubled by the mysteries swirling around Carter’s death and the newlyweds’ swift departure, begins investigating, and thanks to information from Holly, begins putting together the terrible pattern behind the Sharpes’ activity—a truth that begins unfurling to Edith in a more urgent form. Edith keeps seeing spectres about the Hall, bearing signs of violent death. Although they terrify the hapless young bride, they seem to be trying, like her mother’s shade, to warn her about the hidden evil around Allerdale Hall. The early line about a story with ghosts in it seems an evident pitch on Del Toro’s part to gain a certain breed of critical favour, but it also helps make viewers aware of the way the supernatural and the corporeal interact in his story, with these ghosts operating more as totems of awful things, which is generally what tales of hauntings have traditionally served as, ways of preserving and communicating dread events and attaching them to places where they occurred in folklore. But Del Toro also loves spooks far too much to reduce them to the realm of the merely symbolic and the suggestive a la Val Lewton. This proves a major flaw, or at least superfluity, in Crimson Peak. The manifestations of the supernatural are both unnecessary and not terribly well handled (then again, I think the same thing about some of spooks in The Shining, 1980).

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This is an odd weak point for Del Toro, who’s made a career out of his wholehearted love of the fantastical and his talent for illustrating it; perhaps that’s part of the problem, that it’s just too reflexive for Del Toro, who otherwise does a remarkable job here of blending multiple frames of reference. But the juddering, squirming, hissing wraiths that dog Edith are far too obvious, even clichéd displays of special-effects cinema, reminiscent of those in some of the rather lame horror films Del Toro has produced recently (like Mama, 2011). I get the feeling he and script collaborator Matthew Robbins (who once upon a time directed the interesting genre revision Dragonslayer, 1982) merely added ghosts to the film as a concession to presumed audience expectations, a way of sneaking them an uncool genre exercise in the guise of another. There’s a tension within Crimson Peak that doesn’t entirely resolve between the expansive showmanship manifest in Del Toro’s visual and conceptual approach and the stringencies of his story, which unfolds with a classical, near-leisurely interest in characterisation and mood, milieu and atmosphere. On the other hand, Del Toro resists turning his work into a mere haunted house ride. Crimson Peak probably counts as the first major stab at a true, unabashed gothic work since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and it does have a surprising number of concerns in common with Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012), without the variable levels of humour: Del Toro is in earnest. That’s not to say Crimson Peak doesn’t earn any horror stripes either, it just belongs to a different branch. The scene of Carter’s murder references Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and nods to the common giallo ploy of playing games with the gender of the killer.

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Argento’s predecessors Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava seem generally much closer to Del Toro’s thoughts than giallo, however, in the diseased romanticism of their gothic-accented horror works that took inspiration equally from Hitchcock and Edgar Allen Poe. Crimson Peak shares similar points of obsession with Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1972) and particularly Freda’s The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962)—sexual deviance, piano playing, insidious presences, poisoned drinks, a house as all-but-organic presence. Ultimately, although both spooks and the equally insidious nature of money figure in this tale, boiling human passions edging into the realm of madness are the real stakes and drivers, as Edith is confronted by the true grotesqueness of perverted lives and psychopathy channelled into relished crime. Del Toro can face up to the sorts of fetid underlying motives that generally had to be communicated more discreetly in classic genre inspirations: he ultimately reveals that Thomas and Lucille, having grown up isolated and neglected in the tottering towers of Allerdale Hall, have long engaged in an incestuous relationship. It’s an apt, if icky, revelation; quite often in classical mythology, the dark secret at the heart of many a riddle was a similar revelation (e.g., Oedipus, the parentage of Siegfried). The siblings have developed a modus operandi of marrying Thomas to rich, solitary women for their money, and having Lucille murder them with the same brutal relish she turned on their mother. It’s not hard to guess the grim intent at the heart of the Sharpes’ plan, and I also guessed the dread secret they harbour, too. But the pleasure of the story here is wrapped up with both its uncertainties and its fervency, the emotions and conflicting desires that ultimately create a deadly situation Edith has to fight her way out of, and the way Del Toro’s superlatively conjured creative universe illustrates that psychic landscape.

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Hunnam played the jut-jawed young hero of Pacific Rim, and here inhabits a role akin to the sort David Manners used to play in the early Universal horror films—the square, upright character who keeps matters rooted in a less bizarre reality and whose traditional brand of heroism seems weirdly pallid in such a context. In ’80s slasher movies, they usually turn up dead sometime in the fifth reel, but here his search gives Robbins and Del Toro an excuse to steal one of the cleverest narrative touches from Joseph Ruben’s thriller The Stepfather (1987) when the time comes for the storylines to collide. It’s in its last act that Crimson Peak finally slips its moorings and goes gloriously over the top, as the tensions sustaining the triangle of Edith, Thomas, and Lucille crumble after Thomas gives into his real affection for Edith and sleeps with her, driving Lucille into a fit of psychotic, vengeful violence. One of Del Toro’s most distinctive traits is his ability to find humanity in even the most bizarre figures, and he locates real pathos in Thomas and Lucille, who lesser filmmakers would probably have reduced to mincing caricatures once necessary narrative games were dispensed with. Here, Lucille and Thomas become all the more interesting and strange the more their crimes and their own sufferings become clearer, particularly as Thomas tries to prod his sister toward self-awareness over what their attempts to avoid change have turned them into—and, of course, that sort of awareness is exactly the hardest thing to countenance. Hiddleston has a gift for suggesting things shiftless and septic under the surface of his lean English charm has been exploited well by several filmmakers lately, and he does fine work here, chiefly because like Del Toro he enjoys the pathos of tortured figures. Not without reason, if also by accident, has his Loki evolved into the heart of the Marvel franchise. Here, his performance reminded me a little of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, particularly in the underregarded Psycho 2 (1981), a film that recast the former serial killer as a troubled antihero.

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Chastain’s slow-burn performance, suggesting degrees of tightly suppressed feeling at the beginning and slowly unsheathing lunacy laced with relished villainy, most effectively channels the melodrama spirit, particularly as Lucille slips the few bonds that keep her restrained and sends the film spiralling off with her into delirious realms. She’s most enjoyable letting a sweetly psychopathic pleasure sneak into her manner as she enjoys the chance to finally squash Edith under her thumb like a bug. Chastain remains one of the most interesting performers around at the moment because she can adapt her performing style to suit her material, and here she’s required to keep her characterisation just on the near side of camp. The finale’s loopy force makes up for some of the problems in Crimson Peak’s unfolding, proffering the image of a thoroughly unhinged Lucille pursuing Edith through the dank confines of Allerdale. The gears not just of story, but also within the iconography of Del Toro’s images, snap at last into perfect alignment: the Victoriana dolly nightgowns flowing in the dark and splattered with blood, the bars of the elevator crashing on delicate flesh, Chastain’s eyes bugging with vicious glee as she hefts a colossal axe intending to plant it in Wasikowska’s head, the cellar with blood-filled pits and bobbing bodies, the flakes of fairytale snow flitting in through high places, and then, finally, the wasteland of ice and metal where the final confrontation takes place. It’s like some lost last reel of a fondly imagined Joan Crawford movie viewed through a prism of freaked-out cosplayer chic and Final Girl survival drama, one that lets the ladies get down to business. Here, Del Toro cashes the check his labours have written and caps Crimson Peak as a grand experience in spite of its hesitations.


1st 11 - 2015 | 2 comments »

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Director: Wes Craven

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By Roderick Heath

Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).

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The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1942) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.

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Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsomely leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), oversaw the burial of the man pronounced dead but, Craven reveals, weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

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The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate: eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.

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Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.

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In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.

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Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.

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Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.

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Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.

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Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.

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This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.

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Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis. Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.


28th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Them! (1954)

Director: Gordon Douglas

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By Roderick Heath

The New Mexico desert, a vast, flat, seemingly sterile and vacant zone of the Earth, where it seems like nothing can hide for long in the glare of the sun. A police spotter plane contacts two cops in a patrol car, Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), and guides them in tracking down a small figure wandering in the gruelling landscape. This proves to be a young girl (Sandy Descher), clutching a doll, walking with a glazed and staring expression in a state of deep trauma. Heading to a car and caravan parked nearby hoping to return her to her parents, they instead find the caravan has been violently torn open by some great force, with no sign of the owners, later identified as a couple named Ellinson. Only a weird, unrecognisable animal is print left in sand nearby, and sugar cubes are scattered all over. Ambulance men and lab investigators arrive, take a cast of the print, and load the girl to be taken to hospital. For a moment Ben and a medic are distracted and puzzled by a strange, trilling sound that arises out of the swirling sands near the site – a sound that momentarily stirs the girl. Ben and Ed head to a nearby general store owned by ‘Gramps’ Johnson as a dust storm rises and night falls, and find the store has also been broken into and trashed with incredible ferocity, with a buckled Winchester rifle on the floor and Gramps’ corpse discovered at the foot of steps into the cellar, mangled and bloodied. Ben heads off to bring the investigators over from the caravan, leaving Ed alone. Just as the sound of the car disappears into the night, Ed hears the same trilling call, and heads outside to look for the source. We hear his gun fire and his terrible scream as something launches on him from the dark.

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Them! is the greatest atomic monster movie. Made with machine-like skill and chitinous beauty, it’s one of the very few sci-fi classics of the 1950s that feels scarcely dated. Part of its rare value and specific force stems from adopting what was then a radical idea, starting off in a different genre altogether, and proceeding with remarkable swerves of story and expectation. Them! unfolds essentially as a police procedural. Early scenes carefully posit signs of something incredible and far beyond the ordinary, violent death and carnage falling under the provenance of professional lawmen, whose method is linked with that of scientific enquirers, sifting facts and winnowing out inescapable conclusions. Slender threads and long shots are followed, ridiculous suppositions and apparently lunatic stories taken seriously. Director Gordon Douglas only made this single foray into fantastic cinema. Most of the time he made rock-solid westerns and crime flicks. This armed him perfectly to approach this story, however. Them! has familiar elements of both horror and sci-fi, but leads stylistically with a tone of sunstroke noir, like Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Dick Powell’s Split Second (1953), before segueing into the nightmarish scene at the store. Jack Arnold had tackled the desert as a setting of atmosphere and surrealist destabilisation in It Came From Outer Space a year earlier, and Douglas went one better. Here the wind howls through gutted walls and sets the overhead lights dancing, littered with broken bodies and signs of forceful intent at once superhuman in ripping out a wall and finicky in pausing again to steal sugar. The ripped bags and pooled grains are infested with tiny black ants, a coldly witty foreshadowing of where all this is going. White Sands, site of the first atomic bomb test less than a decade earlier, is not far away.

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Douglas confronts the once-open American landscape as a place suddenly turned septic and deadly, riddled with monsters, and its taciturn, self-reliant inhabitants with their expert marksman eyes suddenly outmatched and their bones left strewn about, bleaching in the sun. Investigative method is at first is left utterly bemused, noting the damage done to Gramps, including shattered bones, pulverised flesh, and “the one for Sherlock Holmes – there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.” FBI Agent Bob Graham (James Arness) is just as clueless in the face of the details. Wiser, more rarefied intelligences are called for. Soon an unlikely pair of big brains are flown in, chasing a suspicion based on the plaster print: Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, fellow scientist Dr Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon). Bob and Ben smirk and gawk at the site of a good-looking female scientist and a cuddly, absent-minded old professor, but soon find themselves scrambling to keep up with their businesslike attitudes and cryptic suggestions of imminent disaster. Medford uses the scent of formic acid to stir the young girl from her catatonic state: suddenly the girl launches herself from her chair, screaming “Them!” as she cowers in the corner. Medford grows all the grimmer as he makes the lawmen take him and Pat out to see where the print was found, scouring for new prints. Pat finds one, just in time to have the thing that made it come up behind her: an ant, big as an elephant. Medford shouts for the cops to shoot at the creature’s antennae to render it senseless, but it’s not until Ben fetches a machine gun that they bring down this unholy terror.

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Medford pronounces his worst suspicion confirmed: lingering radiation from the first atom bomb test has sparked mutation. The ant is the worst possible species to face blown up to hundreds of times its normal size, an animal with great strength, social organisation, martial intelligence, and “savagery that makes Man look feeble by comparison.” If Godzilla (1954) articulated Japan’s sense of being on the receiving end of the atom age’s horrible birth, full of images of soaring, impersonal destruction, Them! is the more paranoid companion piece from the victors. The towering, singular, city-flattening monsters of most atomic monster movies here are exchanged with large and threatening but more immediate and pervading enemies. Manny Farber’s metaphor of termite art never felt more appropriate. The fear articulated in Them! is less of the destructive force of the Bomb itself than of the more insidious threat of radiation. Soldiers were being marched through atomic bomb test sites even as Them! was produced, many later to fall ill. The giAnts could also be seen as a twist on a popular caricature of Communists – monsters with a warlike attitude and perfect, communal organisation, spreading out and infesting the nation. Douglas had already done his best for Cold War acclimatising on I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951).

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As Ben and Blackburn explore Gramps’ shattered store, a droning radio in the story broadcasts news from around the world. Reports on diplomatic entreaties and success of vaccination programs, the instability of modern politics and the genius of modern science reported in close succession, investing the scene confront the cops with a portentous mood of diagnosis. Them! depicts the essential conflict between the Janus faces of the atomic age, the forces that created the evil – science and militarism – called in to clean up their own mess, with the moral leadership provided by civil guardians Ben and Bob. “This is the first time I’ve ever given orders to a General,” Ben quips to General O’Brien (Onslow Stevens) as they’re required to work together, because Medford insists on keeping the existence of the giAnts secret as long as possible. With the nature of the beast finally revealed, the job of tracking down the monsters requires searching the desert by helicopter, and Medford calls in O’Brien and aide Major Kibbee (Sean McClory). Finally they glimpse one of the great black beasts standing astride the entrance to the nest, a ribcage in in its mandibles. Medford counsels the need to both exterminate the nest but also to keep it intact and make sure every creature is killed. He comes up with a plan that the two lawmen and two soldiers carry out, firing phosphorous charges at the nest with bazookas to keep the giAnts at bay, and then gas their hive with cyanide.

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Bob momentarily balks at having Pat, who needs to do what her elderly father can’t, descend with him and Ben into the nest to survey the damage, but she quickly dismisses his concerns: “There isn’t time to give you a fast lesson in insect pathology.” Pat’s introduction echoes that of Bella Darvi’s similar prodigal daughter of the savant in Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water (1954): the first sight of her is a sliver of leg in a pump, descending a ladder, astounding the meatheads before quickly and simply laying claim to her place on the team. Fuller’s tone was satiric where Douglas is businesslike, for like Pat he can’t stand distractions and pointless arguments. It could be one of the most significant early rumbles of feminism on film: Pat does scream queen duty early on but after that is a model of cool and purpose, and as much as it makes Bob look gassy, he’s forced to concede Pat’s point. After that it’s never mentioned again. This aspect is perfectly contiguous with the film’s survey of a new landscape where the pace of change, and evolution itself, is outpacing comprehension. George Worthing Yates, who wrote the original story for Them!, would return to the same feminist slant, if more awkwardly, on It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955).

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Descent into the ant nest sees the nightmarish tint of the store sequence shift into the realm of the truly strange and mythic as Ben, Bob, and Pat roam the labyrinth, where gas clouds swirl and demonic forms lie slumped and twisted. Two ants from a walled-up section of nest break out and attack, but Ben manages to cook both with his flame thrower, that great catch-all weapon of any self-respecting monster hunter. But the most disturbing and threatening discovery in the nest is an absence, as Pat recognises the importance of some large, empty egg shells. New queen ants and male consorts have hatched and left the nest, meaning that new colonies will be founded someplace else, and the cycle will start again. The film’s lengthy mid-section returns to the investigative theme as our small band of heroes rustle up government support, but still keep their operation small and low-key as they sift through leads extracted from an avalanche of reports encompassing weird and unusual events. In this situation, the more bizarre and lunatic-sounding the story, the more meaningful it is, one of the cleverest conceits of the script (by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes). The team get their best clue from a shaky Texan aviator, Alan Crotty (Fess Parker, pre-Davy Crockett), who’s been shut up in a loony bin because of his report of nearly flying into UFOs shaped like ants. More crucial leads come from a theft of a load of sugar from a parked railway car, and from a loopy alcoholic, Jensen (Olin Howlin), whose reports of seeing giant ants crawling about the LA River bed and flying about in model aeroplanes would be dismissed as DTs by most but set the hairs on our heroes’ necks standing.

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Them! stands tall not just in the annals of monster movies but in movie history in general for the way it balances two qualities required for great storytelling which can seem contradictory: the concision of its storytelling, both visually and in its writing, with lean ferocity to the plot and pacing, coexisting with enriching distractions – comic asides, incidental vignettes, and moments of human intensity. The comedy is good: the railway security man who’s been arrested because he employers believe he must have been complicit in the sugar theft scoffing, “You ever hear of a fence for hot sugar?”, Crotty bleating that the staff in the hospital won’t even give him “anything to hold up my pants!” two old souses arguing the ethics of evening wear, or Jensen chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!” when he thinks Kibbee wants to draft him. The heroes and their motives are straightforward, with only Ben’s tight-wound desire to settle a score against the things that killed his partner and turned his beat into a war zone offered as an aside to the general business of social dedication, whilst romance between Bob and Pat is noted but not belaboured. Otherwise they get along with their jobs with the dedication of experts. Even with this terse attitude, though, Them! manages to be revealing, as with Medford’s habitual insistence on calling his daughter doctor when they’re discussing business, and Pat’s concern for the old man’s health. Gwenn, long a scene-stealing actor, delivers a peach of a performance, at once a source of frail but plucky humanity, as when he splutters irascibly at being lectured on how to use a two-way radio, and then delivers the regulation voice of pseudo-poetic wisdom beholding the terrors of a new age.

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The necessity of the heroes doing that job is illustrated and made urgent by the repeated motif of interrupted lives, and children left endangered by the deaths of parents – the Ellinsons at first and then the two sons of Mrs Lodge (Mary Ann Hokanson). The hunt for the ants comes to Los Angeles in probing the sugar theft, and quickly a new ant colony in the storm drain system under the city is identified, in part because of an even more random lead, when Ben and Bob check out the body of a man who crashed his car but had clearly been violently mutilated beforehand. This man, Lodge, was a working man who took his children out on Sunday mornings, the only time he had for them, and it’s clear that this time it ended in violent tragedy. Finding what happened to Lodge’s children and where proves to the key to mystery and the stake for the finale. This aspect of the story does more than serve a plot function: it situated Them! in a real world that many such films never even graze, particularly in today’s genre film. The most powerful images here aren’t of battle and monstrosity but of human reaction. The first, of the Ellinson girl stirred from her traumatic bubble to jump up, face distorted by terror and proximity to the camera and screaming the title, is designed and executed as a perfectly iconic moment, capturing the leap from rigid anxiety to explosive, cathartic hysteria – the essence of the atom age conflated into a child’s face. Another moment, bordering on arch and yet remaining starkly serious, comes after the first giAnt is killed, with the sound of its fellows ringing eerily out of the dust storm, and Medford speaks a faux-Biblical quote that underline the mood of imminent apocalypse and primal threat: “And there shall be destruction and darkness come over Creation – and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.” The rhyme to the Ellinson girl’s violent display comes towards the end when Mrs Lodge hears her boys are alive, with Douglas cutting to a close-up as she buckles in sudden relief, a moment that packs emotional wallop no matter how many times I watch the film.

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No monster movie is better than its monster, of course. As Steven Spielberg would to great effect years later with Jaws (1975), Them! keeps its beasties off screen for a long time – nearly a third of the film. The first appearance is a piece of brilliant mischief on Douglas’ part, as Pat kneels by a print she finds and scans her surrounds, unaware that a colossal monster is rising up over the sand dune just behind her, a giant something seeming to crawl out of infinite nothing, before fixing on the small, juicy human with beady eyes. I remember the first time I ever saw the film as a kid and being utterly bewildered as to what kind of threat was going to turn up until that most memorable reveal. The effects used to animate the giAnts aren’t always convincing, and aren’t as artful as the stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. But the decision to eschew miniatures and use puppets and large-mock-ups gives them a sense of size and imminence, bristling threat and an aura of brutish savagery. When the ants do show up, just as importantly, they don’t shrink as threats – rather the opposite. Even when not seen that eerily memorable sound effect of their call (actually the massed sound of a species of tree frog) signals their presence and builds atmosphere. One of my favourite moments in the film, which feels to me again like an encapsulation of the era’s taut nerves and sense of dark wonder at the newly threatening frontiers of existence, is when a report comes through to the government about another ant nest having hatched out on a ship at sea. Medford cranes over the shoulder of a signalman typing up a furiously tapped Morse code message. Douglas zooms in on the signalman’s headphones, dissolves to a shot of the ship at sea, then to the hand tapping out the message – a hapless sailor trying to get out his message as the giAnts careen through the ship consuming men and bashing through walls.

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Them! as an artefact vibrates with intimations of a novel and alien age, Douglas and Hickox seeking out odd visual textures to underline a headlong rush into an enclosing modernity and pestilential menace. When the first giAnt appears, the humans in the scene are dehumanised by the goggles they wear against the sand, making them look a bit ant-like themselves (whilst Weldon’s tightly cinched waist is insectoid as anything in the film), whilst the irradiated desert anticipates a post-apocalyptic world. LA’s vaulted roadways and cemented rivers, and the storm drains where the army ventures on the hunt for the ants, becomes a maze of blank and glistening concrete, like a rough draft for some futuristic city, the kinds seen on a hundred scifi pulp novel covers. Bronislau Kaper’s scoring mimics the churn of radio signals and the pulse of Morse code and singing telephone lines as the action plays out on arrays of communication that suck in all the information of the world in a new network to be disseminated by our heroes.

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Them! benefits from its relative privilege, a long time before Star Wars (1977), as a film from a genre usually relegated to cramped budgets and expedient filmmaking in those days, made with something like the care and production heft of a top-line movie, apparent not just in the special effects but also the technical elements including Sidney Hickox’s photography and especially Bronislau Kaper’s thunderous music score. Whitmore’s performance as Ben anchors the film with his restrained humanity and everyman quality, a quality that makes him seem like a prototype for a brand of movie hero who was still to have his day in the future, whereas Arness’s jut-jawed company man feels more like a familiar type of the day, especially as he gets befuddled around Pat’s aura of competence. Ben is also a tragic hero, dying whilst saving the Lodge kids from an army of the ants in the storm sewer, managing to hoist the two lads to safety only to finish up mangled between two massive mandibles – a bloodcurdling moment remarkable not just in its cruel verve but in carrying through on the violent threat to its hero with a gutsiness still few films can claim. When, a few minutes later, Bob gets trapped by a collapsed roof in a section of tunnel with more of the beasts, the narrative’s rude and declared disinterest in the usual niceties makes the moment all the more thrilling, with Bob becoming the image of a frontline warrior with machine gun blazing in desperate last stand against the ultimate enemy – monsters of the id turned flesh.

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Though the two films belong technically to the same subgenre, if Godzilla, released in Japan less than four months later, defined the giant monster movie forever, Them! has surely had as permanent effect on a smaller-scaled brand of man-versus-whatever drama – there’s something of its mutant DNA in films as diverse as Jaws and its many rip-offs, The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Aliens (1986), and the Jurassic Park films, both on the level of narrative patterning and on the crudely but effectively phobic level of exploiting the dread of being eaten by something with a lot of teeth and legs. But there are also the seeds of concerns filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, with Kiss Me Deadly (1955), John Boorman, with Point Blank (1967), up to and including Michael Mann, would later enlarge upon, surveying the wilderness of the new with anxiety rather than triumph. The enemy is defeated and exterminated in the very last moments of Them!, but not without a sense of both regret, as the human protagonists look down upon the last of a new species writhing in streams of fire, and also, vitally, a sense of menace contained but not quelled. As Medford’s hokey but effective last speech states and Douglas’ bleakly revelling images convey, it won’t be the last horror the brave new world will have to stare down.


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