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Director/Co-screenwriter: Tobe Hooper
Few film titles have ever reaped such totemic power or attention-getting frisson as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. With bold, tabloid headline-style of hype and impact, such a title remained an easy reference point for both horror fans and haters for years after the film’s release in 1974. Every syllable seemed to usher in the age of depraved gore cinema, the quintessence of the slasher film, bathing perverts of all stripes in a sea of vicarious nastiness. Co-star Gunnar Hansen recalled Johnny Carson deriding the film’s very existence. Censorship troubles were universal. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned three times in Britain, wasn’t released in Australia until nearly ten years had passed, and remained verboten in places like Germany and Finland for decades. You can’t buy that sort of credibility as a horror filmmaker. This was the perfect product for the time of the Video Nasty as they were called in Britain, as films that had once been limited to select cinemas suddenly could be brought right into your living room via VHS. And yet, in some ways Tobe Hooper’s debut feature film was mild even for 1974. His work offered barely any on-screen bloodletting or dismemberment, and even had a pretty low body count: only three murders are committed in the course of the film. In spite of the title, the only time we actually see a chainsaw come in contact with the human body is when a killer drops it on his own leg. Compared to what guys like Lucio Fulci, Adrian Hoven, and even Ken Russell had done already, Hooper’s violence was clean and restrained. Indeed, Hooper had wanted to make a “PG” horror film, with the low budget forbidding gore spectacle anyway.
So, were those politicians, protectors of public morals and censors merely responding to that potent title? Yes and no. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still packs an unholy wallop for its intensity as well as the potency of its suggestion, the force with which it invokes horror as a primal experience rather than a metaphoric one, an engulfing plunge from mundanity into nightmarish antiverse. In this regard, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might well have been the truly definitive modern horror film, the culmination itself of a movement started by Psycho (1960) now finding crystallisation, predating Halloween (1978) and accompanying Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) in defining the traits of the slasher film. A rampaging, all-too-corporeal homicidal maniac rather than a supernatural ghoul, with a mask and a memorable nickname. Young people as protagonists, vulnerable out of their urban enclaves, rendered both as identification figures for the generally, equally young audience, and also as deliberate victim-ciphers. A powerhouse approach to narrative after a deceptively calm start. The absence of any traditional heroic figure, substituted by the survival instinct of a single, helpless woman. Beyond specific impact on the genre, there is, indeed, the concept of film as total plunge into experiential spectacle here – thus, ironically, helping invent the ideal of the contemporary blockbuster in the most unlikely context.
The film’s slow passage from reviled underground myth to commonly acknowledged classic available for sale in your suburban DVD store was unlikely. Like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead six years earlier, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was pieced together by a hardy team of regional filmmakers, even further afield in the American showbiz universe, and yet the peculiarly egalitarian appeal of their product, plus the distribution muscle of a Mafia-connected guy enriched by receipts from Deep Throat (1972), let their product be sold internationally in the greatly changed movie universe of the 1970s. The gruelling, low-budget shoot and its circumstances were written into the film’s eventual texture, infusing it with an air of heat-frazzled, sweat-sodden hysteria, physical strain, and simmering aggression. The hostility the film received as a product beyond the pale ironically echoed the film’s thesis of economic disadvantage driving people to extreme acts and perversities. Hooper and Henkel’s debut work had been a film about life in a hippie commune, Eggshells (1969), Following the killer yokels of Easy Rider (1969) and Deliverance (1972), moreover, Massacre exploited a similar fear of social atomisation, a modern landscape breaking into obliquely composed camps but arranged along roughly similar fault lines – urban/technological/liberated versus rural/labouring/traditional. What had been funny and pathetic in John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941), with its gap-toothed sons of the soil acting like Barbary apes, had become a source of anxiety, the devolution of humankind in the midst of a nation that prided itself on progress turned heart of darkness.
Hooper’s inspiration, which reputedly struck in a hardware store, turned the implements of proletarian labouring into murder devices, also mixed in impudent reflections and inspired twists on the native culture Hooper had grown up with: cattle, cottage foodstuff industries, Texas barbecue, folk art, and the ethic of freedom and clannish self-reliance. The film’s most clearly defined characters, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain), have roots in precisely the rural area where they find their special Hades, rather than total outsiders, and the plot is motivated by little more than their attempts to revisit those roots on a Sunday drive with their cool pals from town, drawn out by news that a remote rural graveyard where the Hardestys’ grandfather is buried has been desecrated. Hooper’s disquieting early images offer flash bulbs briefly illuminating shrivelled corpses, giving way then to the grotesque, starkly artistic image of a corpse tethered to the top of a gravestone, with another’s severed head in his lap.
The theme of morbid artistry offered as a bleak confirmation of a remnant expressive intent in the Sawyer clan even as they seem to indulge the most depraved outlets for it percolates with strange power throughout The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The Sawyers are not, unlike Jason Voorhees in the early Friday the 13th movies, mere bestial morons, or emblems of evil like Michael Myers, but people who clearly retain identities and even a type of ethic, but whose complete rejection of their worth by the values of their society has inspired a similar, complete rejection. By contrast, in spite of their light veneer of countercultural identity, the interloping young people around Sally and Franklin, Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), seem hopelessly bland and insulated.
The quintet of youths in their Volkswagen van, iconic vehicle of hippie adventuring, traverse the Texan landscape on a stinking hot afternoon and find their attempts to live up to the On The Road creed immediately turns into disturbing self-satire, as they pick up a weird, dim-witted Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), near a slaughterhouse. The Hitchhiker quickly bemuses and appals the youths as he slices open his own hand with Franklin’s pocket knife, takes a polaroid photo of Franklin he doesn’t want to pay for, sets fire to the photo in a kind of folk magic ritual, and finally loses his temper and slices Franklin’s arm with his own straight-razor. He’s chased out of the van and he runs alongside, kicking the vehicle and smearing his own blood on the side as if trying to mark a hex. The slaughterhouse, hub of the local economy, repels Pam, but the old method of killing the cattle, with a hammer blow to the head, morbidly fascinates Franklin and the Hitchhiker, who explains that it was “better” than air guns because it employed more people.
The gritty, visceral contact with harsh facts of life celebrated by decades of westerns is farcically inverted throughout Massacre; it’s a film for the oncoming age in modern western society when nobody who counts works with their hands, or, indeed, does anything real. And yet corporeal reality actively afflicts the characters. The heat. Hunger. Fuel. The youths are first introduced to the audience when wheelchair-dependant Franklin has to take a stop to pee, necessitating a laborious process of Kirk laying down boards for him to descend in his chair and pee in a can. A passing cattle truck sprays Kirk with dirt and sends Franklin tumbling down a hill, the first in a mounting litany of exhausting and then cruel attacks on the physical stamina of these people. Franklin’s trials continue as he fights to enter his old family home, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s excruciating metaphor for broken-down modern humanity in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, also a man in a wheelchair, whilst his memorable angry, bratty meltdown, “If I have any more fun today I don’t think I can take it!”, becomes the film’s sarcastic motto.
One of Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel’s most cunning touches in this regard was to make their characters human to the edge of insufferable: aggravation slowly mounts as the whiny, needy Franklin feels no need to play stoic, Pam prefers reading horoscopes to actuality, Jerry slowly detaches irritably from his companions, and Sally becomes increasingly exasperated with her brother’s wheedling. Except for the Hitchhiker’s wild behaviour, it would just be a rotten outing. Sally and Franklin’s old family house, when they find it, is infested with insects and slowly disintegrating: clearly their family abandoned it as rural prosperity waned. Franklin has no survival capacity, and is fused in a mix of affection and frustration to Sally, whose possible romance with Jerry is strained and thwarted by sibling responsibilities. Franklin can barely even get into his old family home, and ruptures in childish tantrums as he’s left behind his thoughtlessly mobile companions. Immobility was, by the cold standards of ancient hunter-gatherer societies and the colonising wave of Europeans both, death, and the threat of being stuck afflicts both Franklin in particular and the quintet generally: worry about running out of petrol. Hints here of the social Darwinism that flowed through the writings of signal western writers like Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Edna Ferber. The youths visit a small gas station close to the old family house, where the owner (Jim Siedow, billed only as playing “Old Man”) sells them barbecue but can’t give them fuel.
When Kirk and Pam try to salvage their day by going to the mythical spot of childhood adventure Franklin remembers, a swimming hole, they are instead distracted by a distant puttering motor: Kirk is inspired to track down the owner and buy some petrol. They soon find the motor is a generator, providing power for a nearby farm house. Kirk ventures inside, searching for an owner, only for a large man, masked and clad in a butcher’s smock, to emerge from a back room and smack him over the head with a hammer. Kirk collapses and fits like a dying, damaged animal on the floor, before the assailant whacks him again, pulls him inside, and slams shut a sliding steel door. Pam, outside, waits and then ventures in after him, only to stumble into another room littered with moulted poultry feathers – from a chicken that’s kept, obscenely, in a bird cage – and pieces of human bone. The hulking man reappears and grabs Pam and takes her into the back room, which proves to be a makeshift slaughterhouse in itself, and hangs her on a meat hook, to dangle in agony whilst he fires up and chainsaw and starts to carve up Kirk’s body like a steer carcass. Such is our introduction to Leatherface (Hansen), the youngest and weirdest of the three Sawyer brothers, slaughterman and butcher whose livestock is you.
Hooper’s brutally mordant sense of humour is exposed more clearly amidst the carefully delayed eruption of horror, as the inevitable punch-line to the themes set up earlier arrives: humans turned into food by a clan that can’t get work providing food by other means, such as they did. Later, when Jerry comes in search of his friends and penetrates the slaughter room, he finds Pam locked in a meat freezer still alive, before Leatherface again dashes in and bashes him to death. One quality that gives the violence in Massacre a rare potency by comparison to more flashily shot horror deaths is the complete absence of artifice and indeed the speed of the killings. One moment there are characters, the next, lumps of dead meat. Leatherface himself, although a figure of dread of a brand never quite put on screen before, has a hapless, almost childish quality to him, stomping about in fretful anxiety after his home has been repeatedly invaded by quickly swatted pests. Like Franklin, he’s the family member who’s “special,” with a sibling charged with his care: the Old Man slaps the Hitchhiker for leaving Leatherface alone like they’re lost siblings of Moe and Curly Joe De Rita. The mirroring of the Hardestys and the Sawyers is smartly asymmetrical: the cannibal clan are old-fashioned insofar as they include members of more than one generation and live by attendant retrograde values, whereas the two Hardestys have lost roots and gained generational loyalties; and yet family still ties them together just as doggedly.
One of the qualities that makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seem such a pivotal moment in the genre cinema is its realism – not realism in the sense of being strictly believable, for there’s still those strong undercurrents of absurdism, surrealism, and black humour throughout – but realism in the way it posits its sense of horror in worldly terms. No supernatural forces are evinced here; the force of the irrational that breaks down the fabric of the presumed is here rather partly mental, partly social. The fear here is generated by the kinds of menaces newspapers and TV news reports propagated and indeed which lots of people, particularly women, faced and do face every day. Plenty of other horror films had been set in the present day, amidst the trappings and social, technological, and psychological givens of the commonplace in modern western society, and quite a few had engaged the social scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre however looks like a hatchling that had not quite escaped the egg before, but was now all too free. Massacre was released amidst a handful of works that set off another great shift in the preoccupations and popularity of horror films, including See No Evil (1971), Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973), The Wicker Man (1973), and Black Christmas. Although the supernatural figures in some of these, and would remain a fixture in the genre, tonally all had moved into the utterly present-tense, leaving behind the traditions of Gothic horror in all but some remnant style.
Much like Deliverance again, Massacre tackles a common concern of the time, the worry of the lack of authenticity in the face of an increasingly coddling and insulated society, only for the shock of immersion in true primal tests, represented both by the landscape and by humans who have somehow devolved, to prove overwhelming. Where John Boorman and James Dickey had implicitly constructed a parable about changing modes of manhood in Deliverance, Hooper and Henkel went a step further in essentially erasing a masculine hero figure and instead putting the plight of the victimised woman at the centre. The undercurrent of glum misogyny starting to infiltrate some parts of the horror genre arose from the new room to depict hitherto forbidden fantasies, soon to bloom in the overt invitations to ogle and then sublimate in watching the butchery of young women offered in many slasher films. There is a touch of that predicted here as Hopper lets the audience have a good eyeful of McMinn’s lovely back and butt in short-shorts moments before she’s hung up on a meat hook. There is also, however, a certain sly and bitter cinematic wit apparent there, as well as a brutal simplicity that cuts through that kind of blather; Hooper skirts outright gore with clever effect, as the viewer knows implicitly that when Leatherface hangs Pam up, the viewer knows she’s quite skewered, not dangling from clothing, with repulsive but frank effect. Mostly the film is strikingly non-exploitative although it deals with the relentless brutalisation of Sally: indeed, Hooper’s intent seems to have been mostly push into a realm beyond sexuality to depict the Freudian death-romance at an extreme.
Of course, the horror film is a genre that is predicated around exploiting the anxieties of its audience, a risky endeavour not everyone wants to cede power to, and one often worked in balance with the time-honoured purpose of the campfire tale, which was to literally keep the kids close to the campfire and not wander off into the dangerous dark. The shift in genre obsession around this time clearly invoked the shifts in society where young women were officially “liberated” and now had to face a sink-or-swim world that was once a manly preserve. The explosive popularity of the slasher film, with its diptych of sex-as-death and final girl’s survival battle, was precisely attuned to this zeitgeist. Massacre’s main contribution to this was the idea of making the victim protagonist, purely by dint of her efforts to survive. For their part, Hooper and Henkel were satirising and transmuting the social tension they were familiar with from their recent days in the Texas college counterculture, and following Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick’s sublimation of the era’s churning tensions and violent backdrops into cinematic snarls.
Hooper and Henkel applied their grounded experience to the mythology that had sprung up around that most infamous, specifically American of killers, Ed Gein, the Wisconsin Ghoul whose escapades with grave robbing, necrophilia, taxidermy, and cannibalism had also inspired Psycho and also 1974’s much less-known, but in many ways equally interesting, docudrama-like Deranged. Why was Gein’s legend such perfect fare for filmmakers? The oppositions it invokes – dank insanity and Oedipal dissolution amidst settings redolent of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting – are undoubtedly powerful, the spectacle of taciturn, stoic self-reliance championed in the pioneer ideal turned septic, whilst the Sawyers take the “don’t tread on me” independent creed to its ultimate extreme. Some critics have noted the implicit similarity of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, one of the names of Natty Bumppo the Hawkeyed hunter, to Leatherface, the annihilator who’s run out of frontiers and been forced into regression rather than movement. Like the classic western hero, strangely, the Sawyers are sexless. Even Sally’s hapless, pleading offer to “do anything you want” is met with sneering disinterest by the brothers, who can only plan to kill her. Unlike the eventual codification of the slasher killer, though, they’re not punishing transgressions, but the mere existence of the kind of fecundity they’re cut off from.
Sally and Franklin’s doomed attempt to track down their friends as night falls is both the real start of the film, in a way, and also apogee and climax of the everyday aggravation they suffer through, as Franklin’s whininess and Sally’s increasing irritation are pushed to extremes in the tense situation, with Franklin’s caution ironically proving wise. Sally endeavours to push Franklin through the woods, only for Leatherface to spring out of the dark and kill Franklin by hacking him to pieces, sending Sally scurrying off into the dark in terror. Sally’s desperate attempts to survive take up the remainder of Massacre, and yet the structure inverts as Sally becomes the outsider and the dynamics of the Sawyer family (not actually named as such until Hooper’s oddball 1986 sequel) sweep to the fore.
The last third of the film is indeed, if not actually one sequence, then certainly can be described as a single, extended set-piece, as Sally flees Leatherface through the woods, which conspire as much against would-be killer as well as prey, until Sally reaches the shelter of the gas station, the threat seeming to halt at the threshold of the Old Man’s door just like the Headless Horseman is supposed to stop at the bridge in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But where Ichabod Crane found that the Horseman could still strike from a distance, Sally quickly finds her sanctuary illusory, signalled in a weird visual discursion to study the paraphernalia of the Old Man’s barbecuing business, which conceals infinite cynicism and degeneracy in the guise of good ole home cooking. The young siblings resentful of the Old Man’s standing apart from the actual business of killing, in spite of his evident sadism displayed when he enjoys poking the bound and trussed Sally, and dismiss him as “a cook” whilst they do all the work. And yet the Old Man keeps his brothers in line with a stick.
Sally thus reaches the ninth circle of hell in a calculated travesty of down-home family values, tied to a chair made out of human bones at a clan dinner where the three brother alternate sarcastic hospitality with mockery and jeering in a symphony of cruelty. Hooper’s filmmaking evolves with his subject, lucid, calm, and distant at the outset, then pushing increasingly close and invasive, with insinuating tracking shots and long zoom shots, alternating with low angles that subtly magnify the gestures of his actors. At last, in these climactic scenes, the technique erupts in gruelling close-ups of the cast’s faces, pushing in to Burns’ eyes in ultra-close shots, as the visual language of the film closely matches the sensation of incipient madness and the ultimate descent into irrationality, at the outermost limits of narrative containment. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Massacre lies in how the film offers glimpses of extreme and utterly grotesque depravity, and yet somehow manages to invest it with a sense of humour so dark it’s subterranean, finding existentially pitiless humour in the sight of the Sawyer’s Grandpa (John Dugan), a leathery old husk brought down to join in the family festivities, greedily and gleefully sucking blood from Sally’s finger, and the yowls of the family in response to her waking screams.
The careful travesty of family rituals, inspired by Gein’s craziest ideas but taken a step further, evinced around the house, likewise radiate a twisted sense of comic commentary – chairs made of bones and cured limbs; Grandpa set up in his attic abode with a corpse filling in for grandmother, and dog skeleton wrapped in a fur propped up for company; and a dinner table laden with skulls under a light shaded by a human face. What is ultimately so beggaring about the world the Sawyers have built around themselves lies in this complete subversion of the excised place of death in modern suburbanised society. As repellent as Hooper makes them, therefore, nonetheless they stand for a powerful notion taken to a reductio ad absurdum, whilst the film’s sense of black humour feeds rather than retards the spiralling sense of madness and suffering. The Sawyers eventually, happily decide the honour of butchering Sally should go to Grandpa, whose past as slaughterman is legendary: “Old Grandpa’s the best killer there ever was,” Old Man tells Sally by way of trying to reassure her that her end will be merciful, “He did sixty in five minutes once – they say he could’ve done more if the hook and pull gangs coulda gotten the beeves outta the way faster.”
But Grandpa can’t even hold the hammer, and keeps dropping it with dull, gut-wrenching thuds into the metal pan the Hitchhiker tries to hold Sally over. This resort to a bizarre variety of sentiment on the part of the Sawyers proves their undoing, as it gives Sally the chance, in her hysterical will to survive, to throw off the Hitchhiker and make a break, crashing through a window for the second time and plunging into disorientating daylight. The very finale of Massacre, much like the earlier eruptions of action, is startling for its speed and compressed, wild energy, as Sally tries to flee from her tormentors although she’s cut and bruised and can barely walk, the Hitchhiker crazedly slashing at Sally with his razor as he catches her, but he’s taken a step too far, and the Sawyers’ pursuit of Sally retains a farcical edge in spite of the pulse-pounding intensity of the sequence.
The degree to which the youths were out of their depth the moment they turned off the main road, so the Sawyers find themselves thwarted as they chase their recalcitrant prey out onto the highway that passes their little kingdom. Within moments the Hitchhiker is crushed by a cattle truck, a deus ex machina loaded with multiple ironies, emblem of the bigger, mechanised food industry that displace them, driven by a black man (Ed Guinn) whose bulk and invocations of hearty fertility – his truck is named “Black Maria” – instantly mocks and subverts the rotten presumptions of the film’s arch reduction of white conservative self-interest. The driver saves Sally’s life again, and his own, by knocking Leatherface down with a wrench thrown in his face, causing Leatherface to fall down and be sliced by his own petard, before both run for dear life. Sally just manages to scramble into the back of a passing pick-up truck, leaving behind Leatherface on the road, still poised in a strange zone between primal terror and peevishly frustrated child.
Sally’s giddy, maniacal laughter of triumph and relief as Leatherface disappears in the distance is definitely one of the great moments in cinema, as is the last image of Leatherface spinning in maniacal anger with his weapon in the dawn light: the dance of death is over, the last survivor escaped alone to tell thee, echoing another great American art work about hunting and death, “Moby-Dick”. Like The Wicker Man, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ends at dawn with its emblem of horror silhouetted against the rising sun. The final seconds belong to Leatherface, dancing as if engaging in pagan rite of the dawn stumbled of an atavistic time warp, letting his chainsaw scream in fury for him like the howl of the repressed, oppressed subconscious that might have been thwarted but will never be erased.
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Director: Roger Corman
By Roderick Heath
When you want to talk about Roger Corman, you have to take into account that there is at least three of him. The most famous is the low-budget film director and producer whose name became a by-word for cheap and tacky movies, building small empires from the stray audiences and industrial detritus of the movie business, and whose career has stretched from providing screen filler for drive-ins to VHS shelves to VOD. The second, the won who received a special Oscar, fostered the careers of dozens upon dozens of actors and filmmakers, some of whom went on to have major Hollywood careers, by giving them jobs in his low-rent domains, trusting young on-the-make talent in the same way that he, lucky in his time, got unexpected breaks and became a film director before he was 30.
The third Roger Corman is perhaps the most controversial, insofar as many deny he exists, and yet has been acknowledged elsewhere ever since Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival: the important American filmmaker. Corman’s ingenious touch and wily acumen as a director, perpetually motivated by the most nakedly mercenary wonts and yet somehow always characterful and idiosyncratic, had been apparent since his early work like The Day the World Ended (1956), and his first work in the horror genre, if a rather jokey one, The Undead (1957). Those films were made at a time when Corman’s place on the lowest rung of Hollywood belied his status as one of the few filmmakers in town tackling the psychic underside of modernity via perfervid little fantasias designed to tap the tastes and wallets of young audiences. This he essayed through a brand of cinema that seemed, through its very sparse and straitened creativity, to approximate the mind-space of Elizabethan theatre: even something as magnificently absurd as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958) has the kind of delightful quality to it that suggests a play put on by talented kids after raiding the old chests laden with forgotten potential props in the attic. Usually working with screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, Corman’s films, for all their diverting lacks in production values, often had rich conceptual cleverness and an impudent take on storytelling niceties that often legitimately strayed into the territory of the post-modern. Just as a crudely lettered sign could fill in for a forest in Shakespeare’s day, a man in a tatty monster suit could be the hinge for Corman’s films to become little fugues and bonsai myths.
In 1960, Corman made a move up-market. American Releasing Corporation, the company run by B-movie specialists James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, had morphed into American International Pictures, thanks in part to Corman’s gift for penny-pinching and money-spinning, and their seizure of the nascent youth market. Corman sold them on the idea of making a more ambitious type of product to what they had so far done: to make a relatively classy horror movie in colour, to try and reach the same market Hammer Studios had recently uncovered. Needing a subject to go up against Hammer’s repertoire of Gothic literary sources, Corman chose as a subject a specifically American source of horror fare, one that was also, conveniently, in the public domain: Edgar Allan Poe. The first film he adapted from Poe, House of Usher, proved such a hit that AIP immediately became a dominant force in the new, wide-open post-studio era of exploitation cinema, and Corman made a slew of Poe adaptations in the next four years: Pit and the Pendulum and Premature Burial (both 1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (both 1963), and The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964), as well as two films that fit thematically if not pedantically into the series, the famously, hastily assembled The Terror, and The Haunted Palace (both 1963), named for a Poe poem but actually the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
Corman turned from his usual writing team and commissioned a screenplay for House of Usher from well-regarded sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Matheson was contributing scripts to Rod Serling’s epochal TV show “The Twilight Zone” at the time, and Corman also used scripts by another of the show’s writers, Charles Beaumont, for the Poe series. But the true key to the success of the series was gained when Corman obtained the services of Vincent Price, a stage and Hollywood actor who had a frustrating career in movies for fifteen years, usually playing smarmy upper-crust playboys or menacing Byronic types, until House of Wax (1953), one of the few major American horror films of the decade, had turned him at last into a niche star. Price started drifting towards becoming a full-time horror actor as the decade wore on but many of the films didn’t know what to do with him, for instance The Fly (1958) which cast him as straight man: Corman however offered him roles that stretched his gifts and played on his capacity to shift from avuncular to menacing on the drop of a hat, and offer facially and vocally expressive performances influenced by theatrical melodrama perfectly attuned to the stylised, expressionistic needs of Gothic horror. Price starred in all of the Poe films except for Premature Burial, which featured Ray Milland, lending his inimitably over-large style in cunningly pitched variations that confirmed his second career as a cult figure. In Pit and the Pendulum, the second of Corman’s Poe films, Price plays two parts which merge towards the end, conjoining those two poles of his personality.
Pit and the Pendulum opens with a desolate and eerie vista traversed by a lonely coach, setting the film’s toey, tense mood in motion. Poe’s original story, one of the most brilliant examples of the writer’s gift for composing what seem like remembered nightmares recorded in lucid detail, was a tale of sadistic suffering anticipatory of Kafka and Orwell, set in a Spain where the terror of Inquisition becomes a cosmic force, and the hero is only rescued in the last few sentences by an avenging army. Corman’s budget couldn’t cope with that, so he and Matheson stuck close to the template that had worked on House of Usher, sticking with the Spanish setting and theme of the Inquisition but shifting the location to a remote castle and revisiting the gambit of an outsider, this case John Kerr’s invasive Englishman Francis Barnard, entering a family house dominated by an intense and morbid air of familial guilt. Worked into the story is a greatest hits-like collection of Poe themes like burial alive, personality possession, erotically-tinged guilt and melancholic obsession. Francis comes to Spain in search of facts about a woman, in this case his sister Elizabeth, who had married Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Price), but has recently died in mysterious circumstances.
Arriving on the blasted, Salvador Dali-esque shoreline where Medina’s castle teeters on the edge of a sonorously rolling sea, Francis bangs on the door and demands admittance with a haughty, bullish determination to learn why his sister died. He soon finds himself up against a thicket of confused explanations, with the mood of distrust heightened by Nicholas’ bleary sense of responsibility, and the sketchy details of Elizabeth’s demise which prove to have been partly covered up. Soon Francis pries from Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and family physician Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone) the truth as they know it, that Elizabeth died from a heart attack, caused by her accidentally sealing herself into an iron maiden in the torture chamber conveniently located in the castle’s basement, which morbid allure had drawn her to: the chamber had been constructed by Nicholas’ father Sebastian, an infamous torture artist employed by the Inquisition.
Unlike the mostly mood-driven House of Usher, however, Pit and the Pendulum develops an inwardly spiralling mystery with the classic Gaslight (1940) theme of machinations to drive a person mad for worldly gain. The characters try to solve strange portents infesting the castle, including signs that Elizabeth may well have risen from the grave, a possibility that touches Nicholas deeply. The trauma behind Nicholas’ quivering anxiety and specific fear of burial alive is rooted in an anecdote Catherine has to relay to Francis: Nicholas secretly witnessed Sebastian (also played by Price in flashback) luring their mother (Mary Menzies) and her lover, his brother Bartoleme (Charles Victor) into his torture chamber, where he bashed Bartoleme’s head in and tortured their mother before walling her up alive. Although Leon assures them that Elizabeth was quite dead, the mysterious sounds of her beloved harpsichord being played in the night, a whispering voice shocking the maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) whilst cleaning Elizabeth’s room, and Francis’ discovery of a network of secret passages, begin to suggest the true situation is stranger. Francis eventually theorises that Nicholas is creating the disturbances himself, because he’s mentally unbalanced and suffering dissociative fits. Acting on the possibility that Nicholas’ own belief that Elizabeth might still be alive or at least to satisfy Nicholas’ obsessive anxiety, the men break their way into the sealed crypt below to investigate. In her coffin, they find a gnarled and twisted body that does indeed seem to have died in screaming agony whilst sealed in alive.
The blend of firmly geographical realism with an undertow of obsessively morbid style that steadily eats into the texture of the film until it breaks out in hallucinogenic blooms, exemplified by Pit and the Pendulum, became Corman’s specific touch. Amongst Corman’s Poe films, this one had probably the most evident, immediate impact on some of Corman’s rivals, particularly Italian brethren including Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, from whom he in turn stole Steele: Freda remixed the plot of Pit and the Pendulum for L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hichcock (1962). As Paul Leni and Tod Browning had done years before, Bava would accomplish so masterfully on Operazione Paura (1966) and John Carpenter would manage on Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), Corman transforms environment and the absence of people and action into a dramatic element key for creating tension and mystery, as cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s camera restlessly probes the Medina castle in the night, the camera suggesting a lurking intelligence in spite of the absence of human presences, long before the eerie sounds of Elisabeth’s harpsichord begin to echo about the castle.
Author Stephen King has said the moment of the discovery of Elizabeth’s entombed body marked the start of a trend towards ever-more-intense shock-effect horror in the genre, and it is arguable that the film provides the bridge between the lip-smacking sadism of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and the eventual sub-genre based around torture as source of horror that flowered regrettably in the last decade or so. Where Hammer had effectively drenched its horror films with Technicolor to paint them in illustrative verve that made them stand out at a time when the genre was usually too cheap to afford colour or still essaying mood through Expressionist lighting, Corman was the first filmmaker since Michael Curtiz’s work with two-colour Technicolor in the early ‘30s to really seize on the format as an expressive tool, carefully employing costuming and décor in commentary. In spite of the cramped budgets, Corman’s eye for talent snared him two collaborators with years of experience in studio cinema, Crosby and art director Daniel Haller. The palette they created for Pit and the Pendulum grips the actors in a world of musty browns and greys, the dust and dirt of the grave infesting the frames, except for carefully coordinated splashes of colour.
Corman was fond of blurring the boundaries between distant past and future, and even dramatized the idea in Teenage Caveman (1958), as time eats itself, ouroboros-like. Even the land around the castle has been desiccated as thoroughly as by nuclear fallout, one way in which Corman manages to link the threat of desolation he had explored with real fascination in his scifi, with its nuclear age angst, with Poe’s timeless psychological realm. In a similar way, Les Baxter’s scoring, the most inventive of the composer’s work on the Poe series, utilises electronic sounds and strange, almost musique concrete effects throughout, throbbing and droning in weird, echoic manner, recalling the score of Forbidden Planet (1956) but with futurism replaced by atavistic dread. When Steele’s Elizabath finally appears, rising like a wraith from the shadows, she is nonetheless wrapped in brilliant white with blood-stained fingers, a perverse angel crawling her way out of the fetid psychological trap her husband’s obsessions inadvertently forced on her and which she has now turned into a weapon. Corman would get to work out this concept most fully in the colour codings of The Masque of the Red Death, where he gained Nicholas Roeg as a collaborator. It’s hard not to read Corman’s background as a trained engineer – a career he abandoned after two weeks – in the precision of his use of space and elements, as well as the on-time, on-budget ethic he stuck to as a filmmaker.
The Poe series tends to take pre-eminence in serious appraisals of Corman’s oeuvre, understandable considering their higher budgets and concomitant, relative smoothness and vivacity, although they do lack to a certain extent the antic humour, self-reference and self-satire that define so many of Corman’s cheaper early films, which shone out particularly bright in the knowing burlesques on Poverty Row enterprise and minor entrepreneurial artistry in A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors, the multi-genre send-up in Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), and his mini-epic of meta-humour, Rock All Night (1957). But the bare-boned, apocalyptic morality plays he was also good at – The Day the World Ended, Gunslinger (1956), The Last Woman on Earth (1961), The Intruder (aka Shame, 1962) – provided a basis for the conceptually hermetic, sparsely populated, intensely oneiric worlds he conjures in the Poe films. One of the most interesting aspects of Corman’s works lay in how, even in his cheapest films (indeed, sometimes particularly there), he was one of the few directors of his era who incorporated visual art as both an element in the films and as stylistic guide, in a fashion similar to how other filmmakers were leaning on Saul Bass to inject their work with the same veneer of stark, modernist quintessence. The pretences to classical integrity in the Poe series stymied his playfully deconstructive instincts his early films often displayed, but Corman compensated by turning the films in referential pieces, quoting Poe on screen during the films to provide literary bookends to his visualisations. The opening and closing credits depict seething colours, a simple effect rendered with paint running in oil, making everything in between some like the feverish product of a mad artist. Artworks that seem to contain the remnant personalities of their subjects becomes a recurring motif in Corman’s films, here manifesting first when Nicholas shows Francis portraits of his father and of Elizabeth, rendered in anachronistic styles, and later, in the waking-nightmare finale, ghoulishly stylised paintings of hooded monks glaring down at the tortured hero, turned into twisted, elongated icons with a faint of echo of Eisenstein’s perversion of medieval Russians into human illustrations in Ivan the Terrible (1945-57), breaking down the barriers between set, décor, costuming, and camera effect. Reality starts to melt on the edge of mortality as the paintings are doubly distorted by lens effects and screen-flooding colours.
Corman’s later, brief shift into semi-experimental, psychedelic film with The Trip (1967) notably followed on from both the technique and themes he was exploring here and elsewhere in the series, presenting the mind unfettered experiencing past, present, and dream-state in a melange. Moreover, a theme that threads through much of Corman’s oeuvre, a portrait of the attempt to create as a process involving eternal frustrations and cruelty to both self and others, blithely portrayed in stuff like Rock All Night, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, but more seriously engaged repeatedly in the Poe films, The Trip, and elsewhere, here crystallises as Nicholas laments his incapacity to transcend through art in his attempts to capture Elizabeth’s face on canvas, and so, again like many of Corman’s antiheroes, recreates himself to cope. Corman’s noted admiration of Ingmar Bergman, again expressed more completely in Masque of the Red Death, feels most acute in this theme with similarly obsessed the Swedish master, if essayed in far more high-falutin’ ways. True to the intensely psychological understanding Corman and Matheson both shared in relation to Poe’s tales, they relentlessly link the dank, mysterious abodes beneath the castle with the fetid areas of the mind, the castle a mimetic map of that mind, and signal that in spite of Nicholas’ surface vulnerability he maintains a dangerous and obsessive link with his father’s world. When Francis first enters the dungeon, Nicholas appears suddenly from a closed door – a trick Corman repeats when Elisabeth bursts into the film – behind which the sounds of machinery working have startled Francis and Catherine: all Nicholas will say is that “machine needs constant repair.” Why on earth Nicholas needs such a machine we only learn in the climax.
The deliberate, patient, neurotic tempo of Pit and the Pendulum tightens a spring that won’t release until the finale, but punctuated with brief outbursts of hysteria and intensely rhythmic fulcrums, including the sequence where the men break into Elizabeth’s tomb that sees the hacking pickaxes becoming time-keepers counting down to their own entrance into the tomb, and the later scene where Nicholas finds himself exploring hidden passages. He’s drawn on by the siren call of what sounds like his dead wife, the dazed and terrified man becoming steadily more distracted, at first cringing as he touches thick cobwebs and then stumbling through them without noticing. When Nicholas follows this labyrinth to the opened tomb and sees something climbing out of his wife’s coffin, Corman doesn’t shift the beat, but watches just as calmly as Nicholas retreats in panicky fear and finally collapses until Steele’s Elizabeth suddenly erupts from the shadows screaming his name, turning her husband, or her prey, into a scurrying animal and then catatonic cuckold. Nicholas survives however by going constructively mad, as it becomes clear that Leon and Elizabeth are lovers who have plotted to destroy Nicholas by driving him mad. Nicholas then arises, his own personality subsumed by his murderous, tyrannical father, closing the very circle of inevitably inheritance Nicholas had feared but also armouring him against evil.
Price gives a quintessential example of his gift for oversized, expressive style, perhaps indeed one of his most florid, although his showiness, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of grand barnstorming melodrama actors as Tod Slaughter, disguises his skill. Price shifts between personas with consummate ease and provides the film with its dramatic nexus, telegraphing Nicholas’ quivering boy-man fear and anguish striated with fixation, his constant worry that he might inevitably inherit his father’s evil dooming him to just that. Next to him, everyone else except for Steele looks stolid and strained. Kerr, whose big claim to fame prior to this was appearing in Tea and Sympathy (1958), has the relatively thankless job of playing Francis, who mostly comes on as obnoxiously insensitive, but he’s effective enough as sounding board for Price’s spectacke and plays the character with admirable chilliness that makes Francis seem, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, to be something like its villain, relentlessly pounding on vulnerable and empathetic Nicholas’ fragile nature. Francis proves however to more a hapless interloper, in a vein that renders him intriguingly close in function and identity to the “final girl” as that figure would arrive in the ‘70s horror genre, as he loses all agency and undergoes terrible suffering and has to be saved by a woman and servant: here Corman and Matheson clearly signal something changing in the genre. Anders, who also appeared in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide the same year, had a kind of raw, slightly uncertain charm that suits her character, who retains innocence amidst the emotional wreckage that is her family legacy and has avoided her brother’s neurosis but certainly feel the weight of experience, staring blankly into her own imagined version of family horror as she narrates it to Francis.
For horror fans the undoubted appeal of Pit and the Pendulum acting-wise lies in seeing Price and Steele together. That promise was partly hampered, as Steele had her speaking voice post-dubbed by another actress, because her regional English accent sounded oddly out place amidst the mid-Atlantic brogues everyone else in the cast adopted to play Spaniards. Nonetheless Steele’s physicality blazes for her few minutes on screen in her first major movie after being promoted to genre stardom by Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), her remarkable face, the very image of the femme fatale capable of shifting between modes of porcelain doll-like beauty and utter evil, leering gleefully over Price’s prone form, sweetly mocking him with the litany of people who have betrayed him or sinned in his immediate life. Gloating pleasure turns abruptly to queasy fear as Nicholas starts laughing back at her, and grasps her as if the most intimate lover’s embrace as Elisabeth squirms fearfully in his arms before gagging her and shutting her in an iron maiden. Transformation via psychotic breakdown unleashes demonic sexuality as Nicholas/Sebastian gives Elisabeth a voracious kiss. This wonderful moment nails down the base erotic element in so much of the horror genre, the alternations of power within sexuality, the broken wall between desire and hatred, as well as the performative skill of the duo.
Nicholas’ insanity next leads him to chase down Leon, who plunges to his death in a secret pit, and so Francis, who stumbles down into the dungeon in search of Nicholas and finds him now entirely subsumed by the personality of Sebastian: Nicholas knocks out Francis and substitutes him for Leon as stand-in for Bartoleme, and subjects him to Sebastian’s ultimate torture machine – the pendulum. Nicholas/Sebastian gloats over his tethered victim before setting the torture machine in motion and memorably welcomes Francis to his zone of nullification of reason, giving it names from a panoply of cultures and describing it as the ultimate metaphor for the state of human kind before setting the gears in laborious motion and the machine begins lowering the blade remorselessly towards Francis’ stomach. Price goes gleefully for the rafters here in one of his bravura shows of theatricality, but both he and the film also, finally reach the point of crisis they’ve been working to with sneaky skill, both filmmakers’ showmanship and torturer’s converging to offer a spectacle of torment that allows perfect summation of both the plot and the obsessions of the characters, from Nicholas’ torment/fascination to Francis’ obsession with knowing the whole truth and being given an intimate lesson in fate.
The final action is entirely riveting, as Catherine and servant Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) break into the chamber: when finally they gain entrance, Maximillian battles Nicholas whilst Catherine tries to halt the pendulum, resulting in Nicholas falling to his death beside Leon and Francis only saved by the thinnest of margins. This is thanks in no small part to Catherine’s pluck and awareness, which up until then have been neglected, another of Corman’s most integral themes. The ending is technically happy as the good guys stumble away unharmed, and yet Corman saves up one of the most coldly ironic final shots in horror film history, as Catherine, Francis, and Maximillian leave the dungeon. “No-one shall enter this room again,” Catherine vows, only for Corman to veer his camera back to the iron maiden from which the gagged Elizabeth stares in silent mortification, doomed to the nastiest possible punishment for her crime. The ritualistic final quote direct from Poe that ends the film ironically fills in a description of the very sound Elizabeth can’t make: the primal scream of purgative fear.
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Director: Gene Fowler Jr
By Roderick Heath
Ladies, has your husband turned into a stranger? Is he withdrawn? Pensive? Acting oddly? Is your bedroom colder than the refrigerator? Does he seem to be hiding a very different face from you? Then you may have to consider he might be an alien imposter.
The science fiction cinema that enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 1950s saw officious optimism and dark introspection jostling in close proximity, constantly battling for psychic supremacy. The broad and obvious association of the atomic age’s terrors with the panoply of giant monsters that stalked across the screen and the intrigued, visionary idealism of potential space travel were accompanied by subtler variations. Starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), the theme of possession or outright replacement of human beings by aliens became a recurring notion. This theme was quickly reused in a slew of genre films that followed, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Invaders from Mars (1956), War of the Satellites (1957), I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Village of the Damned (1961). All of these films exploited the fear of a loved-one suddenly turning into a stranger, the everyday and familiar suddenly subverted and turned into masking travesty. What was going on in the popular and artistic psyche at the time to make this a notion powerful enough to serve such repetition? Certainly this fear could cover vast territories in the modern psyche, from the most intimate personal disillusionment to raging schizoid fantasies, all somehow latching onto the new extremities and uprooted mood of the age.
Where the earlier films stopped at the fringe of bedroom, however, I Married a Monster moves right into that realm, a move fraught with peril for filmmakers in those waning days before the age of the contraceptive pill and the sexual revolution blew it all open. The early rumblings of something changing were already echoing through prominent melodramas like those of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Mark Robson, to which I Married a Monster, one of the most genuinely odd and subtext-laden of major ‘50s sci-fi films, feels closely related, whilst also touching on territory Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang had been exploring for decades, the zones of mystery between human beings and the seething psychosexual forces enacted there. I Married a Monster digs incisively into the headspace of its moment of making, delving into questions about that fulcrum period that something like Mad Men tries to examine second-hand: the difficulties and discomforts with prescribed social norms in the time and how it manifested in utterly “normal” settings, and diagnosing fraying social contracts. Director Gene Fowler Jnr broke into momentary genre cinema auteurship with the equally oddball, metaphor-heavy I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), establishing a template of transformative unease and primal fear situated in entirely normal circumstances, symbolised by apparently idyllic Eisenhower-age Midwestern towns. Both films tellingly co-opted the common magazine article ploy of the time in their titles, of breathless confessionals and reports from the dangerous zones of life.
With I Married a Monster, with its script penned by Louis Vittes, who previously penned the more prosaic monster movie Monster from Green Hell (1957), Fowler shifted attention from teenage angst to marital, kicking off with an archetypal collective of male friends gathered for a bucks party at the local country club of another pleasant regional town, with Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon) due to be married the next day. Sourly miserable jokes are thrown about, but Bill sets out to check in with his bride with happy confidence, driving along the dark rural road back to town. He brakes suddenly to try and avoid hitting what looks like a body stretched on the road. The body disappears as Bill investigates, who is set upon by a bizarre octopoidal alien that glows in the dark, and enveloped by a creeping mist that spirits him away. Bill still turns up the next day to his wedding to fretful Marge Bradley (Gloria Talbott), and the couple head off to their honeymoon at a seaside resort that quickly turns as cheerless as the thundery weather: Bill has suddenly developed an aptitude for driving in the dark with his headlights off, and when they get to their hotel, instead of diving into bed with his nervously eager bride, Bill prefers to gaze into the lightning in poetic raptures, and the strobing light reveals that somewhere under his handsome, all-American exterior lurks an extra-terrestrial.
Months later, the increasingly disturbed Marge pines for children but her marriage isn’t delivering those, or anything else. Her GP, Dr Wayne (Ken Lynch), checks her as A-1 fertility-wise, and suggests Bill come see him, an idea that turns the already chilly atmosphere around the house Arctic. Even worse, when Marge buys “Bill” a young pup as a birthday present, the formerly dog-loving man finds the animal aggressive and suspicious, and later, when Marge is safely in bed, “Bill” descends to kill the dog and passes it off as an accidental death. Beginning to suspect something genuinely strange is going on, Marge follows “Bill” when he leaves the house one and tracks him into the woods outside of town, where she sees things that seem beyond human reality: an alien being floats in gaseous form out of “Bill”’s body and reforms solid before heading into a secreted space ship. The shell of “Bill” falls flat on the ground, insects crawling over its stony face, and Marge flees in dizzy panic.
Fowler defuses any doubts about whether Marge’s controlling perspective is unreliable by making it clear early on what’s happening, but nonetheless expertly grows a sense of tingling atmosphere as he patiently charts the mounting evidence she finds that this conspiracy is not just in her mind, and the avoidance of making any mystery about the substitution shifts focus agreeably onto what are the motives of the aliens and how Marge will respond. Fowler intelligibly contrasts domestic domiciles of the suburbs with not just the mutable menace of the woods that fringe such safe, civilised zones, but also with the inner precincts of the town, a crude caricature of urbanity yearning for the status of a grown-up city where outcasts, reprobates, unhappy upright citizens, demimondaines, and drifters keep odd hours and the underbelly of this world is usually kept safely contained. Whereas in Teenage Werewolf Fowler’s junior artificial werewolf stalked pals on moonlit country paths, here Marge’s flight through the woods turns into a whirl of hallucinatory fears, looming alien faces and zombie-Bill chasing her in her mind. Like the same year’s The Blob (for which I Married a Monster was actually produced to partner on a double bill), Fowler turns the venturesome night of a small town into a zone of simultaneous threat and embrace in the suburban enclave, the Everytown locale turned into island amidst darkness where beasts roam.
Fowler’s promise as a director was never really fulfilled: whilst his first two works are still the objects of fervent cult admiration, as often happened with directors who revealed an affinity with the fantastic genres, his subsequent works out of those genres rose in respectability but declined in interest and in between a bit of TV directing, he returned to original job of editor. Importantly, Fowler had cut The Woman in the Window (1944) and While the City Sleeps (1956) for Fritz Lang, and Lang’s impact on Fowler seems particularly deep: Lang’s feel for environment as actor in the cinematic space, his fondness for thickets of psychological disease in his characters, and constantly recurring themes of sinister conspiracy, oppressive regimes, and infiltration are all clearly apparent here. I Married a Monster sports intelligent filmmaking, with arresting moments evoking the strong influence of not just Lang but also Alfred Hitchcock on his efforts. A sequence depicting Marge lying in bed listening to her husband’s approach, cross-cutting with his steps up the stairs, strongly suggests Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946), both films that likewise revolve around female protagonists under threat in their marriages (notably, Fowler also had Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini working for him here).
Fowler pulls off the kind of invisible edit Hitchcock and Orson Welles were fond of early in the film with a hint of dextrous humour and thematic import when he uses flashing lightning to mask a shift from the window of the hotel restaurant newlywed Marge and “Bill” are nervously toasting each-other in, to their room upstairs: Fowler hides his technique with the same device he reveals his alien – the lightning – and mixes in a joke about deceptions and slippery realities. The Farrell house becomes a noir-ish zone of shadow and telling compartmentalisation, repeating shots of “Bill” and Marge in turn watching their partner in the kitchen from the living room, observing each-other playing at domesticity whilst filled with unease and shame. Fowler notably echoes a moment in Lang’s Fury (1936) when Marge finds herself floundering in the middle of town after fleeing the aliens in the woods and hears blaring, cheery music, only to find a dull and desolate bar with a few sleazy denizens. Wiseguy Weldon (James Anderson) and punchy barman Grady (Max Rosenbloom) mock her reports of monsters as the ravings of a frustrated closet alcoholic, but are also tantalised by this wild-eyed escapee from Squaresville. Weldon tracks her to her house and hangs about hoping she’ll emerge again looking for fun, only to be confronted by the town’s two assimilated policemen Schultz and Swanson (Jack Orrison and Peter Baldwin) and executed by them when realises what’s going on. Marge tells their chief, Capt. Collins (John Eldredge), what’s happening, and he counsels patience, but of course, flashing lightning reveals that he too has been possessed.
Fowler’s little universe proliferates with ingenious fragments of surrealist destabilisation, which often pack a sneaky thematic wallop and totemic encapsulation of the genre’s essence. Mysterious mists slide out of urban alleyways, enfold men and erase them. The hatch for an alien spaceship is secreted amidst the woods just beyond the fringes of a town. Dead animals mark the progress of monsters hiding in suburbia. The obsessions of Middle America, like security and stability, are tweaked only slightly to be turned into punitive sarcasms. The streets of the idyllic town become zones of fascistic repression, so that a lurking “criminal type” is not just confronted and waved on by enforcers of the illusion of peace, but knocked unconscious and shot dead on the street. An unhappy marriage and the moans of a billion wives that their husband just isn’t the man they fell in love with anymore becomes a literal wedding to an alien interloper. The tread of a husband’s feet on the stairs, so easily translated into fear of an abusive spouse or Marge’s own sexual anxieties, becomes the step of the secreted beast. Aliens watch humans from the forest and study their behaviour with intent of conquest and mimic their bodies, then sit around in bars refusing to drink like teetotallers, but end up using the time to whine about their mates and their lots in life just like their hosts.
In the film’s most strikingly eerie scene, the teasing hooker who hangs about Grady’s, Francine (Valerie Allen), wanders the desolate space of the town’s centre, sauntering with a hungry sensuality that’s clearly anything but domestic. Beings emblematic of free-floating sexuality and reproductive craving come into contact and conflict, as Francine tries to chat up a stranger with a hooded jacket she sees staring at dolls in a store-front window: too late does she see that her prospective John is an alien. The alien blasts her with a ray gun as she runs off, momentarily turning her to a blazing spectre before fading into oblivion, before the monster turns back to its weird, sad, solitary study of another species’ iconographic celebration of its offspring. It’s already been made clear by this time that the aliens do want to mate with human women, as the gang of replaced males have discussed. One quality that elevates I Married a Monster is not just its broad metaphors but its web of reversals and epiphanies. The gang of male friends annexed by the aliens who stand in place of normality, far from being agreeably Norman Rockwellian types signifying free and easy Americana, aren’t particularly likeable. In fact they’re mostly a mob of liquor-swilling, disgruntled, misogynist jerks conjoined by their general dread of the trappings of domesticity they nonetheless head into dutifully. The only difference between them and the aliens is that the aliens know why they’re passing.
These men in grey flannel – most of them work in insurance – are already a step away from losing themselves anyway. If they resist, like Sam Benson (Alan Dexter), they’re assimilated by the aliens. Sam’s double then does the work of proposing to his long-time girlfriend Helen Rhodes (Jean Carson). Helen is in turn so delighted from being saved from being a “career woman” that she remains wilfully oblivious to Marge’s warnings that connubial bliss isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Another of Bill’s pals, Harry Phillips, drunkenly proposes “mass suicide” as the solution to marriage: after he’s replaced by an alien, Harry then complains in exactly the same bitter way about how disgusting his new body is. One of the tell-tale signs of assimilation is sudden giving up of drinking, a biological necessity for the allergic aliens but also a neat gag on the presumed niceties of marital life that the other, unchanged males still chafe against. Another of Bill’s pals, Ted Hanks (Chuck Wassil), rails against the chains of marriage (“Even a convict gets time off for good behaviour.”) and tries to make humour out of his wife Caroline’s (Darlene Fields) emasculating gift for baseball pitching that almost got her a try-out for the Yankees. Once most of the gang are assimilated, they gather with their wives for a picnic where the alien Sam falls out of a rowboat: the aliens are as unfamiliar with water as they are with liquor, so Ted leaps into the lake alone to haul Sam out whilst the others all stand, shirtless and buff, a hilarious spectacle of masculinity turned passive and ineffectual.
Caroline’s pregnancy however forestalls Ted’s replacement and, later, fatherhood brings him out all smiles, handing cigars to Marge and Dr Wayne – not a casual detail, as Wayne, by now convinced of the truth of Marge’s warnings, realises that the town’s recent fathers must still be human, providing a reliable force to muster and take on the infiltrators. I Married a Monster posits parenthood as not just as an act of biological urging but as a commodity of value, a communal need as well as a personal one, one which the male aliens are forced, ironically, to share intimately with the broody women of Earth. Once the veil drops between “Bill” and Marge and the alien appeals to his potential mate for understanding, he explains that all of his species’ women have died out during their long and agonising exodus from their dying planet, and now they have no choice but to seek mates on the way. “You have no idea how rare life is those cold, countless miles of space,” “Bill” reports with a hint of haunted exhaustion, correlating the deadness of the void with the infertility that has stricken his race and the distances between the two worlds with those between men and women. “We came together for breeding purposes only,” “Bill” says of his species’ unemotional nature, but begs Marge for understanding as he confesses to be “learning what love is.”
Of course, like most ‘50s sci-fi films, the Cold War’s special paranoias infest I Married a Monster, and the aliens, with their coldly unemotional, communal ethos, readily call to mind the archest caricatures of Communists as unfeeling, obedient hive minds. But the film suggests other varieties of modern pressure upon the essential stability of the idealised nuclear family unit that would soon burst it open. Critics and theorists have argued for decades over the political meaning of Siegel’s pod people, but in the end the suggestion that they represented a kind of Rorschach test for our anxieties in an age buffeted by the uprooting of old securities feels most accurate. I Married a Monster has this quality too, but the film ultimately evokes more personal, interior anxieties. Much in the same way that Invaders from Mars beautifully communicates a child’s fear of the loss parental love amidst its tacky wonders, I Married a Monster is most crucially about the idea communicated in its title, the fear of the otherness in the partner who romantic ideals tell us are supposed to be fused into our very sense of self. The film is explored chiefly from the wife’s point of view in being tethered to a man who cannot perform for her in bed. Talbott’s performance, her only real star moment, fits her oh-so-‘50s apparel, angular and vivid, shot through with breathless need and tremulous determination. Like the same year’s much less accomplished but still gaudily symbolic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, I Married a Monster conflates marital melodrama with monster movie and proto-feminist inquiry: both Marge here and Allison Hayes’ fraying heiress in 50 Foot Woman are beset by aliens who neatly turn percolating unease into ripe manifestations, and troubled by men they love without recourse.
The infiltrating aliens of It Came From Outer Space were detached from the Earthlings, merely following their own programme; the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers inimical opportunists mimicking humanity but erasing its essence. Here something more different again is at work, for I Married a Monster is simultaneously enriching and disturbing in the quiet but powerful empathy it offers for both sides of its coin. The fake “Bill” is revealed as a creature that feels the lightest breezes of humanity in his human form, and responds with yearning, albeit a yearning laced with colonialist entitlement, an entitlement the other aliens never doubt. Tryon was an actor who had near brushes with major stardom (particularly in The Cardinal, 1963) but quit to become an accomplished horror writer, and he was cast with alacrity here. With his vivid cheekbones and Action Man doll’s physique, he’s almost a caricatured ideal of ‘50s manhood, but Tryon’s ambiguity is always apparent, the actor displaying churning emotion under his stolid surface with deceptive passion. Tryon was beset by sexual confusion until he finally came out in the early ‘70s, and the film’s strong undercurrent towards reading as a metaphor, at least in part, about hiding as a gay man with a beard wife feels acute even when you don’t know this biographical detail. The newly replaced “Sam” visits “Bill”, ostensibly over an insurance policy, where “Sam” has to reveal himself with an overt gesture when “Bill” won’t get the hint, whereupon “Bill” welcomes him to the club, in a scene that feels like an elaborate form of cruising. Not for nothing, then, do the town’s successful breeders go out hunting for the hidden misfits who cannot reproduce. Notably, although Tryon disliked having to act in this film he tackled the theme of people being drafted into playing roles in an uncanny community himself in his later novel “Harvest Home.”
Whilst the fantasies are still mostly veiled here, a new phase of the horror and sci-fi genres based in the fervent fear of physical perversion seems nascent. So too, indeed, does the shifting balance between horror and sci-fi themselves, a year after Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein. There was often little distance between the genres during the decade anyway, in works like Them! and Creature from the Black Lagoon (both 1954) with their inky, nightmarish sagas of monstrous advent, with only the most fundamental underpinnings of the two genres – the irrationalism of horror and the solid cause-and-effect of sci-fi – to distinguish them. Here, the emphasis on the psychological nature of the disquiet and the dark visual palette betray the shift. I Married a Monster’s anticipations are interesting and vital, including David Lynch’s placement of surrealist fragmentation in homey surrounds in Blue Velvet (1986) and TV’s Twin Peaks, whilst the eroticised fear of deviant birth and strange sexuality inevitably feel like precursors to David Cronenberg and the progeny of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Marge’s recoiling horror at the thought of being impregnated with an essentially alien foetus looks forward to Cronenberg’s darkest fantasies like the infamous births of The Brood (1978) and The Fly (1986) in particular, making I Married a Monster, in spite of the dated social assumptions it anatomises, one of the most forward-looking of the major ‘50s sci-fi films, as well as just about the last.
Putting its slippery meanings and weightier invocations aside, I Married a Monster is above all a fun, smart, well-made film (all the more impressively so for its budget) that delivers everything you want from a ‘50s monster movie: only the slightly pokey pacing and structuring of the middle third mar it, plus the slightly laborious effect of some of the dialogue scenes, the product in part perhaps of screenwriter Vittes camping out on set to make sure all his lines were served up exactly. But Fowler delivers a great finale as Marge realises she’s completely trapped by the secret regime that controls the town, but finally convinces Dr Wayne of what’s going on. This sets Ted and other recent fathers on the warpath, moving in a posse to hunt for the space ship and stage a raid on the two unmasked aliens guarding their ship. The attackers find themselves hopelessly outgunned as bullets just pock the skins of the spongy alien flesh in an ingenious little special effect, whilst the ray guns of the enemy blast the men to atoms. But Fowler employs a fun irony as one of the men’s German Shepherd dogs successful bring down the two aliens by attacking and ripping open their distended, tentacle-like neck arteries: it’s a bit of payback for their canine brethren killed earlier that also, amusingly, underlines the film’s theme of species self-loyalty.
The men are then able to penetrate the alien craft where, in another fillip of quality strangeness, the missing men are found dangling like sides of beef, hooked up to projection devices to sustain the aliens’ disguises. The rush to free the men however precipitates tragedy for the aliens who have taken their places, especially “Bill”, who has suffered from being taught what humanity as he remained nonetheless tethered to alien mission, only to be inevitably destroyed whilst fighting for his species’ future, and also is aware of it in a more personal manner thanks to his new human impulses to make it worse: “Bill”, “Schultz”, and “Swanson” dash to intervene but as each host is disconnected they fall one by one and dissolve into gruesome stew: back in his office, the fake Chief Collins pulls out a tiny transmitter and signals to his brethren to give this wild and nasty planet before melting into the same mush. Real Bill pops out of the spaceship into Marge’s arms moments after his doppelganger meets his end, and the fade out presents a last, haunting vista, of an alien fleet moving past Earth and heading on to friendlier climes. “It’s a nice idea anyway,” the fake Bill said earlier, writing his own epitaph, “Making visitors feel welcome.”
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Director: Terence Fisher
By Roderick Heath
A fog-rimmed lake. A sonorous voice on the soundtrack telling us we are now in Transylvania. A carriage careening through the twilight forest, the driver whipping his horses in frenzy, his comely passenger panicking as her journey to a new life seems to be turning into a nightmarish ride in unknown territory. What looks like dead body lies on the road, blocking the way. A mysterious stranger watches from the woods, looking for his opportunity to stealthily climb aboard the coach and work his mysterious purpose. Now that’s how you start a horror movie.
Amongst horror movie fans and connoisseurs of Hammer Films’ output, The Brides of Dracula has slowly gained repute, to the point where some state today that it’s the best horror work the studio ever made. The film’s delayed rise to such acclaim was due to its being overshadowed and dismissed as a by-product at the time of its release. Christopher Lee had played Bram Stoker’s vampire overlord in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) to audience-delighting, icon-making effect. Titling a film The Brides of Dracula without Dracula actually turning up was received as a bit of a cheat, and after Lee resumed the role, Hammer’s first stab at extending its vampire franchise was obscured. Lee, frightened with good reason of being typecast, refused to play the role again, and would not buckle until 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. In the meantime, Fisher and the creative team at Hammer tried to synthesise a replacement for Dracula whilst retaining his antagonist, Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing, for another bout with evil. Lee and Cushing wouldn’t be reunited in their archetypal roles until Dracula A.D. 1972. The film’s development was rocky, with three credited screenwriters including the studio’s two main horror scribes, Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bryan, and contributions from producer Anthony Hinds, Fisher, and Cushing, and a planned finale that was dropped and then used in another film. And yet Brides stands alongside the likes of Fisher’s own The Gorgon (1964) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and John Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), as one of the supreme Hammer films, a fiercely concentrated and lushly executed work of the studio’s peculiar brand of Technicolor Gothic, instantly recognisable for its near-operatic sense of colour and drama.
The Brides of Dracula arrived when Hammer’s budgets and ambitions were expanding, with more elaborate sets and some special effects, but still limited enough to deliver some of the shoddy pleasures associated with the brand, here apparent most particularly in a delightfully unconvincing devil bat. But Brides is a vibrant work, one that revels in being freed from the specific mythos of Dracula himself whilst still remixing the themes and images established so vividly by Fisher’s first take. Early sequences provide a tweak on Stoker’s template by placing a woman, rather than a man, in danger in a remote locale, and emphasising more forcefully the theme of the innocent abroad taking a plunge into the abyss. The innocent here is Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a young Frenchwoman on her way to work as a student-teacher in the small town of Badstein, in the usual hazily defined Mittel Europa of Hammer works, supposedly in what the narrator describes as, “Transylvania – land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes – still the home of magic and devilry as the Nineteenth century draws to a close.” The thunder of the opening resolves in a fake-out, as the body on the road proves to be only a peculiarly shaped log, which the fretful coachman (inevitably, Michael Ripper) clears out of the way. But this anticlimax turns out to be a ploy by the stranger in the woods (actually Black Park in Buckinghamshire, soon be all too familiar to audiences of Hammer films) who catches hold of the back of the coach and rides secretly with it into the nearby village.
The stranger’s part in the film proves the most enigmatic element, an emissary of evil who’s never named (although the credits and the famously whacko novelisation by Dean Owen call him Latour) and vanishes from the proceedings having performed his deed, as he bribes the coachman to leave the village and abandon Marianne while she’s in a tavern having dinner. Already gilded genre cliché is already in play, but with a twist: the locale is strange, the underlying mood tense, but the locals are friendly enough in a workaday fashion, until the time of dread falls upon them, at which point the innkeeper so solicitous to Marianne (Norman Pierce) and his wife (Vera Cook) are gripped by enigmatic, hysterical urgency. Fisher offers a lovely weird moment when an abrupt silence draws the attention of Marianne and the innkeeper, who have been conversing pleasantly, to the front door, and see that the stranger is standing there, watching them with a satisfied smile, whilst everyone else in the room has fallen gravely quiet. Marianne is advised to flee by the two solicitous hoteliers, but before they can bustle her away, the sound of another coach coming into town signals the limits of their bravery and resistance. “Don’t open it,” the wife says; “I must,” the man replies in bleak concession to life under a tyranny. Tyranny in this village has a courtly face, however, as the owner of the coach Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who offers Marianne hospitality for night, beguiling the young woman with aristocratic indulgences, like fancy wine. Marianne accepts and dines with the Baroness in the castle overlooking the village.
The Baroness offers that most hallowed of gothic horror tropes, the devolved remnant of the ancien regime reminiscing with exultant sadness about the times when the castle was the scene of grand parties and conspicuous consumption. By this time, however, Marianne is privy to the mysterious secret of Castle Meinster, having glimpsed from the room the Baroness assigns her a young man, standing on a balcony far below. The Baroness admits this is her son, the young Baron who is, she explains, beset by a malady that has destroyed their lives, a malady he picked up in his wild, indulgent youth: “We pray for death, my son and I,” she reports, shocking Danielle but also stirring her empathy. However, during the night, Marianne catches sight again of the Baron, this time seemingly about to hurl himself to his death from his apartment balcony. She screams out to stop what she presumes to be his imminent suicide, but after she find her way through the house into the Baron’s apartment, she is confronted by the contrivance that makes his suicide by jumping impossible: he’s chained by the leg. The Baron, far from being an imprisoned lunatic, steps out from the shadows to reveal himself as a starkly handsome, soft-spoken romantic idol who appeals desperately to Marianne to find the key to the lock on his ankle in his mother’s room.
The Brides of Dracula offers a fun burlesque here on classic historical romantic fiction, calling back to British cinema’s mid-‘40s heyday of films in that genre when James Mason and Stewart Granger played roguish, black-hearted seducers not that far removed from Hammer’s Dracula. Marianne is cast as plucky damsel freeing the cruelly imprisoned heir with an impressive feat of bravery, stealing into the Baroness’s room and locating the key and then, when she’s almost trapped by the Baroness’s arrival, escaping through the window and traversing a narrow ledge to safety, all whilst still clad in her nightgown. But Marianne’s act of love-struck bravery proves, of course, to have been performed in the service of bottomless evil, because the Baron is a vampire, held in restraint by his mother and kept sated with young women like Marianne. The freed Baron shields Marianne from the Baroness’s wrath however, telling Marianne to go pack and then addressing his mother with smoothly menacing intensity that compels her to follow him back into his former prison. Marianne, once dressed and ready to leave, hears a strange cackling laugh echoing from the Baron’s apartment and descends to investigate. Rather than her beautiful prize for gallant action, Marianne only finds Frieda laughing in nihilistic delight over the Baron’s discarded restraint, and the cracked servant happily makes Marianne face the consequence of her act: the Baroness sitting dead in an armchair. Marianne, horrified and panicked, flees into the night and traverses the forest by moonlight. Frieda remains behind, muttering a Shakespearean soliloquy as she admonishes the dead Baroness for her history of indulging the young Baron until he finally become an undoubted monster, and anticipates the Baron’s inevitable return to his coffin, waiting empty for its owner’s return.
Hammer’s brand of horror was usually quite literal and straightforward, portraying eruptions of the irrational in a thoroughly tangible context, an alternative to the otherworldly approach of German expressionism. This alternative was rooted in a peculiarly British variety of magic-realism, one that had long lurked within classic gothic literature and romantic fiction, a distorted, magnified sense of the compellingly vicious that had generally only found cinematic expression in Britain through Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, and the charismatic bounders and bitches of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the ‘40s. Evil, no matter how supernaturally powered, becomes a materialist thing infesting and infecting the human world in the Hammer ethos, whilst Fisher’s approach to the genre’s monochromatic moral essence was resolutely totemic and vivid, staked in flesh and blood and stone and wood. Social evil is indivisible from the less palpable kind, feeding each-other. The Brides of Dracula, however, sees the director straining beyond the studio’s usual realistic template, as he would again with The Gorgon. As usual with Fisher’s direction, the dramatic, geographical, and interpersonal relationships are all mapped with an exacting sense of linkage, progression, cause and effect in Brides. He builds a little world with the fastidiousness of a model train enthusiast, where all the elements exist precisely to facilitate others and are demonstrably connected, like the plainly visible chateau above the Meinster village set, and the keen camera movements and angles in the chateau that make the set feel both labyrinthine and spatially coherent.
Yet Fisher often invested his horror films with hints of dark fairy tale and folk myth, an inflection fully apparent in images here like Marianne stalking the shadowy halls of the fairy tale castle, trying to free her demon lover, and then running away into the dark forest like Snow White, only to be found as a sleeping beauty lying in the midst of the woods by an improbable Prince Charming. The Brides of Dracula skirts of a kind of airy cinematic mysticism usually associated with continental filmmakers like Lang, Cocteau, and Franju, with their love of permeable realities and blithe manifestations of the fantastic. The film also harkens explicitly to Fisher’s early, pre-Hammer work, the Hitchcockian thriller So Long at the Fair (1952) where another young female traveller falls through the permeable barriers between normal and abnormal worlds, faced with jarring disappearances and conspiracies of silence. Van Helsing speaks of vampirism not as individual monstrosities but a “Cult of the Undead,” a “remnant of one of the ancient pagan religions,” which introduces a note of dense, conspiratorial evil reminiscent of Lang’s films, whilst the darkly romantic fairy tale motifs in a proto-modern world anticipate Franju’s remix of Judex (1963). Moreover, Brides may well be the most specifically influential of Hammer films, certainly in its visuals the quintessential studio entry. The rich Technicolor photography by Fisher’s regular photographer Jack Asher painting a world in musty, muted blues and browns that suggest a permanent autumn in the world, punctuated by eye-gorging, saturated hues in clothing and décor, evoking Victorian lithographic and book plate illustration to generate a sense of gothic atmosphere. Neil Jordan, with The Company of Wolves (1984), and Tim Burton, in Sleepy Hollow (1999), would later pay explicit tribute to that style, with Burton even recreating the windmill featured in this film’s finale for his tribute.
The morning following Marianne’s adventure sees a passing coach halt on the forest roadside. A casual downward pan reveals Marianne sprawled unconscious on autumnal leaves. The passenger in the coach proves to be just the person you want to find you after a terrifying encounter with a vampire: Dr Van Helsing plucks Marianne off the ground and transports her to the village, where the innkeepers are surprised and happy to see her safe. Van Helsing has been invited to the village by the local Cure (Fred Johnson) who suspects the nature of the evil previously held within the Chateau and wants Van Helsing to investigate. Van Helsing carefully teases out details of Marianne’s story whilst trying to shield her from the nature of the danger she faced, hoping to speedily return her to normality, but this proves a miscalculation on his part, as he leaves the door open for the Baron to approach Marianne still playing the hapless young lover, his mother’s death dismissed as tragic culmination of her own violence. Van Helsing escorts Marianne to her new place of employment, a Girl’s Academy run by the sweet-and-sour couple Frau and Herr Lang (Mona Washbourne and Henry Oscar). Van Helsing calmly faces down the overbearing Herr Lang, whose own wife describes him as “a little bit terrifying,” when he chastises Marianne for being late and in a man’s company: Van Helsing producing his business card with its long list of impressive doctorates instantly turns petty overlord into grovelling bourgeois. This joke is repeated with a slightly more pointed inference later when Baron Meinster turns up to romance Marianne, and Lang, not knowing him, threatens to throw him out. The Baron explains he’s Lang’s landlord with suave assurance, but gets a measure of revenge as he congratulates Lang on maintaining “such a charming house and grounds – at so low a rent.”
Cushing’s Van Helsing here wields the same specific gravitas he held in Dracula, as the unremittingly rational being who battles supernatural evil with the trappings of religion and myth but with the method of a scientist, slowly cutting out the cancer of ancient ills as the emblem of modernity as faith. “Who is it is who has no fear?” Baroness Meinster asks him when he approaches her: “Only God has no fear,” he replies, but Van Helsing hesitates at no threshold. Cushing was better off than Lee in returning to his character, as Lee would find to his increasing chagrin as he was reduced to an intensely glowering monster in Hammer’s later Dracula entries, whilst here Cushing was allowed to develop nuances in the role. Van Helsing had been courageous but brutal in Dracula, embodying the puritanical force pounding life out of the sensually gorged lovers of the vampire overlord, but turning on a penny to solicitously comfort a small girl with fatherly grace. Here that side of him is emphasised as he appears as the essential crusader hero, bringing relief from tyranny and insidious evil.
Producer Hinds quipped once that he and Fisher and Sangster had all regarded these films as their own babies but Cushing was certain of it, and Cushing’s contributions to the script perhaps helped this recasting of the hero in something like his own image, kinder and with a dash of romanticism. Van Helsing engages in rivalry with the Baron for Marianne’s affection as well as her soul, the Baron’s pretty boy charms pitted against the spindly savant’s hangdog intensity and winning out initially. Cushing pulls off a marvellous scene when Marianne informs Van Helsing she’s now engaged: he congratulates her with a good grace that’s ever so slightly pallid, but when she mentions just who it is she’s marrying he reacts with horror and checks her hands for signs of the tell-tale venereal stigmata of the “kiss of Dracula.” “Do you love him?” he asks in mild incredulity, and quickly leaves when Marianne answers yes, silently astounded at the perversities of existence but not swayed from his mission.
The deep veins of perversity that spread through The Brides of Dracula are indeed a source of the film’s specific richness. The notion that vampirism was a metaphor for sexuality permeates Fisher and Sangster’s take and permanently inflected the genre, but here Meinster’s attentions are indiscriminate and suggestively pansexual. Even Van Helsing, who’s seen a thing or two, is revolted by the discovery Meinster has drunk his mother’s blood, and this comes on top of the narrative’s hints of homosexuality, as the good doctor himself comes in for the vampire’s attentions. The film’s title suggests the Girl’s Academy will be a feasting ground for the bloodsucker as one would be in Lust for a Vampire (1970), but Meinster only attacks one of Marianne’s fellows there, her fast friend Gina (Andree Melly). On the night of his first release, Meinster kills a village girl (Marie Devereux), and her heartbroken father is confused and appalled when the Cure, after finding her buried in the churchyard, tells him she must be removed. Van Helsing, who overhears, assures the Cure that he can prevent the girl’s revival, but when he arrives in the churchyard finds Frieda lying upon the grave, playing midwife in encouraging the new vampire’s emergence in a travesty of birth. This cues one of the most memorable scenes in the genre’s history as it climaxes with the ecstatically morbid images of the girl’s white hand thrusting out of the earth, and then pushing back the lid of her coffin and sitting up with a dead-eyed smile of sensual gratification. This image of a vampire’s birth has an iconic perfection, and indeed it could well have been the first depiction of this morbidly beautiful process.
Van Helsing can’t help but watch in disgusted but mesmerised fascination, a spell only broken when the Cure, who’s just arrived, bellows his protest and then leap to secure Frieda whilst Van Helsing chases the vampire. Van Helsing’s pursuit is stalled however by Meinster, transformed into a huge bat which dive-bombs the vampire hunter until his kitbag tumbles open and his crucifix spills out. Van Helsing heads up to the Chateau Meinster, where he finds the Baroness, now revived as a vampire, haunting her own castle. The splendidly patrician Hunt was most famous for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), which Fisher had edited, and her casting here plays on that role as a reclusive and haughty grande dame whose hospitality entails destruction (Jackson, playing her servant, was also in the Lean film where she played the fearsome Mrs Joe), but here is allowed to retain more pathos as an eerie, existentially tormented victim who hides her new vampire fangs like a demure maiden behind a veil. The Baroness recites with dread the indulgences that brought disease upon her son and self and now believing herself cursed to eternally bend to her son’s will. David Peel, chiefly known as a stage actor, was received badly as a stand-in for Lee when the film came out, an understandable response as far as it goes.
Peel is, nonetheless, a coldly confident presence as a younger, more sadistically callow but superficially debonair evil lord, charming Marianne with his Mod hairdo, hints of intense sensuality, and precise, plummy Old Vic accent reminiscent of a better-looking edition of fellow Hammer alumnus Michael Gough: he’s the vampire prince as a mix of boarding school bully and toffy-nosed pop heartthrob. Meinster is presented as a Byronic sleaze who takes active delight in spectacles of cruelty, stripped of even the faint remnant of noble hauteur Lee gave his Dracula. Peel handles the alterations between the smooth façade he puts on to people he needs to charm and the animalistic savagery of his true nature with élan, particularly when he suddenly appears from nowhere whilst Van Helsing talks to his mother, teeth extended and mouth dripping blood, hissing like a snake at the sight of its only natural predator.
Meinster and Van Helsing have brief but vigorous tussle as the doctor fends off vampire by sliding his crucifix down the length of a table toward him, forcing the vampire back, cringing in pain. Meinster flees after upending the table to trap Van Helsing in turn, leaving Van Helsing alone with his mother. Fisher offers another starkly simple yet rhythmically powerful aside as Van Helsing waits for the dawn to give the Baroness the release she craves, whereupon he takes out stake and hammer and drives it through her body: Fisher cuts from the spurt of red blood to a deep crimson curtain which Van Helsing rips down and spreads across her body with solicitous care that mirrors the vampire midwifery, laying the desiccated matriarch to rest like a mother himself putting a baby to bed. The scoring by Malcolm Williamson, an Australian-born composer who later became Master of the Queen’s Music, is particularly notable in this sequence, a lightly funereal organ on sound rising to a crescendo that helps the vigorous cutting and colour inflate the brief sequence into something rhapsodic. Van Helsing’s return to the village coincides with news of Gina’s death at the Academy. At the Cure’s urging, Van Helsing goes with the local GP, Tobler (Miles Malleson) to look at the body, and convinces Tobler to let him deal with the problem by quickly quarantining the body locked in a stout, padlocked coffin and assigning reliable people to keep a watch over it. Marianne relieves Frau Lang in this task and waits with the school’s stable master Severin (Henry Scott). Before Van Helsing can return with his vampire killing kit, however, Severin is killed by Meinster in bat form, whilst Marianne is confronted by Gina rising out of her coffin.
Fisher borrows a flourish here from M. R. James’ “Count Magnus” as the padlocks on Gina’s coffin fall one by one to the floor unlocked. The vampire Gina stalks the terrified Marianne with fiendishly sensual intent even as she begs her forgiveness for “letting him love me” whilst urging Marianne to kiss “your little Gina.” The lesbian vampire film still has to wait until the following year’s Blood and Roses to come out of the coffin however, as Van Helsing arrives in time to chase Gina off, but Brides does rack up the possibly more interesting landmark of gay vampiric activity later. Van Helsing breaks his unspoken compact to protect Marianne from the truth as she confronts her with the Baron’s nature and forces her to tell him where she expects to meet him. This proves to be an old windmill at the edge of town, a marvellous arena for a final confrontation where Van Helsing finds Gina and the other vampire bride with a harshly mocking Greta. Van Helsing holds off the two girls with his crucifix but Greta simply jumps on him and fights for the talisman, only to accidentally plunge with it over a balcony and crash to her death on some boards laid over a well. The cross drops through a crack into the well before Van Helsing can retrieve it, leaving him vulnerable to Meinster when he enters producing a chain from under his cape and almost throttling Van Helsing to death with it, before gleefully biting his nemesis, taking enough blood to put him under his command. The Baron then goes to drag Marianne out of the Academy and bring her back so that he can force Van Helsing to watch her initiation into the undead fold.
When he wakes up, Van Helsing is distraught to find the vampire’s mark on his neck, but he isn’t out of tricks yet. In another of the film’s innovative and clever ideas, much mimicked in vampire cinema ever since, Van Helsing tries a radical cure. He stokes a branding iron red hot in a brazier and then jams it against his wound, scalding him hideously but removing the stain of this most transgressive “kiss.” A little dab of holy water from a cask the Cure gave him heals the burn immediately, and Van Helsing is back to form. When Meinster returns he doesn’t realise his enemy is able to fight, and before he can vamp Marianna, Van Helsing helps to a face-full of holy water that leaves him horribly scarred. Meinster escapes after warding off Van Helsing by kicking the brazier over, turning the windmill immediately into an inferno, but Van Helsing escapes with Marianne to the mill’s upper balcony.
The climax originally intended of Brides was for Van Helsing to use a curse to call down other vampires as bats upon the Baron, for his transgression in drinking his mother’s blood. Budget constraints and Cushing’s objection to the idea Van Helsing would engage in black magic meant this concept was abandoned, only to be used a few years later in Kiss of the Vampire. Meinster’s comeuppance here is less spectacular but still original and memorable, as Van Helsing jumps onto the mill’s sail and drags it down to turn the whole structure into a crucifix, pinioning the Baron under the shadow of religious sanctity and finally killing him, leaving a fade out with Marianne in Van Helsing’s arms and the mill with the two vampire girls within going up in flames as the credits roll. The Brides of Dracula was released in what proved a banner year for horror cinema as the commercial force of Hammer’s success unleashed a new wave of films, including Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio, Roger Corman’s House of Usher, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and it stands tall with them in the genre’s mottled history. After all but dying out in the mid-1940s, the horror film was well and truly back from the dead.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
By Roderick Heath
Jim Jarmusch’s career seems as intimately connected with the evolution of American independent film as Pablo Picasso’s was to modernism in painting: he helped to give birth to it, he gave it much of its aesthetic and thematic lexicon, but then he remained happy in his niche and left it for everyone else to accept or reject what they liked in their own attempts to reforge the art form. Similarities between Jarmusch and Picasso end there, of course. Jarmusch’s calm, wry, gentle style subtly evolved from his early work, though it remained defined by a resolute minimalism and lack of interest in cinematic flash that only partly hides a New Age take on an old Hollywood value, one that holds films are no more interesting than the people in front of the camera and what they’re saying. Jarmusch was one filmmaker who seemed to arrive with the phrase “cult following” already attached to his name, and he continued on that way, though that following has diminished a little in recent years. It’s odd indeed to think of a filmmaker like Jarmusch in an age increasingly detached from the kinds of small, arty movie theatres in bohemian neighbourhoods and video store back shelves that fostered his following. Only Lovers Left Alive signals Jarmusch’s awareness of this, as it provides an aging retronaut’s statement of fetishistic revelry in all that is arcane and eternal in the midst of yet another paradigm shift. Jarmusch’s one concession to a zeitgeist is his story, which depicts that much-beloved and abused figure of crepuscular romanticism, the vampire.
This is a vampire movie as only Jarmusch could make it—except perhaps for Amy Heckerling, whose Vamps (2012) was completely different in tone and yet dealt in almost exactly the same ideas and concerns. Jarmusch’s vampires are undying hipsters, as their creator aligns the outsider status of the artist: the sun-shy, attention-wary bohemians who create for the pure love of creation and expression of innermost emotions, and subsist in fear of a world that will surely misunderstand, if not fear them. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a wan, rake-thin composer who’s walled himself up in a house in the midst of Detroit’s blasted suburbs. Adam has a contracted gopher, Ian (Anton Yelchin), to dig up anything he asks for, from an array of vintage guitars to a hardwood bullet in a working .38 shell casing he claims to need for an “art project.” Adam’s elegantly dishevelled home is crammed with LPs and amusingly jerry-rigged technology. Amongst the talents he’s developed in his hundreds of years on earth is a gift for zany electrical engineering: not surprisingly, Nikolai Tesla is one of his heroes, like Jack White was in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). His house runs on a generator that absorbs atmospheric energy, and he’s linked his laptop up to an old TV so he can see anyone he’s Skyping with on a decent-sized screen. But Adam’s real metier is musician, one he’s been following for centuries. He once let Schubert claim a piece of his “just to get it out there,” and now composes droning, spacey Shoegaze-ish pics he describes as funeral music. He has let some of his new compositions leak out to test their mettle and has become an underground music hero, a problematic achievement as now bands of young fans are trolling the streets of Detroit in search of the elusive master’s home.
Adam’s life partner, or more accurately undead partner, is the inevitably named Eve (Tilda Swinton), who resides in Algiers, the couple well used to both times of togetherness and separation, a quirky habit that has undoubtedly fostered their centuries-long affair’s steadfast ardour. Eve chums about with aged fellow vampire Kit (John Hurt), another reclusive artist: he used to be Christopher Marlowe, no less, and is still irritated by being forced into hiding because of his supposed murder and that his “illiterate zombie” front Shakespeare gets all the credit for the plays he wrote afterwards. Kit, who’s become old and incapacitated, has been adopted by a café owner and literary protégé, Bilal (Slimane Dazi). Adam, Eve, and Kit don’t drink human blood direct from the source anymore, more out of respect and caution for their own health than for people because of the amount of “contamination” out there these days. Besides, it’s hard to dispose of the victims for things have changed, as Eve notes, from “the old days when we could just chuck them in the Thames alongside all the other tubercular floaters.” The sensible, modern vampire prefers to procure nicely purified and bottled supplies from clinicians and blood banks: Kit gets his from “a lovely French doctor” and passes some on to Eve. Adam buys his from a physician in a Detroit hospital, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), whom he meets late at night with menacing silence wearing a surgical mask, lab coat, an antiquated stethoscope, and a nametag that reads Dr. Faust, and pays off with huge rolls of cash. Getting their blood offers a sublime, druglike pleasure for the vampires. But Adam seems to be in a particularly dark and downbeat mood of late: his wooden bullet is actually a suicide option, and his distress signals reach the intuitively understanding Eve. She grumpily prepares to travel to him, packing her only necessities—her favourite books.
Only Lovers Left Alive plainly deals with matters that have long fascinated Jarmusch, in particular, cultural memory in the context of the New World’s determined lack of it. The fetishism for the detritus of recent pasts and the mystique of cool evokes a constant thread in his films, whilst the film’s closest immediate analogue is probably Mystery Train (1991), his ghost-riddled, wry comedy that used Memphis rather than Detroit as his blasted avatar of Americana, whilst the central couple have similarities to the Japanese cool cats who traversed that city and declared preference for Carl Perkins over Elvis Presley in the pantheon of hip. The travelling, eye-caressing surveys of nocturnal cities, splendid in their desertion and decay, immediately evoke Jarmusch’s early works, like Down by Law (1986) and Night on Earth (1991). The literary nom-de-plumes and hints of blurred identity and life-after-death journeying recalls Dead Man (1996). Jarmusch’s style, verging on an antistyle and influenced by such great stripped-down cinematic mechanics as Ozu and Dreyer, is so spare as to be hard to spot variations in, but some of Jarmusch’s later works, like Broken Flowers (2006), certainly started to feel hermetic in their outlook and references as well as method. That film’s hero and his habit of driving while listening to his mix CDs, in careful excision of anything unwantedly messy or edgy, contrasts Jarmusch’s early works, which were like toggling between late-night radio stations, taking in a panoramic sample of the cultural landscape and its otherworldly wells. But Only Lovers Left Alive reveals a real artist’s capacity for self-awareness and even self-satire: Jarmusch has made his own dismay at time’s relentless advance and its impact on the institutions of artistic meaning he treasures part of the film’s texture, whilst also noting that what could be taken by the jaded as inevitable repetition might also be fecund revivalism, reinvention, even rebirth.
Some might find it odd that Jarmusch has made a film that could be called the black bible of the current crop of hipsters and trendies in its celebration of the fashionably arcane, bygone maxims of style and authority. But, of course, mix-and-match delight in the ephemera of the past and present is hardly a recent invention, and has been a secret tool of bohemia in contention with industrial society’s chop-chop insistence as far back as the pre-Raphaelites and neoclassicists. Nothing was as cheap and ephemeral as an 8-inch single record was in 1960, but now it’s an artefact, a lodestone and repository. Jarmusch starts the film with a sequence that stands amongst his best, his camera moving in a swooning circle in mistimed mimicry of such a record spinning on a player: Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” played at the wrong speed turning into a druggy anthem for its pair of separated lovers, who both recline in their dreamy, separate but connected anomie. Jarmusch might move his camera more in this film than he did in his first three films put together, if still sparingly, creating a sense much like being sucked into a whirlpool in a lake of tar, a slow and slurping decline. Jarmusch repeats the motif later as he intercuts between Adam, Eve, and Kit sinking into ecstasy as they have their taste of blood. The correlation of vampiric activity and junkie habitudes isn’t a new one: Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1973) mooted it a long time ago, and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) put it front and centre for a far more lacerating approach to the idea of contemporary vampire life than this one seeks to be. But Jarmusch’s take is original insofar as he equates it with the experiential, potentially communal thrill of lotus eating, absinthe drinking, LSD, and MDMA, as well as the solitary corrosion of heroin.
Jarmusch’s attitude to his antiheroes is wry and exacting even as he makes it plain he’s on their side, sharing their quirks, their fears, and their loves. They snobbishly refer to ordinary people as “zombies,” and Adam reveals he’s contemplating self-annihilation because he’s fed up with their “fear of their own imaginations.” Jarmusch confirms his antennae certainly haven’t weakened, as he articulates the feeling that’s been prevalent amidst sectors of the educated culturati in the increasingly messy state of contemporary democracy of increasingly blinding, fraught despair at the reactionary impulses apparent in modern society. Jarmusch satirizes the attitude a little bit, too, not letting his undying cool folk off the hook by reminding us forcefully by the end that they participate in the roundelay of consumption, too, and that their pretences require somebody’s sacrifice. One of the key conceits and driving jokes of the film is that the actually cool and creative will always recognise their kind: Adam and Eve have shifted with the evolution of culture from baroque to romanticism to Motown (“I’m more of a Stax girl myself,” Eve admits), obeying the necessity of changing modes of expression whilst recognising unchanging fixtures and standards. Adam’s stringy-haired gloominess, so readily identifiable in the age of Emo, was imbued, Eve argues, by his association with Byron and Shelley. Adam has a wall filled with privileged heroes (and of course, he says repeatedly “I don’t have heroes”) including Buster Keaton, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, and Rodney Dangerfield.
The film is textured by allusions. These run from small, jokey ones, like the encounter between Dr. Faust and Dr. Watson, to larger, more expansive rhymes, like linking the dying industrial mecca of Detroit with a traditional vampire’s castle, comprehending the similarity of the movements that eroded both feudal aristocracy and Western industrial capitalism, and the narrative’s refrains to Algiers, hang-out of escapee nonconformists from Delacroix to William Burroughs. Drug dealers constantly try to entice Eve from the alleys of the Casbah, an ironic touch as Eve is certainly on the hunt for her fix, but not that kind: her good stuff is far more difficult to acquire and more acute in its representation of life bartered. Jarmusch unfolds many scenes in successions of dreamy dissolves and repeated framings that infer the connectedness of Adam and Eve even in separate places, and finally portrays them both naked and in bed, lounging in a slight asymmetry that captures both their definite sexuality and their faint androgyny.
The couple’s eventualmeeting, clearly the first time they’ve come back together in ages, is one of two superbly affecting moments: centuries of gathered affectations and borrowed trappings the two lovers wear like costumes suddenly fall away, and they are again a courtly gentleman and his lady, Adam stripping off Eve’s glove and kissing her palm with all the tortured and fulsome passion of some De Laclos characters. The second comes as Adam gives Eve tours of his midnight world, showing her his ingenious power supply when it breaks down and driving her around Detroit with its endless razed blocks and tomblike warehouses and factories, pointing out the old Packard plant, “where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world—finished.” Eve confidently anticipates Detroit’s rebirth in the future when “the cities of the south are burning.” Adam takes Eve inside the Michigan Theatre, a beautiful manmade cavern with decayed remnants of glorious ambition and soaring craftsmanship, now used as a car park and recognised as itself only by the two exiles. Jarmusch’s camera floats rapturously, scanning the ceiling and his two lovers back to back as they crane their heads up and their bodies spin upon the dusty floor.
Jarmusch blends his fictional conceit cleverly with a realistic basis that’s sneakily exact and detailed, a method that defines most well-thought-through fantasies. Adam and Eve are a sophisticated, unconventional couple, only slightly exaggerated, with deftly recorded rhythms of behaviour, from Eve picking up on Adam’s distress signals to the eternal bugbear that is Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Ava has warned both of them that she’s likely to turn up in their lives by psychic means, projecting herself into their dreams, and she does arrive at Adam’s house when Eve’s only been there for three days. The way the couple refer to her makes one perhaps expect a darker, deadlier, more traditional version of the vampire, but, in fact, Ava’s a carefree, self-indulgent, ageless teenager, dangerous to them not because she’s more wicked but because, like so many teens, she has much less idea of consequences and no interest in their adult fussiness. Her affectations, like polka-dotted stockings and faux-fur coats, mark her as an interminable scenester and low-rent party girl, the embarrassing sibling who’s been dogging the couple for ages and making them cringe a little for offering pose without style. She flops on Adam’s couch, drinks up his blood supply like it’s going out of fashion, puts on his new recordings to listen to, and airily informs him she’s heard some of his stuff in an underground club in Los Angeles. “Zombie central,” Adam contemptuously describes that city. The closeness of Eve and Ava’s sisterly relationship is swiftly, casually noted as they mirror each others’ pose and actions in stripping off gloves and reclining on the sofa, leaving Adam cut off and glowering in the reverse shot. “Are you still upset about the thing in Paris?” Ava questions. “It’s been 87 years,” Eve does admit.
Adam’s misgivings about having her around prove well-founded however. When she talks the couple into exploring the city’s nightlife with her, Adam gets Ian to guide them. He takes them to an agreeably grimy nightspot where a quality punk band grinds out music, and Adam hears his own droning sounds piped during the break. When the quartet return to Adam’s house at dawn, he and Eve retreat to bed, leaving Ava and Ian together. In the evening, Eve is shocked to find Ava has killed Ian, a moment of weakness that’s left her in discomfort from imbibing his polluted blood. Adam and Eve’s patience snaps: they throw Ava out on the street, and she shambles off into the night yelling insults. The couple quickly rid themselves of the immediate problem by taking Ian’s corpse to an abandoned factory and tossing it into a sunken pit filled with some nasty substance: “Don’t ask,” Adam warns Eve, and when the body lands in it, the flesh is immediately eaten away. Eve recoils, and mutters, “Well, that was visual,” in a wry punch line that feels like a jab back at the way Jarmusch has been criticised for rarely indulging visual qualities. Realising that they still face investigation because Ian had been seen with them in public, Adam agrees to accompany Eve back to Algiers. They fast through the flight in anticipation of some of Kit’s quality blood stash, but the pair finds Kit is dying, tended to by a distraught Bilal, from blood that was badly contaminated. Thus, the pair is left not just distraught by the fading of their friend and fellow true believer, but also starving.
For all its blackly humorous morbidity, invocations of collapse and melancholia, and permanent nocturnal atmosphere that resolves in a restaging-cum-parody of a strung-out junkie-lovers drama like Panic in Needle Park (1971), Only Lovers Left Alive is a work of peculiar grace and good humour, even in its darker refrains. The title’s implicit message (borrowed from a scifi novel that inspired a punk rock album) speaks of romanticism undying and captures the peculiar faith upheld by everyone who treasures a work of art, even in an age that wants to transduce it all into a cloud of bits somewhere. Adam mocks Ava for enjoying something on You Tube (admittedly, only a schlocky piece of Euro dance music with a video featuring a joke shop Dracula and go-go dancers) and ignoring the grand cornucopia such phenomena provide, the ready, but not tactile connection with a vast scheme of invention.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a stand for the tactile connection, albeit one whose mood is ethereal. Adam and Eve inherit the dreams and achievements of a culture that has so little use for them. Adam is given renewed zest and will to fight for his survival in a new and alienating place when he sees a young female singer, Yasmine (Yasmine Hamdan), performing in café, a vision of leather-clad beauty and talent suggesting that Adam’s ever-renewing search for quality and cool has found a new, embryonic zone for experiment and distillation—a new zeitgeist to be absorbed by. His next phase, and Eve’s, too, can only be achieved, however, through an act of calculated parasitism. The couple put it off as long as possible, but when presented by an opportunity—a young couple making out in a deserted courtyard—they move upon them with impunity, bearing their fangs before the film blacks out in an unnerving and bleakly funny last glimpse. Even the biggest dreamer amongst us is still just another animal.
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Director: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
I can remember when loving John Carpenter’s The Thing was still a rather lonely business. Carpenter’s remake was largely dismissed and derided upon release, chiefly for its gore, but also for its defiantly, disturbingly corporeal take on what had been a considered a very clean-cut alien invader fantasy when filmed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951. But the intensity and intelligence of the film’s revision of the original to speak to a new era slowly gained traction, to the point now where it’s widely considered Carpenter’s best film. In the 32 years since its release, it’s become a significant cult film and rite of passage for young fans of fantastic cinema, as well as something rare in motion picture history. Standing with the likes of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), The Thing proved that remakes could, in apt and imaginative hands, be taken seriously in their own right, not eclipsing a predecessor, but rather providing it with a potently evolved progeny.
Moreover, Carpenter’s take had claims to precedence over the original film as a more conceptually faithful adaptation of former Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell’s feted 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Burt Lancaster’s son, took Campbell’s original notion of a shape-shifting alien and made it their version’s reason for being, whilst maintaining the essential, classic set-up of a remote polar base under siege by a thing from another world. The result is as tough, harsh, and near-abstract in its elisions and uncertainty as any big-budget film ever made.
For Carpenter, The Thing was a troubled achievement. The young film student who, with some UCLA pals, had pieced together Dark Star (1974) with duct tape and hobby glue became the hugely successful hero of low-budget independent film with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). Armed with millions of Universal Studios’ dollars, he made a film that has become both a fixed pole of excellence in his oeuvre, but was also the culmination of a seemingly inexorable career rise that was halted by the film’s weak financial performance and constantly frustrated thereafter.
Although The Thing was the first film for which Carpenter had not written either the script or the score, both provided instead by Lancaster and Ennio Morricone, respectively, with large contributions by special-effects wizards Rob Bottin and Dick Smith, the film is marked on all levels by Carpenter’s innate sensibility: the salty, plebeian mood of its characters, the sense of isolation and besiegement by forces beyond human control, the sustained mood of eerie dislocation. Even the unnerving electronic throb of Morricone’s scoring mimics and augments Carpenter’s familiar effects in music perfectly, spelling out lingering dread even as the viewer comprehends a stunning snow-crusted vista. Lancaster, had previously penned The Bad News Bears (1976), and whilst The Thing proved to be his last screenplay, his dialogue is almost endlessly quotable in its salty fashion, swiftly painting character and milieu. A brief prologue of a spaceship tearing out of the void and crashing into Earth’s atmosphere segues into Carpenter’s only direct nod to the original film, recreating the indelible image of the title seeming to burn or rip through a black field.
The concision of the original film’s metaphors for the paranoid new frontiers of the Cold War give way to something very different, an insidious process of breakdown and infiltration: whilst still “alien,” the Thing here is not a convenient Other, but a force lurking within familiar bodies, warping, perverting, and disassembling the given reality of the humans who contend with it. Gone, too, is the conflict of cold science and hot militarism in the original, reorganised (but not actually replaced) by different versions of survival impulse: here, the scientist, as in the original, endangers the team, but with the very different purpose of protecting the rest of the world and thinking about larger pictures than the mere frame of personal survival. Carpenter only offers a brief picture of his Antarctic explorers before chaos visits their midst, because that’s all he needs to paint the group and individual dynamics: the clashing temperaments, the huddled group and the self-exiled cowboy R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), black and white, rebels, bohemians, and company men—all echoes back to Dark Star and its portrait of men sent out on an absurd, isolating mission that has broken down not merely patterns of prescribed behaviour, but also individual personalities. Here there’s a subtle distinction between the hard-hat workers there to keep the machines running and the scientist nerds, but this soon dissipates in the face of individual responses to threat, as all characters are revealed, in their varying ways, to be both helpless in the face of such adversity but also often sneakily resilient and leadership roles are reassigned according to temperament and situational wit rather than societally imposed standards.
Carpenter’s innate respect for individualism is clearly at play here, but also placed in telling conflict with other urges—herd instinct and mutual responsibility. The camp’s inhabitants are all men, isolated in the first week of winter, to keep watch upon the Antarctic ice seemingly for the sake of it: commander Garry (Donald Moffat), helicopter pilot MacReady, blasé radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites), camp cook Nauls (T. K. Carter), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), biologists Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney), and mechanics Palmer (David Clennon) and Childs (Keith David). Priceless, and precise vignettes of personal adaptation and maladaptation, from MacReady getting pissy with his computer’s chess programme and tipping a drink into it for revenge, to Nauls torturing Bennings by playing Stevie Wonder through the night, and Palmer and Childs getting high whilst watching VHS copies of old “Wheel of Fortune” episodes. This collection of men threatening at first appearance to break into distracted, preoccupied islets of coping with their isolation and the hell that is other people, are shocked back into reality by new circumstances. The narrative is propelled by the loss of individuality, as members of the team are assimilated down to the finest detail, for the purpose of perfect chameleonic disguise. Yet the innate certainty of some of the characters, like MacReady, that they’re still human provides the closest thing to certainty in the often opaque narrative.
The film’s pitiless logic distinguishes it, and moreover, the very narrative is about that logic, from the moment the husky dog that is actually the Thing’s last vessel reaches the U.S. National Science Institute Base 4, relying on the inability of the humans to recognise it as a threat so that they kill the last person who might’ve stopped the monster—the apparently mad Norwegian who’s chased it in a helicopter from his own devastated base. One of the cleverest revisions of both short story and original film was this narrative remove of having the Thing discovered not by the characters at the centre of the tale but by their predecessors in a chain of bleakly self-replicating events that mimic the Thing’s method of reproducing itself. The circumstances of its discovery, its thawing, and just what it originally looked like are all left to the imagination. There’s no causative immediacy for the American team, then, only an outlandish proliferation of mysteries and instabilities, the horror of a situation where, by the time they become properly aware of just what’s going on, they might be powerless to halt.
The confrontation with otherworldly forces finally comes when animal-loving Clark locks away the foreign dog in a kennel with the camp’s own, only for the arrival to split apart and reveal itself as a spidery mass of tissue that begins absorbing and replicating the other animals in a grotesque display of corporeal invasion and perversion. “I don’t know what it is,” Clark says to his campmates when they come running, “But it’s weird and pissed and off, whatever it is.” This is about the limit of what we come to learn about the Thing, apart from its relentless drive to survive in what fashion it can now that it’s found a new host world. Carpenter turned stomachs with his willingness to show the Thing going about some of its business, a rare segue into outright revulsion for the director. And yet it also came with the thrill of seeing something genuinely original and nightmarishly convincing, as well as viscerally intriguing in trying to capture just how a very different life form might behave, something most scifi cinema shies away from. This also sets up some of the best shocks in cinema history, like the infamous moment when the belly of a man apparently dying of heart failure suddenly opens like a massive pair of monstrous jaws, and the eruption of a dish full of blood that signals the crewman least you least suspect of being infected is, in fact, the Thing.
One of the greatest qualities of The Thing, however, is its embrace of ambiguity in the situation not merely to excite the audience with mystery but as a dramatic end—and not in that schematic manner of more gimmicky films. In spite of the endless attempts of fanboys to parse the film’s deliberate obscurities and unsolved mysteries, Carpenter’s filmmaking maintains teasing force. Characters disappear, their fates unclear, and one, famously, turns up again to leave the finale tingling with unanswerable angst. One of the disappointing aspects of Carpenter’s later work is his decreasing patience with setting up and deploying his effects, a surrender to adolescent glee in jokey violence and dime-store horrors, where the hallmark of his early work was the relentless control he wielded over camera and mood, that reached a height here. Camera movements analyse empty space in a manner reminiscent of Mario Bava, with some of Carpenter’s most memorable shots here depicting nothing, only wandering the halls of the station, suggesting unseen presences. Sometimes the camera takes on points of view in peering into corners and picking out patches of horror lit by torches with a sense of elision that gives a constant feeling of never quite seeing all.
Glimpses of things hellish are brief and stunning, like when Windows enters a storeroom where moments before Bennings had been working, and is confronted first by gruesome traces of blood and slime, and then looking over to where Bennings is in the grip of the monster, now a caricature of a human form swathed in tentacles. Carpenter sets this scene up with a deliberate nod to a similar scene in The Fog, which itself remixed another moment in Halloween. Whereas in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, the threat was an Other clearly defined in nature but rendered close to abstract in concentrating on the reactions of his heroes to threat, here the film’s story offers the most perfect metaphorical reduction of Carpenter’s interest in this theme (barring perhaps the more comic, but equally sharp hypnotism of They Live, 1988) in that Other is now Us. Carpenter might have taken some licence from the flesh-twisting and rupturing of David Cronenberg and Alien (1979), but an equally close ancestor could be Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Soft Beans,” with its famous image of a two-headed rock man trying to rip himself apart, often referred to as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, civil war is what The Thing portrays, a disintegrating body politic, making the film at one with Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But the microcosm serves Carpenter better than many of his more sprawling takes on the theme.
The care taken with lighting, shooting, and acting that the big budget allowed Carpenter undoubtedly helped bring all this to a fine edge, though his early films had no lack of such craft. The narrative and the characters accept a situation where the precise limitations of threat dissolve and leave only taunting vagaries about the degree to which any of them cannot only be sure they can kill a Thing that can reproduce to the smallest molecule, but be sure of being human themselves and of surviving. The tension between individual and group reflexes of survival is beautifully studied in contemplating the Thing and the Humans, where for each, the temptation to go it alone is exposing. Faced with the necessity of group action, MacReady comes in from the cold, but finds himself almost killed in a roundelay of mistrust and power plays in which who the best man to lead against the monster becomes a genuinely vexed question. Where earlier Palmer had mocked official leader Garry in pondering “when El Capitan was gonna get to use his pop gun,” Garry hands over that pop gun when he comes under suspicion of sabotaging a potential test for identifying the Thing. MacReady’s reaction to his computer beating him at chess seems almost bratty and childish, but is quietly rhymed later when Blair watches his own computer mapping out the Thing’s replication pattern, calculating that the entire Earth could be infected by it in 25,000 hours. Blair obeys the computer logic and reaches for his gun; MacReady rebels and leads. MacReady’s observations of the Thing during one of its rampages realises that the alien is just like the group of humans fighting it, composed of unruly components that react blindly when threatened. This realization gives him a tool to uncover it.
The Thing is a grinning death’s head of a film, coolly, relentlessly sarcastic and laced with cruel swerves of fate, from the opening scene where the Norwegian, played by producer Larry J. Franco, accidentally blows up his fellow survivor with a grenade meant for the infected dog and then getting shot after his warnings in his uncomprehended language are taken for lunatic ramblings. A similarly contradictory mania grips Blair, the camp’s biggest brain and the one everyone looks to for answers, who devolves into a ranting, axe-wielding madman is because he’s the first to comprehend the extent of the danger. Deciding that the entire camp must be quarantined, he smashes up MacReady’s helicopter and Windows’ radio, robbing both men of purpose, in effect, and then spurring them to opposite reactions. Windows makes a play for individual defence, running to get himself a gun but only precipitating a leadership crisis as Garry is implicated by circumstance, whilst MacReady takes up the mantle as “somebody more even-tempered” than the aggressively querulous Childs.
MacReady, in Campbell’s story a gnarled, elemental hunk likened to a bronze statue, is here a spiky, faintly asocial cowboy who possesses the right mixture of chilly readiness and native intelligence to take an effective stand against both the monster and his own crewmates. He’s the ideal hero for the circumstances, though Carpenter and Russell would later collaborate to disassemble his perfection for laughs in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). First contact, historically laced with devastating plagues—here, between man and alien—is no different as virtually from the moment the dog arrives at the station, the men are doomed. This is not to say their fight is worthless, as MacReady, the most genuine survivor amongst the crew recognises: just as Blair does half the job of closing off the men’s chances for escape, so the rest of them close off the Thing’s chances.
Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography aids inestimably in creating contrasts early on between hermetic exteriors and microcosmic interiors, shooting David Lean vistas in the unerringly crisp ratio, opening the film proper with a view of an ice-fringed cliff wall and the helicopter that appears as a tiny dot, like Omar Sharif’s appearance in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Like Lawrence, such expanse becomes a prison. But the frames are often oblique and distance. Scenes shift with dreamy dissolves. High-flying helicopter shots offer primal expanses that contain essential nothingness. Life is only possible within the fragile human abodes, which become temporal traps.
Beautifully unusual as exposition and tension-building, too, is the way backstory is drip-fed. MacReady and Copper venture out to the Norwegian camp in the hope of saving lives, instead finding a ghostly ruin littered with signs of violence, a huge, suggestively shaped block of ice that something has clearly broken out of, and piles of incinerated corpses that seem to have been warped together like the most perverse visions of surrealist art. Video footage purloined from the Norwegians gives clues to what they found, and Carpenter wittily reproduces the iconic shot from the original film of the men marking out the shape of a buried and frozen flying saucer, albeit once removed, glimpsed like the original film as a fuzzy relic on a black-and-white screen.
The actual spaceship, which MacReady, Norris, and Palmer seek out, proves to have been partly incinerated by the Norwegian attempt to extract it, and to have been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years, a nasty birthday present from the universe for whoever found it. That’s become a rather common motif of scifi cinema since this film, and perhaps marks out the long shadow of Nigel Kneale on Carpenter’s work with its obsession with primeval atavism, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) equal mark on the genre as a whole in looking to a distant past as key to present calamity. In any event, Carpenter’s precise use of quiet and space to create his nerve-jangling mood segues into scenes where all hell memorably breaks loose, particularly in the aforementioned sequence in which Norris is revealed to be a Thing by Copper’s cardiac shocks. The shocks stir the beast within to snap off the doctor’s arms before distorting and ripping apart, an id-beast with Copper’s face dangling from the ceiling whilst Norris’ head detaches, grows legs like a spider, and crawls away, stirring Palmer’s immortal motto, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” And, of course, the sustained tension of the scene in which MacReady puts his idea into practice whilst holding the crew at gunpoint—or, rather, flamethrower-point—by poking petri dishes filled with each man’s blood, having realised the Thing’s peculiar nature means that every part of it is, in essence, a separate entity, and the blood of a Thing ought to react. MacReady resorts to such measures after he falls under suspicion of being a Thing himself, locked out in the blizzard by Nauls and forced to shoot Clark when he tries to ambush MacReady with a scalpel.
The sequence that follows is a marvel not just of unerring construction, but also of dramatic byplay, as the specific characters react to each twist, from Childs taunting MacReady over Clark’s proving to be human after mocking the test as a crock of shit, to Nauls’ queasy expression as his test comes around and then his intense, hawkish look once he’s freed and holds the flamethrower himself, and Garry’s veneer of patience giving way to a hilarious final eruption of anger. In between, the startling revelation that Palmer, the classic least likely suspect, is a Thing, transmogrifying gruesomely, with skull splitting into toothsome halves that crunch on Windows and stumbling out into the polar dark whilst burning like a roman candle. At the point where victory seems possible for the men, however, new calamity forces them to contemplate extinction, as they venture out to test Blair, but find him vanished and a half-built alien spaceship under the tool hut, hinting that Blair’s been assimilated and their survival mission has literally been undermined. The simultaneous, mysterious venture of Blair into the snowy dark and the breakdown of the camp’s engine signal that the Thing now wants to refreeze and wait for a rescue party, demanding that MacReady, Garry, and Nauls burn their little world down to flush out the Thing at the inevitable cost of their own lives.
Arguably the film gives in to a less sophisticated brand of monster movie shtick in its climax, as the complete Thing, an obscene hodgepodge of assimilated animal and human parts, erupts from the floor to attack MacReady and release King Kong’s old roar. MacReady tosses dynamite at it with regulation action-hero pith and a sub-Bond kiss-off line. And yet the foreboding and disorientating effects extend right to the end, too, in the glimpse of more cringe-inducing corporeal invasion as the Blair-Thing assaults Garry, fingers sliding under the skin of his face and fusing solidly with it, whilst Nauls vanishes. Most memorable of all is the very coda, which embraces bleak, yet humorously deadpan stoicism of a brand that feels all too apt in the land of Scott and Shackleton. Childs and MacReady, on the edge of death and with one or both of them an alien by now, sit by their burning world, doing what a couple of working stiffs do when there’s nothing more to do—drink J&B. MacReady’s last line, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?”, ends the tale on the most low-key, yet utterly perfect note of exhausted acquiescence, MacReady’s tiny, appended laugh signaling he sees the cosmic joke in it all.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Byron Haskin
By Roderick Heath
Eleanor Parker’s death last December at the marvellously ripe age of 91 saddened me greatly. On top of the loss of a link with history, Parker had long been one of my favourite female stars from classic Hollywood. I’d had a powerful crush on her ever since first seeing her in Scaramouche (1952), where she whips up a storm as the hero’s fiery actress-mistress. The Naked Jungle is sublime stuff for the Parker fetishist and a quintessential work of ’50s adventure cinema. Adapted from an admired short story by Carl Stephenson, the film was produced by George Pal, a former animator who moved into live-action films and became one of the most successful filmmakers feeding the science fiction craze of the post-War era, commencing with Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Pal had evident ambitions to become the next Cecil B. DeMille, to whom he paid overt tribute by adapting two of his failed projects, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and mimicking his mix of epic largesse and religious piety. The quasi-biblical flavour of tribulation and transcendence found in Pal’s movies was corny, but bolder than rivals staking out a place in the scifi race in seeking to capture the psychic polar extremes of the era.
Pal’s brand reached its height when he hired Byron Haskin to direct War of the Worlds (1953). By that time, Haskin had been working in films for 30 years, having made his directing debut in the late ’20s, but was known mainly as a cinematographer until he made the superb Technicolor hit for Disney, Treasure Island (1950). His work with Pal was the next high point of his career, as the pair developed a grand, hysterical, almost hallucinogenically lush Technicolor brand of scifi cinema with War of the Worlds that plugged vividly into the era’s fantasies and colonised the minds of a generation of budding filmmakers: Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and a host of others have paid homage to it over the years.
Haskin, like Jack Arnold and Gordon Douglas, actually directed only a handful of scifi films but remains associated with the genre because he did his most famous work in it and indeed seemed most at home there. The much-derided Conquest of Space (1955) ended the Pal-Haskin partnership until they reunited for The Power (1968), but that sadly confirmed how out of place their brand of craftsmanship was in the late ’60s. Haskin had, in the meantime, continued to work occasionally in the genre, directing important episodes of the TV show “The Outer Limits,” including the famous ‘Demon with a Glass Hand’ episode by Harlan Ellison, and the eerie cult film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The Naked Jungle was the immediate follow-up to War of the Worlds and represented a digression into period exotic adventure, though it has aspects in common with scifi cinema’s “creature feature” impulses insofar as the climax involves combating a monstrous animal force. Here, the monster is entirely earthly and real, but no less alien. And yet for much of its length, The Naked Jungle is not a film about man vs. wild, but rather a tale of man vs. woman, though the two are definitely linked within the narrative logic.
The Naked Jungle is definitely of a piece with When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, with its emphasis on collapsing “civilisation,” individuals standing in the way of almost cosmic-level nihilism, and Haskin’s powerful, colour-sodden, cleanly contextualised images of fire, corrosion, and calamity. However, it avoids piety, perhaps reflecting the strong influence of coscreenwriter Ben Maddow, blacklisted at the time and fronted by Philip Yordan. Maddow’s incisive gall inflects the film’s vision of a capitalist empire run by a repressed yob and very literally eaten away by hive-mind labourers; or perhaps because of its historical 1901 setting, the need for such reassurance was negated. But it certainly has the same thematic stresses as other Pal films, with the emphasis of the film as a whole on the peculiarities of human willpower to both create and destroy and the ghost in the machine itching to tear the works down. There’s an intimacy, however, to these transcendent/apocalyptic visions that far outstrips many of Pal’s inheritors in modern cinema of spectacular destruction like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. As War of the Worlds finds its poetic center in a young woman’s anguished recollection of lost peace and safety, so The Naked Jungle is, for most of its length, squarely and as unabashedly as you could get in the ’50s, about sex. The title isn’t entirely a tease in that regard: animalistic impulses threaten self-appointed titan Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) from within and without. Parker is Joanna, a mail-order bride from New Orleans who travels via steamboat to Leiningen’s coffee plantation in the Rio Negro area of the Amazon jungle.
When Joanna arrives in Leiningen’s whitewashed castle filled with trappings of Western civilisation tediously brought in by boat, a trove Joanna is intended to round off, she finds the workforce of tribal folk more welcoming than Leiningen, whose Olympian attitude apparently borders on contempt for her. After several exchanges of strained politesse, Joanna finally loses her cool in a memorable eruption of verve: “Yes – I am exactly as represented. I speak several languages, play the piano, converse intelligently, and have very nice teeth. Would you care to count them?” Joanna then compares herself to a horse Leiningen bought, though at one point Haskin frames him with a statuette of a stallion, indicating he’s the would-be stud. Leiningen’s response is even franker in its conceit: “You’re very beautiful – intelligent – accomplished. There must be something wrong with you.” He soon enough sniffs it out: Joanna is a widow, a friend of Leiningen’s brother who recommended herself as the best candidate after he asked her to help him find a wife for the Amazon plantation owner. This leads into the film’s cunningly portrayed central problem. Leiningen is a virgin, having begun his empire building as a teen and resisted the temptation to sleep with the native women: “They have a name for the white men who sneak into the native villages at night. I was determined that no one would ever call me by that name.” As such, he’s initially repelled by the thought of a sexually experienced wife. Gleeful metaphors abound as Leiningen and Joanna compare her presence to the never-played piano he had shipped in. “A good piano sounds better when it’s played,” Joanna retorts pithily, and we all know what she means. Leiningen’s adamantine control begins to crack almost immediately. Taunted by Joanna’s preference of her own perfume to the brands he had imported, he gets drunk, kicks down her bedroom door, and splashes scent all over in a moment of tactile, erotic frenzy before his willpower returns.
Leiningen begins schooling Joanna in “what you’re up against” in introducing her to both the world he’s carved out with his two hands and the glowering force of sexual frustration. The plantation used to be a swamp, but the water is now held back by lock gates (plot point!); Leiningen extrapolates that a similar mental gate is required to hold the physically and spiritually corrosive power of the jungle—nature itself—at bay, pointing out one of his workers who has Mayan ancestry, “one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known,” but who has devolved into a head-hunter. Lest we mistake Leiningen for one of them exploit-the-natives capitalists, fellow planter Gruber (John Dierkes) turns up with a full head of steam, believing some of his contract workers have run off to Leiningen, and indeed he finds two hiding amongst Leiningen’s crew, identified by the whip marks on their backs. Leiningen outwits Gruber with the aid of the state commissioner (William Conrad), who’s been waylaid by Gruber to help reclaim the workers, by the somewhat torturous but successful ploy of accusing the two men of murder—the shrunken head carried by another worker is used as a prop. His move to hang them gives the commissioner pretext to intervene and hold them for trial, rather than deliver them back to Gruber’s tender mercies. Joanna meanwhile is momentarily shocked out of her formidably wide comfort zone by the spectacle of a native justice ritual that results in a man being killed. She abuses Leiningen’s foreman Incacha (Abraham Sofaer) for letting it happen, but, of course, the dead man is Incacha’s son.
The Naked Jungle looks back over its shoulder to fetid melodramas like West of Zanzibar (1927) and Red Dust (1932) in using a jungle setting as mimetic canvas to paint perfervid fantasies, whilst its themes both pay heed to and mock late Victorian Freudian theories of repression as the key to constructing civilisations. Neither Haskin nor Heston and Parker step back from the campy edge to the hothouse melodrama, and indeed push gleefully toward and over the edge as Leiningen moves from chilly Pharaonic recline to panther-like lunges and poses over the piano as he probes Joanna about her past and her knowledge of men with the energy of a prosecutor grilling a murderess, with Parker’s blue eyes registering insult and provocation and converting them into energy. Parker, just before delivering that crack about pianos, rises whilst pounding a discordant note on the keyboard, as if the soundtrack has invaded the movie itself to declare infinite offence. Relations devolve into a comically grotesque show before the commissioner as Joanna tries to inform him that she’s leaving but not because the Amazon has proven too much for her, whilst Leiningen tries to feed her dictatorial cues, and the film moves into the territory occupied by Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk as Technicolor satirists of bourgeois gender relations.
Young Heston’s odd mixture of physical strength and ability to play febrile personalities was rarely better exploited as Leiningen strikes poses worthy of Bauhaus sculpture, a study in masculine strength who almost immediately starts crumbling within when confronted by Joanna’s all-but-irresistible cache of feminine virtues. Whilst Heston had made his mainstream debut in a DeMille film, the invocations here of primal struggle with plague and flood more clearly point the way forward to his role as Moses. Yet as a protagonist, Leiningen more recalls John Wayne’s Matt Dunston in Red River (1948), a haute macho icon with a vein of rich hysteria just under the surface, and like Dunston, Leiningen engages in a titanic, almost mythic enterprise only to feel the ground slipping out from under his feet: “I was afraid you were disappointed in me,” Joanna announces excitedly as she cottons on to Leiningen, “Instead you’re afraid of me.” Superman loosens up and confesses to having read the books of poetry he has piled around the house. The moment with the perfume has its mirror later as Joanna entices him to put insect repellent on her back, in a scene that approximates the temperatures inside supernovae whilst not even resolving with the traditional kiss. The kind of primeval power a man can obtain in the jungle is transmitted by signs and legends: “Beyond that next bend, your husband has more power than a king,” the commissioner tells Joanna on the boat taking her upriver toward this Amazonian Heart of Darkness. But the jungle’s power is signified at the same moment, as the captain of the steamboat (Romo Vincent) notes birds flying far out of their climes, the first mark of something happening deep within that heart that can upend the peace treaty Leiningen has made with the earth.
The tension and mystery about what’s out there are built carefully but marginalised for most of the first hour of The Naked Jungle. It’s made amusingly clear just how dreadful it could be, as the commissioner confirms he’s ventured upriver to find out what it is, and utters the dread word, “Marabunta!” to Leiningen, who is so alarmed he makes sure no one could possibly be listening before allowing the conversation to continue, whilst scorer Daniele Amfitheatrof lets loose with his oft-repeated theme of the threat for the first time, a wild-sounding, high flurry on wind instruments that sounds like a bird’s fearful cry. When Leiningen decides to go with the commissioner, he packs Joanna along, intending to send her across land to catch a boat out. But the signs of dread proliferate, with wildlife and villages all deserting the locale. A floating canoe proves to have a dazzlingly clean skeleton in it, albeit still clad in clothes that identify it as Gruber’s. Finally the heroes are confronted by the awesome sight, far more destructive and dangerous than any monster of myth, of the Marabunta: a colossal column of soldier ants, or, as the commissioner dubs it, “40 square miles of agonising death,” devouring all in its path, and working irresistibly toward Leiningen’s plantation. Leiningen, of course, decides to defend his turf, pitting immoveable object against unstoppable force. Joanna half-coerces him into letting her stay rather than leave with the baleful commissioner, pointing out that her presence gives him power over the workers. Not taking chances, however, Leiningen steals a leaf from Cortez—surely a deliberate echo—and burns his workers’ boats to prevent escape.
The Naked Jungle belongs in a blurred genre zone. In addition to its variation on the themes of Pal’s scifi series and an historical adventure, the story patterns and audience-appeal tropes recall films like The Hurricane (1937) and The Rains Came (1939) as sexy dramas set in exotic places with climactic deus ex machina transfigurations, and looking forward to the ’70s craze for disaster movies and the horror films of an oncoming age. Although there’s little overt gore in the film, the visceral nature of its implied horror laid groundwork for a significant subgenre. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) followed the model of the Haskin-Pal film in concentrating on a tense romance foregrounding calamitous animal attacks in a vision of truths behind the human condition, and beyond to the craze for animal-attack films in the ’70s exemplified by Jaws (1975), by which time the metaphorical force of this narrative pattern as displaced portrait of invasive forces eating at the western body politic would be more starkly obvious. Paul Verhoeven, a fan of War of the Worlds in his youth, may have remembered The Naked Jungle for Starship Troopers (1997), where the ideas are the same but the bugs bigger, whilst Spielberg quotes it for a gleefully nasty trope in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), though there, the ants eat the communist. Most intriguingly, perhaps, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo likewise essays the same theme in the same setting. There, the secret brittleness of Haskin’s white übermensch was exchanged for Herzog’s beautiful, nonconformist visionary, but both heroes test their own potential to gain dominion against natural forces and fail in a fashion that confirms them as titans who refuse to become Promethean victims, but instead find revelation in loss. The common link between Pal’s monster movie and Herzog’s arthouse drama is the immediate sense of existential peril, a vivid interest in the contrast of powerful individual humanity against implacable surrounds.
In Leiningen’s case, this comes in contending with a force that overwhelms and outwits his efforts to hold it off, but finds other things in defeat. Not least of which, natch, is that it seals the deal in his marriage, and the mission is changed not just by the threat of the ants but of Leiningen’s changing perspective and circumstance to become one of protection, and not mere defiance. Haskin’s sense of style is unobtrusive and yet undeniable: the cinematography by Ernest Laszlo, a fin-de-siècle trumpet blast for the beauty of Technicolor Academy-ratio pictorialism as the widescreen age was burgeoning, offers rich depth of field and space in the boxy format, seeking out balancing elements in compositions, and smooth tracking shots that dog the characters incisively, like the deft little track forward as Joanna and Leiningen provoke each other as she plays the piano. A keen eye for colour coding is plain as the white walls of Leiningen’s buildings, his outpost of civilisation, and are echoed by the characters’ dress. Joanna arrives clad in a blazing white jacket, an emissary of alien cleanliness and angelic beauty that makes her instantly iconic to the native workmen, whilst Leiningen first appears filthy and clad in earthy colours. Later, as the two stand together to form a united front for the native labourers, both are dressed in pale hues matching the house, symbolising their unity with the world they’re defending, not long before the insinuating masses of black ants begin crawling over the plaster. Pulsating greens dominate exteriors and, as disaster comes, fire rendered in nightmarish hues call back to War of the Worlds, as Leiningen’s last bulwark against the invaders burns away.
Haskin and Pal’s special-effects team do more restrained work here than in Pal’s other scifi works, offering painterly matte depictions of the oncoming swarm, first glimpsed as a great, grey, teeming gash in the jungle, and then cleverly layered shots of the ants crawling on limbs, stripping away leaf and stem, and reducing Leiningen’s plantation to a skeletal desert. The sense of staging reaches a crescendo in the film’s most famous and excerpted scene, as Leiningen’s rotund lock keeper (Jack Reitzen), performing the vital task of keeping the canals Leiningen’s dug as a barrier to the ants filled with floodwater, falls asleep at his post, with the camera tilting down from his sleeping face to note the masses of ants crawling up his legs. Awakening, he’s flung into a thrall of terror, screaming as his eyes are eaten in their sockets by the horde.
Haskin returns to the same image, of a man’s hand curling up in pain as the ants swarm on his body, the second time with Leiningen himself as he makes his last desperate effort: whereas that binary moment of him rubbing fluid on Joanna’s body carried potent erotic meaning, here the corporeal sensation is equally powerful and far more terrible, whilst the efforts of both men to hang on to life is reduced to the singular picture (interestingly, the poster of Saul Bass’s new-age variation of the story, Phase IV , depicts an ant burrowing its way out of a hand) that calls back to Luis Buñuel’s love of crawling ants as symbol of irrepressible forces, the tingling sensatory quality of dozens of tiny feet evoking the finest patterns of the nervous system. Of course, Leiningen fares better than his employee and escapes the gnawing death to induce his own destructive flood, destroying the lock gate entirely and allowing the waters to wash the ant horde away, saving lives at the cost of rolling back his labours. Leiningen is caught by the boiling waters, but lurches his way out of the mud and into Joanna’s arms on a water-logged plain as the end title appears. It profits a man everything, it seems, to lose his world but gain his woman.
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Director: Mark Robson
By Roderick Heath
Not the most popular or famous of Val Lewton’s epochal series of low-budget horror films made for RKO Studios, The Seventh Victim is the deepest, the most original, perhaps the darkest, a film that tends to weave a powerful spell on those who tune into its peculiar wavelength. The fourth film in Lewton’s horror cycle, it was the directorial debut of Mark Robson, who, like Robert Wise, had worked as an editor at RKO. He was promoted after Lewton’s first director collaborator Jacques Tourneur graduated to bigger-budget productions, and who would go on to a long career with many strong films as well as some shamefully shoddy late career labours that bespoke cruel truths about the decline of the studio system and the talents it fostered.
Tourneur’s films with Lewton had clearly reflected both men’s status as immigrants, fascinated and alienated by the American landscape. Robson and Wise were more parochially alert, and facilitated a shift in focus in Lewton’s series to foreign and historical settings, where a similar sense of unfamiliarity could be sustained. The Seventh Victim looked back to the initial success of Lewton’s series, Cat People (1942), and to silent melodramas that had blended aspects of realism with fable-like storytelling precepts, like Victor Sjöstrom’s The Phantom Carriage (1920) and D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1922), whilst also looking forward to many films, and indeed genres that didn’t yet exist. Jacques Rivette would strive to recapture its atmosphere with several films, particularly Duelle (1976). Alfred Hitchcock may have remembered it in the most famous scene of Psycho (1960). Roman Polanski would engage its ideas for Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Dario Argento channelled it for Inferno (1980). Stanley Kubrick would partly remake it as Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Hints of its influence are detectable in urban horror stories of Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma.
One reason for this slow yet indelible effect of The Seventh Victim was that it followed Cat People in proving a horror film could be set in a completely contemporary urban landscape, transformed into a world of dreamlike vignettes and private netherworlds, and unlike its precursor was able to do so without any hint of the supernatural, presenting a situation where human folly creates horror. Robson’s directing wasn’t as smoothly fluid and sophisticated as Tourneur’s had been, but to a certain extent his neophyte coolness helps exacerbate the sequestered mood. Like all of Lewton’s productions, the title came down from RKO honchos. But the erstwhile Ukrainian aesthete, who had immigrated to the US in the company of his aunt, the silent tragedienne Alla Nazimova, took an active interest in every level of his creations, as Lewton excelled his former employer David Selznick in fulfilling the ideal of producer as auteur. Lewton’s approach had a twofold strangeness stemming from linked urges, as he tried to set his dramas in a demonstrably real world, but also psychologised his narratives, and pared them back to simple, almost fairy tale-like precepts, an approach which Lewton would take to an apogee with the next film, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which bypasses horror altogether in spite of the title, and becomes instead a gothic-edged children’s film. Lewton’s fondness for deliberate naïveté is also apparent in The Seventh Victim, which tells the story of young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her first role) and her coming of age whilst on a Snow White-like adventure in the concrete forests of Manhattan. The film kicks off with a quote from John Donne, a quote so suitable it serves almost as the mission statement of the horror genre: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”
Like many fairy tales, this one starts with an exile from home, albeit a place that’s not really a home. The two Gibson sisters, Mary and older sibling Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) are orphans. Jacqueline has earned a living whilst Mary has grown in a girl’s boarding school. Called before the principal Mrs. Lowood (Ottola Nesmith) and her aide Miss Gilchrist (Eve March), she is told that her sister has been out of touch, and her tuition hasn’t been paid for six months. Mary is offered a post at the school, but Gilchrist encourages her to make a break: “It takes courage to really live in the world,” she says, both as imploration and warning. The narrative’s use of staircases as symbology is plain in the first shot, showing the main staircase in the school, with religious-themed stained glass windows above it, as Mary ascends through a throng of other students, an intimation of Mary’s status as an almost holy innocent about to swim against a tide of human decay. Her departure from the school is one of the brief yet indelible, almost magical Lewton moments, as she smiles both sadly and wryly to herself, descending the stairs this time, in listening to the students in the classrooms being chided and reciting Latin conjugations and Romantic poetry. Mary’s excursion to New York sees her come in contact with a peculiar sprawl of vividly contrasted personalities, most of whom are engaged in duels with their own mortality and searching for meaning in existence.
Mary learns Jacqueline has sold her successful cosmetics business, La Sagesse, to her former assistant Mrs Esther Redi (Mary Newton), and seems to have vanished. Mary begins following a breadcrumb trail, firstly a clue provided by one of La Sagesse’s employees, Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), who leads her to a boarding house run by the Italian immigrant couple, the Romaris (Chef Milani and Marguerita Sylva), above their restaurant in Greenwich Village, where Jacqueline has rented a room that proves to contain an ominous array: a noose suspended above a chair, waiting for someone to take their place at the end of the rope. Such disturbing discoveries point Mary to the morgue in search of her sister, and this leads her to another person seeking out Jacqueline, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont). A prominent lawyer, Gregory says that he loves Jacqueline, but keeps his marriage to her secret from Mary. Such secrets teem in the situation Mary finds herself in, as she soon learns the nature of adulthood seems to be ever-metastasising confusion.
This Snow White gains a single dwarf as helpmate, diminutive private eye Irving August (Lou Lubin), who is taken with her vulnerable desperation. When he’s warned off the case by a bigwig, August’s interest only intensifies, and after checking out La Sagesse, tells Mary that there’s a mysterious locked room in the factory where Jacqueline might be held prisoner. Mary and August steal into La Sagesse, whereupon both freeze up when faced with the long, dark, ominous corridor down to the secret room. Mary can’t work up the will, and instead encourages the timorous August to go in her stead. August finally does disappear into the dark, then reappears, moving strangely and silently, not answering Mary’s appeals, until he drops dead on the floor, bleeding from a wound in his chest.
This terrifically eerie sequence, with the photography (by Nicholas Musuraca) and lighting turning humdrum factory space into a nebulous zone of existential danger and infernal threat, is one of the great moments in the Lewton canon. It also provides an interesting contrast to the famous pool scene in Cat People, which it sustains a similar concept and mood to, insofar as that it pays off with actual violence rather than mere self-induced fright. Except that, fittingly for the film’s themes, August’s death later proves not to have been a malicious killing but one caused by fear, fear of the dark and the quiet just as beset the interloping pair. The way Mary encourages August to venture forth into the dark in her stead reveals the degree to which Mary is still a child, getting the adult to go where she daren’t, whilst the pair of them also resembling a couple of kids standing outside a haunted house daring each-other to go in. But Mary’s has growing capacity as an adult to persuade, an ability to make another do something that has an unexpectedly ugly consequence because of her weakness. This resonates interestingly with the Lewton films on either side of this one, with the ponderings of the nature of free will in The Leopard Man, and the more urgent contemplation of a desire to impose will with fascist overtones in The Ghost Ship (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945): indeed in the Lewton cycle this tendency is considered a genuine evil. Later in the film group will is exerted on an individual for destructive ends.
Mary loses her innocence here, and is sent running out into the night. Riding the subway back and forth in a daze, she’s startled to see two society swells propping up a third who seems passed out drunk, except that the third’s hat tumbles off and she recognises August. Mary chases down a transit cop, but the duo slip off with their charge, making it all seem like some nocturnal imagining. The mood of this scene, with the clamour of the train, sharply contrasts the pellucid silence of the factory scene, and yet compliments it, presenting another perversely claustrophobic, alienating urban environment. I can’t think of another scene like it in film before it, except perhaps in a Hitchcock film like Blackmail (1929), but it certainly anticipates in acute ways the fascination with New York’s fecund, deteriorating infrastructure in ‘70s cinema as a wonderland for evoking anxiety, and specifically a sequence like the one in which Nancy Allen dodges a killer on the subway in Dressed to Kill (1980).
One of the Lewton series’ singular qualities was this way the filmmakers were able to turn limited resources and set-bound productions into precisely atmospheric invocations of place. Just as The Leopard Man (1943) captures the mood of a town on the fringe of the wild, The Seventh Victim follows Cat People in tangibly recreating the feeling of a big city in the hours when its streets might as well be wilderness. That canard of “eight million stories in the naked city” is suggested in Mary’s visit to Missing Persons, a simple tracking shot absorbing an array of similarly befuddled by the ease with which it’s possible to get lost in a big city, even as August tries to reassure Mary that it’s only “nine miles long and three miles wide.” The most overt poetic invocation in The Seventh Victim comes from an actual poet character, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), in whose mind a searchlight above the Manhattan rooftops becomes “Cyrano’s sword,” cutting through “the blue cloak of a prince.” Jason invokes Cyrano de Bergerac, Byron, and is glimpsed at one point sitting “at the foot of Dante,” that is, under a mural in the Romaris’ restaurant under the boarding house, named for the poet. For the jocular Mrs Romari, all intellectual and emotionally complex propositions are humour. “Do you actually want to find your sister?” Jason asks Mary, who catches his eye when she first arrives at the Romaris. Mrs Romari laughs at him, but Jason’s sense that tracking down Jacqueline might involve soul-rending damage proves prescient. The gentle, Hart Crane-ish poet, who’s haunted by a romantic tragedy that killed his burgeoning career, begins finding his way back to functionality as he’s stirred to action on Mary’s behalf. Jason learns he’s not to be Prince Charming, but finds other things that make the effort worthwhile.
Another peculiarity of the Lewton series is the fashion in which it touches on metatextual ground without quite making it overt. Similar characters and roles recur from film to film, whilst actors appear often in interestingly, deliberately contrasting parts. For instance, here the velvet-voiced Ben Bard, who had played a stern but empathic policeman in The Leopard Man is here the leader of a Satanic coven. The Seventh Victim features the most explicit example of this tendency, as Tom Conway reiterates his role from Cat People, the psychiatrist Dr Lewis Judd. Except that he’s not quite the same Judd. For one thing, the character in the other film was mauled to death. For another, this one isn’t as coolly amoral, even if he seems at first just as superciliously obnoxious, phlegmatically brushing off a secretary’s pleas for help for her alcoholic father: “Dipsomania’s…rather sordid.” It soon proves that both Jason and Gregory have reasons to distrust the psychiatrist, who was seen with Jacqueline and Jason’s former sweetheart years before, shortly before they both vanished. Echoes of Cat People’s emotional quandaries are also apparent, the fear over loss of a loved one to mental instability and the abuse of privilege by a physician. The possibility that Cat People might indeed have been a story written by Jason as a j’accuse screed aimed at Judd, converting emotional damage into metaphorical terrors, is entirely conceivable. It’s clear enough why Lewton and regular screenwriting collaborators DeWitt Bodeen (who co-wrote this with Charles O’Neal) would bring back this character: his insolent charm, given body by Conway who was a minor marquee star, provides an engaging cynical, worldly counterpoint to the idealists and placeless drifters who populate the film, as well as a constant hint of sexual evil. Except that here the filmmakers take a chance to divert the outcome of the previous drama, as if deliberately engaging in an act of self-reflexive revision.
Judd first appears approaching Gregory as an apparent emissary from Jacqueline, shaking down the lawyer for money to support her, and remaining cagily impenetrable about what exactly is going on. He then goes to Mary, offering to bring her to Jacqueline. He takes her to an upmarket hotel, but finds that Jacqueline seems to have vanished: “She’s left me to meet them alone,” he murmurs in alarm, and flees, leaving a bewildered Mary to face “them” alone himself. The knock at the hotel room door Mary answers proves however to be Jacqueline, glimpsed only for a few seconds like a fleeting mirage. Few movie characters can ever live up to the levels of mystique as are built up about Jacqueline (notably, like Rebecca de Winter, Jacqueline is spoken of in rather awed terms, and identified by totemic monogrammed effects), and that makes the Brooks’ appearance here all the more unique. When she’s finally glimpsed, with her weird Egyptian-flapper hairstyle and haunted, moon-bright eyes, it’s only for a few seconds: Jacqueline raises a finger to her lips, warning Mary to be quiet lest she attract any of the people searching for her. She’s undoubtedly corporeal and acting for real reasons, but also, seems like some emissary of the underworld, urging silence like an enforcer of taboo and mystery. The film’s obsession with doors and staircases – leading Mary to Jacqueline, Judd wryly comments, when presented with two staircases up to the next floor, that he prefers the “left or sinister side” – as passages between worlds accords with Jean Cocteau’s use of mirrors in his intensely similar Orphée (1949).
Eventually the truth of Jacqueline’s situation begins to emerge: through Mrs Redi she became involved in a group of Satan worshippers known as the Palladists (based on a French society of Satanists rumoured to have practised in the 1800s), and because she told her therapist Judd about them, they’ve declared she must die. The Palladists are hardly however a shocking cult, but a collective that runs the gamut of bohemian oddballs, bored socialites, saturnine malcontents, homosexuals, and the physically damaged. They give a face both to the overwhelming anxiety manifesting in the darkness that crowds the edges of the film, and also suffer from it themselves, and have adopted one method of trying to feel they master life and death. Judd and Jason even move in the same social circles as the Palladists, amongst whom Redi, Mr. Brun (Bard) and one-armed hostess Natalie Cortez (Evelyn Brent) seem to be the senior members. Jason is canny enough to bring Mary and Gregory within close proximity of the coven on a hunch. Judd seems like an ideal Palladist, but he rather stands distinct from them, too intelligent to fall for their folderol, too interested by their strangeness to ignore them, and too scared of what they might do if provoked. Brun expostulates at length the peculiar dichotomy at the heart of the society’s sensibility, its insistence that anyone that breaks its oath of secrecy must die, but also its pledge to non-violence. The only legitimate way they can, then, punish Jacqueline for her transgressions is to force her to commit suicide, but failing that, a few members are willing to go further, not because Jacqueline broke their rules but because she could possibly expose and embarrass them.
The notion that Jacqueline joined the group for erotic as well as emotional and spiritual stimulation percolates below the surface as you’d expect from a 1943 film and yet nudges me constantly, apparent in Frances’ suggestive worship and unconcealed love for Jacqueline (“The only time I was ever happy was when I was with you!”). Redi’s husky-voiced ambiguity is also telegraphed, giving a particularly piquant charge to a scene in which Redi enters Mary’s apartment to warn her off the search for Jacqueline. Mary is caught naked and dripping wet in the shower, with Redi’s silhouetted form glimpsed through the curtain. The prefiguring of Psycho here is unmistakable, although less violent, the note of erotic threat less immediate than a big knife but no less unsettling for the naïve and vulnerable girl. Redi makes a mistake, however, by doing this, because she informs Mary that Jacqueline was in fact the prisoner in the secret room, and she killed August in fright. This fact gives Jason the inspiration to finally pressure Judd, who’s been hiding Jacqueline since she escaped that night, into letting him, Mary, and Gregory take her into their care.
Jason’s tracking of Judd through a skeletal studio version of the Village offers stark, lunar-surface alleyways and blankly silhouetted, shadow-play windows, islets of warmth between oceans of dark. When Judd finally does lead the trio of searchers to Jacqueline’s door, she proves to have now lodged in some mysterious abode, descending into a deep focus frame with peculiarly numinous effect, her waiting cohort of would-be friends and protectors gathered in the foreground. Lewton’s films were usually too starkly budgeted to offer the kind of oversized Expressionistic effects found in Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau’s early work or in Rowland V. Lee’s delirious Son of Frankenstein (1939) with their carefully contrived and constructed games with space and architecture as mimetic canvas, and besides Lewton was usually after something a touch subtler. Here Robson captures something closer to the French 1930s template of “poetic realism,” where more realistic environments were carefully manipulated to create expressive settings, here managed on the back-lot sets with an almost theatrical minimalism. Robson was following on from Tourneur’s work, and pointing the way forward to the similar mix the most visually vivid noir films would sport within a few years. Many of the personnel who worked with Lewton, including Robson, had indeed worked on Orson Welles’ costly but deeply influential works at the studio, and indeed in many ways Lewton and team found practical applications for much that Welles had helped evolve.
Jacqueline’s “return to life” however proves disorientating: taken to Jason’s studio, she recounts August’s killing in a spellbinding moment, with Robson tracking his camera in slowly to her wan and haunted face, and then finally her eyes, a shot that summarises, for me, the essence of Lewton’s achievement and perhaps indeed the genre. Where before she had ministered silence to hold the abyss at bay, now she confesses with words but those eyes say more about abysses she’s seen into. As tawdry as the Palladists are, the terrors they’ve evoked for Jacqueline after a life of frantically seeking sensual experience have pushed her to the edge of sanity, of liminal awareness, which with her morbidly fixated nature she feels experiences with all the acuity of a Dostoevsky character. At the same time, Jason, realising his romantic hopes are fading as Mary is gravitating more to Gregory’s paternal charm, tries to hint, by way of his extended Cyrano metaphor, to Jacqueline that her husband is in love with her sister. A dance of attraction has been in motion behind the scenes, between the carefully calibrated types: Gregory as upholder of order, Jason as protean creator, Judd as guardian of the psyche and healer, with Mary and Jacqueline, objects of their affections, as mirroring siblings, who embody Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, in William Blake’s parlance.
The dance ends unsatisfyingly on one level: it’s hard to believe Mary would fall for Gregory, if only because, like too many of Lewton’s heroes, he’s played by one of RKO’s usual, deathly dull leading men, in this cause Beaumont, who would later find his role comfortably numbing us all as the patriarch of Leave it to Beaver. It does make sense on a psychological level, as Gregory has presented to both Gibson girls the ideal of the settled, paternal male, and through him an illusion of familial solidity. Jason, denied the girl, is rewarded with renewed creativity and also in discovering his accord with Judd, who proves to actually have been a benefactor, protecting Jacqueline and Jason from harm by life’s crueller facts. When he explains that Jason’s long-ago sweetheart, the one he saw Judd with, is now irretrievably insane, “a horrible, raving thing,” he recognises that Judd has been his friend all along. Judd’s own admissions to jealousy of Jason’s accomplishment with his first book gives way to his scepticism over his new work: “the time is out of tune,” he says, for such a romantic artist in a bleaker time. This touch reflects the peculiar status of Lewton’s films, their blend of darkness and light, homey emotionalism so nimble but frail in contrast to overwhelming evil, which marked the producer’s sensibility out of place in ruder environment of Hollywood, and yet came closer than almost anyone else to recording the psychological undertone of his era: The Seventh Victim, after all, was made in the midst of World War 2, and if any epoch could shake a person’s faith in common humanity and yet also offer many proofs for it, that was the one.
As Tourneur and Wise went on to make some definitive films noir, Robson’s different touch would become clearer as he would make some excellent works situated rather at the nexus of noir with urban drama and social realism, like Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956), whilst fervently emotional melodramas amongst like Peyton Place (1957), From the Terrace (1960), and Valley of the Dolls (1967), coherently extend the female-centric sensibility he could adopt, apparent here and in his follow-ups for Lewton, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam (1946). Like Wise, Robson essentially became an all-round artisan who could be relied upon by the studios even as they floundered: it’s hard to imagine a film more diametrically opposed to the delicate horrors of this film than Earthquake (1974), Robson’s second-last work. The melancholy effect of The Seventh Victim is strong and genuine, especially considering that Lewton had used it to express his own mortal anxiety: he would die aged 46, whilst Gage would be killed in combat in the Philippines a year after the film was shot, and Brooks would die young from alcoholism.
It’s remarkable, considering how dense and suggestive the narrative of The Seventh Victim is, that the film only runs a fraction over 70 minutes. The sense of compression is leavened slightly by the artificial effect of Mary and Gregory’s romance, although their couple’s last scene together, as Gregory asks Mary not to look at him as he both declares his ardour but also states his intent to deny it for Jacqueline’s sake, is delicately lovely and only needs a more convincing context. Judd and Jason’s rebuke to the Palladists awkwardly approaches a note of standard-issue piety Lewton usually artfully avoided. But this is both more complicated and simpler than it seems as it bears out a consistent aspect of the Lewton series, a belief that sometimes the most complex things are summarised best by the simplest words, especially matters like human interdependence. Judd offers the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses” – with a direction to actually consider what it implies in retorting to Brun’s respect for “Satanic majesty and power” by implying his belief is far cornier, with the implication that, to quote another Donne poem, no man is an island, and that the Palladists, rather than finding exclusive power, have instead left themselves tragically cut off from the only things that make life bearable.
Apart from these stumbles, the last fifteen minutes are remarkable, as Jacqueline, brought out from the shadows by her friends, proves to have only been made vulnerable to her enemies. Kidnapped from Mary’s rooms, she’s kept by the Palladists in Cortez’s place, browbeaten by the gathering into drinking a cup of poison, with Robson’s framings teeming with Dutch Master-like faces looming out of chiaroscuro lighting, and Brooks with her nemesis, the glass, looming before her, voices of encouragement, alternately bullying, seductive, and despairing, whilst Jacqueline resists with cool boredom: “No, no, no…” When she finally does raise the chalice to her lips, Frances knocks it from her hands, an act of mercy from a friend moments after Frances was hysterically imploring her to drink. Jacqueline is released, but one of Palladist goons who had helped spirit August away now stalks her through the dark streets in perhaps the most epic of the many sequences of anxious midnight wandering in the Lewton series. Like Mary in the subway scene, Jacqueline finds herself utterly alone in the midst of the great city. She can’t appeal to the oblivious passers-by to protect her from the almost abstract threat that pursues her, the stalker’s face gleaming deathly pale as he looms out of shadows, building to a climax when Jacqueline edges her way along a wall in trying to escape a blind alley, only to feel the coat of her pursuer, lying in wait for her. A hand grasps her wrist; a knife flicks open.
Jacqueline is only saved by the sudden eruption of a coterie of actors from their theatre’s rear entrance: one of the male actors grabs Jacqueline up, offering to buy her a beer and a sandwich, and spirits her to safety. These folk are more than actors; they’re like an explosion of the life essence itself, emerging from doors with the Comedy and Tragedy masks painted on. The irreducible linkage of the two faces lies at the heart of The Seventh Victim’s obsession with mortality. Jacqueline cannot follow the actors into the tavern to share their Bacchanalian love of life, wandering away instead back to the Romaris’ boarding house, where she encounters one of the other residents, who throughout the film has only been glimpsed shuffling from one door to another. This is Mimi, a withering, consumptive woman waiting to die, played by another Lewton regular, Elizabeth Russell.
Just as Russell played the sinister foreign woman who mysteriously recognised her “sister” in Cat People, here she recognises Jacqueline as fellow lost soul, and states her intention to go out and have fun rather than wait for death, in a monologue that’s both chilling and pathetic: “I’ve been so quiet, oh so quiet, I hardly move, yet it keeps coming for me all the time.” The firelight from within her room casts infernal flickering on the scene. Jacqueline’s final realisation that Mimi will die anyway precipitates the seemingly off-hand, yet bone-chilling final moment. Mimi, dressed up, leaves her flat and moves down the stairs, only distracted for a moment by the odd sound of a toppling chair in Jacqueline’s room, the confirmation that Jacqueline has finally taken her last option. A throwaway touch here underlines the overtone of inevitable fate being met: where the Palladists had mentioned that so far six deaths had been listed for the six betrayals their organisation had recorded, so Jacqueline’s apartment is numbered 7. The final effect is tragic, and yet as a whole, like all of Lewton’s films, The Seventh Victim is peculiarly life-affirming: enjoy it while you have it.
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Director: William Friedkin
By Roderick Heath
Few films have ever scored such a bullseye with the zeitgeist as The Exorcist did in the early 1970s. Whilst its reputation as a classic of the horror genre has only grown stronger in the intervening 40 years, the impact it had in its day seems practically unreproducible now, as it’s hard to imagine a modern horror movie driving as deep into the secret anxieties and wrenching such phobic reactions from such a large audience. Apart from the genre borderline case Psycho (1960), it was the first horror film since Universal Studio’s colossal one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) to provide a genuine blockbuster, and became, along with The Godfather (1972) and Jaws (1975) one of three record-shattering hits adapted from popular novels in the early decade that restored Hollywood’s confidence as arbiter of global entertainment. Notably, all three were comparatively harsh, violent movies revolving around threat to the family. The Exorcist, in spite of a censorship rating that today would hamstring its chances of being a big hit (witness this year’s bloodless World War Z), became that movie everybody saw.
Disliking The Exorcist should be easy to for some of the same reasons it was so successful. The film cunningly exploits the post-’60s anxiety over permissiveness, the fear of disintegrating social and familial bonds, the fading role of binding institutions and patriarchal controls, and the uprise of the conservative reaction: indeed it might be argued that it helped foster that reaction, as Moral Majoritarians ranting about demonic influence and satanic sacrifice became a pseudo-political fixture in the next 20 years. Teeming rip-offs and imitations have followed it and indeed still populate theatre screens, diluting the film’s individuality and impact. The Exorcist moreover shattered nearly as many taboos of popular entertainment as young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) ruptures in the course of her possession. How does a film with a scene in which a teenage girl gouges her own vagina raw with a crucifix and then tries to make her mother lick off the blood, a scene of pathological force much in accord with Jesus Franco’s and John Waters’ no-budget exercises in provocation, become such a giant hit? By being as hypocritical, in a way, as Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics filled with the stark pleasures of the flesh and the profane.
The Exorcist gets off on the spectacle of the transgressive, the nascent punk spirit of the demon’s mockeries of all settled structures, whilst contriving to box them in and redefine them as forbidden, in turning the liberationist urges of the previous decade into a leering caricature of adolescent anarchic impulse. And yet The Exorcist resists being belittled by such objections. William Peter Blatty’s tawdry but surprisingly skilful novel provided a solid basis. Blatty was himself a screenwriter and successful literary entrepreneur, who had written several movies, most notably A Shot in the Dark (1964), and shepherded the film version as screenwriter and producer with proprietorial attitude. The director, however, was William Friedkin, making a follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit The French Connection (1971), handling a production laced with surprising prestige for such lurid material. Friedkin, both still a flashy wunderkind but also already an experienced professional, was at the height of success and artistry with his gift for melding slick filmmaking with various New Wave and Neo-Realist principles, and he tackled Blatty’s material with an individual purpose.
The opening sequence, filmed in the ruins of Hatra in Iraq, introduces the title protagonist, Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), and is effective in the way it capitalises on refinements of sound technique as visual flourishes in a sequence that’s cryptic, purposefully enigmatic, but filled with charged intimations of arcane dread and mysterious signs. Merrin, engaged in an archaeological dig, is called with peculiar urgency to come and take a look at some relics that have been uncovered, including a medallion that seems out of place, and Merrin himself finds a dirt-crusted idol that seems to stir some latent fear in the aging minister. Merrin’s wanderings in the nearby town are filled with off-hand yet portentous omens like a one-eyed blacksmith, a clock that stops by itself, and an old woman in a coach who nearly barrels down the priest, all shot by Friedkin in a fashion that combines documentary matter-of-factness and deceptive stylisation. The rhythmic pulse of workers digging on the ruins segues into the clamour of blacksmiths and the thunder of horses’ hooves, as Merrin seems to follow signs like breadcrumbs until he encounters a statue of the Mesopotamian wind demon Pazuzu, standing watch over the primal, blasted landscape. The very air vibrates with spiritual threat as armed guards watch and a pair of dogs start madly fight, droning dissonance and savage tussling on sound. The way Friedkin builds this sequence, with what’s really going on left vague but tangibly momentous, manages to promise the audience a real ride is commencing even though virtually nothing happens, essayed with care fitting for the tradition of genre masters like Jacques Tourneur, Terence Fisher, and Mario Bava.
Friedkin shifts scene through a series of dissolves that bind an image of confrontation, between Merrin and the demon statue, and the setting sun, and disparate landscapes, that of the Iraq desert and the American city of Georgetown, rendered in reverse zooms (out and then in) to confirm the as-yet mysterious relationship of the two places and events. As opposed to the blinding clarity and warm tones of the desert, Georgetown is a smear of cold blues and autumnal hues. The university town was an inspired choice of location, a place where old brownstones and modern architecture clash in the street. Blatty’s choice to set his tale partly in the film world gives the film a flavour of insider satire at points, although he and Friedkin also consciously wring the extra dimension it offers to the background of Chris and Regan MacNeil: Regan is caught at one point reading a gossip magazine with their photo, clandestinely shot, on the cover, as if to hint the cult of celebrity is another insidious force in their lives, and giving aspects of what follows the feeling of a particularly twisted type of celebrity-offspring cautionary tale. The essence of The Exorcist, in portraying a young girl from a modern, irreligious, liberal, broken home possessed by an opportunistic devil, is on its crudest level bigoted nonsense. And yet the writing and directing avoid shallow reductions, and there’s coherence to the work on both a dramatic and human level that both contradicts and powers the film’s core themes.
One contradiction is the emphasis on maternal love that refuses to accept faltering authorities’ bleating failures, and a strong mutual reliance between Chris and her secretary Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), who along with old housekeepers Karl (Rudolf Schündler) and Willi (Gina Petrushka) provide a kind of makeshift family, exacerbating the film’s surprisingly close relationship to the “Women’s Picture” genre, one aspect that confirms the canny operator and film buff as well as screenwriter Blatty was. It’s also a peculiar reminder that the ‘70s cinema that has become popularly hallowed is very much a masculine realm. There’s no traditional love story in The Exorcist, a telling elision. The major male characters are necessarily sexless. It’s also in part a tale of teenaged alienation and fallout of rupturing family securities. The MacNeil household is established early on as a broken one: Regan’s celebrity mag happens to dish the gossip on why her father left, and an almost Bergman-esque shot early in the film peers through an open doorway in the capacious house as Chris gets more and more frantically angry trying to contact her ex-husband to get him to speak to his daughter on her birthday, and then Friedkin’s camera dollies back to reveal that Regan’s listening. A pervasive note of hushed melancholy and both physical and moral exhaustion flows through most of The Exorcist, which gives coherence to feeling that hero Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and victim Regan have become spiritual garbage cans for a swiftly altering world’s toxic emotional waste and confusion.
Notably, the first manifestation of possession that grips Regan comes when she prods her mother with nascent awareness, in suggesting that Chris can bring the director of the movie she’s been filming, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), to her birthday celebrations, discomforting Chris even as she laughingly dismisses the notion. Oh, how many parents would like to be able to put such signs of emerging independence and viewpoint in their cute and cuddly children down to demonic influence? The notion that Regan’s behaviour is a heightened version of a jaundiced idea of then-modern youth remains, with the film revelling in transgressive behaviour: swearing at authority figures, pissing on the carpet, grabbing a psychiatrist by the balls, using a crucifix as a sex toy, and vomiting bile on a priest when he tries to get too clever, with the relentlessly puerile, satirical bent of a work of performance art. Friedkin exacerbates this tone by making each stage of Regan’s transformation into a blackout gag.
The notion, suggested in Regan’s probing Chris about her relationship with Burke, that the possessing demon whispers like the serpent of Eden in Regan’s ear, prodding her to act on dark impulses and observations about her world, is not taken anywhere, disappointingly; rather the demon’s complete separation from Regan is rammed home with force, but less complication. The film’s most malicious coup is the way it makes relentless fun of the modern world’s new priests, medical practitioners, to score a victory for the older brand. The Exorcist inverts familiar assumptions by making the forces of rationalism into the cold, foolish, scarcely capable bumblers who have to finally bite the bullet and hand things over to the “witch doctors.” A parade of know-it-alls, from Chris’s first consultant, Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman), onwards try to mollify the situation with drugs and tests to diagnose the problem. The tests become, under Friedkin’s eye, essentially modern versions of witch trials, with the body of a small girl who has shown aggression and disobedience, tethered, jabbed, probed, scanned, irradiated, and bled with a gruelling exactitude that would make Witchfinder General’s (1968) Matthew Hopkins smile in recognition.
This great joke is acute to a degree and also disingenuous on several levels, but certainly key to The Exorcist’s atypical, Janus-faced power and popularity, in that it both exploits the popular mindset of the early ’70s with its distrust of institutions and experts, a New Age-type dislike of the over-powerful ministers of official truth and well-being, whilst also catering to an anxiety over rejecting other institutions and their teachings. The call of a deeper, darker, more primal truth is the constant keynote of the story, albeit framed safely by the religious structure, with the pre-Christian horror of Pazuzu representing the threat of devolution to a world that abandons Judeo-Christian values. Regan, initially glimpsed as an apple-cheeked cutey pie, devolves into a scarred, pale, suppurating mess tied to her bed and yet waiting in malign pleasure to join battle with the forces of good. It soon becomes plain that Pazuzu wants a return bout with Merrin, who famously conducted an exorcism that lasted a month and nearly killed him whilst working as a missionary in Africa. The demon also hopes to claim the soul of Karras, a Jesuit priest who’s also a psychiatrist and rationalist who is failing to cope with the schism.
Karras seems to present a protagonist in the Van Helsing tradition of heroes who have both secular and spiritual skill. And yet Karras’ susceptibility is the ticking time bomb, providing a mirror to Merrin, who’s confident in his faith but aware that his body is failing. Karras is further dogged by his mother’s (Vasiliki Maliaros) decline and death, contorted by guilt and frustration at his dedication to his calling, rather than pursing his potential as a boxer or secular headshrinker. Tellingly, Friedkin emphasises Karras’ frustration as a an intelligent man with poor, plebeian roots, who takes out his rage on a punching bag and oppressed by his inability to come to grips with evil, calling to mind Popeye Doyle and other Friedkin heroes. Amusingly, Karras’s neuroses reveal Blatty’s pleasure in cherry-picking marketable story elements. It’s even acknowledged as the film introduces interested detective Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), who’s also a movie nut, who tries to charm the priest by comparing him to John Garfield in Body and Soul (1947) and then diss him by amending this to Sal Mineo, who, in The Gene Krupa Story (1959), went through similar angst as guilty son to immigrant mama. Kinderman is essentially superfluous to The Exorcist in terms of story progression, except that he offers a Columbo-esque comic relief in his apparently digressive jokes and film buff quirks – he begs Chris for her autograph moments after suggesting a man was murdered in her daughter’s bedroom – and helps keep the film rooted in the real world where too many genre smiths would have been content to let the drama play out in a conveniently law-free zone.
Karras’ initial scepticism over the possession is soon quelled by the demon’s blackly humorous mockeries, including the famous, rather hilarious pea soup regurgitation, and finally by the film’s most genuinely effective, yet one of its more subtle, horror fillips. Sharon fetches Karras away from his neurotically fascinated studies of Regan’s ravings in backward-English to show the mangled girl’s belly, which displays the words “Help Me” written in her own hand from the inside of her own body, as if trapped deep within, flesh turned into a blackboard of pain. Whereas a lot of the other special-effects moments in the film now look pretty ropy, even tacky, this one retains power, as does the first time Regan’s head seems to turn far beyond human capacity, to deliver, in Burke’s voice, a cruel missive to a beaten and despairing Chris. Blatty’s script was certainly strong, but much of The Exorcist’s ultimate success was due to Friedkin’s skill as a filmmaker, in spite of the work’s many moments of excessive, showy literalness. Just as The French Connection adopted a docudrama approach and cast people really involved with the case it described, Friedkin builds in The Exorcist, layer by layer, an intimately depicted, finely detailed context for the drama, a pseudo-realistic approach mixed with traditional genre style elements. Friedkin went back to Blatty’s original inspiration, the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, to try to wring out every detail and feed it into the overall texture, to give the unlikely tale a feeling of veracity.
A hallmark of his great ’70s run of films was Friedkin’s feeling for environment as dramatic element, his capacity to both exploit the shape location imposes on a film and also manipulate it to his ends. Karras’ trip to see his mother in the dilapidated neighbourhood she still clings to kicks off with a shot down the length of a street where skyscrapers soar in the background, but the blight that is the old immigrant ghetto cuts like a black scar in the cityscape, an almost Manichaean contrast that expresses the film’s repeated creed that Earth already has heavens and hells on its face. The evocation of crowded student bars and dorm rooms, the crowd of onlookers watching with delight the troubled film shoot, the swanky party Chris throws, and the wryly businesslike, post-Second Vatican Council attitudes of the religious characters all help imbue a sense of a larger, busy, bustling universe around the core drama. The eventual reduction of the drama to a few specific people engaged in microcosmic struggle packs greater punch for this, too, as every other alternative, and respite is stripped away.
Friedkin often breaks scenes, particularly climactic ones, off at unexpected moments that give the narrative a jerky, yet compulsive, almost concussive tempo. Regan’s assault on the psychiatrist breaks off with her maddened scream still echoing in a jump-cut to a seemingly benign, autumnal landscape as Karras takes his morning jog. Alternations of concerted quiet and sudden infernal action alternate as the story gains pace, at least until the thunderous finale, and even that is broken up and filled with delays. Stunned silences, reverent hushes, dazed introversion grip the characters. Each time Regan’s bedroom is approached, a new, ever-heightening act of atrocity occurs, setting the scene for the finale in which all laws of nature are perverted, and yet end with clamour resolving back into quiet.
Friedkin was never, however, a proper realist. Just as he turned New York with The French Connection and Cruising (1980) and the jungle of Sorcerer (1977) into stygian stages, and plugged into the overheated theatricality of The Boys in the Band (1970), The Exorcist veers close to the genre’s traditions of stylised Expressionism. This is obvious particularly, of course, in the shot that provided the movie poster image, a world of chiaroscuro shadows and vividly contrasted light that emphasises the infernal realm the characters shift into, and Karras’ dream sequence, with its desaturated colour, discursive sound, and near-subliminal glimpses of the demon’s face. But it’s just as marked in a less obvious scene like the one in which Karras visits his mother, injured and senile, in a public hospital ward where dazed, drugged, and frantic remnants of human beings are kept, like Bedlam (1946) restaged in Bellevue, where Karras’ mother can only make her borderline camp appeal, “Why you do this to me, Dimmy?”
Another uncommon element of The Exorcist, especially considering how sensational elements of it are, is how few of the narrative’s most consequential acts are depicted. In comparison to the body count porn the horror movie was soon to become, only one death is directly attributable to the demon’s actions, that of Burke. Regan’s initial games with the Ouija board that presumably attract Pazuzu are not shown, only a kind of comic coda. Mrs. Karras, Burke, and Merrin all die off screen. Often the main characters, and the audience with them, are reduced to confused onlookers, glimpsing moments of grotesquery and unnatural occurrence, but what exactly is seen is kept on the edges of the subliminal, like that first head spin, and the flash-cuts of Pazuzu’s leering, demonic face. Anxiety over the film’s shock value forced Friedkin to curb his original intent to use subliminal images more. In spite of the barrage of effects and the finale’s eventual embrace of the blatant, neither the sense of ambiguity in unknowable aspects of the tale nor the sense of potent spiritual and corporeal threat are ever entirely discharged. The original closing shot, of Karras’ fellow priest and friend, the jovial, larcenous, show-tune-loving Father Dyer (Rev. William O’Malley), standing above the stairs contemplating all things in heaven and hell, leaves off with a vertiginous sense of mystical questioning and urgency even in closing. Indeed Blatty, who wanted “the point” that good won made more obvious, pushed for this shot to be changed in the clumsy 2000 recut.
The quality of the cast is another enormously important strength, for they sell this folderol to us with sublime conviction. Miller, a stage actor and playwright who had never been in a film before, and Burstyn, scarcely a household name, hold up the film with their detailed, physically committed performances. Committed is the right word, as Friedkin puts his cast through the wringer in a fashion bordering on harsh. The film’s high count of Oscar nominations, including for Burstyn, Miller, and Blair, signals how large the cast’s role was in breaking down prejudices against the genre. Burstyn is particularly excellent in the scene in which she fakes her way through an interview with Kinderman even as the realisation that her daughter killed Burke takes root in her mind. The great Irish actor MacGowran gave a peach of a comedic performance despite playing an abusive drunk: sadly it was his last role. Von Sydow gained perhaps his most iconic role after Antonius Block, albeit a problematic one for the Swedish actor, as Dick Smith’s makeup to make him appear old and frail was so successful the 40-something never quite shook off the image. His casting was clever, however, insofar as after The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1966), Von Sydow was largely associated with theological matters, though most his characters for Ingmar Bergman had been closer to Karras.
Ultimately what makes The Exorcist work is the insistence that it’s a genuine, dramatic human story with a purposeful narrative progression. The build-up to the finale is, in its way, as well-arranged and inexorable as the movement of Star Wars (1977) towards the Death Star assault, and like that film, it keeps the story in rigorous contention until a breathlessly climactic rupture lays the narrative waste. As risible as moments of the finale become, like Regan’s 360° head-spin and the two priests bellowing “The power of Christ compels you!”, the sequence retains power in the relentlessness of the audio-visual assault and the spectacle of the two men, who seem almost powerless with only the invisible and waning strength of faith they wield, trying to contend with a force that bends nature to its will. The tension about whether Merrin still can successfully intervene, whether Karras can withstand the demon’s assaults on his psyche, and whether Regan can possibly survive the ordeal all screws relentlessly to a breaking point, as Merrin drops dead, the demon laughs in triumph, and Karras is reduced to wrestling quite literally with the devil whilst also, incidentally, punching a small girl. The sting of the tale is that the demon gets what it wants, but so does Karras, a true proof of faith and redemption for himself. He resists the urge of the demon to consummate his possession by killing Regan, and instead hurls himself to redemptive death. All unfolds in a blindingly brief, yet indelible whirl of images, and concludes with the brilliantly staged vision of Karras’ death-plunge down the fateful stairs.
Inevitably for such a popular film, The Exorcist produced sequels, but the series has always been perceived as particularly benighted in that regard, not entirely fairly. John Boorman’s severely uneven Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) took Regan and the underpinning ideas to some fascinating new places, filled with lush images and perverse inspiration whilst awkwardly incorporating some of the original’s blood and thunder. Blatty himself tried to make a sequel with more fidelity, The Exorcist III (1990), based on his follow-up novel, Legion, revolving around Kinderman and Dyer and the possessed body of Karras. Blatty’s moody direction and the cast were remarkably strong, but a studio-mandated reshoot of the finale almost completely sabotages an otherwise impressive piece of work: similarly ill-fated was Paul Schrader’s attempt to do a prequel, which was deemed too heady and revised by Renny Harlin, with largely awful results. None of this dimmed the original’s status as a rare beast: a genuinely satisfying mainstream horror film.
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Director: Jack Arnold
By Roderick Heath
A clawed hand, seeming to reach out like the living spirit of a deadly, animalistic past trying to grab at prey, looms at the camera. But it’s only a fossil jutting from a rock face, uncovered by the workmen of geologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) in the heart of the Amazon. Carl knows he’s found something remarkable and immediately intends returning to civilisation to exhibit the world-changing artifact, even as a very live, very dangerous-looking counterpart to the hand reaches out of the water and rests on the riverbank, indicating the lurking presence of a creature watching Maia pluck free his ancestor’s remains. During the night, whilst Maia is away, his two workmen, camping in the jungle, are attacked by the roaring, scaled beast and brutally killed…
For people who delight in the brassy glories of ’50s scifi cinema, William Alland must count as a relatively unsung hero. He began his career under Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre, and won a claim to cinematic immortality playing the shadowy journalist Thompson in Citizen Kane (1941) before becoming a film producer. Alland’s success in this field was found in a comparatively peculiar niche. Like Val Lewton at RKO in the ’40s, Alland captained a series of productions for Universal-International aimed at artfully exploiting a popular trend in a profitable, but not especially prestigious cinema. For Alland, these were scifi movies, built around the lurid, poster-ready appeal of impressive bug-eyed monsters, a subgenre with which Alland’s name became synonymous.
Universal was reacting to the success other filmmakers like George Pal had gained in this territory, but also aimed to reinvigorate their brand as the home of movie monsters, in shifting the official genre prism from the horror style the studio had found such success in over 20 years earlier, a style which had nearly gone extinct. By the mid ’50s, the trickle of scifi became a flood of movies replete with UFOs, aliens, robots, and rampaging beasts, with all their quotidian metaphors for Atomic Age anxieties and frontiers. Alland’s success as a producer was relatively brief, a six-year reign during which he also made several B-Westerns, but in that time, he produced 11 scifi works that run the gamut from major classics to tepid time wasters.
Alland displayed one gift his mentor Welles would have appreciated—an eye for apt and talented collaborators, one of whom was director Jack Arnold, who successfully lobbied Universal and Alland to helm It Came from Outer Space (1953). Arnold started out as an actor but moved behind the camera under Robert Flaherty during World War II. The Oscar-nominated pro-union documentary With These Hands (1950) made his name, and he soon broke into helming B-movies. What made his collaboration with Alland particularly fruitful was that, unlike so many filmmakers trying to make a few bucks from the scifi craze, Arnold had real affection for the genre from his boyhood spent devouring books. Arnold could well be the first proper auteur of scifi cinema, in close competition with Ishirô Honda, who emerged the following year with Godzilla (1954). Fritz Lang, James Whale, Howard Hawks, and Robert Wise were some major directors who had all displayed affinity for scifi, but their works in the mode were limited and used it to offer variations on a worldview expostulated equally well in other genres. Arnold, on the other hand, although he would make some fine noir works and Westerns, was clearly most at home in this field. His influence, worked through a handful of major variations on basic themes, echoes through the next few decades of filmmaking in the genre: ambiguous aliens in It Came from Outer Space, the primal monster of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Atomic Age giant in Tarantula (1955), the transformed man in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and antiwar parable in The Space Children (1958). Even something like his bizarre teen thriller High School Confidential (1958) seems close to scifi in its shrill evocation of modern anxiety and moral rot.
The idea for Creature from the Black Lagoon reputedly began forming when Alland met the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at a party in 1941 and heard from him the legend of a half-man, half-fish that haunted the waters of the Amazon. Years later, Alland carefully developed this notion as a follow-up to It Came from Outer Space, with a story by Maurice Zimm and a script by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross. Whereas It Came from Outer Space had struck a peculiarly ambivalent and intelligent approach to ideas of the alien, Creature represented an attempt to craft a genuine crossbreed of the motifs Universal had exploited so well in its ’30s horror films with a more contemporary edge. Indeed, the specific success of the Alland-Arnold model was in its deeper awareness and embrace of the psychological element of the genre, the notion that, as in the horror genre, the monstrosities seen on screen were essentially signifying something else, something within the psyche, reflecting another, more genuine anxiety.
The strange humanity of the monstrous (and vice versa), a theme most obviously explored in the canonical Frankenstein and Wolf Man films, was in Creature grafted onto an explicitly evolutionary investigation of both humanity’s progress and limitations, unpeeling the notion that under the stellar-aimed mindset of modernity lurks the slavering, adapted beast for which the basic drives of sex and eating are the only true motives. These motifs are introduced in a prologue that strikes the same pedagogical stance that a lot of these films did, but with an underlying quality of curiosity and a faintly haunting note, as a chronicler narrates the birth of the Earth in fire and cataclysm, and then then emergence of life, seen as strange-looking footprints dotting a primeval beach. This promptly segues into an image of the past looming into the present with fearsome immediacy of the fossil hand.
Primeval past and space age present soon come into jarring contact as Maia presents the fossil hand to the remarkably good-looking collective of American nerds running the Brazilian Instituto de Biologia Maritima. Maia gains the interest of guest field researchers David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), and they, in turn, present the find to their boss Mark Williams (Richard Denning), a blonde he-man who’s always eager for anything that can bring glory and funding to the institute. Along with another of the institute’s brainiacs, Dr. Ed Thompson (Whit Bissell), they form an expedition to head to Maia’s dig site and extract the rest of the remains, hiring the steam launch Rita, captained by the shabby genial Capt. Lucas (Nestor Paiva) for the voyage upriver. Finding the mutilated bodies of the diggers, the scientists are momentarily shaken, but press on to find the rest of the skeleton. They have no luck because much of the rock face has been washed away by the river, and the fossil bones along with it. Deciding to take a chance on the theory that the eroded fragments might have collected downstream in the fabled Black Lagoon, the expedition packs up and moves into the recessed waterway, only to discover they’re not alone: the immensely powerful and devastatingly violent Gill Man proves to be the product of an evolutionary cul-de-sac that is nonetheless smart and aggressive enough to have survived into the twentieth century in this locale. Mark, hungry for glory and the thrill of battling something as relentless and motivated as he is, sets out to trap or kill the beast, browbeating David and the others into helping. But it soon becomes clear that the Gill Man has its own hunt in mind: the solitary anthropoid recognises Kay as a potential breeding partner and traps the expedition whilst making constant attempts to snatch her away.
Scifi cinema in the ’50s is now recognised as occupying the same place as film noir did in the late ’40s, that is, that in beholding the genre, one sees the id of the age closest to the surface: aliens in place of Communists, monsters in place of A-bombs, UFOs in place of ICBM missiles and jets. Like most of Arnold’s best films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon actively invites symbolic readings, in part because it’s a meld of styles, with its chiaroscuro visual style and reflexes of phobic intensity in the narrative that stray very close to the gothic horror film. Other aspects of the film fit the ’50s scifi craze at its broadest: there’s a high level of pedagogy, straining to relate all fields of scientific interest with the great and glorious projects of the space and nuclear age. David gives a speech, nominally to his fellow scientists but really for the audience’s benefit, linking research into life on Earth with space exploration and questions of adaptability. The film’s cosmic overtones, set in play at the outset, soon resolve into something more interesting, however, as the story unfolds. Both the forward rush of evolution and its basic, unchanging driving impulses are observed in unison, and the lack of evolution on display becomes crucial. Scratch the rational man and quickly the bully, the mighty hunter, the mate-shielding chest-beater, the savant of survival, the animal on top of the food chain makes clear its determination to claim dominion. All it takes is a close cousin with two-inch claws to shake it all out.
Another hallmark of the Alland’s series was his efforts to always entwine a strong genre concept with a kind of core social or psychological idea and character conflict to feed into its themes and give propulsion to the plot. As in the later, under-budgeted but interesting The Land Unknown (1957), here the propensity of human rationality to devolve quickly and accept arcane principles, particularly those to do with sex and power, are explored. The central conflict between thoughtless enquiry and defensive authority explored in Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s genre-defining The Thing from Another World (1951) here is reversed and reconfigured into a pattern that’s become, over the years, close to an essential motif in cinematic scifi. David’s conscientious, curious perspective becomes the default heroic pole against which Mark’s grasping, greedy, warmongering delight in the hunt is contrasted. Mark is identified quickly as a man who takes credit for the work of others, a relentless political operator who represents the corruption of the institutional sensibility, whereas David is a proto-hippie environmentalist in a film that does, indeed, have some claim to being one of the first to engage with this vital modern idea. Creature avoids total didacticism, however, as both sides are ultimately revealed to have strengths and weaknesses. David’s refusal to countenance killing the Gill Man soon appears naïve, whilst Mark’s ferocity proves equal to the task of combating the beast, a nightmare figuration that taunts and fascinates him like some gnawing part of his own id that must be beaten. But he eventually overreaches in trying to wrestle the monster; in the film’s most floridly epic sequence, man and monster lock in a death match, churning in the mud on the lagoon floor that is akin to some extraordinarily weird mating clinch.
The actual heart of The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the darkly erotic frisson provided by the beast’s pursuit of the gorgeous Adams. The Gill Man becomes a phobic reconfiguration of the basest masculine desire turned on the most fetishized of feminine physiques. In this regard, Creature reveals is roots in the kinds of pulp magazine covers of Amazing Stories and Weird Tales where tentacles and otherwise repulsive things drooled and fondled scantily clad damsels, id-beasts in adolescent fantasias of lust. There’s also the long shadow of King Kong (1933) as a variant on the Beauty and the Beast theme, as the monster in the heart of darkness is stricken by the woman it can’t have. Unlike with Kong, however, where the mechanics were obviously difficult, there’s a more genuine sexual as well as physical danger in the situation. Creature would scarcely exist without Adams as its raison d’être, as the object of desire all events flow to and from. The cleverest and most specific spin on the Beauty/Beast figuration found here, in fact, is the idea of making a kind of eternal triangle into more a quadrangle, with a sliding scale of eligible masculinity offered by David, Mark, and Gill Man. David and Kay are introduced as a couple, with David resisting marriage: “I’m waiting for Williams to give her that raise—then she can afford me.” But David’s laggard romanticism and Kay’s excessively grateful demeanour give Mark a toehold in his initial project of prying Kay away from David, before the even greater challenge of the catching the Gill Man. The two projects become entwined for him, signalled in a hilarious display of phallic aggression early on when Mark exhibits the spear gun he’s brought for hunting, firing it off with pointedly potent accuracy after catching David and Kay canoodling: “All you have to do is aim it and squeeze.”
Ironically, of course, ’50s prudery precluded the Gill Man costume from sporting a phallus—his enormous claws serve as stand-ins. One of Arnold’s gifts as a director was his ability to root scifi in a gamy physicality, mapped out at its most extreme in the endless castration of the hero of Shrinking Man, which begins when mysterious fluids coat his bared body, and the switchbacks of familiar guises and repugnant actuality in It Came from Outer Space. Creature is all about sex, and Arnold’s eye through the intermediary of William E. Snyder’s photography, laps up the barely coded fetishism that fuels the tale, replete with Denning and Carlson constantly going shirtless and the proximity of the Gill Man’s scaly form to Adams’ bubble-butt shorts and bare legs. From practically the first moment Kay steps ashore in the Amazon, the Gill Man’s webbed hand comes groping out of the water, desiring tactile communion with the glossy perfection of Adams’ calves. Adams, who had been an agreeable starlet in a couple of westerns for good directors (Raoul Walsh’s The Lawless Breed, 1952, Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, 1953), never had another moment like this one, which put her name up there with Fay Wray and Evelyn Ankers in the annals of monster-sought damsels, setting a record for Amazonian costume changes and a dip in a bathing suit that would make Esther Williams jealous. Adams’ Kay feels throughout much of the film like the islet of amity and good-natured openness compared with the thickening atmosphere of macho neurosis. She refused to have her genuine feelings of conflict between David and Mark dismissed by Thompson when he tries to play elder-knows-best with her.
The film’s most singular and famous sequence is the perversely romantic scene in which Kay goes swimming in the lagoon. The Gill Man, fascinated, swims after her and begins to mimic her motions underwater, unseen and unsuspected by her until she treads water and the creature tries again to touch her legs. That image echoes back to Jacques Tourneur’s famous pool scene in Cat People (1942) (inspired by Tourneur’s own near-drowning whilst swimming at night) in invoking an intensely reactive sense of personal vulnerability. Many ’50s scifi movies are held today as examples of ‘50s cinematic sexism, filled with brainy heroines reduced to quivering balls of fear in the face of monstrosities, and to a very large extent that charge is true, including here. And yet the era’s genre entries are also curiously driven by the powerful question of gender relations and equality, in part as a necessary gimmick for putting pretty faces into some otherwise sweaty masculine jobs and locations, or even bravely ignoring them altogether, as Roger Corman’s fascinating no-budget movies of the period tended to do. Kay’s scientific know-how is never doubted, but keeping the female safe is still the major plot stake: “Well there’s just one thing Mark,” David warns when the proposal to venture into the Black Lagoon is first raised: “Going into unexplored territory with a woman.” Kay laughs him off, and Mark himself drawls that “I’ve always found Kay can take care of herself.” David’s caution is vindicated, naturally, but the voluble urgency of the film’s notion that biology drives everything undercuts even his wisdom: in the end, it all boils down to the survival of the fittest.
One of the less bracing aspects of Creature’s immediate success was the number of tacky imitations it sparked in the following decades: sticking a guy in a hair or rubber suit and having him terrorise sundry isolated people became a basic template for B-movie makers. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg remembered Arnold’s vision for his own variation on the theme with Jaws (1975), echoing this swimming scene for the opening and quoting elements of the visuals and storytelling in his blockbuster, as in a sequence in which the Gill Man gets caught up in the Rita’s boom net and almost rips off its mast trying to escape. The specific influence of Creature on a single, later blockbuster hides its larger contribution to modern genre film as a model of dramatic compression and intensity. Once the Rita reaches the Black Lagoon, the narrative scarcely relents, in a fashion that looks forward to works like Aliens (1986), as the Gill Man’s campaign of terror commences. Arnold’s reveal of the Gill Man’s full appearance, like Spielberg’s revelation of the shark in his film but coming much earlier in the film, is a real surprise, with the creature suddenly rearing up out of the depths behind Mark and David when they’re casually patrolling the lagoon. Once seen, the creature scarcely disappears, constantly probing the Rita, attacking and murdering Lucas’ crewmen. As the cast dwindles, the expedition team find themselves hard-pressed to even keep the Gill Man off the boat, paying off in a delightfully odd moment in which the Gill Man reaches in through a porthole whilst a bandaged, faceless, voiceless man tries in vain to alert his comrades. Nine years before Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the idea that nature can throw up terrors that can encage all-conquering humankind still is clearly mooted, and indeed as in the Hitchcock film, there’s a sense of confluence between the still-present dark of the primal in the human soul and the strange, inimical wisdom of the inhuman world even in the over-lit age of science and reason.
Snyder’s photography expertly charts the sensatory communication of this essential theme: daylight shots are blazes of light, but nighttime sequences are semigothic, noir-influenced islets where the lights on the Rita seem lonely and assailed bastions against the terrible dark. In spite of the moments of cheese and patronisation, Creature still rises to the best of its genre in its conscientious, inquisitive spirit. Thompson is presented as a voice of reasoned contrast to the rest of the team, pointing out early on to a careless Mark that “Dedication doesn’t mean risking the lives of others,” and playing relationship counsellor for Kay moments before he’s assaulted and horribly mangled by the Gill Man. The challenge of defeating the Gill Man on his own turf with wits is raised by David, and in spite of Mark’s drive to turn it all into a raw battle, the native trick of drugging fish with a root-derived drug is repurposed into a method of catching him and holding him at bay. David and Mark do manage to finally catch the Gill Man with the drug, but only after it kills another crewman, and the monster still manages to escape from its cage. Thompson manages to bash it with a lantern after it mauls him, in a striking shot of wild motion and fire as the burning monster struggles, wreathed in flames, before leaping into the water. A major aspect of the film’s stature and appeal is, unavoidably, the creature itself. The Gill Man was designed by Millicent Patrick; the bodysuit was executed by Jack Kevan, who had made prosthetics for World War II vets; and Chris Mueller Jr did the mask. Although limited in some ways and certainly an exemplary “man in a rubber suit” monster, the Gill Man is nonetheless easily one of the most recognisable and tangible screen monsters of all time, particularly when animated by the gutsy underwater adventurer Ricou Browning, who did shot after shot in the costume holding his breath and going for broke.
It’s not really belittling the film to note that an enormous part of its appeal lies in its cheesiness, particularly the blaring, alarmist score provided by Hans J. Salter’s scoring company, with contributions from Henry Mancini, amongst others. Creature is constantly spiked by blasts of brass and ferociously churning strings that underpin appearances of the Gill Man, unsubtle but certainly contributing to the headlong rush of the film’s pace. Paiva provides a sweet counterpoint to the main drama with his gleefully insouciant performance as Lucas, lounging about watching the savants labour, blissfully unconcerned with scientific knowledge, and utterly immune to the temptations and pressures apparent in the other characters: when Mark tries to bully him as he does the others, Lucas simply pulls out a knife, holds it to his throat, and asks, oh so cheerfully, “You wish to say something, señor?”
Happily, Arnold was able to bring back his character, albeit briefly, for the following year’s sequel, Revenge of the Creature, after the finale of this film, which showed the bullet-riddled Gill Man drifting in the inky depths, was just ambiguous enough to justify a sequel. Arnold and Alland did their best to sustain an organic connection in the series, but budget limitations and weak scripting make Revenge a bit of a chore to sit through. A third film in the series, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), directed by John Sherwood, had far too little action, but managed to reinvigorate the basic concept with some interesting twists. All three films end with a touch of vagueness, the monster seeming to die each time but with a crack left open for survival (and another sequel, of course). For all his deadliness, the Gill Man even by the end of the first film clearly represents something we both fear and prize: the essential pride of natural force.
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Director/Screenwriter: Peter Strickland
By Roderick Heath
British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at the Berberian Studio of Post-Production, a labyrinthine facility and a niche for creating the aspect of cinema perhaps least appreciated by laymen and yet amongst the most vital. This particular netherworld, where glowing, pulsing red lights wait with infernal meaning for Gilderoy, is guarded by a beautiful Circe, Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), armed with all contempt for the merely human expected of a fashion plate functionary in a magic kingdom filled with makers of fame and fortune. Gilderoy, middle-aged and gnomic, certainly seems especially human, like the intrusion of a sewage worker in a royal bedroom. But Gilderoy has gifts, gifts impressive enough to have inspired director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) to have imported Gilderoy from England to mix the soundtrack of his latest film, The Equestrian Vortex.
Gilderoy has recently won an award for his work on a documentary about rural England, evoking the delicate textures of a genteel and pastoral landscape, but now he finds, to his queasy discomfort, that he’s engaged on a blood and thunder flick, filled with bizarre supernatural emanations and grotesque torture. Light years out of his comfort zone, this homely, homebody savant of sound is worried about his aged mother back home, disturbed by the material he’s working on, and gnawed at by financial distress since he spent all his money on the plane ticket and can’t get anyone to reimburse him. He finds himself surrounded by people driven by unpredictable emotions and private agendas, the alienation exacerbated by a language barrier. Gilderoy sets to work with his exacting and deeply introverted method, only to find himself falling into an abyssal trap of anxiety and mystery.
Writer-director Peter Strickland’s only previous feature work was the eerie, compelling revenge thriller Katalin Varga (2009), set and shot in Romania, and it’s possible Strickland’s experiences working on such menacing fare in a foreign language and locale helped inspire this far more enigmatic, deeply discombobulated follow-up. Berberian Sound Studio is, on the surface, a tribute to, and evocation of, the hallowed era of Italian giallo horror film, which came near the tail-end of an epoch of Italian exports from a film industry uneasy with English-language cinema, which it constantly tried to annex. Tales of disconnection and confusion in that time and place are many and amusing, and have already provided fodder to some filmmakers as far back as Vincent Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). The mood of Berberian Sound Studios is similar to some other movies about moviemaking, particularly Anthony Waller’s chiller Mute Witness (1995), which offered Hitchcockian suspense in a near-deserted Russian film studio; Roman Coppola’s playful CQ (2000), depicting this often happenstance, esoteric and self-involved world where personal creativity and messy necessity often blend in unpredictable ways; and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), which turned the craft of its hero, a sound-effects man, into a deeply tactile, experiential drama where bottomless depravity is uncovered through layers of media. Strickland, whilst evoking such progenitors of method, ultimately has a distinct and peculiar purpose. Rather than segueing from the fakery of filmmaking into a zone of “real-world” drama, Berberian Sound Studio instead uses the paraphernalia and artifice of film to conjure an interior journey into places of disquiet and dread.
Gilderoy is the innocent abroad here, and innocent he is, a bachelor and mummy’s boy who seems to have scarcely ventured out of the garden shed of his recording studio in years. He’s no signposted weirdo, however, only a timid and easily cowered man who has to undergo a sink-or-swim immersion in the ways of a corner of experience at once even more hermetic than his own but through which far more worldly characters occasionally tramp, violating the texture of his immediate surrounds and expectations with excruciating results. Gilderoy, upon arrival, learns that Santini worships his talents, but his hoped-for meeting with the director is delayed for some time and then proves a frustrating meeting with a patronising egotist. Gilderoy spends most of his time accompanied by Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the film’s producer, always poised on a knife-edge above poles of professional facility and virulent irritation. When Gilderoy presses him about getting his ticket reimbursed, Francesco fobs him off on Elena, who passes him on to anonymous functionaries before Gilderoy learns about dealing with such matters here—get loud, get angry, and get the money—which is, of course, extremely difficult for a timid Englishman, especially one faced at every turn by language problems and wilful obfuscation. For extra genre cred, the studio is, in neat mid-’70s fashion, beset by random power cuts, with candles ready to illuminate the place after sudden plunges into stygian blackness.
Gilderoy is hired specifically as a sound mixer, but as the post-production lumbers on and the shortfalls of the film shoot have to be plastered over, he’s drawn into helping create sounds through foley work, the artful manipulation of elements to create apt aural versions of what’s occurring on screen. Strickland’s wicked sense of humour in exploiting this element is introduced early on as Gilderoy is first shown some footage of the film whilst the two official foley artists, Massimo and Massimo (Pal Toth and Jozef Cseres), provide accompanying effects. They hack at watermelons with brutal force, evoking the savagery of killing on screen through the most blackly hilarious of indirection, as Gilderoy squirms in his seat: one of the Massimos offers him a slice of the melon to eat, and Gilderoy regards it like a severed body part.
Strickland’s core conceit is that he never shows any footage from the film, allowing the sound effects the crew are providing and sometimes with a sketchy description of the plot to do the work. Ironically, the only bit of the film we do see is the opening credits sequence, a dynamic pastiche of ’70s-style design effects, which stands in for Berberian Sound Studio’s own credits. The Equestrian Vortex is evidently inspired by Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976), though with overtones that seem closer to the work of trashier giallo directors like Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino: the plot seems to involve young women who find that the equestrian school they attend is infiltrated by witches with a history dating back to gruesome medieval witch trials. Santini balks, naturally, at having Gilderoy describe his movie as a horror film: “This not a horror film. This is a Santini film! … This is a part of the human condition.” Santini airily expresses his desire to evoke the horror of historical misogyny, but, our suspicions that it’s utter trash are confirmed by the reactions of his crew and particularly the female cast members like Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro) and Silvia (Fatma Mohamed).
Berberian Sound Studio is a display of dazzling technique attached to a mysterious-feeling, ultimately interior tale of a solitary man’s mental disintegration, or possible transcendence, conveyed through the methods of his own craft. A gift for film buffs but one that nimbly avoids descending into a mere pastiche for the sake of tickling facile recognitions, Berberian Sound Studio is more an attempt to comprehend the peculiar nexus of artistic endeavour, private psychological credulity, and workaday labour. Strickland celebrates a world, one rapidly fading into history, of analog technology by which so much of the great cinema of the past was created. In its time, Gilderoy’s art represented cutting-edge capacity, but now it smacks of retro fetishisation as Strickland delights in depicting methods of constructing the densely layered compilation of devices we glibly call a movie. Strickland reminds us of the almost fanatical attention to craft that often goes into even the seamiest piece of crap, and which, on the level of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s scrolls of hundreds upon hundreds of crew names in closing credits, feels close to a religious enterprise. There’s more than a hint of connotation here, in that culturally we want to reward modest DIY artisans like Gilderoy, but the industry tends to win out in every other respect. Strickland’s camera roves over Elena’s desk with typewriter and rubber stamps arranged on a trestle like an abstract sculpture, the buttons and dials and charts and tapes that form the paraphernalia of Gilderoy’s art becoming runic, inscrutable alchemic devices for conjuring spells.
Strickland creates a uniquely strange atmosphere, and tension, but not by offering any specific source for unease, save for the oneiric atmosphere generated by his work. A parade of actors moves through the studio, making perverse and unnerving sound effects for terrified and slaughtered women, witches, and lurking goblins, filling the studio with disturbing inferences and the unpleasant sensation of everyday technical effort being suffused with menace and the ghosts of appalling acts. One scene sees Katalin Ladik, playing herself, recording the sound for her role as a witch, acting the incantatory part, face twisted into a visage of terrible delight, mimicking the faces of death and morbid ecstasy often glimpsed in De Palma and Argento’s films, exposed in artifice and yet still wielding a strange power. Santini proselytises to Gilderoy about his need to depict the horrors of witch trials to awaken his audience to historical crimes, except, of course, that Strickland notes the same crimes, in a far subtler and less immediately deadly fashion, going on in the studio. Santini, the smooth and imperious stud, is accused of casting with his dick, and Silvia, evidently involved with him in some fashion, is filled with disquiet and disillusionment. She forms a tenuous bond with Gilderoy, with his seeming status as meek, attentive gelding in contrast to the brash Italian alpha males, and advises him in how to combat the studio bureaucracy. Francesco warns Gilderoy about getting too close to Silvia: “Be careful of that girl…There is poison in those tits of hers.” Like Gilderoy, Silvia is another foreigner out of her element. Appearing with witchy portent in the dark of the studio and seeming alternately entrapped by the filmmaking and its dark avatar, Silvia finally goes on a rampage of destruction all too cruelly exact for the filmmakers: she destroys reels of sound and footage to announce her furious departure from the project, a special kiss-off to Santini.
Meanwhile Santini and Francesco push Gilderoy in implicating himself in the professional drama that has overtones of the imaginary one, finally conflating as Francesco forces Gilderoy to turn up the volume on recorded sound effects to literally torture a potential replacement for Silvia into giving a decent sounding scream. The sneaky truth to the casual sexism and contempt for employee needs, like Gilderoy’s, passed over for the joy of working in the big wonderful world of filmmaking, melds with Gilderoy’s evident frustrated sensuality, a sensuality channelled into his work. Gilderoy is something of a gentle magician: in one mesmerising scene, when a power cut leaves the actors and crew bored, Gilderoy is talked into entertaining them by creating eerie sounds with household items, conjuring a UFO from a lightbulb scraped across a grill. Just recently I’ve been much fascinated with the work and life of Delia Derbyshire, a brilliant boffin who helped invent electronic music from the anonymous ranks of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, most famously creating the Doctor Who theme: Gilderoy is characterised as just such a classic English eccentric whose introversion masks the ability to create worlds and invent futures, a delicate gift unable to withstand the pressure of industrialised art filled with egotists and moral vacuums.
One of the film’s most evanescently strange moments comes in one of the several turns in which Strickland uses the blackouts as a way to seamlessly and, with momentary disorientation, change scenes: Gilderoy is awoken in the night, and leaves his room, passing into blackness. The sounds of crunching detritus, as if he’s walking on fallen leaves, are heard, and Silvia emerges from the darkness, clutching a candle, an emanation from an ethereal beyond. Actually, they’re in the studio during another power cut, with Gilderoy recording his footfalls as background noise. Nonetheless Gilderoy’s tactile enjoyment of the moment evokes the very different world he’s used to, a quieter, more natural world. This moment reminded me powerfully of a similar motif in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), in which the antihero smothers his face longingly in natural detritus, mourning his isolation in a denaturalised world. Gilderoy sleeps in a room adjoining the studio, and his situation, and seemingly fragmenting consciousness, often seems to dissolve boundaries between liminal and subliminal zones. The rubbish bin filled with all the pulverised vegetables used in the foley work begins to turn into a toxic mass of putrefaction, standing in for the mangled flesh on screen: “Well, I was hoping for a more dignified end than this,” one actress quips upon seeing the mashed marrow that represents her on-screen character’s brutal death.
Berberian Sound Studio is, in many respects, an experimental film, an extended attempt to explore the pure texture of cinema, a layered journey through the act of creation itself that becomes at the same time a mesmerising experiential plunge. There seems to be an emerging strand of what could be called pseudo-abstract genre work in recent independent filmmaking, mimicking the forms of traditional horror and science-fiction films, but doing so to extract and isolate qualities of tone and method whilst excising literal story development: the U.S. and British film scenes have produced several filmmakers, including Shane Carruth, Brit Marling and collaborators Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, Ben Wheatley, and Ti West, who have deconstructed filmmaking pitched on the edge of the fantastic or the ominous to varying degrees; works by European filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier have also grazed this zone. Strickland’s effort here stands closer to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Fonzani’s Amer (2009), which boiled the traditional visual essentials of giallo down to an enigmatic narrative freed from responsibility to the boilerplate requirements of genre entertainment. Rather than offer the usual coded metaphors for a descent into a realm of nightmares and the irrational, Strickland goes straight for the purified sense of dread and implication of a solitary man who specialises in creating hints of wonder but is too vulnerable to being immersed in his own works.
Berberian Sound Studio therefore feels closer to some far more offbeat by-products of the ’60s and ’70s film milieu than to the giallo to which it pays surface tribute. David Lynch is an evident touchstone. Strickland references the shibboleth of Mulholland Drive (2001) through the flashing sign “Silenzio” outside the studio, the intimate examination of decay suggests Blue Velvet (1986), whilst the narrative doublings and dreamlike metamorphoses recall Lost Highway (1997). But where Lynch was fond of creating surrealist textures out of pulp stories, Strickland offers much less immediate strangeness, preferring to create a more definably psychological texture. The peculiar counterpoint of a technologically enabled tinkerer able to transform everyday ambience into strange art and a situation rife with discomforting expectation of violence recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1976): the heroes of both are sound experts engaged in creating evocations of the uncanny and faced with the disintegration of their presumably stable lives. But the ultimate method feels to me closest to Ingmar Bergman, as in Persona (1966), mental breakdown is conveyed through the literal breakdown of cinema itself, whilst Hour of the Wolf (1968), where an artist’s neuroses consume his life, realised through dreamlike reductions of gothic horror imagery to their phobic essences. Where Bergman referenced the expressionist chillers and Bela Lugosi flicks he’d loved as a youth, Strickland evokes giallo, but both modes are for each filmmaker a style to emulate rather than a genre to copy, a wellspring of expressive ambiguity and nightmarish textures.
Like the protagonist of Hour of the Wolf, Gilderoy disappears within the ghostly fantasia his mind seems to be projecting. As Gilderoy’s perception of his world becomes increasingly warped, everything becomes charged with a capacity for communing with a nightmare world, and the very filmmaking conspires against him. Gilderoy’s periodic letters from his mother take a dark twist as she recounts the massacre of a nest of bird hatchlings they’d been watching over before he left. Gilderoy’s private reality becomes increasingly mixed up with the film as one of the auditioned replacements for Silvia recounts the letter. We know who Gilderoy is, but what’s his last name? Why was he hired for this project? Why can’t the studio accountants find his flight booking? Is he here at all? Is the whole experience just his dream? Or is he, as the film repeatedly suggests, simply a figure at the mercy of his filmmaker, free to create him and then pull him apart, like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953)? This seems ultimately the perfect analogue for Berberian Sound Studio, an exercise in layers of cinematic construction becoming its own malefic stunt. Time eventually reboots; Gilderoy, suddenly a speaker of fluent Italian, becomes the high priest and witch hunter, pummelling the eardrums of his actress-witches and lighting candles in prayer to dark gods of nature even as he remains ensconced in his technological cocoon.
Strickland saves his smartest antistrophe for a sequence in which Gilderoy imagines some hidden force crashing against the door of his bedroom, snatching up a knife and stalking out to search for the shadow enemy, only for the footage of his earlier fear in the room to start unspooling on the projection screen. Then the film melts and gives way to, of all things, the rural documentary Gilderoy won his prize for, tranquil footage of English dales and grass-munching sheep presenting a far more jarring and mercilessly funny twist than any supernatural ambassador could provide. Gilderoy is terrified of the price he will pay for success, of the world battering in his door and implicating him in its evils, anxiety attaching itself to the art he’s prostituting himself out to create. As in many horror films, however, the forces of good and light may have their victory over darkness. Gilderoy finds himself confronted by self-animating equipment that projects a spot of growing light, transfixing Gilderoy and promising to swallow him up, 2001–style, the beckoning promise of transcendence into ecstasy, or obliteration, a final surrender to the irrational. It’s easy, too easy, to imagine Berberian Sound Studio earning the wrath of viewers who would have it finally offer some sort of familiar gothic pay-off. But for anyone who engages with Strickland’s seriously peculiar yet remarkable style, this is a genuinely galvanising film experience—and those are pretty rare at the best of times.
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Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco
By Marilyn Ferdinand
For those of us who were raised on lighthearted boy-and-his-dog/girl-and-her-horse films and cuddly Disney forest creatures, our first sight of a lion taking down a young gazelle on a TV series like Nature is likely to be a terrible shock. How cruel! Well, not exactly. The lion needs to live, too, and nature has seen fit to equip her with the ability to sprint, claw, and bite; the gazelle has speed and endurance to help level the playing field, so generally only the young or the old gazelles are eaten, leaving the healthiest and most sexually mature animals to continue the species.
Human beings are animals, too, and exhibit all the same bestial instincts to mate, tend to our young, flee from danger, and so on. However, human beings also have advanced thinking capabilities that can overcome our basic survival instincts; consider the sacrifices people make, even unto death, to help others. Nonetheless, in many ways, the way we arrange our social structures reveals the beast in us, particularly in our hierarchical pecking orders that depend inordinately upon those at the top to govern our human affairs wisely and embrace our advanced thinking abilities to care for all members of the society.
After Lucia, winner of the Un Certain Regard and Silver Hugo awards at Cannes and Chicago, respectively, takes a grim look at the workings of a pecking order among a group of teens from a prosperous area of Mexico City and how an infraction of the group’s rules leads to rapidly escalating, unconscionable bullying. Many American critics have found the severity of the hazing unbelievable, but I believe this reaction reflects the American tendency to draw a curtain quickly around unpleasant truths, develop positively spun marketing campaigns to pretend that something is being done, and then go back to business as usual. Mexicans appear to have more of an appetite for the lurid and an unblinkered acceptance of darkness in the world, with a particular appreciation for the animalistic underpinnings of human existence. The unflinching approach Michel Franco takes to machismo and human conflict, the plight of the vulnerable, and the archetypal pairing of sex and death makes After Lucia something of a horror masterpiece.
Alejandra (Tessa Ía) is an ordinary teenager from privileged circumstances who is dealing with the death of her mother in a car accident from which she escaped unharmed. Her father Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) wears his grief like sack cloth; in the opening scene, he very carefully drives the repaired car away from the mechanic’s after listening to what sounds like a rebuild rather than a repair and then simply abandons the car in the middle of the road and walks out of his life in Puerto Vallarta to start over with Alejandra somewhere else. Roberto, a chef, struggles to stay focused enough to open a new restaurant; when he walks out on the enterprise at one point, it is Ale who takes charge and makes him go back and get on with it. Almost miraculously, Ale has been brought into the cool-kid clique at her new school by its alpha male, José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto), and seems to be getting along just fine.
Unfortunately, Ale makes a fatal error when she is invited to a weekend party at a posh home. She gets drunk and lets José record them having sex on his cellphone. The video circulates online, arousing the jealousy of the girl who thinks José is her boyfriend. Soon, the taunting emails and physical abuse begin, the boys calling her a whore and exposing themselves to her, and the girls dressing her up like a hooker and cutting her hair off. She doesn’t tell her father or the school authorities about what is happening to her. She just disappears into the shell of her own misery and eventually, just disappears during a mandatory school trip to Vera Cruz.
After Lucia explores some very interesting aspects of human behavior, in general, and the social order of teens, in particular. It seems that Ale understands well the tendency of teens to attack the weak rather than to show understanding. For example, she is careful not to reveal too much about her background, saying only that her mother is back in Puerto when her new friends wonder if her parents will go ballistic when they find out she has failed a mandatory drug test at school. She is a person who contains her emotions by nature, but she also doesn’t want to be seen as having any defect, and having only one parent would pose a status problem for her. She hides the abuse she is suffering not only to keep her father’s fragile equilibrium and, more important, temper under control, but also to prevent the abuse from getting worse. When it can’t get any worse, she goes into an emotional coma, uncaring about what happens to her father or her tormenters. We want her to lash out, be sensible, but a young ego is extremely delicate and the centers of reason have not yet matured.
The horror aspects of the story have to do with punishment for having sex. Ale becomes the target for bullies, it seems, for sleeping with another girl’s boyfriend, but it really isn’t as simple as all that. Her tormenters focus on her sexual conduct and use sexual and physical humiliation to punish her for losing control. It is never revealed who sent the video around, as the cellphone was left in the bathroom for anyone to pick up, but suspicion rightly falls on José, who can prove his machismo, attack the girl who lays a claim to him he doesn’t want, and humiliate the new girl he brought into the group in the first place. It is even possible he befriended her with this ulterior motive in mind. One only has to think of the torment and murder of the character of Juanita, a newcomer to Cuidad Juárez, in Backyard to see a familiar dynamic at play. The disposability of strangers, the acceptance of brutality against women that women collude in to maintain the pecking order, and the fragility of the male ego, which demands violent retribution, all come into play in After Lucia. The film, particularly the last scene, is very reminiscent of the feral behavior and shockingly matter-of-fact violence captured so heartbreakingly by Luis Buñuel in his 1950 classic Los Olvidados.
The film shows a fine attention to detail and expert use of indirect narrative to communicate the events of the story. That first scene, which only hints at the tragic death of Lucia, comes graphically into focus as Ale remembers the details as she swims obsessively to relieve her stress. Conversations occur in the distance, out of earshot, leaving us helpless in the foreground to imagine whatever plot, or horrors, we like. The cinematography of Chuy Chávez takes in the beauty and modernity of this set of people, contrasting the savagery that emerges from it without the pressures of physical survival that make comparison by some with Lord of the Flies erroneous. Although many commentaries focus on how difficult this film is to watch, I actually found Franco’s style discreet, offering enough distance to allow me to view the film to the end and, therefore, see the full realization of his vision. Much more difficult was taking in the incompletely suppressed emotions Ía and Mendoza express with their brave, committed performances.
People who see After Lucia may use it to start a dialogue about bullying and the need for open communication between parents and children. I think that’s just fine. But this is no afterschool special. The issues it raises go to the very heart of the psychic minefield of sex and the human pecking order, as well as the depths of depravity and violence to which the id unchecked by human reason can sink. After Lucia will shake you up and never let go.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Mario Bava
Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
By Roderick Heath
Mario Bava is a name to conjure with amongst lovers of horror cinema today, after an interregnum when his brand had waned and he was remembered only by film scholars and the directors who ripped him off. His lush, visually symphonic work in the horror field did not just bridge eras in the genre’s evolution, but actively affected it. Bava oversaw both the great revival of the Gothic horror style, thanks to his rescue job on Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), which beat both Hammer Studios and Roger Corman to the mark of sparking that style, and continued with Bava’s proper debut La Maschera del Demonio (1960). Bava however also oversaw that revival’s wane, and its displacing by a new style of horror, one which Bava essentially invented, based in more modern conventions, codes, and tropes. This would become known as the giallo movie. In the wake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which gave contemporary horror an electric relevance, Bava first compiled the giallo style in 1963’s La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo and its brilliant follow-up Sei Donne Per l’Assassino (1964). Where the Gothic genre was historical, rooted in intensely psychologised images and long-settled figurations representing threat – ghosts, vampires, werewolves – the giallo was stylised according to the shape and rhythm of a less superstitious but equally paranoid contemporary landscape, reconceiving threat as a lurking, masked, gloved killer out to attack and annihilate beauty and complacency. Gothic was rooted in Victorian literary and folk-tale traditions; giallo came from pulp literature, modern art, and urban myth. Giallo latched onto the sorts of figures beloved of trashy newspapers and which seemed to have devolved along with the modern urban world – sex killers, heavy breather phone callers, alienated misogynists, and murderous anarchists.
I Tre Volti della Paura feels like a pivotal movie for Bava, not simply in that its English-language title, Black Sabbath, inspired the name of the prototypical heavy metal band and thus gave it a higher measure of fame than any other Bava work, but because it’s an omnibus movie that allowed Bava to offer variations on new and old horror aesthetics. This analytical presumption contrasts not simply their disparate preoccupations and lexicons, both visual and thematic, but also their shared roots and mutual, closely related power. Bava’s film tells three stories adapted from Anton Chekhov, Howard Snyder, and Alexei Tolstoy, a disparate triumvirate of names and modes of storytelling, ordered depending on which version you’re watching of the film, the Italian or the foreign release cut. The Italian cut commences with The Telephone, from a Snyder story, moves on to The Wurdalak, from Tolstoy, and concludes with Chekhov’s The Drop of Water. The first is clearly an exercise in giallo nerve-wracking, whilst the second is ripe Gothicism, and the third represents a distinct tradition but also presents a curious melding of the two, apt in adapting Chekhov, a writer with old-world class partly veiling a very modern, ironic mind. The horror genre has, over the years, seen more omnibus and portmanteau films than any other genre I can think of, from Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), up to this year’s V/H/S. This seems a by-product of the type of story the genre works well with, minimal mood-pieces where sometimes complication despoils the form’s inherent qualities, and the powerful literary tradition of short eerie fiction. Bava’s work came in the wake of Corman’s Tales of Terror (1961) and anticipated Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964), the multi-director fancies of Histoires Extraordinaires de Edgar Allen Poe (1967), and Milton Subotsky’s series of Amicus films, but unlike most others Bava resists mixing the bag in tone or intent too much, and each episode vibrates with concerted near-perfection.
I Tre Volti della Paura often seems aware of its place as a bridging point of old and new, and certainly Bava keeps glancing over his shoulder at both his own style’s roots, and that of the genre. He signals this most clearly by taking advantage of having Boris Karloff as a star, offering him in a prologue and epilogue as a good-humoured master of ceremonies, warning the audience about vampires who might be sitting next to them – “Vampires go to the movies too!” – and imbuing the film with a self-evident link to the heyday of Hollywood horror. Karloff’s stature as a horror star had taken him through three distinct waves in the genre’s evolution, from James Whale to Val Lewton to Corman and Bava. Karloff’s jests in the bookends suggest an extension to his salutary self-mockery in Corman’s The Raven the same year, and yet his actual role in this film, in The Wurdalak, is serious in a severe and classical fashion. The Telephone, particularly in its Italian version, is remarkable for its concise summary of the underpinnings and methodology of the giallo style. The set-up is simple: a woman alone is terrorised by an unseen threat and a taunting voice on the phone. It’s one of the hoariest of modern genre variants, one that easily turns dull and repetitive in lesser hands, and yet Bava’s version is the ür-text, crisp in its execution and telling in its supple feints and clever miscues.
The woman here is Rosy (Michele Mercier), a gorgeous young trollop who arrives home one evening, strips down, and gets ready for bed, only to start receiving phone calls. At first the caller does not answer her plaintive demands to know who they are and what they want, and then finally the raspy mystery man begins to taunt her with threats of rape and murder, before slipping a newspaper cutting under her front door. The cutting suggests the caller is a former boyfriend of hers, Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), who has since gone to jail and now escaped. The caller seems to know everything she does, and Bava privileges the audience to a glimpse of malignant peering eyes through a window blind. Rosy, distraught and told if she calls the police then the killer will come in and finish her off, instead phones up her former lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) and begs her to come over. Mary arrives and after soothing her fears ends up sleeping with her, but as Bava has already revealed, Mary is in fact the source of the phone calls – a pretext in her desire to get back with Rosy. But as Mary writes a confession to leave for Rosy to read in the morning, the real Rainer enters the apartment and sneaks up on Mary, assuming she is Rosy.
The Telephone is a masterpiece of compact storytelling, unfolding with Bava’s illustrative intelligence whilst accepting distinct formal restrictions. The lesbian twist to the episode, carefully fudged in the English-language version, gives it a darker and deeper emotional punch than would otherwise offer, making Mary’s malfeasance a keener manifestation of emotional jealousy and longing worked out through a sadistic ploy, and staking the tale in a game of reversing roles. Mary pretends to be Rainer and Rainer mistakes Mary for Rosy, the man and woman swapping parts in their desire to possess/destroy Rosy’s fecund but independent sexuality, but finally only helping destroy each-other. This element plugs into the contemporary anxiety over sexuality and changing social mores overtaking traditional morality which would give the giallo genre so much of its bite, albeit often with reactionary overtones. Only a couple of years after Fellini offered arch queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita (1960), Bava treats this element with beguiling matter-of-factness, carefully depicting Mary as driven by angry desire to duplicitous means, eyeing Rosy’s fancy rooms and wondering out loud who pays for it all. The suggestion is that Rosy has often used her as her emotional comfort whilst working her way through men who could help her financially. Mary’s bitterness at being thrown over is then all too palpable, and it’s clear that Rainer, a dangerous criminal, was one of those men. Bava’s usual punitive moralism, often even stricter than his own hero Alfred Hitchcock, is apparent as all three characters pay a steep price for their transgressions, with Rosy left alive at the end as perhaps the worst punishment of all as the victims of her romantic life lie quite literally sprawled on the floor.
At the same time, Mary’s gamesmanship replicates on a narrative level the fundamental dynamic of Bava’s direction, a reduction of drama to the act of looking, watching, hypnotised by the pure spectacle as Bava stokes Rosy’s fear with pseudo-erotic sadism, the unseen watcher/caller standing in for the camera, director, audience, willing the game to go further, deeper, and climax with orgasmic act of murder. But like his successor Dario Argento in his early work, Bava enjoys disrupting the expectations about whose viewpoint the terror represents, evoking polymorphic underpinnings to a nominally simple exploitation of phobias of sex and death: it’s like Sartre’s No Exit reconfigured as chamber piece horror. The Telephone charts Bava’s precise awareness of just how long to string along the situation, offering his key revelations, like the staring eyes behind the blind and the identity of the caller, with seemingly casual yet actually precise and forceful cuts and camera moves as if following a thread to the heart of the labyrinth. He sustains dread in the meantime with the resolute build of shots around Mercier’s terrific performance, with each new call causing a distinct mounting of tension manifest in Rosy. Whilst the pace of editing builds, the telephone itself turns in an object of adversarial power – it’s coloured red and black, looking forward to the red telephone receiver that dangles as the evocation of severed lives and ruined loves at the end of Sei Donne per l’Assassino. The Telephone sees Bava at once defining the basic principles of giallo for the future – peering eyes, gloved hands, wickedly shining knives, isolation, paranoia, the fetishistic delight in the image of a terrified woman – whilst also looking back to Hitchcock’s immediate influence. He executes the story within one room, recalling Rope (1948) and Rear Window, particularly the latter with its emphasis on voyeurism; the eyes behind the blind evoke Psycho (1960), whilst Bava mimics a singular shot from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) as he performs a delicate camera move around Rosy, as she listens to an unfolding nightmare on the telephone. A climactic shot of Rainer sneaking up on Mary with an appropriated stocking clearly references Dial M For Murder (1954).
Which is not to say Bava’s filmmaking is imitative, but simply paying nods where they’re due, whilst also presenting his own stylistic brilliance, his sense of colour and composition and genius for fluidic, sensuous camera movement, and these qualities permeate the whole of I Tre Volti della Paura. The Wurdalak, the second and most elaborate episode, is a miniature epic that offsets the contemporary vision of private hells in The Telephone with a more traditional version. Bava’s penchant for the folkish eccentricities of the Slavic ghost story canon had already seen him loosely adapt Gogol’s ‘The Vij’ for La Maschera del Demonio, and The Wurdalak like that film takes place in a netherworld version of Eastern Europe, with sonorous location shots fleshing out perhaps Bava’s a beautifully crafted exercise in gothic horror. Freda, Bava, Sergio Leone and others of their breed were always expected to make their films look like the popular and commercially dominant English-language genre films in their fields, and even as they began to distort the results towards their own interests they paid lip-service to this necessity: here Bava pays clear nods to Corman by importing the stolidly handsome star of his House of Usher (1960), Mark Damon, to play a variation on his role there as an outmatched ingenue locked in a battle with his lover’s very identity. The set-up has distinct resemblances to several of Corman’s Poe-derived or inspired cycle, as Damon’s Count Vladimir d’Urfe takes on the role of archetypal Wanderer, in a vaguely identified, eerily depopulated land where peculiar social assumptions and menacing activities permeate the onerous scenery. The Count discovers a headless corpse on a riverbank with a distinctive knife in the heart. Vladimir straddles the corpse across his horse and carries it to the nearest house, where he discovers a family living in cowering anxiety and expectation, and he’s confronted by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) who recognises his own father’s knife as the one Vladimir has removed from the body.
When Vladimir leads Giorgio outside to inspect the body, it proves to have mysteriously vanished, only to turn up a short distance away, being stabbed through the heart with punitive relish by Giorgio’s brother Pietro (Massimo Righi). Somehow this discovery is actually more unnerving than the corpse’s reanimation would have been, the sight of the headless remnant being stabbed with a need for certainty commingling with the impossibility of ever truly killing the spectre of fear, heightening the atmosphere of hysteria that builds in the forty or so minutes of The Wurdalak’s running time. The corpse, it’s explained to Vladimir, was that of Alibeq, a Turkish bandit who had terrorised the region and who was rumoured to also be a vampire-like wurdalak. Their father Gorca (Karloff) had gone out days earlier to find and kill the enemy after he had murdered the clan’s foreman, but left behind a mysterious entreaty that they should kill him in turn, if he turned up more than five days after departing, a timespan which happens to run out at midnight, for that would mean that he would certainly be a wurdalak too by then. As the family waits fearfully for the appointed hour, Vladimir’s is drawn to Gorca’s stunningly beautiful daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen). As midnight ticks by, Gorca appears, haggard and alternately fierce and strangely unctuous in his manner, displaying Alibeq’s head which he’s been carrying around with him, a strikingly iconic image of a man who’s given into savage nature even in attempting to annihilate it. His fearful children know they should obey his previous statement, and yet can’t bring themselves to. In the night, as Pietro is left to keep watch, Gorca begins moving about the house, claiming Ivan, the child of Giorgio and his wife Maria (Rika Dialina), and leaving Pietro for dead.
One of Bava’s distinctive traits as a filmmaker was his ruthlessly clear understanding of the basic underpinnings of the dark fantasies he was engaged in depicting, and just as La Maschera del Demonio expanded intelligibly on the schismatic yet eternally conjoined images of Madonna and whore, and Sei Donne Per l’Assassino would contend with the urge to exterminate beauty if it could not be possessed, The Wurdalak anticipates Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1973) as Bava’s inwardly spiralling meditations on the encaging horror that can be family identity. Here the poisoned patriarch Gorca, who had gone out to do battle with the marauding villain, comes back as the force of evil he had sought to exterminate, and swiftly causes his clan to fall victim to it, complete with clear overtones of paedophilia and incest as he singles out young Ivan and snatches him away into the night, and the net draws tighter around Sdenka even as Vladimir begs her to escape with him. Images in Operazione Paura of evil lurking outside windows, peering in on the warm and contented with baleful intent to feed on that land of life, are prefigured here, as the household eats itself from the inside out. What’s most striking and pathologically precise about The Wurdalak is its pitilessly unsentimental view of sentiment, one which plainly prefigures the similar brute logic that George Romero would examine in his best films, a tension between emotional reflex and survivalist necessity.
This tilt on the familiar dramatic necessities of fighting evil examines the way people can behave in illogical ways when their lives are at stake and disturbing facts are plainly apparent, but their taboos and intensely entrenched prejudices and loyalties, no matter how retrograde or ignorant of other concerns, have been internalised so completely that they demand people act in contrary ways. Thus Bava shows the clan destroyed by its blindness to anything but its own hermetic nature, in a pungent metaphor for this schism: the sons cannot obey the father’s own advice and destroy him, and Giorgio’s wife murders her husband when he tries to prevent her letting in their plainly vampirized son, who seems to come wandering out of the frigid night to scratch at the door (anticipating memorable moments in Tobe Hooper’s spin on Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, 1979). Many a young lover has often felt like they’re trying to extract the one desirable member from a family of monsters, and Vladimir struggles to convince Sdenka to flee with him as she believes she must stay with her family for loyalty’s sake even as they all expire. Although Vladimir does finally convince Sdenka to leave, the delay is fatal, for the clan are able to catch up with them. In a brilliant depiction of the inescapable nature of formative roots, Sdenka is caught between her transformed family members, advancing to claim her in the midst of a ruined church, shambling corpses still obeying their inculcated ideals of clannish behaviour, and ghosts of ancient repressions still overwhelming all good sense in the present. When Vladimir awakens alone, he retraces the path to the Gorca house and finds Sdenka, waiting in all luscious readiness for him to join the family circle.
Interpretative perversities aside, The Wurdalak is visual gothic par excellence, with Bava manipulating both the studio settings and the location shooting to maximum atmospheric effect, conjuring a magnificent, appropriately fairy-tale world of menace, frames teeming with overgrown thorny bushes and misted forests, frosted windows and warm hues of longed-for shelters and sunrises. Indelible images proliferate, like Gorca stalking across the bridge on his way home, the faces of the undead glaring through frosted windows, and young Ivan clawing and weeping at the door, stoking his mother to emotions so desperate she cuts through her husband to get to her son. Bava pulls off one of his most felicitous bits of filmmaking here as he cuts from Giorgio and Maria arguing to the plaintive yet disconcerting image of what they think is their son kneeling with arms spread on the front door, and then cutting back to the sigh of a pair of scissors, daubed in Giorgio’s blood, falling to the floor, the mortally wounded man still crying out to the wife who’s killed him not to open the door for the monster. The deliriousness of Bava’s sci-fi horror riff, Terrore Nello Spazio (1965), is nascent in the saturated colours and dream-like mood. If the last chapter, The Drop of Water, seems comparatively lightweight after the The Wurdalak, it actually represents Bava’s most purely stylistic coup, in the orchestral use of colour, composition, sound, and camera work utilised in compiling a growing sense of unease.
Operating in a similar mould of isolated anxiety, depicting a woman alone in her apartment afraid of lurking terrors, to The Telephone, The Drop of Water is the story of plebeian, sticky-fingered, hapless nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), who is called out on a dark and stormy night from her warm abode to attend to her just deceased charge, a reputed but reclusive medium. Distracted and irritable, Helen espies and surreptitiously steals the enticing ring on the corpse’s finger. If The Telephone and The Wurdalak explore two major strands of horror, The Drop of Water exemplifies a third, the morality play where justice, which may be supernatural or might simply be overloaded mental credulity, comes surging from beyond the grave to punish transgression. For Bava, the mechanics of this kind of storytelling are comparatively simplistic, but the elements of class envy and the depiction of property as a maddening and destructive spur look forward to the insidious supernatural class struggle again in Operazione Paura, and the war over the estate that drives the bloodshed of Reazione a Catena (1971). Bava further invests The Drop of Water with overtones of black comedy, through Pierreux’s amusingly exaggerated performance as Helen, and the minute, nuisance-like, yet cumulatively maddening proliferation of difficulties in her attempts at thievery that start to resemble silent comedy. This restrained slapstick has consequences, as these events begin to recur as increasingly dreadful portents of warning after they’ve already suggested the taboo nature of stealing from the dead, building with a rapid but precise relish reminiscent of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1957), where again the temptation to profitable transgression is met by the corrosive terror of being caught.
Whilst the episode’s tone sustains impudent humour, Bava still constructs this episode with magisterial craft, contrasting the decaying splendour of the Medium’s mansion and Helen’s flat whilst filling both with resplendent colour effects that communicate moral, corporeal, and spiritual rot, for both places are filled with hues eloquent of decay and slovenly disinterest. Bava’s camera peers into spaces where any manifestation of evil might appear and yet which don’t – until finally they do, or at least the mind, tired of waiting for them to arrive, conjures them itself. Helen’s midnight suffering as she hears dripping water and is tormented by a single, impudent fly, sees her worked up into a pitch of anxiety. Finally the ghoulish visage of her dead charge appears in the shadows, gliding with eerie weightlessly and terrible purpose, her face, distorted as on the deathbed into a gnarled and gruesome leer, is etched in sickly hues of green and red. Helen is found dead the next day, missing the ring. Perhaps the ghost came and claimed it, and yet, as Bava details the guilty face of Helen’s neighbour and zooms in for a last look at Helen’s dead face, now distorted itself into another grim leer, the neighbour has taken the ring, and the roundelay of guilt and fear invoked by this seamy fixation with possession will continue. You can’t take it with you, but you can damn well haunt whoever else thinks it’s theirs.
The title’s cleverness becomes apparent by the end, as the “three faces of fear” refer not only to the trio of spooky stories, but to the cumulative fixation each episode has with a face that encapsulates fear, whether being experienced, as found in Rosy’s or Helen’s sweat-dabbed, tremulous brows, or inspiring it, as in Gorca’s and the Medium’s funereal visages, even coalescing monstrosity and beauty in Sdenka’s enticing final clinch with Vladimir. If, as Jean Renoir once said, the face was the greatest tool at the filmmaker’s disposal, this was Bava’s response, his proof of faith in the gestural power of the human element to invoke the most extreme cinematic emotions. If Sei Donne or Operazione Paura offer complete statements that are ultimately more powerful, I Tre Volti could well be the best produced of Bava’s horror films: the production carries little of the tackiness a lot of even the best Italian genre cinema could never quite escape, and the costuming, lighting, and settings reflect craftsmanship of a rich and delightful sort. Bava’s collaboration with DP Ubaldo Terzano is superlative. This excellence is ironic, as the film finishes up making fun of its own construction, revealing in the climax the tacky charm required to conjure such visions as Karloff, in his Gorca guise, suddenly stops riding the mechanical horse he’s mounted on to jest with the audience, whilst Bava pulls back to reveal crewmen running in circles to create the effect of forest brush whipping by. This jokey epilogue is Bava laughing at his own showmanship and Karloff mocking his own legacy, but not with tiredness or self-contempt, but the knowing winks of great magicians who don’t mind giving the game away if it’s been played well enough. Or perhaps it’s Bava’s answer to his pal Fellini’s inverted study in cinematic creativity released the same year, 8½. Anyway, when it’s all over, it’s not the humour you remember, or the storytelling: it’s that primal image of the Medium’s face, sliding forth out of the darkness, straight out of every childhood nightmare.
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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Victor Sjöstrom
By Roderick Heath
The Phantom Carriage has a power which almost defies description, a sense of an overwhelming darkness crowding the edges of the frame and corroding the very flesh and spirit of the characters on screen. It’s a tale of damnation, for whatever remains after death but also on earth too, the poison of psychological fear and anger blighting life as surely as the tuberculosis bacilli eat away its protagonists inside out. Light, with all its redemptive promise, radiates by contrast from the centre of frames, burning candles and lamps stranded in the midst of shadowy rooms, and from the face of the benighted Sister Edit (Astrid Holm). Edit lies expiring on New Year’s Eve, desperately begs her mother (Concordia Selander) and fellow Salvation Army worker Maria (Lisa Lundholm) to track down the one soul and body she’s been trying to save more passionately than any other. That is the soul of David Holm (Victor Sjöstrom), a drunken wastrel tracked down not in the hovel where his wife (Hilda Borgström) and children are trying to stave off hunger and cold, but drinking in a graveyard with two vagrants who listen as David recounts with amusement the fate of his old drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was tormented by an anxiety that used to gnaw at him on New Year’s Eve. As the minutes tick towards midnight, David explains Georges’ obsession with a folk myth that whoever died at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s would be a cursed and sinful person, charged with driving the carriage that collects the souls of those who die during the year. And, as ill luck would have it, Georges died one year ago on the very night he feared. After David chases off the Salvation Army worker who tracks him down for Edit, he fights with his two companions, one of whom smashes a bottle over his head. David is left for dead, and Death’s carriage soon comes rolling around.
Victor Sjöstrom’s career in film climaxed famously with his role in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958). In casting the aged director and actor in his film, Bergman was paying tribute to Sjöstrom’s status as a father of the Swedish film industry, and as an artist to whom Bergman and others, both in Sweden and around the world, owed a lot. In his heyday, Sjöstrom’s gift for portraying psychological drama and capturing tones ranging from fulminating unease to outright hysteria was second to none, and his cinematic experiments were as rich and innovative as anything that would soon follow in Germany, France, and the US. Along with Mauritz Stiller, Sjöstrom was at the front rank of Swedish filmmakers well before the First World War, labouring like many great early directors on dozens of short features as the quintessential forms of cinema began to evolve, and finally with his 1921 hit The Phantom Carriage, Sjöstrom gained an invite to Hollywood, where he made great films, often with Lillian Gish, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). But commercial success began to elude him, and his career essentially waned along with the silent film. Sjöstrom’s passionately visual, rhythmic, intimately composed ideal of cinema was at once highly stylised and fascinatingly realistic, as the director amongst other things helped to bridge early cinema with the Swedish stage and its tradition of dark, neurotic realist spectacle as exemplified by August Strindberg.
Today the horror film, in spite of patchy acceptance by mainstream critics, is still essentially considered a fringe genre. In the first quarter-century of cinema’s existence, however, it was a favourite field for directors who wanted to interrogate the possibilities of the medium, as they contemplated the intrinsic link between the mystery of film’s power and images of mortality, nebulous existence and concrete form. This was true of much important early cinema, including several of Georges Melies’ most striking works, Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1919), Wegener’s Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam (1920), Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Christensen’s Häxan (1922), and Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). The Phantom Carriage itself stands up amidst the most beautiful, eerie, and dazzlingly rendered movies of its time. One reason the horror genre, which was hardly a genre at the time and certainly not called that, attracted such a wealth of early talent was that it presented possibilities for experimenting with the kinds of special effects available to early cinema, in a fashion that later sci-fi, action, and fantasy films would invite, as a testing ground for evolutions in technology and the inspiration to use it. Whereas, apart from Tod Browning, it would take European directors working in Hollywood and, more crucially, the advent of the Depression to shock American horror cinema into its first golden age, in Europe a superlative glut of definitive moviemaking in this mould was closely aligned with the stylistic moment of what became known as German Expressionism. The time was in tune, too, for the great flowering of these films came in the period directly following the Great War, a time in which a great hole had been carved in European society, the pall of death was an everyday, invasive reality, and fascination with spiritualism exploded in a world that felt not at all metaphorically haunted.
But not all of these films were clear-cut in their exploitation of this mood, as many depict the birth struggles of modernism, as artists wrestled with remnants of folk traditions and the detritus of cultures going through painful evolutions, trying to reject the dead-weight of past truisms to embrace rationalism, but often rubbing fears raw in that process. Sjöstrom’s film was adapted a novel by 1909’s Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, and the story is in many ways a familiar piece of post-Victorian abstemious moralism, playing like a darker version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which a sinner sees the error of his ways through a supernatural encounter. For Sjöstrom, who had been adapting Lagerlöf’s novels regularly thanks to a deal she had made with the studio he worked for, the task was however to retain the complexity of the novel and depict the perverse, dramatically difficult elements onto the screen, precisely at a time when it was becoming clear that film was open to all challenges. The Phantom Carriage becomes a psychological epic about cruelty, fear, and pain, as experienced and exacted by David, an antihero who takes on Dostoyevskian dimensions in his anger at humanity even as he cringes before immutable forces. David, a former carpenter and craftsman, has long since slid into the gutter under the influence of the ironically well-educated Georges, whose habitual cynicism and florid bon vivant postures attracted both David and his younger brother (Einar Axelsson). Georges only ever registered disquiet when New Year’s rolled around and revived the folk tale figuration of the phantom carriage in his thoughts like an annual memento mori.
One of Sjöstrom’s significant flourishes in telling his tale is the complexity of the narrative, refusing to simplify Lagerlof’s storyline, shifting perspectives and offering layers of stories within stories in retracing the paths the key characters have taken to this converging night of fate. Starting with Edit’s plight and then shifting to David and his wayside buddies in the graveyard, Sjöstrom then segues into the past, as David recalls his time with Georges, and through Georges the mythology of the carriage is depicted. This cues a lengthy, sepulchral, superlatively realised sequence depicting the carriage and its hooded, scythe-clutching driver, going about their work. They watch over all varieties of human misery and misfortune, standing by as a plutocrat shoots himself in his immaculate mansion, and plucking the spirits of dead mean just drowned in the sea, the carriage trundling carelessly into the waves and the driver descending to the ocean floor for his prize. It’s easy to recognise the influence of these scenes on Bergman’s figuration of Death for The Seventh Seal (1957) and other elements of the visual design – one shot of the carriage travelling over a hilltop against a cloudy horizon recalls the famous shot of Death leading the dance of the dead that climaxed the Bergman work. Sjöstrom achieves his otherworldly emanations with that simplest and oldest of movie special effects, the double exposure, rendering with stark beauty the scenes of the carriage venturing onto the waves or trundling through the streets, and the spirits of dead wandering and conversing, the human world oblivious to their presence and the dead gazing back at the world they’re cut off from with forlorn impotence.
Yet whilst the film’s pictorial and emotional depictions of oneiric gloom are compelling, Sjöstrom is equally adept at capturing the grubby world its characters inhabit. Lagerglof’s novel had begun life when she was asked to write a treatise on tuberculosis control, but as she worked a narrative came to her with an aspect of social realism mediated by and reconceived through the veils of mysticism and mystery. Sjöstrom answered with its cinematic equivalent: the seamy taverns, fetid flophouses, low-rent apartments, midnight card games, the chilly graveyard, all are depicted with a care worthy of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), with which the film shares a subterranean mood of acidic reportage and neurotic intensity. One function that the narrative complexity serves is to give the tale a sense of haziness about the veracity of what is seen: it could all be David’s alcoholic horrors or dazed dream after getting walloped over the head. But it also suggests that such distinctions mean little in the face of how it summarises the struggle, and attraction, between the all-encompassing nihilism of David and the naïve yet powerful altruism of Edit. Caught between them are David’s victimised wife and brother, early casualties, emotionally and morally if not mortally, for David’s rage, and yet also participants in and causes for it. After David and his brother fell in with Georges, David did a short stretch in jail for drunken behaviour, and as he was released, the prison chaplain (Nils Aréhn) revealed to David with brutal condemnation that his brother is now also locked up, but for the far worse crime of killing a man in a drunken brawl: the chaplain stated that he was of the opinion David should be doing the time instead. David, horrified and chastened, returned home to his family, only to find they had left without any idea of where to find them, turning David’s ill feeling into an unshakeable and near-psychopathic misanthropy.
The existential angst of The Phantom Carriage is aligned with the pain of the post-war period, even if made in a country that was neutral during WWI, as it resembles the nightmare prophecies and structure of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse! (1919) which similarly climaxes with visions of the dead rising up, possibly hallucinated but still urgently meaningful. The difference is that the horror of The Phantom Carriage is microcosmic, a study in personal degradation and damage but with a reformist social agenda. And yet the film slips out of such limits: the notion that David travels deeper into his personal nightmare out of wilful determination and anger at the cheap pieties and soft options that leave him adrift in a bleak world, gives The Phantom Carriage more complexity. Sjöstrom imbues it with a hallucinatory unease that captures that mood of midnight agony anyone who’s drunk to forget the day’s pain might recognise. When David arises from his own sprawled, shattered body to be confronted by Georges, who has spent the last year driving the carriage, except for him every night has been “a hundred years”, collecting souls like a tired garbage man clearing away the refuse of human existence. There’s a quality approaching black comedy as the grim figure of death proves to be the middle-aged, familiar Georges, but his rank melancholia and sombre missives quickly diverge into a form of horror that penetrates far deeper than the later genre’s usual stock visions of psychos in masks killing sundry teenagers, asking instead, what are we most afraid of in life and in death? Whilst Georges ushers David away from Edit’s deathbed in telling him that the job of taking her soul belongs to other, presumably more exalted spirits, there’s no sight of better worlds or paradises in this vision, only of the afterlife as a place where people walk or trundle along in stunned misgiving, staring back at the life they’ve lived with awareness that hell is a place humans create for themselves.
Of course Georges tells David that he’s going to take his place as the driver for the next year, and when David protests, George binds him with invisible strands and forces him to accompany him to Edit’s deathbed, where Edit, not yet dead but standing at the edge of permeable reality, can see Georges, and greets him with confusion: “Death…but too early.” Edit has her own crosses to bear. Her mother had begged her fellow Salvation Army workers to ignore her frantic wish to see David before dying because having given up her life to the cause and now doesn’t want her death to be consumed by it too. As Georges stands over Edit’s bed, he explains her situation to David, thus commencing another lengthy flashback as the narrative retreats one year to the same New Year’s when Georges himself died, and David, drunk and sick, barged his way into the new shelter Edit and Maria had set up, and passed out on a bed. Edit set herself to fixing up David’s torn coat, oblivious to the fact that in doing so she was breathing in all the germs on it, including his chronic TB, which she’s expiring from at an accelerated rate. When he awakened, David ripped off the patches she had put on the coat, stating, “I’m used to it this way,” and she asked him to come see her in a year’s time to let her know how he was getting on. The pair continued to encounter each-other with a quality of combative aggression mixed with erotic fascination, as Edit confesses she fell in love with David, seemingly everything she isn’t, even as she determinedly wrested one of his friends away from him at a Salvation Army rally. David’s wife, for whom he’s been searching for months, was at the same rally, and after seeing Edit and David argue, explained her plight.
Edit, with selfless determination, set about reconciling the couple, but once returned to his family, David’s long-awaited revenge commenced as he refused to give up his drunken ways, preferring to taunt his wife and breathing precariously over his children. David’s vicious misanthropy is at its rarest when he tells a woman at the rally that she shouldn’t cover her mouth when she coughs, as he takes pride in breathing his lethal germs right in people’s faces. When his wife tried to rebel again and locked him in the bathroom whilst she tried to get the kids away, as she fumbled with the sleeping youngsters he hacked his way out with a hatchet, in a sequence that at once suggests a nod to Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) but looks forward too with unavoidable similarity to the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining (1981), complete with the peculiarly intimate terror of the enraged father figure, a potent and toxic vision of masculine violence erupting in the home. And yet when his wife faints, unable to escape, and David gets free, he props her up on a pillow and feeds her water, greeting her awakening with the harshly knowing words, “It wasn’t as easy to run away this time!” To her exhausted reply, “Haven’t you had enough revenge?” As Edit expires, Georges takes David on to his next stop – the slum dwelling where David’s wife and children are living now, as Mrs Holm prepares to poison them all, a final recourse. Finally David’s self-absorption is shattered and he begs with Georges to save them even at the expense of his own total extinction.
The surprisingly naturalistic acting, particularly from Sjöstrom himself, whose husky physicality gives David the insolent charisma the role needs, is littered with gestural marvels that equal the filmmaking. In an early scene, Mrs Holm is brought to Edit’s bedside, the woman a fidgety, dead-eyed wraith who reaches out with clawing, Nosferatu-like fingers at the slumbering Edit in her anger, only for Edit to awaken and immediately smother the woman in kisses in submissive gratitude. When Maria first finds Mrs Holm, she keeps retreating to each corner of the room, standing with back to the room. Just as affecting is the anguished stroke of his brother’s face David gives when presented with him in his jail cell, and in David’s homecoming as he cringes and smoulders in rage as he stands in the midst of the jarringly empty flat, whilst two neighbour women laugh over his misfortune. One stark shot depicts Mrs Holm and her children standing over David who lies sprawled and passed out on the pavement. Sjöstrom’s best moment comes in one of David’s ugliest, as he first clasps eyes on Edit after learning she’s repaired his coat and she waits with eagerness to see his reaction: David’s expression turns as cold as the winter wind as he perceives the embodiment of everything he’s at war with and feels cannot be his, and his frenzied tearing at the patches of the coat delivers his message, but whilst startled, Edit refuses to be fazed, and her fascination for the simultaneously pathetic and grotesque, yet also powerful David is made weirdly coherent. Her subsequent effort to reunite David and his wife see her perpetuate the great Victorian delusion that all you had to do to normalise any experience, any anomaly, any fracture in human dealings, was to slap a pair of decent clothes on it. Thus the story is complicated by its concentration on the way good intentions often crash headlong into harsh realities.
The Phantom Carriage ends happily, after a fashion, but as in Bergman’s work there’s a sense that redemption and facing up to all that’s gone wrong in life can be exhausting, even counter-productive. David, restored to “life” and rushing to intervene in his wife’s seemingly imminent euthanasia, buckles and weeps when she reacts with aggression and disbelief in his sudden show of concern, and it’s clear that even if he really has seen the error of his ways, the same essential cause of both his good and bad behaviour remains a fretful terror of mortality, the disease still in his lungs and the pain that is his burden. The mood of The Phantom Carriage lingers long after it’s over, and its influence on filmmakers, both in the horror mode and outside it, feels deep: as well as Bergman and Kubrick, its atmosphere and original blend of precise psycho-social veracity and the otherworldly anticipates the qualities of Val Lewton’s epochal film series, whilst other aspects vibrate through the works of Murnau and G.W. Pabst, and prefigure a very different film about a misanthrope haunted by past loss, particularly the flashback to scenes of familial happiness for the Holms, in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964). Like many notable silent films, The Phantom Carriage has seen many editions and restorations over the years, but I recommend the version I saw with an aptly spare and eerie score by the electronic group KTL: where many match-ups between silent films and modern scores, like the several Metropolis (1926) has seen, feel arch in the long run, the KTL score expertly captures the sense of nocturnal foreboding, alienation, and bleak emotionalism that fuels the film. Either way, The Phantom Carriage is an early masterpiece of the medium.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
John Carpenter helped change the face of horror cinema with his 1978 hit Halloween. This change, as it soon proved, was not for the better, as legions of poor imitations of his stark modernist nightmare, which translated the motifs of the Italian giallo horror style into American suburban paranoia and mixed them with a radical embrace of purely figurative villainy, filed onto movie screens. Carpenter’s immediate follow-up, The Fog, sits between the singular success of Halloween and the pulpy thrills of Escape From New York (1981), which would see Carpenter work for the first time with favoured star Kurt Russell. The Fog, in spite of a poor remake in 2005, remains by comparison neglected in Carpenter’s oeuvre. It is nonetheless one of the gems of the director’s early career, at a time when it seemed he could do no wrong, and one of the finest cinematic hymns to the pure malevolent joy of telling a ghost story. Halloween explored the frisson stemming from the most sepulchral of childhood fantasies associated with the eponymous date, reinventing the Boogeyman as a blank and primal force of brutality uncontained by any earthly concern or interest. By contrast, The Fog aimed for a more traditional evocation of the mood of campfire spook tales, making this motif both its key-note and its driving logic, to the extent where it opens with a celebration of this age-old act, as children, bathed in flickering firelight, sit in wrapt attentiveness as old sea salt Mr Machen (John Houseman) narrates.
Machen holds an old fob watch out to tick away the seconds to midnight, before snapping it shut and announcing there’s time for one more story before the witching hour begins. He recounts the tale of the Elizabeth Dane, a ship that sank off the coast of the small northern California town of Antonio Bay, smashed to pieces on the rocks when fooled by a mysterious wrecker’s light, bathed in an unholy fog. Carpenter’s camera details the enthralled faces of the children Machen entertains and the aged storyteller’s own visage, before craning up over a dune to survey Antonio Bay itself in the midnight moonlight, placid and beautiful, linking the layers of storytelling involved as well as the spoken myth with the real locale. The eerie strains of a coastal fog horn blare out as well as the drone of Carpenter’s usual simple yet unnervingly perfect electronic scoring, and the story Machen has told soon proves less entertainment than warning and invocation. The Fog explores the town with its faint fringes of nocturnal life, cleaners, lone duty policemen, drinkers. Father Patrick Malone (Hal Holbrook), after seeing off the local church’s odd-job man (Carpenter) who wants to be paid at an inconvenient moment, is shocked when a block seems to spontaneously fall out of the wall in his office. This reveals a hidden nook where Malone discovers his own grandfather’s old journal, containing a menacing missive: “Midnight ‘til one belongs to the dead – good lord help us.”
True to this word, around the town, strange phenomena begin occurring: tremors shake supermarket shelves, gas pumps fall from their cradles, telephones ring en masse, car alarms suddenly erupt in deafening din, and household furniture moves about by itself. Driving into town, Nick Castle (Tom Atkins) picks up a hitchhiker on a dark and lonely stretch of road, Elizabeth Solley (Jamie Lee Curtis), and his rapport with her is both interrupted and deepened as the windscreen is suddenly shattered by the same unseen force. This is all accounted with nerveless, intimate detail by Carpenter, relying on the intense power of stillness and quiet, infused and interrupted by mysterious powers readying to shatter the illusion of normalcy, as the past returns quite literally to haunt Antonio Bay.
Ironically, much of The Fog’s first 20 minutes had be to be hastily reshot and reassembled with the aid of Carpenter’s key collaborators Debra Hill and Dean Cundey, as the film Carpenter had initially envisioned was too short and enigmatic, and also out of date, as the craze Halloween had started for amassing body counts and brutal violence far outpaced its creator. Yet the result adds up to a perfect encapsulation of Carpenter’s feel for the fundamental dynamic and necessary rhythm of the horror genre, and his reliance on visual storytelling as something that does not always require visceral effect to build intense engagement. Already in 1980 this faith in mood, composition, coherence, and a carefully calibrated sense of unfolding story tethered to a sense of locale and mindset, was starting to look outmoded in genre cinema, and indeed whilst today Carpenter’s best work is considered iconic in nostalgia as exemplary old-school cinema, in its original context Carpenter’s work was staked in an ethic of functional intelligence with roots in an older, vanishing filmic sensibility. The Fog was, then, an important crossroads not merely for Carpenter himself, but for the genre, as a kiss goodbye to a classical brand of horror.
The events that plague Antonio Bay as midnight rolls around, redolent of some invisible force playing havoc with the trappings of modern civility (anticipating Carpenter’s much more overt war on sense-severing technology in They Live, 1988, and the finale of Escape From LA, 1997) prove to be a mere prologue to a far more vivid resurgence of supernatural forces, as three fishermen, Dick Baxter (James Canning), Al Williams (John Goff), and Tommy Wallace (George “Buck” Flower), who have stayed out to get drunk, have their boat overtaken by a strange fog bank moving against the wind, and become witness to a ghostly sailing ship sliding past their vessel. Dark, gnarled figures appear on the deck and slaughter the trio, whilst their boat drifts on in the curling mist. Although more visibly violent, this sequence is squarely in a genre tradition that favours intense atmosphere, and vivid contrasts of modernity and the atavistic, wraith-like forms of dead men and ghost ships. It’s offered with a refusal to smirk at the hoariness, only allowing a momentary note of dry humour to slip by (“She’s crazy, there’s no fog bank out there…Hey, there’s a fog bank out there!”) before the weirdness starts. Carpenter’s editing keeps what is seen partly elusive, almost cryptic, and resolves in a moment of pure, phobic nightmarishness, as Baxter is left alone on the dark bridge, panicking as he reports mysterious objects on the radar, thinking the dripping, staggering zombie wielding a sharp tool behind him is one of his friends. One of the same gruesome figures seems to come knocking at Nick’s door, as he and Elizabeth recline in post-coital calm, only to vanish when Nick opens the door exactly at the stroke of 1 a.m., and the forces of darkness retreat into the sea again.
The Fog maintains Halloween’s less-is-more ethos whilst expanding its scope far wider, as it plays out with a similar Greek drama-like limitation to slightly more than a 24-hour period. The previous film reduced its killer to the status of purified, blank symbol of fear and encouraged the audience, like some other recent horror hits like The Exorcist (1973), to give themselves up to the irrational without appeal to psychological or social realities. The Fog on the other hand presents its wraiths as the spirit of old wrongs returning to extract a peculiar, fearsome brand of justice from all who have profited from those crimes. This “rotting body politic” motif recurs constantly in Carpenter’s best work, commencing in the long-achieved breakdown of the professional astronauts in Dark Star (1974) and recurring in Assault in Precinct 13 (1976) and many films after The Fog. It accords with a thematic strand that was popular more in ‘70s horror fiction, including often bobbing up in Stephen King’s works, in keeping with a post-‘60s exploitation of anxieties about suppressed and repressed aspects of history and social life.
Carpenter and Hill’s screenplay joins this anxiety to another theme which became attractive after Jaws (1975) and Nashville (1975), exploiting American bicentennial angst, where communal celebrations become moments for eruptions of those repressed forces, but here given an explicit basis in the crimes of that community: “We’re honouring murderers,” Malone, the devolved remnant of that tradition, murmurs. The founding and growth of Antonio Bay is linked, as Malone discovers through his grandfather’s diary, to a murderous crime in which the settlers who picked out the bay for a home, horrified by the thought of a leper colony being founded a short distance away, conspired to accept the money paid to them by the colony’s financier Blake, and then caused the wreck of the ship, with nature itself seeming to aid the calamity. As the hundredth anniversary of this crime is nigh, however, the fog that seemed to aid the wreckers now returns as a cloak for the emerging dead, who set out to kill the descendants of the conspirators and anyone else who gets in their way.
Carpenter’s faith in pure storytelling is captured in the relish of the depiction of it in Machen’s opening speech, and of course the character’s name evokes Arthur Machen, the Welsh author who wrote and collected ghost stories, some of which helped feed the Halloween mythos. And yet a modernist’s vibrant restraint is constantly in evidence throughout The Fog, refined to a rigorous twinning of form and function. The mid-section of The Fog, between the two nights of ghostly vengeance, entwines off-hand characterisation with exposition. Solitary radio host Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) takes over from Machen as a “narrator”, as her vigil from the lighthouse, where her radio station broadcasts from, makes her the one person who can tie together the disparate threads of action, and guide them with a director’s viewpoint. Another layer of storytelling opens in the inter-cutting between Malone reading his grandfather’s diary, and Nick recounting a sea story of his father’s that relates to the unfolding drama.
But the film never allows meta-narrative impulses to impede its essential classicism. The personality of the film is signalled by the number of character names given to Carpenter’s collaborators current and former. Carpenter’s fondness for large casts with a Hawksian interactive affinity, and a notable diffusion of heroic status over several characters, hinted at in his earlier movies, comes more fully into focus here as The Fog divides it attention between multiple character threads of interest that eventually collide, and the story converges into one of the siege situations Carpenter has been so fond of. Stevie’s drama and Nick and Elizabeth’s hunt for the source of the mystery connects with Malone’s uncovering of the grim truth whilst Al Williams’ wife Kathy (Janet Leigh) attempts to organise the memorial to the lie, with the aid of her sarcastic assistant Sandy Fadel (Nancy Loomis). It was entirely apt that after Halloween’s several overt references to Psycho (1960), including casting Leigh’s daughter, that Marion Crane herself appeared in the follow-up, and Leigh gives a deft seriocomic performance as a hyperactive booster plunged into a survival struggle, exchanging sundry sarcastic barbs with Sandy (“You’re the only person I know who can make ‘yes ma’am’ sound like ‘screw you!’” “Yes ma’am.”) as a wry commentary on friction between old-fashioned pluck and new-age indolence.
Carpenter’s work with cinematographer Cundey, which had helped make Halloween the film it is, and creating a near-legendary pattern for the use of the wide Panavision screen, is here a stream of restrained beauty and perfectly composed tensions, capturing crisply the alternately eerie and picturesque shores of the northern California setting, skirting Bodega Bay, the setting of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), which is mentioned, with Carpenter getting to pay nods to the master in his uneasily becalmed shots Barbeau driving across the landscape. As in the Hitchcock film the seemingly limitless, empty expanse of the ocean becomes the place where a nameless threat gathers, whilst Carpenter carefully and insinuatingly suggests that present evil is only ever the hangover of past evil, refusing to be laid to rest, and he offers glimpses, sometimes direct but often cunningly supple and elusive, of the irrational nature of the threat, as objects transmute and the seemingly hard contours of reality melt away in the numinous mist.
As is often the case in Carpenter’s work, it’s the specificity of the setting and the characterisations that infuses the drama with a rare kind of life, as Carpenter captures the feel of the small town exactingly, catching both the fine details of a blue-collar, workaday place, and also some of its contradictions, like Nick’s status as a working class bohemian, who connects with rich girl Elizabeth because like her, he has no idea what to do in his life. Although Carpenter was about to become associated with Russell, Atkins, who would also star in the ill-fated but interesting Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), was a perfect actor for the director’s oeuvre with his seemingly plebeian charisma and looks, heavy-set and vividly masculine in the least traditionally Hollywood fashion, and he’s terrific as the competent but thoughtful, slightly haunted-seeming Nick, who’s intelligent and imaginative but used to the risky, subtly dangerous world of the fishing fleet of Antonio Bay.
By contrast, Stevie is a big city refugee, who surveys the ocean and murmurs, “Nothing but water, Stevie. But it sure beats Chicago.” In her seaside house Carpenter surveys, dispassionately, photos of herself, her son Andy (Ty Mitchell), and a man, presumably her husband and the boy’s father, in their former enterprises in radio, and the fact that Stevie keeps these photos in view suggests the man died rather than divorced, and perhaps therefore running from a peculiar kind of urban horror only to encounter another kind of it. Barbeau’s terrific performance is at its best as Stevie attempts to stay at her post even as she’s wracked by fear for her son who’s directly in the fog’s path, perhaps the film’s keenest moment of emotional engagement, coexisting with an interesting post-Watergate subtext, interrogating about the slippery divide between reporting on crisis and being involved in it, and to whom responsibilities ultimately belong. By the film’s end Stevie’s ivory tower is being assaulted by decaying remnants of men, emanations of a primeval Id that could stand in for every fear Stevie as a single mother has ever tried to stave off. She directs the survivors from the town to Malone’s church as a theoretical refuge, except that’s exactly where the dead killers are heading in pursuit of Malone. Curtis, by the same token, gets to leave behind her role in Halloween as the haplessly virginal yet plucky final girl in playing the game, swinging Elizabeth, whilst still playing a young woman who seems initially out of her depth but who proves finally equal to the nightmares around her.
Carpenter, like many of the other filmmakers who emerged in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and were ennobled with the general epithet “Movie Brats”, often played games with the referential nature of his excursions, never placing them in quotation marks as in the next wave of post-modern directors a la Tarantino, but trying to iron them into the texture of the film, much as his ultimately quite different but similarly rooted generational fellows Spielberg and Lucas. The Fog may in turn have influenced some other filmmakers: Michael Mann’s The Keep (1984) is in some ways a redeployment of this film’s aesthetics with a more aggressively expressionist tilt. Some of Carpenter’s concepts owe quite a bit to the little-seen 1958 British sci-fi horror flick The Trollenberg Terror (also called The Crawling Eye), from which it borrows one significant element – the smothering fog concealing the lurking evil – and a couple of signature scenes, including a corpse climbing off its deathbed and stalking a heroine, and one in which one character hears another being killed on the other end of a phone line. The former scene also sees Carpenter following in Brian De Palma’s wake of consciously remixing elements of earlier scenes from his films and letting them play out in different fashions, as a late moment from Halloween in which Curtis had the apparently dead Michael Myers rise up behind her is tweaked now as Baxter’s very dead, sea-rotted corpse picks itself up and lurches towards Elizabeth with scalpel in hand, only to trip and leave a mysterious sign that seems to be an ‘M’ scratched into the linoleum – a Fritz Lang shout-out?
This moment points forward in turn to one of the creepiest scenes in Carpenter’s up-coming remake of The Thing (1982), whilst a late scene sees Stevie mimicking the “watch the skies” speech at the end of the 1951 original; the Cold War era message of vigilance is here perverted into one of historical awareness. The second quote from The Trollenberg Terror, as Stevie tries to talk smooth-talking meteorologist Dan (Charles Cyphers) from checking out whose knocking at the door of his remote weather station, only to hear his dying gurgles as a baling hook is jammed in his neck. Much of Val Lewton’s psychological spirit is apparent throughout The Fog, particularly in Carpenter’s emphasis on brusque, eliding edits and oblique framing that constantly render the source of threat slightly out of focus and easy dismissal. The Fog is also marked out by its strong sense of a literary legacy in the form: Carpenter’s constant genre masters Nigel Kneale and H.P. Lovecraft are invoked, anticipating The Evil Dead (1981) in filching Lovecraft through the means of a malefic tome that guides the action, whilst the narrative echoes with references to Machen, M.R. James, Arthur Conan-Doyle, and Sheridan LeFanu, the formative masters of the ghost story.
At the same time, the driving force of Halloween, a solid basis in that modern campfire tale, the urban legend, which exploded in the alarmism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, is identifiable here too. This is manifest in the phobia-exploiting images of mysterious visitors wielding large vicious weapons, and in the sense of isolation around the hitchhiking Elizabeth and solitary Stevie, an intimate awareness of that isolation in a world where threat lurks. Stevie’s radio show, which plays vintage big band jazz, helps generate the intense feeling of both late-night, nostalgia-flecked warmth whilst also reinforcing the sense of isolation. One great and also slightly amusing aspect of The Fog is the unadorned simplicity and force of its suspense situations, including perhaps the absolute best ever “can’t get the car moving” nail-biter sequence, as Elizabeth struggles to get Nick’s truck moving after he’s saved Andy from the zombies, with the shuffling ghouls closing in as Elizabeth struggles to get the truck in gear. Part of the beauty of this scene is its precision of character detail under pressure: Elizabeth has obviously never driven a vehicle like the truck before, and she wrestles the gears with frantic, wheel-slapping frustration but refusing to give up and finally succeeding. The finale, which sees the main cast converge in Malone’s church, sees Carpenter at last back in the siege movie territory he loves so much, with the memorably bold visions of the zombies’ gnarled, discoloured, bandage-swathed hands shattering the stained glass windows and reaching out of the hallucinatory fog.
Carpenter’s habitually dark tendency of killing off unexpected and empathetic characters was more muted than usual here, although he doesn’t mind having the cutesy old babysitter Mrs Kobritz (Regina Waldon) fall into the zombies’ clutches. But he saves one of his darkest final blackout jokes for the very end, as it seems that evil has been satisfied by Malone’s gesture of sacrifice to the ghosts, presenting the gold stolen from them which his grandfather hid away in the form of a cross to Blake (Rob Bottin), the walking dead standing in the midst of the church unfazed by the usually sacrosanct territory in their mission. Malone’s handover of the gold sees an eruption of supernatural power, Nick snatching the priest away as Blake and his crew vanish, apparently returned to the netherworld satisfied. But later, as Malone mulls over the meaning of his survival, he’s confronted again by the ghouls, and this time Blake dispatches him with one swift, brutal blow. The message is as inescapable as it is grimly funny: the past will exact all its debts from the present eventually, and you can only buy it off so long.
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Director: Tim Burton
By Roderick Heath
Dark Shadows, a cultishly remembered, increasingly perverse take on the daytime soap opera, presented through a prism of increasingly outlandish gothic tropes, debuted in 1966, but did not gain its true notoriety until it introduced vampiric antihero Barnabas Collins a year into its run. Decades before Anne Rice and Twilight began to make such figures seem commonplace, the show helped make the link between the Byronic romantic and the undead prince, already lurking in some of Dracula’s on-screen incarnations, suddenly solid. I’ve seen little of Dan Curtis’ original TV series, sadly, though I’m a lifelong devotee of Curtis’ subsequent series The Night Stalker (1973-1974). A spin-off movie, House of Dark Shadows (1970), made in the wake of the show’s cancellation, had an air of bare-boned sufficiency. So I’m no real judge of Dark Shadows a la Tim Burton as a tribute to, or send-up of, this original entity. What I can speak of is Burton himself.
Burton’s career since 2000 has been held in increasing disdain by many critics and fans, even as his box office touch has been growing surer thanks to his editions of popular properties carefully made over with a veneer of Burton touches. That disdain is partly deserved: there is no hell hot enough for his hacky remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), I could not fake an interest in his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and whilst I found the near-universal negativity turned on his Alice in Wonderland (2010) more than a little hyperbolic—if nothing else, it had muse Helena Bonham Carter’s gleeful Red Queen to offer—it was still clearly a long way from the man’s most inspired work, and redolent of a once-unruly wit tailored into a franchise. On the other hand, Big Fish (2003) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), near-great films, and Corpse Bride (2005), a fine-wrought bon-bon, deserved no such censure, and merely confirms something obvious from Burton’s whole career—that he was always an uneven talent.
Burton’s general refusal to entirely abandon his sense of cinema as a mere fancy version of a children’s dress-up party, mixed with a Goth rock-and-roll bash and usually realised through leading man Johnny Depp’s variations on a theme of pasty weirdos, is both a strength and a weakness. Its strength is in opposition to the times, where the false verisimilitude of CGI, the rise of self-serious blockbuster auteurs like Christopher Nolan, and an attendant cut-to-the-chase cynicism amongst lesser luminaries, defines big-budget cinema: Burton has embraced CGI, but in a fashion that uses it as merely another prop in his magic lantern shows. Its weakness is that it could be said to be holding him back from growing artistically, although lingering anger for the failure of Big Fish, his most overtly personal and felt film since Ed Wood (1994), might also be involved.
Dark Shadows, on the back of a trailer whose emphasis on its comic elements made many nervous, also seems to have met with a lot of lingering resentment for how much money Alice made in spite of the opprobrium. But whilst it’s not a flawless film and shows distinct signs of having been awkwardly trimmed in the editing room, it’s also Burton’s most playful work since 1996’s Mars Attacks, his antic streak slipping the leash and making the most of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay as a delicious survey of retro camp, and his own undying desire to both laugh at and indulge the frisson welling from a morbidly sensual sensibility. It’s nigh-on impossible to construct a cult artefact in the context of modern Hollywood’s highest spheres, and yet that’s what Dark Shadows actually feels like. Had it been made, production techniques and budgetary differences notwithstanding, in the time it was set, it would have stood a good chance of standing up with other oddball by-products of the era’s wayward impulses, like Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! (1966), Corman’s The Raven (1963), Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), or Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966). Dark Shadows overflows with ideas and images that reveal Burton as anything but creatively exhausted: rather, it’s such a freaky surplus that it threatens at points to fly apart.
Burton’s film, like House of Dark Shadows, places Barnabas front and centre. Unlike most of Depp’s other Burton-directed characterisations of socially maladjusted misfits, Barnabas is superficially a commanding figure, albeit one rendered a misfit by dint not only of being a vampire, but also by dislocation in time. Barnabas was the respected scion of the successful émigré Collins clan, who set up a fishing business in New England in the 1700s in a town that came to be known as Collinsport, but who had, alas, a witch in their midst. Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) worked as a servant in the Collins’ mansion and became Barnabas’ lover. When he spurned her and fell in love with local lass Josette DuPres (Bella Heathcote), Angelique began a campaign of terror and revenge on the family, killing Barnabas’ parents, driving Josette to suicide, and cursing Barnabas to his undead state. She then raised the locals to bury him alive as a monster, chained in a coffin and forgotten, until accidentally disinterred in 1972 by construction workers, all of whom Barnabas apologetically slaughters in his frantic hunger.
Barnabas makes his way to the mansion, takes control of servant Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), and discovers what’s left of the clan living in waned, penurious isolation. Matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) tries to hold things together whilst ignoring the preternatural strangeness of her surrounding kin, including insouciant teen Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her ghost-seeing younger brother David (Gulliver McGrath), both damaged by the premature death of their mother in a boating accident, and their emasculated, petty thief of a father, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). The clan also houses David’s alcoholic, live-in psychiatrist, Dr Julia Hoffman (Carter), and new nanny Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), on the run from something and residing under an alias. She soon proves, like David, to be able to see roaming ghosts in the castle, warning of Barnabas’ return and the lurking evil that threatens the clan.
Dark Shadows, like scattered forebears, running from The Cat and the Canary (1927) through to The Fearless Vampire Killers and Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), doesn’t divide neatly between its gothic tributes and its satiric impulses. If it fails to match the nearly perfect balance of Sleepy Hollow (1999), it’s because unlike that film, Dark Shadows, as a TV adaptation, is forced to divide its attention between many competing elements, resulting in an occasionally diffuse narrative. The aforementioned signs of editing don’t help, though to a certain extent, they aid the evocations of the arbitrary twists prevalent in even the most upright soaps after a couple of decades have gone by, for example, when Carolyn leaps into a fray, suddenly sprouts hairs and claws, and snarls, “I’m a werewolf, okay, let’s not make a big deal of it!”
Burton can’t entirely deliver the film’s ripe eccentricity from mere plot, but whilst the rushed quality of the last third does somewhat lessen the impact of the film, the earlier parts dance nimbly between tones. Some touches delve into outright skit, like Barnabas trying to brush his teeth in a mirror or opening a secret chamber with impressively rumbly mechanisms, only to find Elizabeth uses it to store her macramé. But others retain a genuine impudence, as when Barnabas, a former student of the occult, recognises the 20th century equivalent to the emblem of Mephistopheles in the golden arches of a McDonald’s sign: the sign’s smaller wording, “9 Billion Served”, takes on a whole new meaning. One sublime gag sees Barnabas expounding his tale of woe to Elizabeth, with strains of eerie, melodramatic music rising—music that sounds like the score of, yes, a very early ’70s TV creepfest—only for these to prove to be programmed tracks rising from the electric organ he’s leaning on. It’s the sort of gag that’s impossible to properly describe, and can only be rendered by a clever filmmaker, managing to riff on several ideas at once: the pained hero making his confession in soap-opera style with appropriate accompaniment, provided by the modern equivalent of the compulsory organ that is the feature of any good vampire’s home.
The McDonald’s gag puts Dark Shadows back in touch, albeit blithely, with Burton’s once-strong satirical streak, as displayed in his early films like Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), where a comedic but still potent anti-consumerist, anti-conformist spirit was nascent; Dark Shadows portrays a battle of ruthless capitalistic endeavour involving sabotage and mind control, espoused between a witch and vampire. There’s a pretty obvious, but thematically apt gag in how a baying mob is repeatedly led in a witch hunt by an actual witch, casting meaningful aspersions on those who whip up panics and their reasons. More unexpectedly, signs of Burton’s duskily elegiac romanticism, so powerful in Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, and Batman Returns (1992), blend with hints of psychedelia throughout Dark Shadows. This quality rises in the opening with it swooping shots of stormy cliffs, thundering seas, and tragic lovers: Barnabas, who had tried to die with Josette as she hurled herself over a cliff under Angelique’s spells, instead picks himself out of the surf, contorting into a perverted being.
The romanticism quietens to a somnolent refrain, as the opening credits see Victoria making her way to her fateful rendezvous with the Collins household on a train with the sonorous fetishism of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” overscoring the train’s passage through forested hills. Victoria is seen in the act of adopting a fake name from a ski lodge poster in the train. Rehearsing her introduction, she almost gives her name as Maggie Evans, an in-joke that gives away how she’s actually a compendium of two characters from the show. Victoria is the doll-eyed, seemingly demure yet quietly adamantine heroine Burton is often so fond of portraying, her self-containment overtly contrasting the flagrant strangeness that whirls about her. She has her own bleak background to contend with, one which comes across like a missing scene from last year’s Sucker Punch: clearly linked to Collinsport and Barnabas as the contemporary incarnation of Josette, she was, we learn, a psychic child whose speaking to ghosts was mistaken for madness, and she was hauled off, screaming and pleading, to an asylum where she grew up as a near-catatonic waif until the will to escape came to her.
Burton’s essential empathy is always with the weirdoes, as they become his heroes in the way they tend to keep an essential humanity burning inside of them even when circumstances seem most challenging—indeed, precisely because they must. Barnabas, upon being told by Victoria how her parents had her locked up and forgot her, speaks with stern judgement, “It is unforgivable. Your parents deserve to boil in Hell’s everlasting sulphur!” Burton’s villains are, by contrast, those who want to control others, or other weirdoes who surrender their humanity, like Danny DeVito’s twisted Penguin in Batman Returns, who screamed with epochal rage, “I am not a human being—I am an animal!” Similarly, whilst the prodigious force of nature that is Angelique, driven by class rage and sexual jealousy, attempts to bend all and sundry to her will, and most specifically Barnabas, he struggles to hold onto his humanity even as he has to kill people to survive. Whilst Angelique is the old figure of the woman like whom hell hath no fury, the fact that this is the time of women’s lib is repeatedly evoked. The film’s lone figure of traditional masculinity, Roger, is so pathetic and perfidious that Barnabas gives him a choice of absenting himself immediately with plentiful cash and leaving the children to his care, or staying and shaping up: Roger chooses the former, fleeing house and family, leaving all in the care of leonine Elizabeth and screwball Barnabas.
In spite of Depp’s foreground performance, the film fills up with archly iconic female characters. Burton’s usual fondness for unusual families and bizarrely lovable figures, and rejection of conservative norms, therefore finds a new accord with a distinctive sociopolitical shift. Dark Shadows becomes a film about the period in which it is set as well as a cut-up refashioning of its aesthetics. Nor is this the first time Burton has exercised such a notion—he managed to invoke it purely through the gradation in Sarah Jessica Parker’s performance in Ed Wood. In this context, as well as offering his alternative lifestyle energy, Barnabas becomes, in true soap opera style, something like the accidental fox in the henhouse, a love object more at the mercy of the women around him than not, sought by Victoria and Angelique. When he gives Hoffman a compliment, the love-starved psychiatrist promptly goes down on him. The psychiatrist tries to turn back the clock and restore her own youth by utilising Barnabas’ blood under the pretext of curing him, only to so anger him at the thought of her cheating him and placing another unruly monster in the household that he kills her and dumps her body in the harbour.
Barnabas’ family loyalty and identity give him purpose when his existence might otherwise have become a nihilistic nightmare. Burton allows a mood of queasy black humour/horror to punctuate the moments in which Barnabas’ monstrous side is let off its leash, slaughtering the construction workers and a clan of guileless hippies whom he fascinates with his druggy-seeming reminiscences and proclamations of the nature of mortality. “You tripped for 200 years?” one girl asks in spacy credulity in a scene that proceeds with broad comic kookiness until it reaches it nasty punchline when Barnabas regretfully sighs that now he has to kill all of them. Burton doesn’t go for an all-out juxtaposition of raw gore and humour, a la American Werewolf, but, more like Polanski, allows a genuinely morbid and malicious sensibility to squirm just beneath the surface.
Barnabas, for the most part, remains a weirdly lovable creature chiefly in his mix of confidence and bewilderment, strutting into what’s left of his family fiefdom with a plan to save the clan from being swallowed up by its demons, and attempting to negotiate the modern wonders he encounters with bemused fascination. Confused by television enough to rip out the back of one at the sight of Karen Carpenter singing on it, trying to find her (“Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”), he’s utterly taken with modern pop music, to the point where he recites the lyrics of Steve Miller’s “The Joker” with the arch solemnity of a Shakespeare soliloquy (“If only Shakespeare had been as eloquent!”), even if he doesn’t quite get the joke of Alice Cooper: “Ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” he murmurs on close inspection. The correlation of specific, supernatural afflictions with character is constantly apt: David’s ghost-communicating evokes the distracted state of a melancholy preadolescent, whilst Carolyn’s secret lycanthropy fits perfectly with her grouchy, protean, onanistic eruption into puberty, and Angelique’s witchery simply inflates the mesmeric grip of her sensual powers and ruthless obsession.
Dark Shadows, in fact, plays with its musical cues with a sense of intricacy that moves well beyond mere sarcastic incongruity, suggesting instead a nongenre follow-up to Sweeney Todd, whilst trying to weave the pop motifs of the era into the film’s structure to give a slippery substance to the film’s understanding of the changing social landscape already mentioned. The invasive spirit of rock and pop, and the indulgent perversity of the heroes, are correlated, possessing dangerous and frightening, yet also empowering, forces. A major montage of Barnabas’ efforts to rebuild the family fortunes is scored to the Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” its sunshiny optimism at odds with the strangeness of Barnabas and his enterprise but also according with his ingenuous determination and positivity, and recalling the “By The Sea” number in Sweeney Todd. Earlier, Moretz’s lupine Carolyn gyrates in a trancelike, adolescently sensual fashion to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” whilst the family sit down to an edgy, uncomfortable meal with their new nanny: Roger so uptight under his thinning blonde quaff like a starched shirt holding to a man’s shape without a real body to hold it up, Hoffman lurching in with tipsy grande dame demonstrations, and David attempting to deliver Victoria a welcoming fright swathed in a sheet. The sense of intimate family tension at a nexus and the use of the Donovan song put me in mind of George Romero’s Season of the Witch (1971), which likewise invoked the onset of feminism in the context of a spiralling fascination for the stygian underworld.
The film’s best, most intricately woven sequence comes when Barnabas decides to throw a ball: “They’re called Happenings these days,” Carolyn informs him, and, in listing the things he’ll need, she adds, mockingly, “Alice Cooper.” Barnabas, whilst not realising the essence of the gender-bending joke, nonetheless actually does manage to hire Cooper for the party, through which Barnabas and Cooper strut in competition for the biggest, most entertaining freak. The vignettes here swing from the drolly comic—Hoffman experimentally bobbing her head to Cooper’s wailing strains, the ancient housekeeper reading a book oblivious to the thunderous rock—to the dreamy and the tragic. Burton uses the lava lamp that strikes Barnabas as a mystic totem as a visual motif, sliding past the camera in bobbing psychedelic brilliance as his camera shifts from stage to stage. He cuts from Carolyn providing the introduction for Cooper performing “Ballad of Dwight Fry” wrapped in a straitjacket, with Barnabas listening to Victoria’s recounting of her own history, glimpsed in flashback getting electroshock treatment and glaring out like a J-horror wraith under bedraggled hair, cocooned likewise in a straitjacket. The agile game played here with demarcations between different layers of performance and the invocation of genuine, transfiguring pain through its “fun” simulacrums is genuinely clever and invests the film with a real, off-kilter emotional resonance. Of course, Burton doesn’t push too hard towards perversity and explorations of adolescent trauma as the underpinning of eruptions of primal rage—more’s the pity, perhaps—in a film that maintains a largely frothy tone.
Still, one reason Dark Shadows works where his earlier franchise reinventions failed is because the material is obviously far, far closer to Burton’s heart. Where Sleepy Hollow gained spiritual cohesion from modelling itself on Hammer horror, Dark Shadows similarly adopts Roger Corman’s ’60s gothic works as the major point of reference, copying Corman’s tactic of splicing shots of waves crashing on rocks at every interval, allowing Depp to sport dark glasses borrowed from Vincent Price in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), and having Depp and Pfeiffer roam the mysterious hidden passages of the Collins house in search of secreted treasure in a manner familiar from Pit and the Pendulum (1961). Other horror icons make the cut: Halloween’s (1978) vision of a real ghoul under a prankster’s sheet ghost costume is invoked, whilst Nosferatu—both Murnau’s and Herzog’s—comes to the fore as Depp buckles and twists unnaturally with his long, jagged fingernails, peers in on telephone conversers and rutting couples like a great bat, and rises stiff as a board from a coffin. Heathcote in vampiric form resembles Isabelle Adjani’s wasting heroine in Herzog’s film, whilst the finale’s twist strongly evokes Jean Rollin’s Lips of Blood (1975). Christopher Lee turns up for his compulsory cameo, playing an aged sea dog Barnabas hypnotises. Nor do the film’s stylistic reflexes and references stick to mere horror film pastiche: in a sequence in which Angelique harangues her board of well-trained males, she struts past a row of portraits, all of herself in different guises and styles over the passing last two centuries, like some undying edition of a Joan Crawford antiheroine.
Green, with her Barbara Steele smile and anime eyes, usually ennobles whatever she graces with her presence, but whilst she’s not always well-served by the story structure here, she nonetheless comes close to walking off with the whole film, moving through the proceedings with an arch sensuality and imperial prerogative blended with detectable lunacy, tearing about in a little red sports car and crashing the ball in a blood-hued glitter dress: never mind scarlet letters, she goes the whole nine yards. Her frustrated love-hate obsession with Barnabas pays off in a sequence with a mix of seduction, threat, and insult: tearing open her dress to show off her cosmos-shaking bosom to seduce Barnabas (“Oh!” he bleats in defeat, “I must admit, they have not aged a day…”), she finally cajoles him into a bout of spectacular hate-sex that sees them careening about the room in ecstatic destruction, reminiscent of the epic bedroom-trashing sex scene in The Tall Guy (1989), except in three dimensions, all scored to Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.” A moment in Batman Returns where Pfeiffer’s Catwoman licked Batman’s latex-framed face recurs here as this time, Angelique caresses Barnabas’ snowy brow with her long, snaky tongue. Angelique is reminiscent of other New Age stygian temptresses, like Barbara Carrera in Love at Stake (1987) and Amanda Donohoe’s incarnation of sexy evil in Lair of the White Worm (1987), but by the end, there’s a distinct resemblance between Green’s increasingly unhinged, insanely grinning visage and that of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the final stages of Batman.
It would be very wrong not to mention the brilliance of Bruno Delbonnel’s photography throughout Dark Shadows, rendering the milky hues and splashes of scarlet provided by the blood that daubs Barnabas’ face, the lipstick of Angelique, and coif of Hoffman, contrasting lushly with the blues and greys that fill most frames. The film’s finale gives in to fragmentation in tone and action, reaching its climax abruptly as if someone called time, and I can’t help but wonder how much material involving Carter, Haley, and Moretz hit the cutting room floor. The jerky pacing both helps and hinders the film’s spiralling into ecstatic nuttiness. Burton still pulls off a last coup as Angelique is defeated not by physical action but by the lingering spirit of maternal care that still lives in Collinwood. She lies prostrate, not mangled like a living person, but with her immaculately maintained two-century-old form now stove in and cracked as if she were actually a mannequin, a broken doll still transfixed by an obsessive need: she rips out her own heart and hands it Barnabas, and it crumbles into papery flakes in his palm. It’s the sort of weirdly poetic fairytale image Burton is almost alone in still providing in mainstream American cinema. The very finish is similarly loopy, with Victoria repeating her march to the cliffs from the opening, but this time not from mind-control, but a determination to destroy herself if she can’t live in Barnabas’ world. Barnabas tries to save her by vampirising her in mid-air, a ploy that works. Victoria, now entirely conflating with Josette, awakens as an ashen, morbidly transformed, perfect mate for Barnabas. It might be the romantic in me, but this liebestod finish left me grinning for hours.
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Director/Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In cinema, even documentary cinema, the question of who we think we see on screen and who is actually on screen are two different things, fueling all kinds of existential fun and games for the astute filmmaker and receptive audiences. Identity as a motif has preoccupied numerous filmmakers, from Ingmar Bergman (Persona) to Monte Hellman (Road to Nowhere) to Abbas Kiarostami (Close-up). Identity is often tied up with psychosis, and psychotics frequently feature in horror and suspense films because they channel the nameless, faceless Id that resides in all of us that, on some level, we all would like to release in all its rampaging glory once in a while. The idea that any one of us could become a gruesome killer if someone or something pierced our social conditioning is at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure. Kurosawa, interested in the shocked comments people invariably make after a neighbor or acquaintance commits a brutal murder (“He was such a nice man. They were an ordinary couple.”), explores the nature of identity and whether our bodies and minds are mere vessels waiting to be filled.
On a busy street in Tokyo, a man (Ren Ohsugi) walks through a damp tunnel as cars pass on his right. A fluorescent light illuminating the tunnel blinks and buzzes. We next see the man in a hotel room with a naked prostitute. He is moving about the room, and she is sitting up in bed. Suddenly, he grabs a pipe and bashes her twice on the head. When next we enter the room, it is filled with police investigators. The lead detective, Kenichi Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), observes that a deep “x” has been cut across the prostitute’s neck and chest. The man is found naked, hiding in an air duct in the hallway. When he is questioned at police headquarters by Takabe and police psychiatrist Makoto Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), the man has no idea why he killed the woman. The case resembles other murders under investigation where a similar “x” was carved into the victims.
Takabe will have several more such murders to investigate as the film goes on, but he must balance this puzzle with the increasing burden posed by his wife Fumie’s (Anna Nakagawa) mental deterioration. We first see Fumie talking with her psychiatrist (Toshi Kato) as an outpatient and observe her attachment to the story of Bluebeard. She tells the doctor that she knows how the story ends—Bluebeard is killed by his wife. Fumie doesn’t appear capable of murder, but the worry she causes Takabe, the things she does that drive him crazy, the loss of companionship he experiences by her disconnectedness certainly must cause a kind of death to his spirit. Not being able to talk to her about the pain of his work is especially difficult for him.
As other “x” cases come to the fore—a young man kills his wife of two years, a police officer shoots his partner in the head, a doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and peels his face away from his skull—we and Takabe slowly discover what links them together: a young amnesiac who is soon identified as Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a medical school dropout whose disheveled home reveals shelves of books about psychiatry, psychosis, and works about and by Franz Mesmer, a German physician who developed the idea of animal magnetism, or in the term used in the film, hypnosis, to influence behavior. We saw the young husband, Tôru Hanaoka (Masahiro Toda), encounter Mamiya on a beach and after Mamiya collapses, take him home. Mamiya questions him over and over about who he is and asks him questions about his wife Tomoko (Misayo Haruki) while transfixing Tôru with the flame of his cigarette lighter. As Mamiya bounces from one encounter to another—Hanaoka takes him to the police station, where he mesmerizes Oida (Denden), the cop, before being sent to a hospital to put Dr. Miyajima (Yoriko Dôguchi) under his spell—the daisy chain of violence barely outpaces Takabe’s efforts to unravel the mystery before he himself is drawn under Mamiya’s influence.
As with most detective-centered stories, Takabe is no ordinary cop. He is intelligent and tormented, a Japanese version of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his complexity makes him a Rorschach image of good for his evil opposite Mamiya. Mamiya entices Takabe with an accurate assessment of the detective’s torment, mentioning a vision Takabe had of Fumie hanging dead in the couple’s kitchen that incited the detective to helpless wailing. Of course, as a mesmerist, Mamiya causes his victims to conjure such visions by helping them to access their deepest fears and hatreds through his highly developed gift for hypnosis. Only by remaining empty himself can Mamiya be the master rather than the victim.
It is Mamiya’s conviction that most people don’t know themselves, the many selves hidden under the surface, the duality of their generous and vicious impulses. He considers Takabe extraordinary, like himself, for recognizing the split in himself—trying to be a loving husband while seeing the worst in human nature on a daily basis. The encounters Takabe has with Mamiya create convulsions of emotion in him, signaled not only by his violent outbursts toward Mamiya but also toward some of his colleagues; in fact, when Takabe tries to turn the tables on Mamiya by forcing him to look at his own lighter while incarcerated, a vision of a rain-collapsing ceiling overwhelms Takabe, and the lighter goes out. It appears to have been put out by the rain water, but my guess is that while Takabe was having the visions, Mamiya merely blew the lighter out. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a horror story if we didn’t give ourselves over to wondering if the strange sights on screen are real or imaginary.
Kurosawa’s camerawork is beyond good. He scouted locations in and around Tokyo that reek of decay, giving us a fair approximation of a haunted house in the penultimate scene where the final showdown between Takabe and Mamiya takes place. He combines handheld work with static long shots of great beauty and atmosphere. He knows how to create tension by considering the images outside the frame that haunt our imagination, for example, having Sakuma enter Mamiya’s cell, which has a short wall hiding the toilet area in which Mamiya is standing. We don’t see the prisoner, but we know what he’s capable of, and the fear of actually looking at him infuses this scene powerfully. In a later scene, we see one handcuff hanging from a pipe, and the story a cop tells Takabe about it creates the image of the body that had been attached to it in our minds in an uncomfortable parallel to the way Mamiya was able to create images in the minds of his victims. Indeed, Mamiya is rather like a filmmaker, bringing us under his spell, finding our triggers, conjuring images through exposition and suggestion.
But Cure does more than that. It makes us wonder what Takabe achieved by resolving the murder investigation. The last two scenes are powerfully suggestive, but also highly ambiguous. Takabe has put his wife in a psychiatric hospital, and we see a very brief scene at the hospital in which the image of a corpse with the telltale “x” appears. Takabe is later seen eating heartily and happily in his regular diner, apparently cured of his previous troubles. His waitress removes his plates and is called over to speak to her boss. Calmly she moves to a station and picks up a large chef’s knife. Has Takabe taken over where Mamiya left off, or has our experience of the film left us imagining the worst?
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alfred Sole
By Roderick Heath
One reason horror genre fans look back to the 1970s with such keen nostalgia is not simply because lots of horror films were made, but because so many different varieties of horror film were made, before the arrival of the slasher flick late in the decade permanently skewed the genre towards more formulaic bellwethers. This brilliant little crossbreed from independent New Jersey filmmaker Alfred Sole is very much an example of the era. It straddles the mid-’70s Hitchcockian revival that included young filmmakers as radically different as Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg; the George Romero school of gritty, handcrafted genre cinema; and it also breaches the realm of the nascent independent film, with its template of empathic realism in portraying lives in society’s peculiar niches. The setting and characters are depicted intimately, their world investigated with familiarity and feeling, and everyday pains and perversities are invoked, even as the film erupts with intervals of psychotic violence and raw suspense orchestrated in exacting cinematic terms.
Sole cowrote the screenplay with Rosemary Ritvo, and as well as a deep lexicon of film references, much of it has a flavour of being torn from memory and observation. The setting is 1961 in an intensely Catholic neighbourhood, a similar time and place to what John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt tried to revive. The changing mores of the world around the church that is the linchpin of the story and its characters’ social lives is part of the film’s unstated texture, as the tale revolves around young divorcee Catherine Spages (Lisa Miller), who is raising two daughters on the cusp of pubescence, Alice (Linda Sheppard) and Karen (Brooke Shields).
At the film’s outset, Catherine shepherds her daughters to visit the handsome, much-liked young Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich). Tom lives with another priest and a monsignor (Peter Bosch), all taken care of by the dedicated Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton). The purpose for the visit is to arrange for Karen’s first communion, and Father Tom gives Karen an ornate cross on a chain. Alice, distracted and irritated by the attention her sister is receiving, scares Mrs. Tredoni by sneaking about wearing a doll-like mask. When Karen later receives her communion dress, Alice steals the veil and then one of Karen’s dolls; when the distraught Karen tracks Alice to an abandoned building, Alice frightens her by slamming a fire door shut behind her, sealing her in a decrepit space. When she releases her, Alice bullies her sister into keeping quiet about it. When Karen is standing, last in line to receive communion, she’s grabbed by a figure clad in the same doll-like mask and the ubiquitous yellow raincoat all of the young girls who go to a local Catholic school wear. Karen is strangled with a candle, and her killer stuffs her body into a trunk, steals her cross, and places a lighted candle in with it. Alice enters the church wearing a veil she claims she picked up, and soon, the smell of burning attracts attention and Karen’s body is found to a general furor. When Karen is buried, her father, Dom (Niles McMaster), who has remarried, returns to attend and consoles Catherine, whilst police detectives Spina (Michael Hardstarck) and Brennan (Tom Signorelli) and Catherine’s shrewish sister Annie (Jane Lowry) make little secret of their suspicions that Alice killed her sister, a notion Catherine and Dom reject out of hand.
Alice is from the outset one of the most intensely believable and fascinating portraits of bratty youth ever committed to film. Aggressive, frightened, volatile, secretive, Alice is both victim and perpetrator of evils in a landscape where images and rituals of purity, beauty, and just order are often revealed to have seedy and decaying flipsides. She keeps a private shrine littered with stolen objects, a talismanic photo of her father, candles, and a jar full of insects she will eventually put to good use. The neighbourhood hasn’t gone bad, but there’s a feeling that behind many a door things are rotting. The Monsignor is ancient and decrepit, yet technically still an authority. Catherine’s landlord Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble) is an obese shut-in with urine stains on his pants who accepts Alice’s insults with smiling menace as he tries to paw her. Alice seems jealous of Karen partly because, like everyone else, she has a crush on Tom, who offers an aspect of the father figure just as he subliminally offers a figure of romantic aspiration for Catherine, and also because she seems to have not experienced the first communion, perhaps when Catherine was still on the outs with the church for her divorce; each time Alice steps forward to actually take communion, someone dies.
Alice is the sort of embryonic troubled youth punk and grunge rock adored celebrating. (Sheppard would go on to play in her only other film, Slava Tsukerman’s equally cultish punk relic Liquid Sky ). Alice is secretly angry at her father’s departure and wants him home again, and she’s begun lashing out at everyone around her with increasingly artful offence. But she also hides a powerful, if manipulative, streak of real despair and fear of abandonment as revealed when she drops a jar of jam when Annie is bossing her about, sparking a furious kitchen confrontation. Alice is certainly infuriating and perhaps even a little dangerous—but is she unhinged enough to be a murderer? For Annie and others, Alice’s transgressive attitude is easily transmutable into sociopathic acts, especially as the killer consciously adopts the same dress and guises as Alice. When Annie leaves the Spages’ flat after her charged clash with Alice and Catherine, the same masked, raincoat-clad figure attacks her and hacks at her legs on the stairs. Annie plunges bleeding and terrified down into the lobby, screaming that Alice has attacked her, and crawls out onto the sidewalk in the pouring rain as Dom and Tom arrive.
The film’s opening titles proffer a weird gag, in which a young woman in veiling white is seen praying with a crucifix in her hands as an image of sanctified youth, only to lift the cross and reveal a dagger point on the end. It’s the first moment in a film that presents seemingly disparate things—devotion and homicide, innocence and sadism—in a confused singularity. The cleverness of Sole’s film is in the richness with which he melds humdrum detail and the heightened realism of the familiar, down-to-earth preoccupations of the characters, full of family tensions that blend love and antipathy in barely separable ways, and the more expansive cinematic gamesmanship of its thriller plot and visuals. Sole’s use of Hitchcockian visuals, justified not only by story, but also by the fact that Psycho is showing at the local movie theatre; so, the texture of remembering an era and a set of events as filtered through an associated aesthetic method is matched by an individual cinematic sensibility that expresses itself mostly keenly through close-ups. Sole builds to singular moments of feverish, almost operatic telegraphy of feeling in his close shots, as when Karen’s body is found and an exchange of looks between Tom and Catherine confirms the worst, and when Annie, screaming in panic, crawls into the torrential downpour. Sole is constantly receptive to faces, particularly those of the female cast. Miller’s Catherine, with a mature beauty, retains at first a sphinx-like aura of self-containment, often shot in cool profile or watched in silent recline, only to be constantly twisted into a mask of anxiety as she’s beset with the trials of Job as many a single mother might feel. Alice’s face with her unnerving large eyes and sullen mouth radiate force of character unleavened by the deference of maturity, and Annie’s face looks like Catherine’s except slightly smudged by a life of bossy and judgemental self-righteousness. Later, there are faces bent in pain and transfigured by madness and anger.
The actual killer calls to mind other horror movie tropes beyond Hitchcock, with the killer’s deceptive physical appearance and raincoat evoking the killer dwarf of Don’t Look Now (1973) and Dom as a similarly doomed pursuing father, whilst the mask is pure giallo movie stuff. Like George Romero’s Martin from the same year, Sole utilises an almost neorealist sensibility in his depiction of his native milieu, his feel for the assailed, decaying sensibilities of the formerly secure, and his use of genre tropes to try to describe an authentic psychic atmosphere of disconnection and alienation in communities that used to be defined by rock-solid values and an insularity both reassuring and suffocating. Alice and Martin are similar square pegs for very round holes, whose inchoate rebellions inevitably bring on punishing forces, all the more hysterical as the certainties that inform the punishers are endangered. Yet in many ways, the actual mood of Sole’s film is closer in spirit to Val Lewton than Hitchcock or Romero, in its sense of ordinary lives inflected with eruptions of the irrational. For the most part, Sole takes his material on at the far more immediate level of a family drama, and many sequences, like the kitchen bust-up, are convincing depictions of simple, emotional fracas amongst ordinary people; indeed, aspects of the film, for example, the depiction of psychologically injured youth in the wake of calamity, anticipate the more precious “serious” stuff of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980). The process of Alice’s becoming a serious police suspect evokes the similar scenes of Antoine Doinel’s passage into the justice system in The 400 Blows (1959), even as Alice still manages to get a blow back by sabotaging a polygraph when the technician is out of the room. The visual texture around Alice becomes encaging, with repeated shots through bars and window frames isolating her from the world.
The thriller plot, then, works in tandem with depictions of the all-too-familiar dangers and threats of childhood, like the dance of malignancy Alice and Lorenzo engage in. Three sequences of sustained emotional volatility in the film’s mid-section serve both in a propelling plot purpose, but also retain self-sufficient qualities of character study and interaction. The first is when Catherine desperately pleads with, and then threatens, Annie in her hospital bed to divert her from saying that Alice attacked her, but Annie, agonised and fraught, still bawls out to her henpecked husband and the police that Alice was the guilty party. The second comes when Dom and Catherine visit Alice, who’s subsequently locked away for psychiatric evaluation, with a doctor (Louisa Horton) concluding she has schizoid tendencies; Alice at first furiously rejects them, but then buckles and chases after her mother in a teary catharsis. Alice’s incarceration means that she ceases to be the centre of the story, as Dom and Catherine move into focus in the third scene, as they momentarily give in, in their brittle and clingy states, to their still-bubbling attraction, only for a phone call from Dom’s new wife to cut into their tryst with humiliating timing. Nonetheless, Dom’s return and his determination to stick about until he can find the real killer, whom he begins to suspect might be Annie’s chubby, sullen daughter Angela (Kathy Rich), seems a perfect way not only to get his daughter out of immediate trouble, but also to prove he’s still a part of her life, vitally important to saving her unstable psyche as well as her freedom. But in a coldly inspired, mercilessly staged sequence, Dom is fooled into meeting with Angela in a park, and, spying the coated, masked figure, chases it into a disused building, where the figure stabs him in the shoulder on the stairs, and flees to a higher floor.
Dom continues to track the attacker, still believing it’s a frightened and unstable girl, only to then be knocked out, tied up, and rolled towards a high drop with chilling, laborious calm, by the murderer. This is actually Mrs. Tredoni, utterly psychotic and determined to destroy the Spages, who represent everything that’s wrong to her with a world of decaying morals, and who keep distracting her beloved Father Tom from his priestly duties and her tender care. Dom’s panicked, prone screams once he revives can’t stop her from continuing to roll him toward his doom. He manages, however, to tear Karen’s crucifix from her neck with his teeth, and won’t give it even as she smashes his teeth in with a stone, swallowing it instead, before sending him plummeting for the coup-de-grace. The grinding sense of corporeal punishment here, suffered for sins directly subsequent to the moment of near-adultery between former husband and wife, beautifully channels Catholic guilt into worldly suffering, as the killer inflicts pain as self-appointed wrath of god, albeit one who returns to scrubbing floors and making tea and grumbling. The film’s signal image inverts meaning: the mask, which on Alice signifies a longing for the depersonalised power of adult eroticism, is on Mrs. Tredoni a borrowed guise of sensuality turned grotesque, as she seeks to punish “that whore” Catherine for her perceived transgressions, and the secret perversity of the conformist, rather than the outsider, is revealed. Tredoni’s attack on Dom’s teeth carries Freudian dimensions, redolent of a prepubescent oedipal violence.
Bloodied and dirty from her exertions, she returns to the church and takes refuge in the confessional, where she admits vaguely to her sins to be given a reassuring absolution by Father Tom, who tells her she’s a good person, accidentally, implicitly affirming the rightness of her determination to punish the wicked: Tredoni, slumped in the shadows and quivering with feeling after her deed, now lifts her eyes in beatified happiness. Momentary calm, however, threatens to dissipate as Alice returns home, restored to her life by a repulsive sacrifice Catherine decides to keep secret from her for a time. Catherine still taunts Tredoni with her presence in the church, and her attempt to kill Catherine is forestalled by the most bizarre device: Alice, in her return home, leaves her jar of bugs propped on the sleeping Alphonso’s lap. When he wakes with the bugs crawling on him, his cries brings the watching detective charging in, and Tredoni, alarmed, stabs Alphonso to death and is seen fleeing. She makes it to the church, where she stands in the queue to receive communion, unaware that the police are gathering outside. Father Tom begs them to let him extract her, but Tom’s conscientiousness finally proves his own undoing as he asks Tredoni to leave and she, in a rage of betrayal and lunacy, asks why he’d ask her to leave and not “that whore” and stabs the priest in the neck.
Again, Alice’s attempt to receive communion is ruined, this time by the savage annihilation of her last father figure right in front of her, and the spectacle leaves her wandering away with Tredoni’s bag, fingered her mask and knife with a boding purpose. It’s arguable that here finally Sole steps too close to a glib twist ending, but there’s a terrible concision to it: like the same year’s Carrie, there’s a dark catharsis where damaged youth finds itself irrevocably tethered to the sins of the parents and broken morality, and rational forces no longer present any credible barrier to the young inheritor’s vengeful mind. Either way, Communion is a small masterpiece. For a cast of virtual unknowns, with the exception of I’ll Cry Tomorrow scribe Lillian Roth in a droll cameo as a medical examiner and, of course, future star Shields, the cast is remarkably effective. Sole, sadly, never came close to matching it again: whereas, by his own admission, he would have been better off remaining an independent local filmmaker, a la Romero and John Waters, he went Hollywood, and after making the utterly bizarre-sounding Tanya’s Island (1980) and the weak slasher-movie send-up Pandemonium (1982), he finished up in a career as a production designer.
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Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Ti West
By Roderick Heath
Revivalism is always a contentious practice in any art form, inviting charges of slavish nostalgia and unoriginality, but it’s also often a signifier of a form trying to reinvent itself and a rejection by younger artists of dominant, but oppressive and depleted models, a way of looking forward by looking back. That’s as true in cinema, though often more piecemeal because of the difficulties of film production, as it is in pop music or painting. In the case of a recent strand of revivalist-tinged horror cinema, it’s easy to see the roots of the movement: the horror film has been in a crisis, it seems, for most of my lifetime. That crisis has been ever-present, even though, or in large part because horror is a genre with a powerful commercial worth, whilst remaining doggedly verboten in the minds of many filmgoers and cultural watchdogs: many a box office list of recent years has proven what utter garbage can still lure fright and gore fans into the multiplexes. Horror proves over and over that it’s sourced in an essential ethic, one that can only be domesticated so far. The genre has seen a variety of pretenders march its halls. The much-hyped waves of Torture Porn, J-Horror and Euro Extreme yielded one or two strong films and a slew of infinitely lesser fare. Fortunately, just lately, there have been distinct signs of a sea change in the genre from the independent film scenes of Great Britain and the U.S.: indeed, whereas indie cinema has for a long time prided itself on distinction from low-budget genre cinema, a crossbreeding of the two seems to be nascent, allowing adventurous young filmmakers to reject the tired reflexes of the slasher movie, endless lousy remakes, and pure stomach-churning nastiness, and channel other models.
Ti West’s films are particularly engaging in this regard, because they represent a melding of the immersed sensibilities of a young genre fan with the anti-generic rhythms of independent film so confidently that he erases the disparity as if it was never there. The House of the Devil, for instance, immediately declares its indie cred with the mischievous touch of casting Greta Gerwig in the type of part often filled by Nancy Loomis or Belinda Balaski back when. West, who began to gain attention with two ultra-low-budget features, The Roost (2005) and Trigger Man (2007), before an ill-fated stab at becoming Eli Roth’s anointed successor with Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), is suddenly the genre It Boy, and for once, the attention is for very good reasons. West’s already-signature slow-burn narratives have one foot distinctly planted in post-mumblecore realist cinema, with an emphasis on characterisation through suggestion and an almost discursive sense of narrative construction, and one foot in a classic gothic genre sensibility where a prevalence of a mood of evolving credulity, a sense of precise timing, and a slow rhythmic build-up, is of paramount importance. This mood is directly opposed to the instant gratification sensibility ushered in by the likes of Friday the 13th (1980). West extends that into the raison d’etre of his works, invoking no less a figure than Andrei Tarkovsky in the way he insists, like the Russian titan, that the surest way to build tension is to force the audience to wait. Thus in many ways West betrays the legacy of the ’70s and ’80s genre cinema he clearly loves as much as he celebrates it, because such patience and such wilful resistance to cheapjack stunts was rarely exhibited by such models.
The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are, in their fashion, extremely simple movies, employing spare settings and casts, and moving to deceptive beats of storytelling, at least until they hit their crisis moments, closer to ambient techno than blaring rock. The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are linked not only by aesthetic design but by the circumstances of their production: West was inspired to make the second film whilst making the first, during which he and his crew stayed in a hotel with a reputation for being haunted. Most consequentially, they’re conjoined by their human focus, and a distinctive quality of generational biography, skewed a little, but hardly unrecognisably by the ’80s setting of The House of the Devil, and emerging more fully in the context of employment anxiety and the disintegrating faiths and decaying institutions in The Innkeepers.
Both films follow comely, young, but hapless and semi-alienated heroines. The Innkeepers’ Claire (Sara Paxton) is spiritual kin to House’s Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), whilst moving in focus from college into the big, wide world, a world ironically defined by constantly narrowing environs to match their narrowing options. Samantha is more introverted than the kookier, talkative Claire, but each is linked by a flailing lack of direction and both seem clearly cut off from any reliable sense of refuge with, or support by, family, or more than one or two immediate friends. Samantha’s course in The House of the Devil leads her inexorably to the titular abode; Claire’s choices similarly see her unable to avoid the basement she’s explicitly warned not to venture into in the hotel that had become her home and, to a certain extent, refuge from life. If in a subtler, less transparently hip fashion, West’s cinema is nonetheless as attuned to the mindset of the moment as John Carpenter’s was in the hairy, feckless, oppressed atmosphere of Dark Star (1974): like Carpenter’s heroes in that film, the experiences of West’s heroines illustrate immediate realities through the prisms of the fantastic. In both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, financial anxiety is a keynote, and a subtler but pervasive air of anomie and abandonment.
The early scenes of The House of the Devil depict Samantha eddying in a time between times, preparing to move out of her college dormitory into a rented house, negotiating with a kindly prospective landlady (Dee Wallace), and getting a deal that will allow her to make a quick and relatively cheap leap into living by herself. She has good reasons to do so: her room back at the dorm is perpetually used by her roommate (Heather Robb) to copulate with random men, and the college is a dull, desolate space through which she flits in anxious distraction. West is suggestive but not declarative about the nature of Samantha’s background and present state of isolation, but she evokes such marked heroes of the genre as the eponymous mother of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Sgt. Howie of The Wicker Man (1972), defined by her subliminal distinction from her surrounds, retreating to the bathroom to weep in private, sprawling on steps to wait for a prospective employer, zoning out in music.
The prospective employer is named Ulman, and has placed ads for a babysitter around the campus: the moment Tom Noonan’s voice emerges from the other end of the telephone, you know whoever’s answering this ad is screwed. Fate is given an accidental nudge along when Samantha’s solitary gal pal Megan (Gerwig) takes offence on her behalf after Ulman fails to show for the appointed meeting, and rips down all of his ads, leaving Samantha as the sole alternative when another candidate backs out at the last minute. When Samantha finally gets to Ulman’s impressive old pile of a house located (natch) deep in the woods, the list of complications gets increasingly more daunting, including the fact that she’s supposed to actually sit for Ulman’s wife’s mother, an elderly shut-in, and Ulman is willing to pay an absurd amount for a few hours’ work. Mary Woronov, the darkly vulpine star of ’80s flicks like Nomads (1986), is Ulman’s fur-draped wife, who probes with disquieting effect into Samantha’s personal life and circumstances.
Just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive directly evoked older films with its credit sequence, so, too, does The House of the Devil, projecting large yellow titles over an ’80s pop-scored reverie of Samantha (the music is actually on her ever-present Walkman) whilst strolling through autumnal suburbs back to the college. As in Refn’s film, such touches both announce the film’s programme, but also miscues those quick to assume what’s following is mere pastiche. The House of the Devil is quite a radical piece of narrative cinema in its quiet way, especially by modern standards, in taking its time to quietly condition the audience and its heroine, to the point where an inevitable eruption of chaos will come as a virtual relief from the tension—and one thing West does superlatively well is build tension. The bleary casualness of Samantha’s scenes with the gauchely agreeable Megan, even when driving her into the deep dark woods, is delectable for the mood of everyday camaraderie blended with irritation and mutual indulgence of failings. For the most part, West seeks to justify his long intake of breath with undercurrents rather than declarations: only when Megan, after dropping off her friend and leaving in a huff at Samantha’s willingness to place herself in such an odd situation for the sake of rent money and then pulls over for a cigarette in a nearby cemetery, does the lurking threat finally resolve. A helpful young man (AJ Bowen), actually the son of Samantha’s intriguing employers, steps up to the car and gives Megan a light, but the instant he realises that she is not the prospective babysitter, pulls out a pistol and shoots her in the face.
Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are structured around buildings, and the elusive sensation of isolation and paranoia that can define being alone in large supposedly empty spaces, a mood West ties ineffably to the unease of his protagonists within their own skin. Throughout the second half of House, there are shots peering in at Samantha through windows, a specimen of study, whilst she in turn explores a space that offers constant mystery and suggestion; only the privileged audience is allowed to understand, as West will seemingly casually give viewers a glimpse beyond a door that has foiled his heroine, to find bodies strewn in bloodied carnage. Such gambits relieve the almost purified pressure of the anxious unknown which defines the way The House of the Devil’s narrative works.
If The Innkeepers is slightly more prosaic in its style, with much more dialogue, more defined generic situations, and a few nods to traditional horror movie tricks, it’s also slightly more mature. The dynamic between Samantha and Megan is reconfigured into Claire’s slacker-hued companionship with Luke (Pat Healy), a slightly older he-nerd and fellow college dropout who’s further along in the process of cultivating disengaged contempt for the real world, spending his days surfing internet porn and building a web page to showcase the supposed sepulchral delights of the hotel they work in. The hotel, the Yankee Pedlar Inn, is a virtually empty Edwardian pile about to be closed down. The boss has skipped out to holiday in a tropical paradise, and the young duo is left as a live-in skeleton staff over a long weekend. It’s the sort of job that could be a godsend to the creatively self-involved, but the anxiety provoked by the job’s imminent demise, the immersive constancy of it, and the lack of any other purpose in their lives, makes the mysteries swirling within the building’s aged bricks and timbers a trap that works a perfect spell on Claire. The hotel is supposedly haunted by Madeline O’Malley, a lovelorn suicide who, it is said, can still be glimpsed wandering the halls. Luke claims to have seen her, though he’s caught no more substantial evidence so far than a video shot of a room door closing spontaneously, and he and Claire salve their boredom by engaging in a part-time ghost hunt.
Claire’s fraying capacity to survive in the outside world is brought out in an early scene, the only one where she leaves the immediate surrounds of the hotel to visit a neighbouring café, only to flee swiftly at a barrage of whining by the barista (Lena Dunham, herself an indie filmmaker). She withers under the anxious contempt of a woman (Alison Bartlett) who’s staying in the hotel with her son (Jake Schlueter), who proves less than an ideal audience for Claire’s ghost stories. An encounter with a childhood hero, former actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who, tellingly, played a maternal figure in an ’80s TV show Claire once adored, proves equally discouraging. Leanne supposedly comes to stay at the hotel for a fan convention, but it’s actually a gathering connected to her new occupation as a new-age therapist and psychic, and Leanne’s sozzled prickliness is sometimes mitigated by a more friendly demeanour as she willingly uses crystals to try to commune with the hotel’s spirits. Her contributions to the ghost hunt are vague at best in her bad tidings and warnings to stay out of the basement. Claire, left on a solitary nighttime vigil with a sensitive microphone provided by Luke as part of the hunt, seems to hear traces of far-off piano music, and tracking it to the piano in the lobby, she witnesses one key struck with melodramatic impetus, scaring the hell out of her, but also seeming to announce that the haunting isn’t just the hotel’s emptiness getting to them. And yet, there remains a possibility that Claire’s assailed psyche is fraying.
McGillis’ presence in The Innkeepers, like that of Wallace, Noonan, and Woronov in the earlier film, pays a definite nod to ’80s genre cinema, and utilises the actors’ specific auras and capabilities with intuitive aplomb. Noonan’s capacity to seem both affable and unsettling is expertly employed in his character’s mix of old-world gentlemanliness and desperation to please Samantha enough to get her to stay around. His towering height is utilised in The House of the Devil’s best gag, when Samantha and Megan first meet him, his head cut well out of the frame that comfortably encompasses the two shorter, daunted ladies. McGillis admirably embraces her part as a greying, fatigued, spikily alcoholic old dingbat with élan, her initial patronisation and coldness to Claire transforming a childhood hero into an embodiment of both the alienating schism between art and life and implicitly maternal condemnation and a generational gap. Later, Luke sneaks in a few low blows, figuratively speaking, at Leanne’s drinking and failed career in revenge for her hurting Claire’s feelings, and this bit made me wonder if in some way all our contemporary obsession with the failings of the famous is sourced in similar motives. Either way, West advertises himself through such casting as an heir to Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s penchant for reviving the careers of faded figures of former cool.
But West is always focused on his central, younger figures, and he gets gems of performances out of Donahue and especially Paxton, whose wrestling match with a garbage bin early in The Innkeepers is a terrific piece of physical comedy that doubles as a furtherance of characterisation, as Claire is easily overwhelmed by inanimate objects, and the sight of Leanne gazing down from her hotel window like a hovering, disapproving owl deepens the moment’s humiliation. There’s a sequence in The House of the Devil where Samantha momentarily wins her war of nerves against both her own depression and her boding surrounds by cutting loose for a moment by listening to music on her headphones and dancing around the place with a kind of footloose energy and innocence that seems definably pre-’90s.
Unlike some obvious precursors like The Haunting’s (1963) Hill House or The Shining’s (1981) grandiose Overlook, The Innkeepers‘ Yankee Pedlar is nominally vintage, but is actually undistinguished in any quality except by age. But in the grand generic tradition, it has become a snare for frustrated dreams and circular lives: as well as the ghost whose backstory carries intimations of despair and abandonment, an aged man (George Riddle) turns up asking for the room his spent his honeymoon in, a room that, like most of the rest of the hotel, has been stripped down and sealed up. Claire and Luke acquiesce to his request, only for Claire to later find he’s committed suicide, the final catalyst for an onrush of terrible visions. Much of The Innkeepers is sustained by the attentive back and forth between Claire and Luke, particularly in an epic movement where the pair escapes ennui by getting drunk and playful, Claire’s flaky forlornness for a moment almost connecting with Luke’s sexual frustration and stymied attraction to his coworker. This tension resolves as Claire suggests descending into the basement to hunt for Madeline, culminating in a intense sequence offering only close-ups of the two actors in the midst of a sea of darkness, and Claire fearfully informing Luke that the wraith is standing right behind him. Luke freaks out and flees the hotel entirely, leaving Claire to try to survive alone. This sequence is enormously pleasurable on several levels—the slow-rising, sustained tension, the precision of characterisation and acting, the cunning use of camera perspective that generates a certainty of the supernatural whilst still never confirming its existence beyond Claire’s point of view.
If West’s otherwise marvellous diptych is hampered by anything, it’s by the relatively stolid conceptualisations of evil and the uncanny once they are actually revealed: the witch-woman (Danielle Noe) who claws her way out of the attic to perform a devilish ritual over Samantha’s trussed form at the climax of The House of the Devil and the mangled ghosts that pursue Claire in The Innkeepers are standard movie ghouls. West hasn’t really yet figured out ways to complicate and explicate deeper edges to his supernatural Macguffins yet. To a certain extent, that appears deliberate. West relishes their cheesy impact as ways of reminding people that he really likes the schlocky side of his films as much as their more ambitious elements. He’s clearly reaching a stage in his career where he might be advised, a la Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown (1997) or John Carpenter with The Thing (1982), to tackle an adaptation or a personalised remake that can enrich his lexicon. On the other hand, West displays in both films judiciousness about just what he does explain and depict that evokes the greatest traditions of Western ghost stories, as in the tales of M.R. James. One beauty of this approach is their simultaneous success as psychological narratives and genre fare. The apparently demonic gestation the witch-woman plants in Samantha in The House of the Devil is easily decipherable as the encumbrance of pregnancy putting a final damper on Samantha’s stymied upward mobility, and Claire’s final pursuit and death at the hands of a vengeful Madeline sees her unable to use an escape hatch she herself locked earlier in the film, finally entrapped by her own choices and susceptibilities. Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers resolve in genuinely haunting final images, suggesting survival in some form or another entails unknowable menaces.
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Director: Cyril Frankel
By Roderick Heath
Hammer Studios first moved into making films in the cinefantastique genres with adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s epochal TV serials in the mid ’50s. But Kneale had surprisingly little to do with the studio, except for adapting his own work with the 1957 film The Abominable Snowman, and penning the script for this ripping mid-’60s work that sports one of the House of Horror’s few imported star turns, in the person of Joan Fontaine. Director Cyril Frankel’s name doesn’t conjure many associations, which perhaps partly explains why this film has fallen under the radar: after initial film work, he acted chiefly as a TV director. But The Witches is a delicious slice of classic British genre fare offers much the same deeply neurotic mood of repression and explosive release that also marks out other great, thematically similar British horror films like Night of the Eagle (1961) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It anticipates, in many ways, The Wicker Man’s ironic contrast of idyllic hamlets and uncanny threats, if without the calculated inversions of story expectations, and looks forward to more modern studies on similar material like Wake Wood (2010) and the satiric landscape of Hot Fuzz (2007).
The Witches is an adaptation of a novel by Norah Lofts, who also provided the source material for John Ford’s last feature film, shot the same year, 7 Women, an equally interesting revision of genre film with a female-centric viewpoint. Here, a bizarre and jarring prologue immediately hits a note of frantic alarmism, as it offers a fin-de-siecle twist on colonial do-gooder tales like The Nun’s Story (1959). Fontaine’s character, Gwen Mayfield, running a school in a colony beset by a Mau-Mau-like uprising, tries to pack up and flee before the menace comes calling. Her native assistants are so frightened by the curse of the local Juju man they finally abandon Gwen. The door is bashed in, and the Juju men, one wearing a colossal tribal mask, enter, presumably to rape and abuse our heroine.
After the credits, Gwen reappears in London three years later. She’s patched herself back together but is still bearing signs of trauma, fending off an attack of nerves as she’s interviewed by the pleasant, but fusty eccentric Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job teaching at small, rural school of which he’s a patron. Gwen’s new position takes her to the hamlet of Heddaby. Alan and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh) are the wealthiest people in the area, and the town is a backwater without a government school, which is why the Baxes fund their own. Gwen shares duties with another teacher, Sally Benson (Ann Bell), and begins to settle into her job, until the romance of two of her adolescent students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), is discovered. Linda’s guardian “Granny” Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) objects to this coupling, and Gwen finds herself called upon to find a way of keeping them apart. She encourages Ronnie’s talents, and soon he wins a chance to go to a better school out of town. Rather than send him away, which Gwen thinks will make him unhappy, she begins personally tutoring him, making him vulnerable to secret forces who control the village, and want to protect Linda’s virginity. Ronnie falls into a coma one night and is hospitalised.
Gwen makes a disturbing discovery, of a male doll Ronnie had bought for Linda as a suggestive partner for the female figurine she perpetually sports. Gwen finds this hidden in the crook of a tree with its head removed and riddled with pins, and it stirs her suspicions that she’s dealing with something she has encountered before. Ronnie’s mother (Carmel McSharry) flees town with her son when he recovers, and her husband (John Collin) visits Gwen one night in the schoolhouse stinking drunk, distraught at the collapse of his life. When Gwen lets slip that she suspects Granny Rigg might have cursed Ronnie in some way, he goes to visit her, but turns up drowned in a nearby lake. Before she can report her story at the inquest, Gwen, staying overnight at the Bax’s house, is stricken down with a vision of the Juju mask and she awakens in a nursing home, having completely lost her memory of the past three years.
Like many great horror films, The Witches cunningly uses other, more humdrum genres and everyday familiarities as a starting point. Although the prologue announces things are going to be sensational and garish, most of the first half is deceptively casual and evokes a traditional depiction of an English village that might have stumbled out of soap operas from The Archers through to Heartbeat. It avoids even the signposted oddness of The Wicker Man, with only a slightly tweaked atmosphere of estrangement, apparent in touches like the cheery brutality of the local butcher Bob Curd (Duncan Lamont), beaming with overemphatic friendliness as he rips the skin off a rabbit, the coolly unexaggerated bigotry of the local mothers aimed at Ronnie because of his father’s reputation as a layabout, and the discomfort Gwen experiences in trying to negotiate small-town politics. She plays the beneficent teacher helping give the poor young lad a leg up in a victimising world, almost a prototype for Kes (1969).
Frankel’s unmannered, clear-eyed direction helps the film walk a tightrope of tone, only skewing from the realistic in such odd moments as Granny Rigg telling her grey cat to follow Gwen, and a slowly manifesting sense of more than usual evil lurking under the surface, as when Ronnie tries to alert Gwen, claiming to have seen Linda being punished by Granny Rigg, who jammed her hand into a clothes wringer. Ronnie’s romancing of Linda isn’t just verboten because she’s important to a witches’ rite, but also because his mother isn’t local: the other children are all so in-bred, as Sally says, it’s hard to distinguish the variations on the “Heddaby face.” Frankel wields Hitchcockian technique as Gwen notices details like the many bare footprints scattered in the mud by the lake where Dowsett drowned, only to be erased as a flock of sheep charges through, panicked by Stephanie’s dogs; it’s a moment clearly reminiscent of the erasing of Miss Froy’s dust-written name in The Lady Vanishes (1938).
Perhaps another reason The Witches isn’t as well known to Hammer fans as it ought to be is because it mostly eschews the studio’s usual gothic stylistics, preferring crisper, restrained hues in the photography to the usual saturated tones. It also sports an uncommonly good cast of actors not at all associated with the genre, redolent of an attempt to elevate studio fare that was beginning to slide into the blood-and-boobs formula of many later Hammer works. In addition to Walsh and McCowen, Leonard Rossiter turns up late in the piece as a smug, yet hapless doctor who takes Gwen in charge when she suffers a second breakdown after being hexed. The comely Boulting was a daughter of film director John Boulting, and whose most recognisable role is perhaps the mysterious object of affection in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976).
Witchcraft has often been one of the more neglected fields for horror films to draw on, in part because it often demands suggestion of unseen forces at odds with the declarative demands of genre cinema, and also because the modern mind is largely inclined to give witches the benefit of the doubt. Frankel doesn’t draw out fulminating sensuality and neurotic energy like Terence Fisher or Don Sharp at their best, but he does master the necessary rhythm of slowly composing strangeness leading into outright nuttiness. Whereas Fisher’s tackling of similar notions in the following year’s The Devil Rides Out is a lushly orchestrated spectacle, Frankel and Kneale’s film builds toward something like black comedy in its depiction of dowdy villagers suddenly hurling themselves with joyous, countercultural energy into satanic rites and orgiastic preludes.
The Witches partners squarely with the same year’s Plague of the Zombies, though not played in a period setting, by invoking similar motifs: the secret link between colonialist horrors and malevolence infecting the coloniser’s homeland, an evil manipulated by the mansion on the hill, and virtually surreal visions of atavistic rites within the supposedly staid and settled English order of things. True weirdness finally, explictly manifests when Gwen ventures into the cave where the coven meets, discovering a cabalistic dial on the ground upon which a strange doll-like object seems to dance spontaneously—it’s actually got Granny Rigg’s familiar-like cat sewed up inside, and has a photo of Linda’s face pinned to it.
The Witches is fundamentally a good yarn, but it required a compelling lead performance to give the drama true pep, and Fontaine delivers. Her Gwen is shaky, but intelligent and dogged, fighting against her own brittle nerves and fear of the unknown. She is severely contrasted by the film’s other major female figure, Stephanie, a popular newspaper writer whose bracing, if slightly grating bravado contrasts her brother’s air of tragic failure. He had wanted to be a priest, and as well as dressing as one, spends much of his time locked away in private playing church bell and choir music and drifting away in melancholy distraction when trying to explain his fixations to Gwen. Fontaine offers, in a way, a bookend to her career-making part as the heroine of Rebecca (1940), considerably older and wiser, but equally perplexed by the workings of the world where, be it in Africa or rural England, irrational, cryptic, boding forces work to annihilate or assimilate anything that disrupts their cohesive fabric.
When Gwen presents the pin-stuck doll to her, Stephanie slashes heartily through the pretences of witchcraft in describing its practitioners as mostly repressed yokels looking for an orgy. Of course, she is really the secret head of the coven, which she found operating in the town and has taken over for her own purposes: convinced of her own brilliance as a force that could heal the world’s ills, she’s looking for a way to renew herself, and has found it, planning to claim Linda’s body to transplant her soul into. Walsh’s Stephanie is posited at first as a less damaged, more outgoing version of Gwen, radiating cosmopolitan intellectual confidence and, more subtly, a hint of lesbian charisma, all but licking her lips in joy at having Fontaine under her thumb as dominated, unwilling confidant. But she’s also a colossal egomaniac with a hale and aggressive energy that operates a little like an energy vampire against those close to her, even before she reveals her true status and her ultimate intent, which is to slice off Linda’s skin and wear it as a cloak of youth.
The attraction and tension between Fontaine’s and Walsh’s differing editions of middle-aged, woman-of-the-world, strength of purpose then sustains the drama, with Gwen starting off on the back foot thanks to her traumatic experiences and ignorance of the lay of the land in Heddaby, but slowly gathering resolve in trying to penetrate the mystery. When she’s stuck in a nursing home, stricken with amnesia, her memory returns in a cathartic moment, but she’s able to keep anyone from realising it until she can get a chance to escape. She’s soon snatched and forcibly inducted into the coven. Between the women stands the castrated Alan, whose defence mechanism against his monstrous sister is to isolate himself with the apparel of the church: Gwen’s appeal to him to give aid proves ineffectual as he locks himself away again: he is as much damsel in distress as Linda. Only Gwen is capable of standing up to Stephanie.
The film’s climax is also its major set-piece, as Gwen is forced to watch over a mesmerised Linda as Stephanie whips her coven into a sensual frenzy, orchestrating their gyrations as they perform the ritual dances. The tawdry sexual element Stephanie mocked comes out, the villagers, clad in rags, beat drums and blow horns with comic intensity. Gwen is held prone by two of the village men who can’t wait to induct her properly, and the rest cavort like they’ve been choreographed by an enterprising high school dance teacher. But the latent power and fascinating intensity of the rituals also begin to assert themselves as Stephanie, wearing deer horns on her head when clad in her witch’s garb, evokes the most ancient religions, and Linda, as she enters the coven, catalyses through her body the unnerving force she represents as an adolescent female, completely unfettered, a different kind of crucible that offers manifold promises of ecstatic delights. The coven smear themselves in juice squeezed from fruits, rubbing themselves and each other down, including one moment of homoerotic punch as two of the village males gleefully caress each other. Stephanie serves up a magical glop that look like excrement to be eaten in frenzied joy, and she leaves them twitching on the floor as if in a mass epileptic convulsion.
Meanwhile Stephanie’s monstrous egotism is configured as she conducts her coven like a puppeteer, sensually grasping Linda from behind and guiding her like a tuned instrument. Fittingly, then, the film’s corkscrewing narrative seems to find in the ritual acts of the coven a metaphor for the genre itself, a carefully orchestrated eruption of elements other worldviews frantically suppress or ignore, and where the dichotomous choice is to grasp or destroy the young female. Fittingly, Stephanie’s arrogance proves her undoing as her reading of the ritual procedure to Gwen earlier in the film gives Gwen the knowledge to wreck the ritual right at its climax, stabbing herself in the arm and soiling Stephanie’s cloak with it, bringing down the offended power of the dark gods on her: Stephanie drops dead and the coven’s power is broken.
The appended coda is a happy ending but rather disorienting in its disarmingly cheery tone, even as it encompasses some strange implications. A happy Alan sets about aiding Gwen as her liberated potential romantic partner, the town is suddenly dragged into the 20th century as the general store is replaced by a supermarket and the old residents scatter after the coven’s is broken, and Gwen’s students flock in to celebrate her goodness. The shattering of a corrupt order seems to have meant also throwing away that cosy insularity so often fetishized in retrospect in modern British life. In any event, The Witches is a delicious diversion for fans of offbeat horror.
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