In the first post in a new, regular column entitled ‘Recurring Nightmares’ over at Permanent Plastic Helmet, I take a look at two taxi rides across New York City in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). You can read the piece via the link below:
The Italian horror renaissance is still some way off
When questioned about the state of his country’s national genre cinema, Friday’s special guest, legendary Italian director Dario Argento, described it as “a sleeping beauty”; from the efforts on display at this year’s festival, it seems that the blood may still have yet to have dried on the spindle. Exhibit A was the Manetti Bros’ PAURA 3D, a quasi-incarceration thriller remarkably devoid of anything remotely approaching suspense, and whose use of 3D seemed little more than a perfunctory means of making the film’s title sound snappier. Also screening was Federico Zampaglione’s TULPA, a neo-giallo whose lacklustre, bilingual (or, more accurately, a-lingual) dialogue and surprising lack of visual ambition will prove depressingly familiar to viewers acquainted with the more recent Argento-directed entries in the sub-genre. To make matters worse, Italy’s rich horror heritage was lovingly paid homage to in Peter Strickland’s superb, Polanskian BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, further confirming the sense that the long shadow of the country’s cinematic output still continues to eclipse the present paucity.
Torture is, mercifully, still off the US film agenda
Two years ago, the likes of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, VILE and THE TORTURED populated the festival’s programme, reflecting the continuing post-HOSTEL, post-SAW vogue for so-called ‘torture porn’ narratives. Last year’s programme saw a decrease in the number of such films, suggesting a decline in their popularity, and this would seem to be confirmed by this year’s selections which were again remarkably free from such sadistic revenge narratives. CHAINED director Jennifer Lynch elucidated the shift most obviously, clearly stating that she had modified the film’s original script in order to divert the story away from the familiar torture porn template. Elsewhere, the Twisted Twins’ AMERICAN MARY (notably dedicated to HOSTEL director Eli Roth) shaped towards such a narrative but pleasingly moved into other territories speedily enough, while other American studio films THE POSSESSION and SINISTER were remarkable only in terms of their sheer inoffensive conventionality. Indeed, it was the Italian PAURA 3D came the closest to broaching HOSTEL-like material, though ultimately contented itself with a handful of relatively restrained sequences of bound sadism.
Franchises don’t have to be formulaic
Most pleasant surprise of the weekend was [REC]³ GENESIS, not just in terms of sheer entertainment value, but also in its refusal to conform to the confining strictures of its own franchise. The sudden shift from the strict first-person perspective of its previous two installments (arguably the single defining characteristic of the series) via a transition marked by a near-iconoclastic destruction of a video camera, led to some viewers crying foul, but the overwhelming feeling was one of liberation, freeing up the storytelling from the gimmicky confines of POV storytelling, the entertainment potential of which had, frankly, already begun to wear thin even before the closing credits of the first film. Like the torture porn setup, which almost always essentially revolves around the same moral framework of ‘bad things can turn good people into evil ones’, there seems a natural limit to what can be achieved with the found footage setup, something which franchise co-creator Paco Plaza seems have acknowledged and attempted to look beyond here. Other franchises – take note.
Very Bad Things are still happening to women in horror films
As the festival progressed the hashtag #rapefest began to be shuttled around Twitter, inaugurated by the critic Kim Newman in response to this tweet by the screenwriter James Moran which decried the apparent ubiquity of sexual assaults on females taking place on-screen, including in THE SEASONING HOUSE, HIDDEN IN THE WOODS and V/H/S on the first two days alone. Women have always had a rough time in horror – the presence at the festival of Dario Argento, a director frequently accused on misogyny in his gleeful mistreatment of his film’s female characters ought to have served as a reminder of this – and one doesn’t need to consult a copy of Carol J Clover’s Men Women and Chainsaws to be able to come up with a substantial list of rape-based texts.
There is a wider, more complex debate to be had about whether violence against women on screen represents institutionalised misogyny or just a convenient cinematic shorthand for certain types of vulnerability, but with regard to sexual violence, female sexual assualt seems ultimately still considered something of a ‘safe’ transgression in comparison to that of the male (DELIVERANCE, in this regard, still feels an isolated anomaly rather than a ‘game changer’). Naturally, the context of individual films matters; worst offender this year was the odious HIDDEN IN THE WOODS, which fudged (at best) the issue by falling prey to the same kind of lecherous leering at its young female leads that its narrative was ostensibly critiquing.
Interestingly, two further examples offered differing takes on similar ideas: Paul Hyett’s THE SEASONING HOUSE and Jennifer Lynch’s CHAINED. Both films created hermetically sealed spheres in which women are ritualistically abused: the former set in a brothel during the Yugoslav Wars, the latter in contemporary America, and both viewed through the eyes of young protagonists who find themselves in moral complicity with violent, sadistic patriarchs.
Both are strongly visceral, challenging works, but while they have other significant differences – the former has a more pronounced fairytale-nightmare feel and the protagonist is female, compared to the more brutal-realist latter which centres on a male – what seems most pertinent is the difference in historical context, and it prompts wider questions about the degree to which they are likely to provoke controversy. My impression is that Lynch’s film, because of its more familiar setting, will be the subject of greater problems, the implication being that the ‘otherness’ of Hyett’s film somehow has greater leeway for the atrocities it portrays. Ought this necessarily be the case? Does a context which distances the viewer result in harder content becoming more easily digestible?
It’s a fine line between stupid and, er, clever
The main talking-point of the festival appeared to be MANIAC, the Alexander Aja-penned remake of the 1980 psycho-thriller, which employed a strict first-person POV virtually throughout. Such an aesthetic choice, coupled with the woozy ambience and particularly gruesome details, appeared to make it the most effectively disturbing film of the long weekend, but also seemed to render the material genuinely problematic.
Subjective viewpoints are, of course, nothing new in horror cinema as evidenced by the post-BLAIR WITCH PROJECT vogue for found footage shockers. What makes MANIAC unusual is that, unlike those films, there is no mediation between the audience and the protagonist via the implication of a video camera recording the action; we are (one assumes) sharing exactly the perception of reality which the character is experiencing, placing the film closer to the more ‘purely’ subjective mode which includes Zac Baldwin’s HANAH’S GIFT, Gaspar Noe’s ENTER THE VOID, and even the television sitcom PEEP SHOW.
The urtext for such material in horror is Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM (though, once again, its use of POV is restricted to what is seen either through the viewfinder of Mark Lewis’ camera, or on subsequent playbacks of his recordings). The film famously provoked revulsion on its release but has since gone on to inspire countless theoretical analyses, most notably the work of Laura Mulvey, who identifies it as a significant text in terms of the way it plays with notions of spectatorial identification, forcing the viewer into a complicity with its protagonist Mark’s brutal crimes.
The original MANIAC, as noted by Kim Newman, was a retrograde return to the deformed monster meme of early 20th century horror, a mode which PEEPING TOM, and the same year’s PSYCHO, had subverted two decades earlier by presenting its murderous protagonists as somehow sympathetic victims. This new MANIAC, however, is feels more ambivalent. The casting of as unshakeably likeable a screen presence as Elijah Wood would suggest the presentation of the protagonist in a positive light, as do the offered explanations for his actions (uncaring, promiscuous mother; loneliness; gender and sexuality confusion), however simplistic and cod-psychological they feel.
Yet there is a conflict between this feeling of sympathy and the extreme violence which is being presented onscreen. Is this intended as a kind-of absolution for his crimes? There seems no conclusive answer, and intertextual nods to the diverse likes of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, TAXI DRIVER and THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI only serve to muddy the waters, hinting that perhaps he ought to be viewed as nihilistic villain, deluded anti-hero or merely criminally insane. That there appears to be no satisfactory answer to this contradiction at the film’s core makes it unclear whether the questions the POV ploy prompts are there by design, and whether the form single-handedly raises the same schlock content of the original towards something more metaphysically disturbing and challenging for the spectator.
AFTER (F) Painfully ill-conceived hey-where’d-everyone-go drama, suffocating in a fog of misplaced, morose sentimentality
AMERICAN MARY (B-/C+) Titular protagonist well sketched, but narrative slips out of focus, body mod plot never as subversive as promises
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (A-) Warm, affectionate meta-cinematic glow dissolves into Polanskian purgatory between reality & art. Mesmerizing.
CHAINED (C+) Remorseless grimness lifted by committed performances, but thematic concerns only partly served by storyline twists
COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES (C-) Handful of decent gags keeps things just the right side of amiable, though in too many depts more than a bit ‘pony’
DEAD SUSHI (B-/C+) Perfect throwaway midnight fodder; predictably nutso, and never runs out of suitably barmy fish/rice based ideas
EUROCRIME! (B-) Thorough, entertaining passegiata thru poliziotteschi sub-genre; great talking heads from Franco Nero, Henry Silva & Chris Mitchum
GRABBERS (B-) Hugely endearing Irish small town creature feature, delicately genre savvy & a great paean to the joys of getting pissed
HIDDEN IN THE WOODS (F) Frenetic, morally confused feral tale of two sisters; telenovela-like hysteria (& aesthetic) generates unsolicited LOLs
MANIAC (C+/B-) Undeniably brutal, but is it a formally innovative approach to themes of voyeurism & spectatorial identification, or merely retrograde & intellectually vapid?
OUTPOST: BLACK SUN (D-) Technically adept, if chronically under-lit, but story’s a bore; flavourless characters had me rooting for the Nazis
PAURA 3D (D-) Devoid of anything approaching atmosphere/suspense; botches scares, though descent into gratuitous sadism mercifully brief
THE POSSESSION (C+) Polished studio product, no more or less. Ditches early character work for derivative, predictable hokum
[REC]³ GENESIS (B-) No idea what, if anything, defines the franchise any more, but this was great, ribald taffeta-clad fun
THE SEASONING HOUSE (C+) Uneven; best when hermetic, puce-hued fairytale-nightmare, though edges softened by Balkansploitation silliness
SINISTER (B-/C+) Throws its net wide, pecking corn like the metaphorical blind hen, though with surprising frequency. Effective sound, Hawke classy
SLEEP TIGHT (B+/A-) Taut, suspenseful but above all deliciously blackly comic, propelled by darkly twisted Almodovarian obsession
STITCHES (B-/C+) More than a little rough around the edges technically, but on the whole an inventive, funny & gleefully gory delight
THE THOMPSONS (D-) Nice rural setting, but standalone blood-sucking mythology is wispy & forgettable, + some terrible secondary performances
TULPA (D+) Familiarly hokey neo-giallo awfulness, rendered entertaining by magnificently (Euro)criminal dialogue & performances
TOWER BLOCK (C+) Frantic LIFEBOAT-meets-Broken-Britain setup, better before moralizing & explanations. Cutaways to gunman a mis-step?
UNDER THE BED (C-) Resolutely ludicrous. Nice central fraternal axis, but needed *something* extra (ambiguity? verisimilitude? Joe Dante at the helm?)
V/H/S (C+) Gripes about ‘VHS’ aspect aside, a portmanteau of efficient – if strikingly bland – found footage stories; Skype-ological 4th chapter pick of the bunch
Perhaps reflecting our more economically-uncertain times, this year’s Frightfest felt a little quieter than in recent years. Not in terms of turnout – which seemed another increment on the festival’s upward spiral of attendees – but in terms on the films on offer: fewer world premieres than we’ve been used to, and no defining stand-out film around which things felt centred. But if there was a more low-key feeling to the programme, then it ought to be said that this was also a more fun year than has been had in recent festivals too: yes, still the residual dregs of unpleasant torture porn films which had appeared to be on their last legs last year, but also signs of a new playfulness in both US and European horrors. While not necessarily offering anything from major household-name directors, the presence of mature works from two significant young auteurs also offered hopeful signposts for genre filmmaking.
The opening and closing films proved something of a disappointment. Opener Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) offered further evidence of diminishing returns from the “Guillermo Del Toro presents…” stable, failing to decide whether it was a serious or silly examination of childhood fears, and ending up being effective in neither regard; a Joe Dante would have made a much more effectively creepy film for kids AND grown-ups, while still ducking under the PG-13 bar that this film tellingly didn’t limbo underneath in the US. Closer A Lonely Place to Die (2011) offered some viscerally exciting location-based thrills while still abseiling around the Scottish Highlands in its first half, but badly mishandled the use of its villains, and its increasingly colander-like plot ended up in an unsatisfying heap by the end.
Other British offerings this year also seemed intent on making the countryside seem so macabre as to make those planning their holidays forgo a staycation and fork out for the extra airfare to get to the safety of the Seychelles. The Holding (2011) played like a gloomily-lit blood-soaked episode of Emmerdale, replete with a suitably theatrical soap-opera-deranged villain, but despite an effectively moody tone and visual style, ultimately was let down by a babbling, uninteresting plot. Inbred (2011), by contrast, offered over the top splatter and crass humour against the same backdrop of tractors and livestock, but a hokey script, sloppy direction and barn-full of derivative sub-League of Gentlemen cliches were redolent of its general air of laziness. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree (2010) at least had a sense of camp in its transporting of Bible Belt missionaries to a remote village in the Borders, but couldn’t quite seem to sustain any kind of tension for its duration. Most solidly-satisfying was A Night in the Woods (2011), which transcended its logical inconsistencies and familiar Blair Witchiness with its well-drawn Polanskian trio of mutually-suspicious protagonists and an interesting play on notions of spectatorial identification in such found footage matter.
The two other, more significant British films both attempted part-satires of the current recession with their focus on upwardly-mobile but underlyingly-insecure protagonists. The Glass Man (2011) saw its lead character mysteriously lose his job for unspecified transgressions, making his precarious financial position even worse, threatening everything he has based his superficial bourgeois life around. Likewise, Kill List (2011) saw a suburban, comfortably middle-class former hitman forced to take another mysterious new job when his money dries up. Both films overlap in their delineation of a deeply-complacent milieu driven to despair, violence and fantasy worlds by financial ruin, though diverged in tone: the former’s increasingly mysterious but strangely offbeat feel is matched only partially by a rather threadbare narrative ultimately short of enough ideas – essentially an over-stretched short film. The latter exhibits Down Terrace director Ben Wheatley’s unique gift for capturing an offbeat naturalism seldom seen in anywhere else in British cinema, but its narrative twists ultimately feel undeserved and unsatisfactory. I have no doubts he will one day make an outright masterpiece, but this isn’t it.
The American offerings this year were noticeably lighter in tone than last year’s, and captured a real sense of fun in the genre. Final Destination 5 (2011) proved to be the most confidently relaxed, assured of the franchise, offering expected but still entertaining Heath Robinson-like convoluted schadenfreudic silliness, even if the films have now ended up playing more like workplace hazard identification training videos than anything genuinely terrifying. Fright Night (2011), an unpretentious modern update of the Eighties classic, was more enjoyable a remake than expected, with terrifically good supporting work from both Colin Farrell and David Tennant, while DeadHeads (2011), a sweet-natured and even strangely poignant “good zombie” take on the rom-zom-com was only let down only by a slightly lacklustre, unfocused narrative. Best of all was Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010), not the “Deliverance with dick jokes” that I had initially feared, but instead a playfully subversive flip of urbanoia cliches, illustrating that rednecks are in fact loveable and misunderstood rather than murderous monsters. Y’all.
Amidst this light-heartnedness, torture did still remain on some filmmakers’ agendas: Rogue River (2010) was a predictable rural-incarceration-by-numbers thriller, though did have an air of mischief with regard to its more transgressive content. Urban Explorer (2011) disappointingly threw away its promising strangers-down-a-drain conceit to veer into over-familiar Hostel territory, but the director does manage to sustain an admirable air of tension with such material. Panic Button (2011), a British internetsploitation took aim at zeitgeist-y Facebook-related business, but a promising, witty start swiftly descends into unimaginative turgidity. Vile (2011) at least aimed for Cube-like social comment with its setup of strangers forced to torture each other in order to escape a preposterous predicament, but the script sees them far too quickly and eagerly turn to barbarism, making it seem that the they must already have been predisposed towards particularly creative sadism, or at very least adept at finding new uses for mundane items such as cheese graters.
The midnight movies, usually a personal festival highlight, proved something of a disappointment this year. Two were anthologies: The Theatre Bizarre (2011) barely sketched its wrap-around storyline, and its individual segments were on the whole fairly dire, though Douglas Buck’s asynchronous The Accident episode was moving and lyrical enough to be a standalone piece. Better was Chillerama (2011), which had a stronger framing story and much better ideas, including the entertaining high-concept likes of “Anne Frankenstein” and “Wadzilla” – a giant killer spermatozoon. Inexplicably popular was Detention (2011), an incessantly irritating pile-up of pop culture name-dropping, its razor-thin superficiality apparently protesting some kind of postmodern profundity. Operating at such a frenetic pace that makes Hausu look like it was directed by Béla Tarr, character and plot ended up playing less second fiddle than fourth triangle to the relentless referential landslide. Is this where cinema is headed? If you want a picture of this future, imagine a 1992 Smash Hits annual slapping into a human face – forever.
Three mainland European horrors coincidentally all offered mythologies relocated to the present day as means to torment their characters. Best was TrollHunter (2010) in which a Norwegian documentary crew tail the titular character who, it turns out, is employed by the government to keep the existence of trolls a secret; a little too episodic, but it eeked out plenty of fun toying with the various aspects of this folklore, as well as poking fun at bureaucratic red tape and incompetent civil servants. Dick Maas’ Sint (2010) was an enjoyable-enough yarn suggesting what St Nicholas is really after when he comes down Dutch chimneys at Christmas, while first-ever Swiss genre mouthful Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps (2010) by contrast used an old myth to perform a more serious examination of patriarchy and the idealisation and subjugation of women. Handsomely shot amidst stunning Alpine scenery and warmly-inviting interiors, only an over-long running time and a needlessly convoluted non-linear narrative marred the effectiveness of its moral message.
The major highlights of the festival, though, were two offerings by two young, distinctive American auteurs. The Innkeepers (2011) proved to Ti West’s best directorial effort to date, a creepy old hotel film more in keeping with is-it-or-isn’t-it-real likes of The Haunting and The Innocents, and boasting some superbly warm, endearing character work from its two leads. But the pick of the festival was Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011), a tremendously potent blend of suburban satire, darker-than-dark fairytale and mischievous black humour whose cumulative power was so strong it left me something of a wreck by the time it had reached its poetic, if horrifying, denouement. Perhaps not a surprise that the director of the still-astonishing May could create something so simultaneously beautiful, utterly horrifying and emotionally wrenching, but that makes it no less of an achievement; the best film of this Frightfest, or any other for that matter.
Five to watch:
The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011, USA)
The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011, USA)
Tucker & Dale vs Evil (Eli Craig, 2010, USA | Canada)
TrollHunter (André Øvredal, 2010, Norway)
Fright Night (Craig Gillespie, 2011, USA | India)
Continued from Part 1
The sexual undertones present in Dead of Night‘s Christmas Party episode provide one of the many links to the following story, Robert Hamer’s superb “Haunted Mirror”. It too is a story about a violent death from the past returning to haunt characters in the present, though it is much less obviously a ghost story than the prior segment. The focus now is on the soon-to-be married Peter (Ralph Michael) and Joan Courtland (Googie Withers), quickly established as a shallow, vain couple whose life of surface appearances hides an undercurrent of mutual mistrust.
Joan’s buys Peter an antique mirror for his birthday, an act of no small irony given the couple’s apparent superficialness, but after positioning it in his bedroom he becomes distracted, convinced he is seeing things in it which aren’t there in reality. The story is allowed to develop slowly, Peter’s visions becoming ever stronger as he begins to make out in the reflection an alternate room to his own – in direct contrast to the functional, blandly angular décor of the Courtland’s, the mirror shows an ornate, lavishly decorated household – visions which cause him to become increasingly paranoid, mistrustful and ultimately violent.
Visually, the Haunted Mirror episode is the film’s most striking; the disparity between the blandness of the Courtland house compared with the decadent otherworldliness of the ‘other’ house is used to tremendously powerful effect, the viewer captivated as much as Peter by the seductive gothic-inspired image of a milieu far-removed from the drab reality of his everyday life. Strangely, the temperature dynamic is a reversal of that in the Christmas Party segment: here the supernatural is associated with warmth, the heat of the log fire in the room on the other side of the mirror proving more alluring than the sterile coldness of the ‘real’ room, though the long shadows still inevitably signify all that is mysterious and irrational.
Charles Barr, in his magnificent survey Ealing Studios, reads the story as a devastating critique of the type of superficial couple that the Courtlands represent. Their vanities (happily describing themselves as a“handsome couple”, who “dress up and spend a lot of money” as a matter of routine) and snobbish dismissals of other people (Joan appears entirely ungrateful for the “frightful presents” they receive; Peter marks Joan’s friend Guy as “hardly the big-game shooting type”) only serve to highlight their own shallow prejudices, and the mirror will come to reveal to them interior blemishes instead of exterior ones. Hamer’s repeated shots of Peter’s reflection framed in the mirror, significantly at times in a separate panel to that of his wife-to-be, seems to illustrate his isolation from the world around him, and even from the woman ostensibly closest to him.
Barr names the central themes as repression and complacency: Peter’s repressed frustration with the mundanity of his life coupled with his sneaking suspicion that his wife-to-be is unsatisfied in their relationship exposes the lack of trust between them and the blasé manner in which they disregard their true feelings, as well as explaining his increasingly extreme reactions to the vision in the mirror. He concludes that the segment’s conclusion is in effect a ‘lobotomy’ for the couple: they will learn nothing from the experience and go back to their bad old ways. I am not entirely sure whether it is as dire as Barr’s reading; after all, Joan has enough faith in her husband to find out about the mirror’s history, and her eventual solution to the problem illustrates her willingness to make a leap of faith for him. Interestingly, Hamer will come to use the motif of the mirror again to return to a similar theme in his later It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), again starring Googie Withers.
The following segment is the most controversial one of the film, since its lightly-comic tone is at odds with the other, more sinister tales which it rubs shoulders with. “Golfing Story”, directed by Charles Crichton, stars Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford who seven years earlier had stormed to popularity as Charters and Caldicott, the uproariously witty and irreverent cricket-obsessed passengers aboard the train in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). The characters proved so popular that they would make cameos in a number of subsequent films, most significantly Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940).
Their appearance in Dead of Night is as a pair of very similar characters named Parratt and Potter, once again well-to-do Englishmen with the same penchants for sport and making double entendres with one another. Once again, though, sexual matters intrude, this time with the arrival at their golf club of the beautiful Mary; the pair are both instantly smitten with her, and unable to decide who should be allowed to court her, contrive to hold a golf play-off to decide the matter. Parratt wins, and in a pair of shots which strangely predict a similar scene in Mizoguchi’s Sanshō Dayu (1954), Potter solemnly trudges to his death in a nearby river. Parratt, though, has cheated, and soon becomes tormented by the ghost of his former buddy, both on and off the links.
Golfing Story comes as a moment of levity in what is otherwise a solemn film, but is its presence entirely necessary? Sandwiched between the harrowing Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist’s Dummy segments it may seem an unwelcome distraction from the crescendoing sense of fear contained within the separate stories. One might conversely argue that it creates a chiaroscuro of tone which enhances the effectiveness of the other two stories; certainly in its place was a story of the lesser quality of, say, the Hearse Driver episode, one might suggest that the film as a whole might suffer more as a consequence. The story does also set up an ellipsis within the link-narrative, in which time Craig has decided not to leave Pilgrim’s Farm but instead to remain, the now-jovial atmosphere calming him his fears in time for the film’s final, most horrifying chapter.
“Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is rightfully the film’s most well-remembered episode, and lasting more than 23 minutes it is by far its longest section. The key to its success lies perhaps not in the story itself but in what is invested into it by Michael Redgrave’s extraordinary central performance as Maxwell Frere, the ventriloquist apparently being tormented by his own dummy. In fact, to award him with just one acting credit seems woefully inadequate: it what is in effect his double-performance which leaves the viewer considering the possibility that he could be embodying two separate personae that makes the story so gripping and ultimately terrifying.
As the story begins, Frere is called into a noirishly lit police interrogation room by Dr Van Straaten, who is attempting to ascertain psychological reasons why he had attempted to murder his fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee; Frere refuses to cooperate, and insists that Hugo, his dummy, is the one who is to blame. In a flashback contained within the wider flashback of the segment as a whole we are transported to a Parisian club where we witness Maxwell and Hugo in action (the geographical setting seems to underline that Maxwell’s surname is very close to the French word for ‘brother’). We see the common dynamic of a ventriloquism act: Maxwell plays the straight-man to Hugo’s sharp-tongued witticisms and occasionally risqué comments. In the audience is an impressed Kee, who ‘Hugo’ invites to meet him backstage at the end of the performance.
Once backstage, the ambiguity of the situation arises: in the darkened room, Kee hears Hugo’s voice and chances upon the solitary puppet, whereupon Maxwell enters the room smoking a cigarette, apparently oblivious to what his puppet has been saying; can he have been speaking, or is Hugo a genuinely autonomous entity? The divide in their personalities seems an amplified version of their onstage ones: Maxwell is a nervous wreck, in diametric opposition to Hugo’s boastful charm. In the following scene, a group of women recognise Maxwell and Hugo at a bar, but when they approach them are drawn to the puppet and not his drunken master. Once again, doubts surface: how can this articulate puppet be being manipulated by someone who is clearly an inebriated wreck?
Alberto Cavalcanti’s previous film Champagne Charlie had been a light-hearted look at the world of entertainment, but Ventriloquist’s Dummy is its darkly sinister reflection, as if glimpsing itself in the mirror of the Hamer segment. A more straightforward parable about the nature of performance might have the off-stage entertainer unable to cope with everyday life away from the spotlight, but here the dynamic is subtly different: there is the possibility that Maxwell has repressed his own personality so much as part of his stage-persona that he is now unable to behave otherwise, but the nagging possibility that Hugo could indeed be a sentient, autonomous being pushes the story into the ambiguous and the supernatural, which is all-the-more frightening. The unsettling denouement pre-dates the strikingly-similar one used in Psycho (1960) by nearly two decades, though a shot containing a very disorientating Hitchcock-like rotation of the camera illustrates that more than likely the influence was mutual.
The film makes a final return to Pilgrim’s Farm and its gathered guests, and leads into what must rank as one of cinema’s greatest ever final reels. As Foley’s power generator fails, the house is thrown into long shadows reminiscent of those associated with the unreal in the film’s various chapters, signalling an entry into the fantasy realm that the stories themselves had. Like the recapitulation of a great symphony, the film’s various motifs begin to swarm around each other, in doing so forming unexpected patterns and resonances, and leading towards that famous montage exposing the full extent of Craig’s nightmare. As this closes, I am ever-reminded of a similar scene in Les Diaboliques (1955) when a character appears to do the impossible, and as with Clouzot’s film it is best not to spoil the big surprise for others.
Even Craig’s apparent demise does not constitute the ending of the film, and its final surprise turns the entire film on its head once again. The film’s lasting influence has perhaps diminished the shock of this device, its having been used – though never in an identical way, and more commonly for different effect – in films as diverse as Belle De Jour (1967), La Jetée (1962), Lost Highway (1997), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and most recently in Christopher Smith psychological thriller Triangle (2009); its philosophical implications may also have been explored more fully in Groundhog Day (1993), but with the element of surprise lessened, the modern viewer might more readily be able to reflect on the film’s structural perfection.
Focusing on this novel aspect of the film’s meta-structure is to downplay its bigger legacy which was the rise of the anthology horror film. It was not the first – a German film entitled Unheimliche Geschichten (1919) has the best claim to that particular title – but its quality and popular success gave rise to countless imitators, serving as a template for the cycle of Amicus anthologies, most obviously Freddie Francis’ Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) which closely mimics Dead of Night‘s framing story. Amicus producer Milton Subotsky described Dead of Night as “the greatest horror film ever”; it is not difficult to see why.
Dead of Night stands out as a curious anomaly in Ealing Studios’ roster, even though the diversity of its output is frequently underestimated in favour of the famous comedies it produced in that remarkable run of films in the decade after World War Two. While it is easy to look back fondly on those comedies for their quaintness and sense of an England (however false) of yesteryear, Dead of Night by contrast retains a freshness simply because its emphasis is entirely different; what is more timeless than a ghost story? Another useful comparison is with Hitchcock’s Spellbound, released the same year and also adapted by Angus MacPhail, but dated horribly by its reliance on quasi-Freudian pop psychology; Dead of Night‘s meditations on perception, reality, mortality, dreams and artistic sacrifice continue to make it as thrilling and disturbing a ride as it has ever been.
Whilst it can be said that, in the more than a century of cinema, films have been able to inspire many kinds of ideas in viewers, theories about the nature of the cosmos can seldom have been frequently among them them. Yet this is what Dead of Night, the supernaturally-themed anthology film produced by Ealing Studios in 1945, is said to have done in the minds of physicists Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi, whose Steady State theory of the apparent expansion of the universe apparently derived from the film’s distinctive and much-imitated meta-structure. But whilst their theory has long since been refuted in favour of the Big Bang model, the film which inspired it continues to endure as one of the true classics of British horror.
It starts oddly cheerfully, and in a broad daylight seemingly at odds with the title. A car canters along a country lane, with Georges Auric’s breezy score betraying only a hint of the sinister through the brief shiver of strings which greets Walter Craig’s (Mervyn Johns) shake of the head as he appears to recognise his destination, a country manor aptly named Pilgrim’s House. On arrival, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), model of stiff-upper-lip Englishness the kind of which Ealing’s output is more commonly identified with, greets the spooked Craig, who mysteriously seems to be already familiar with the details of his host’s house and his gathered houseguests. Unable to recall anything more than scant details, he remains convinced that he has had repeated dreams placing him in this same situation and with the same group of people; “It sounds like a sentimental song, doesn’t it? I’ve dreamed about you over and over again”, he exclaims with bemusement.
Prominent among the group is Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a psychologist who will cast his scholarly eye over proceedings, in a way a physical embodiment of the cognitive dissonance internal to Craig as he tries to rationalise why he is able to recall these surroundings which should be entirely unfamiliar to him. The other guests humour him, and one-by-one they take it in turns to recount their own personal encounters with the supernatural. This sets up the primary internal structure of the film, the now-familiar but then-relatively novel anthology format which in this case comprises five sub-stories chained together by the link-narrative of the house party.
The anthology or portmanteau film, a format which was popularized in the 1930s with the star-studded likes of Paramount’s If I Had a Million (1932) and MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932) but whose roots can arguable be traced back as far as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), was a convenient way for a studio to showcase the talent it held on its roster. In the case of Dead of Night, four directors shared the directing duties of the six segments: the now poorly-regarded Basil Dearden handled the linking narrative as well as contributing first tale “Hearse Driver”; Alberto Cavalcanti, who had had enjoyed previous successes at the studio with Went the Day Well? (1942) and Champagne Charlie (1944), provided two segments, and future star directors Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer one apiece.
When considering its various episodes, the inevitable tendency has been to compare their respective qualities. This, to me, seems an erroneous approach, since the film works so successfully precisely because of their differences and their position within the film’s global narrative structure. Credit for this lies with Angus MacPhail, the veteran screenwriter and script doctor who had worked on Cavalcanti’s Champagne Charlie and adapted the Palmer and Saunders story The House of Dr. Edwardes into what would become Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Notably, he is also generally considered to have coined the term ‘MacGuffin’ for Alfred Hitchcock, and as Charles Drazin argues in his book The Finest Years, McPhail was taken on at Ealing as something of a problem-solver; his input here was essential in helping to weave together the seemingly disparate stories of Dead of Night into a more homogeneous whole.
The first sub-story “Hearse Driver” – in which a man has a vision which appears to warn him of his impending death – is often cited as the weakest of the film’s segments, but though it lacks the both the visual imagination and psychological effectiveness of the other stories, it plays a key role in the wider story. Indeed, the very fact that the occupation of its main focus, Hugh Granger, is a racing driver can be interpreted to be emblematic of the film’s meta-structure: the film opens and closes with the same shot of a car driving along a road, in a sense signifying Craig’s completion of one ‘lap’ in an apparently endless race. The story, lasting a mere 6 minutes, serves as a gentle prelude for the longer, more developed stories to come, as well as acting as an introduction to several of the film’s main running themes. Most importantly, its position in the narrative comes between Craig’s presaging of the arrival of a sixth character – a “penniless brunette” – and her arrival in the link narrative. The short story of clairvoyance thus is bookended by a much longer one; this mirroring is reinforced by the presence in the story of Granger’s doctor, whose rational explanations are in agreement with Dr Van Straaten.
The lack of critical attention give to the Hearse Driver segment may mostly derive from Dearden’s unsubtle directing technique, in particular the way he over-emphasises key elements of the story through a series of clumsy zooms. The key central moment – a reveal from a darkened hospital room to daylight outside – lacks drama, and the sight of the horse-drawn hearse pales into insignificance when compared to the ethereal otherworldliness of Victor Sjöström’s Körkarlen (1921). The story is not entirely without visual merit: the shot of Granger emerging from his bed, casting a massive shadow on the curtain covering the hospital room’s window catches the eye, but there is too much that is forgettable in its short duration. Nevertheless, there are two items of note which will be echoed in later stories. Firstly, the sexual dynamic in the story: while in hospital Granger flirts with his nurse, a women who will later go on to marry. Secondly, the nature of his vision of the hearse, reality and unreality being separated by the frame of his hospital window. Both motifs will be repeated later.
The second tale, Alberto Cavalcanti’s “Christmas Party”, is the film’s most straightforward ghost story. Told by the Sally, the youngest present among Foley’s gathered guests, it begins in the opulent living room of what is evidently a spacious country mansion. The frame is filled with young children scurrying about, playing games with Sally and her friend Jimmy Watson, both visibly older than their playmates. The mise en scene is rich, lively and warm, but as a game of ‘Sardines’ begins and Sally runs upstairs to hide, the upper floors of the house are revealed to be cold and cloaked in menacing expressionistic shadows. There, Sally encounters a boy who she will discover afterwards to be the apparition of a child who was murdered by his older sister in the house many years beforehand.
Despite being only slightly longer in duration than the Hearse Driver segment, it feels a much more satisfying piece and of much greater depth, Cavalcanti evidently proving himself a much more inventive, imaginative director than Dearden. The disparity between the warmth and familiarity of the living room and the cold strangeness of the upper floors is beautifully evoked, the air of mystery teeing up the sense of the supernatural which the first story was lacking. As Sally pauses in the doorway to a spiral staircase there is even a fairytale-like sense of the ethereal, not too dissimilar to Belle’s entry into the Beast’s mansion in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946), surely a reflection of Cavalcanti’s association with the French avant-garde during the 1920s. The muffled, calamitous piano score as she ascends also helps to suggest entry into an off-kilter alternate world.
Once again, there is a sexual element to the story. Sally and Jimmy are noticeably older than the young children they play with, both evidently of pubescent age and already familiar with each other as evidenced by her blindfolded recognition of the shape of his ‘silly’ nose. Their exchanges illustrate a flirtatious, deprecatory fondness between the two of them, though one might advisedly not take too Freudian a reading of the mask he wears with its large protuberant nose. His persistently makes advances, taking advantage of the coldness of the house’s upper levels, though his attempts to kiss her ultimately lead Sally to her discovery of the ghost. On encountering the boy, her very maternal tending and singing to him further suggest her own burgeoning sexuality.
Continued in Part Two…
The curious thing about the success of Juno (2007) was that it made the bigger star not of its director Jason Reitman, nor its lead actress Ellen Page, but its writer and creator Diablo Cody. Perhaps on a surface level this was as a result of the distinctiveness of its relentlessly verbose, heavily stylized dialogue, but looking beyond this the film’s lasting appeal derived from the fact that at its core was an original and captivating story which did not seek to patronise its viewers or descend into nauseous Sundance kookiness.
A move to horror is perhaps unsurprising for a writer whose first film name-checked Herschell Gordon Lewis and Dario Argento, and Jennifer’s Body betrays on Cody’s part a clear understanding of, and affection for, the High School Horror sub-genre. However, the precedent to which Juno owed the most to was Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2000), and once again in Jennifer’s Body that film is a key reference point, foregrounding as it does an increasingly strained central relationship between two adolescent female characters. Anita – nicknamed “Needy” – is the caricature of the bookish nerd, but who has also enjoyed a close friendship with popular cheerleader-type Jennifer since childhood. They appear to share little in common, and their chalk-and-cheese relationship is met with bemusement by their peers, yet there is a ring of truth about it; how many childhood friendship are forged as a result of circumstance and location rather than personality?
One evening, the unlikely partners head off to a local bar to see a ropey indie band whose lead singer Jennifer has taken a fancy to, a man who it turns out has a fixation on whether his young fan is a virgin or not. Soon after the gig begins, the venue becomes engulfed in a massive fire, killing several people. Jennifer, in shock, is whisked away from Needy by the singer to his tour van, only to return to her concerned friend’s house late that evening covered in blood and ravenously hungry, seemingly in the grip of some form of possession. By the morning, however, Jennifer is seemingly normal again, only now much bitchier towards her friend and with an unhealthy appetite for promiscuity.
The film is exploring terrain similar to hormonal horrors, much closer to Ginger Snaps (2000) than to Carrie (1976), and it is praiseworthy that it tries to subvert the old horror paradigm of approaching the monstrous feminine through the mediating eyes of the male; in positioning Needy as our cipher and illustrating the conflict at the ending of her pre-sexual friendship with Jennifer, the narrative arc breaks away from the usual over-played phallic symbolism and tiresome gender-based tropes. Cody’s continuing examination of the relationships of young females through popular mainstream cinema should hopefully encourage other filmmakers to do the same, whilst once again her script shows a keen ear for witty dialogue, creating its own distinctive world of plausible if overly-articulate teenspeak.
However, while there is much to comment on in terms of its themes, the surface of the film falls down on several counts. Firstly, it appears that the confines of genre do the script little favours; the narrative freshness which made Juno such a pleasingly original watch is stifled when confined in the straightjacket of horror convention, and as such the film becomes something of a tiresome spectacle of predictable plotting interspersed with stray snippets of snappy dialogue. Megan Fox is well cast personality-wise as the dislikeable prom queen but is clearly not the physical embodiment of awkward adolescence, while Amanda Seyfried, nicely cast as Needy against her previous Mean Girls (2004) persona, lives up to her nickname far too much to be a likeable protagonist. As such, there is a central lack of sympathy which makes the revenge story trajectory much harder to sustain.
Karyn Kusama, whose previous work includes the under-regarded Girlfight (2000) and the overly-ridiculous Aeon Flux (2005), provides functional if unspectacular direction, never quite pitching the horror at the correct level of scare to sate the thirst of the genre fans, nor sufficiently getting to grips with the comedy to appease the Juno crowd, usually falling between the two stools rather uncomfortably. There are visual nods to Twin Peaks (1990), particularly in the contrasting warm/cold inside/outside lighting, but if David Lynch’s work is an intended yardstick, Jennifer’s Body is sorely lacking in bite.