You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

John Cusack in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007)
John Cusack in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007)

The second post in my Recurring Nightmares series for Permanent Plastic Helmet, this time looking at the allure of the horror hotel, taking in a little Méliès, Marienbad and Motel Hell along the way:


Frightfest 2013 Tweet Review Roundup

Julia Garner in We Are What We Are (2013)
Julia Garner in We Are What We Are (2013)

100 BLOODY ACRES (C+/B-) Aus appropriation of Motel Hell post-hillbilly sensibility. Low key, & likeably character driven rather than outright farce

THE BANSHEE CHAPTER (C+) Telegraphed scares, but enjoyably pulpy feel, and verite (rather than found footage) aesthetic well suited

BIG BAD WOLVES (B+) Tight, comic chamber piece, propelled by ambiguity & delicious irony. Superbly constructed, realised & performed

CHEAP THRILLS (B+) Contrived setup, real moral truths. Nice After Hours-y single-night out of control spiral, farce rooted in empty-glass pessimism

THE CONSPIRACY (C+) Mock-doc stylings intriguingly blur formal edges between reality & fiction, though at times too much of a storytelling constraint

CURSE OF CHUCKY (C+) Modest aims, partially achieved: frequently amusing, likeably knowing, if never greatly suspenseful

DARK TOUCH (C-/D+) Good ideas & occasionally striking compositions drowned beneath clunky dialogue & bungled supernatural scenes

DARK TOURIST (C+/B-) Somnambulance + unpleasantness a heady brew, but noir stylings & invocation of God’s Lonely Man feel heavy-handed

THE DEAD 2: INDIA (F) Earnestness of predecessor replaced w/ dull sentiment; clichéd script, off-the-peg characters, wobbly performances

DEMENTAMANIA (D+) Sub-Fight Club yuppie psychosis lifted by Bateman-esque fantasy psychopathy, but narration & soapy perfs feel cheap

THE DYATLOV PASS INCIDENT (D+) Charmless, tonally flat first half, ludicrously scattergun second. Periodically forgets mock doc rules

FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY (C+) Steampunkish alt history concept interesting, story less so. Found footage aesthetic oddly anachronistic

HAMMER OF THE GODS (D+) Mostly looks the part (though underlit≠style); lacks own sense of identity, save for ‘GoT for Nuts readers’

HATCHET III (C-) More of the same (ergo YMWV), tho nice line in self deprecation. Entertaining, but more accomplished -> less interesting?

HAUNTER (B+) Conceit a doozy: teen ennui as in media res Groundhog Day. Shifting sands reveal notes of melancholy & existential revolt

THE HYPNOTIST (D) That’s quite enough portent now thanks, Scandinavia. Dreary pulp procedural flatlines under Hallström hackwork

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 (F) “Your honour, the accused has returned to admit to extra charges of xenophobia & breathtaking ineptitude”

IN FEAR (B-/C+) Rural horror vigorously tense when rooted in ambiguity, suspicion & mistrust, but really drops the ball post-reveal

THE LAST DAYS (C-) Undemanding cookie-cutter apocalypse drama, polished into glossy blandness. Identikit Hollywood remake inevitable

MISSIONARY (F) Flat shorthand emotions give way to dreary, inept psychodrama. Thematic content practically nonexistent. Dreadful

NO ONE LIVES (B-) Low fat slasher-with-a-difference, freshness from dry wit & shifting, ambiguous identification. A genre fan’s delight

ODD THOMAS (C) Slick, colourful & mostly likeable, tho smug in over-eagerness to hit offbeat notes. Not keen on 2D-ness of main female character

R.I.P.D. (D) Yeah, Men in Black-lite, let down by bland action seqs. Bridges playing familiar riffs, but melody still charms. MLP = MVP

V/H/S/2 (C) Snappier than predecessor, though some problems remain: gimmicky nature of segments, and limp link narrative

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (A-/B+) Irons out wrinkles of original, elegant Southern Gothic restyle teeming with Old Weird America resonances

YOU’RE NEXT (B-) Effective, mischievous home invasion-er, spiced w/ black comedy. Snarling synth score + stylish visual tics among host of pluses

Five to watch:

We Are What We Are (Jim Mickle, 2013, USA)

Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado, 2013, Israel)

Haunter (Vincenzo Natali, 2013, Canada)

Cheap Thrills (E.L. Katz, 2013, USA)

You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011, USA)

Taxis to the Dark Side

Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS (1985)
Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS (1985)

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:

Ghosts in the Machine: The TRON Legacy

Arcade Fever


“I got a pocket full of quarters, and I’m headed to the arcade.
I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m bringing everything I made.
I’ve got a callous on my finger, and my shoulder’s hurting too.
I’m gonna eat them all up, just as soon as they turn blue.”

So ran the lyrics to Pac-Man Fever, Buckner & Garcia’s novelty hit single of 1982 which, by the end of that year, had sold over one million copies in the United States alone. Its success was redolent of the firm hold that arcade games had achieved on the American popular consciousness by that time: 1982 saw revenues for the North American video game market reach their all-time peak value – a figure outstripping those of both Hollywood and the music industry combined – and in November of that same year LIFE magazine was on hand to document the gathering of the country’s most prominent gamers at the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, confirming the phenomenon as now part of the country’s cultural mainstream.

Although arcade games had appeared in passing cinematic cameos in a number of films produced during the 1970s, it was Disney’s TRON (1982) which would be the first to place them at the centre of the action, unleashing a trend which would continue in the proceeding years with such films as Joysticks (1983), WarGames (1983), The Last Starfighter (1984) and Cloak & Dagger (1984), and a forebear of the recent trend in the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Wreck-it-Ralph (2012) for films to reference, appropriate and subvert the aesthetic, structure and narrative tropes of the arcade game form.


Returning to the film now, some thirty-one years on from its initial release, inevitably brings a pang of nostalgia for that putative golden age of arcade games, and in particular how it harks back to a prior technological era in which gaming was a physically communal experience. Flynn’s Arcade in TRON, much like those featured in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and The Karate Kid (1984), showed it as the place for teenagers to congregate in the early 1980s, illustrating the phenomenon’s social function at the time as similar to that of Mel’s Drive-In in the 1950s world of American Graffiti (1973) or the Emporium in Dazed and Confused‘s (1993) summer of ’76. Fast-forward to the present-day of TRON: Legacy (2010), and the once-boisterous Flynn’s is presented as now merely a solemn, long-shuttered electronic museum-cum-graveyard.

Another telling contrast between the original film and its sequel is in the characterization of their protagonists: in the former, Flynn Sr. is a social butterfly, and his interactions with his friends is relaxed and convivial, in sharp contrast to the post-The Dark Knight (2008) stylings of the sequel, in which son Sam is portrayed as an existentially angst-ridden loner. As video games have, in the thirty years since TRON, shifted from arcades to bedrooms, so their cinematic representation has since become a metaphor for modern alienation, as witnessed in the considerably darker tones of game-based films since such as Oshii Mamoru’s Avalon (2001) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), supplementing the rise of internet-centric shockers like Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Kairo (2001) and William Malone’s FeardotCom (2002).


The film’s significance, however, goes far beyond its representation of its specific period of video gaming culture. Its release in 1982 coincided with the publication of William Gibson’s novel Burning Chrome and its coining of the term ‘cyberspace’ which, in conceptual terms, TRON‘s Grid appears to be an early embodiment of. Whilst now a familiar (and even outmoded) notion as a result of the popularity of Gibson’s subsequent NeuromancerShirō Masamune’s sprawling manga/anime franchise Ghost in the Shell and films such as The Lawnmower Man (1992) , in the yet-to-be-computer-saturated early 1980s it was an idea that was little short of revolutionary.

In visual terms too, the film would prove to be a landmark: TRON‘s fifteen-minute light cycle sequence signalled the first extensive use of three-dimensional CGI in film a decade before its landmark employment in the likes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and Toy Story (1995), and the future-chic aesthetic of the Grid – glowing neon stripes set against wire-frame landscapes and solid polygonal structures, coupled with Moebius‘ conceptual designs and synth pioneer Wendy Carlos‘ evocative score – has proved a lasting influence across the spectrum of the creative disciplines, from television advertising to Jean Paul Gaultier catwalk collections, from Snow Crash to Daft Punk. Indeed, while the advancement of CGI technology has a tendency to render the ‘realistic’ look of films of a prior decade (or sooner) as outmoded, TRON‘s world of sheer artifice might be seen to have matured like a fine vintage wine.

The Shadows in the Cave


While TRON‘s depiction of its Game Grid as a walled-off world-within-a-world is strictly in the realms of sci-fi, its roots might be traced back to an altogether different form of fiction. Just as The Matrix (1999) winkingly alludes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, TRON‘s colourful alternate sphere populated with characters who seem to bear uncanny resemblances to ‘real-world’ equivalents in effect renders the film a digital updating of The Wizard of Oz (1939), with the sinister Master Control Program as oppressive Wicked Witch of the West, digitizing laser as the surrogate tornado, and fluorescent neon piping as the new blue gingham.

In philosophical terms, Flynn’s digitization onto The Grid separates TRON from many of its successors. Where the likes of Brainstorm (1983), The Lawnmower Man and Strange Days (1995) involve the protagonist’s interface with a form of brain–computer interface, Flynn completes a physical, as well as mental, transportation to this virtual other world. Such a set-up precludes the film from addressing, as those films others do, the Cartesian dualism of the separation of mind and body, but instead presents its world as a physical construction beyond which its inhabitants are, at least initially, unable to see.

Such a dual-world construction, certainly in terms of science fiction cinema, anticipates both Dark City (1998) and The Matrix as well as the multiple levels of the aforementioned Avalon and eXistenZ, but can also be seen to share a kinship with the worlds-within-worlds of The Truman Show (1998), Pleasantville (1998) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), as well as hinting at the kind of reflexive construct-within-a-construct ideas at the heart of metafilmic texts such as 8 ½ (1963), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and the oeuvre of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

The virtual reality world-within-a-world found its earliest cinematic expression in World on a Wire (1973), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s until-recently little-seen adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3. Its multi-planar construction reached its logical apotheosis in the teasingly ambiguous Lady-Or-The-Tiger endings of both Josef Rusnak’s adaptation of the same source novel The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthine Inception (2010), both ultimately serving to question the possibility of the knowledge of an absolute reality, as well as suggesting an infernal mise en abyme of mirror worlds dreamt up by the combined imaginations of Escher, Borges and the art designers of Droste cocoa powder. While TRON never goes as far as to question the veracity of the objective reality in which it begins, its set-up still implicitly provokes the same questions about the reliability and limits of perception which have troubled philosophers from Plato to Baudrillard.

The Gosateizm in the Machine


Another dimension to TRON’s appeal lies in its delineation of analogues of equivalent real-world language and concepts. Time is measured in ‘microcycles’ or ‘nanoseconds’, ‘thinking’ becomes ‘calculating’, liquid nourishment comes in the form of water-like ‘energy’, and the term ‘derez’ serves as a handily euphemistic term for death in what was intended as a family-friendly PG-rated movie. The Master Control Program’s ability to quantify anything and everything is both played for laughs and serve as a sinister shorthand for its lack of humanity, its voice somewhere between the cold, dispassionate logic of the HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the sinister croak of the Big Brother-like Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).

Futuristic, yes, but the future this is not, and TRON‘s ostensible present-day setting in some respects separates it from the more speculative, dystopian nature of traditional cyberpunk texts, although its time-capsule-like view on issues contemporaneous to its production are not dissimilar from familiar tropes of the genre. There is, for example, a light critique of the corporatization of Reaganomic America: just as the mega-corporations of Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) are seen to be malevolent, morally-questionable forces in their worlds, so too is TRON‘s secretive, hierarchical ENCOM company and its motives viewed with suspicion, reinforced by the direct analogy to the MCP’s corruption of power on the Grid.

The more prevalent theme, however, is that of the United States’ deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union, following its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Following the years of détente in the 1970s and prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost, the two competing superpowers were once again balanced on the delicate high-wire act of Mutually Assured Destruction, as played out in 1983’s box office smash WarGamesTRON, too, takes place in this same climate of fear: when the MCP threatens to take control of both the Kremlin and the Pentagon it might seem like a generic threat, but coming in 1982 this was a serious business, carrying with it the weight of a potential global nuclear holocaust. If such a detail might seem incidental, then the early presence of a sign bearing the words ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto‘ – a visual allusion to Robert Wise’s pacifist-themed Cold War parable The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – ought to confirm otherwise.


Just as The Day the Earth Stood Still‘s ‘Mr. Carpenter’ stands as an analogue Christ figure, so too does TRON carry a religious subtext at its core, deepening its commentary on the political climate of the age. The theological parallel between man’s relationship to God in the real world and the Grid programs’ belief in an unknowable putative creator is, in some respects played for laughs – see the humourous linguistic substitution in Ram’s famous cry of “Oh my User” – yet in the malevolent figure of the Master Control Program, there is too a serious-minded implicit critique of totalitarianism: the MCP’s suppression of the ‘superstitious’ belief in Users directly parallels the Soviet state policy of atheistic gosateizm, with the cruel games it forces the Programs to play akin to the Roman ‘sport’ of placing Christian martyrs in gladiatorial arenas to meet their near-certain death.

While such a thematic concern might suggest overlap with the apparent anti-Communist sentiment of Red Dawn (1984), it is balanced by the film’s questioning attitude towards free market corporatization, as well as a scepticism about the virtues of the increasing technologization of the modern world. The MCP’s reduction of human emotion and judgement to quantifiable numerical values warns of a pernicious dehumanization associated with the rise of the digital world, going some way to look – with a similar feeling of fear – at the potential nightmarish hegemonies-of-the-machine of The Terminator and The Matrix, or the passionless dystopias of Equilibrium (2002) and Gattaca (1997).



When TRON opened in the summer of 1982, its attempt to ride on the wave of popularity of the arcade game phenomenon was deemed by its studio to be a failure: its box-office takings were, while not the disaster of widespread repute, still considered a disappointment in that still-nascent era of the Hollywood blockbuster. There is, indeed, a certain irony in the fact that the highest-grossing film of the year, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), itself significantly contributed towards the near-catastrophic North American video game crash of the following years after the flop of Atari Inc.’s notorious movie tie-in game.

As shown by two excellent recent documentaries – The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2005) and Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2005) – there is a certain wistfulness in looking back on the period in question as a more innocent, bygone age of gaming. Yet TRON ultimately transcends the status of mere Pop Culture snapshot; The Grid’s distinctive, irresistible visual style of pure artifice is an aesthetic milestone which still has the capacity inspire awe in the modern-day viewer, and its rich diversity of thematic concerns still provokes the same searching questions which cinema – science fiction or otherwise – continues to puzzle over afresh.

TRON screens at Bristol’s Watershed as part of its Filmic 2013 season on Friday 22 March.

A Year in Repertory


Another year draws to a close and the annual critical ritual of list-making reaches its apex, along with my concomitant realization that i’ve spent the last 12 months watching all the wrong films, a point underlined by my consternation at how few of the top films in Julien Allen’s recent Twitter poll (in which I took part) i’ve managed to take in before the close of the year.

As a form of cultural penance, then, I offer here a collection of some of the older films which I have come across and enjoyed in my cinematic travels over the past 12 months. Huge thanks to anyone who has pointed me in the direction of these, in particular my 20th Century Cube co-conspirator Pip Taylor, whose breadth and diversity of cinematic knowledge is forever keeping me on my toes. Happy new year everyone!

The Edge of the World (Michael Powell, 1937, UK)

The elegant beauty of Michael Powell‘s first major work as a director ought to have come as little surprise to a seasoned acolyte of The Archers‘ output of the 1940s, but what was striking about The Edge of the World (1937) was how, even at this early stage in his career, his still-incubating talent appears already fully formed: the stark, poetic visual imagery, the air of windswept mystery and the sense of mournful wistfulness make this elegy to the mysterious beauty of the Outer Hebrides a near-equal of his later, more reflective pastoral masterpieces A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945).

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945, USA)

March’s 20th Century Cube screening of Scarlet Street (1945) afforded me the excuse to delve into the murky depths of The Master of Darkness‘ American output, revealing numerous mini-masterworks ripe for future revisits – Ministry of Fear (1944), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Secret Beyond the Door… (1947) and Man Hunt (1941) to name but a few – though none topped this haunting 1945 thriller in terms of lasting impact. Edward G. Robinson‘s masterful portrayal of an middle-aged naif caught in Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea‘s web of deception is noir at its most tenebrous.

Le Silence de la mer (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949, France)

Researching Jean-Pierre Melville for our May screening of his seminal Le Samouraï (1967) brought to my attention a number of his policiers I had not viewed before, most notably the magnificently shadowy, duplicitous Le Doulos (1962), but two of the stand-out films in his ouevre proved to be different beasts altogether to what I had been accustomed to from his work: Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961), a sober examination of theological and existential questioning against the backdrop of the Nazi Occupation of France, featuring towering, extraordinarily moving performances from Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva served to butter me up for the shattering experience of his début Le silence de la mer (1949), a sparse, minimalist drama revealing the deeply humanistic side of a director primarily associated with cool emotional detachment.

Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976, France | Italy)

Dovetailing beautifully with Le silence de la mer, Mr Klein (1976), a fastidiously icy thriller directed by Joseph Losey and centring on Melville regular Alain Delon‘s morally questionable title character, places us in a near-purgatorial wartime Paris of paranoia and deceit, its queasy sense of omnipresent dread looking ahead to Costa-Gavras‘ (here an uncredited script writer) similarly devastating Missing (1982).

The Happiest Days of Your Life (Frank Launder, 1950, UK)

The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), an uproariously funny Launder and Gilliat production sadly now neglected in favour of the cultural phenomenon that was its inferior, informal sequel The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), boasts Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford in typically sumptuous form, upstaged only by Joyce Grenfell‘s superbly-named hockey mistress Miss Gossage (“call me sausage”) and her over-zealous gong banging.

Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968, USA)

If the timing of Targets‘ (1968) initial release – in the year of the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy – proved to be coincidentally apropos of contemporary events, then a viewing of it this year rendered it uncomfortably prescient in the wake of the events in Aurora and Newtown. The central conflict in Peter Bogdanovich‘s early feature – between the nostalgia for a wistfully recalled past and the fearful uncertainty of a nihilistic future – might be the quintessential American theme, a messy dialectic articulated nowhere as eloquently as here.

The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise, 1944, USA)

I had fastidiously avoided this follow-up to Cat People (1942) from a combination of my unabashed love of the original film and the impression, largely derived from Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), that the sequel would be a flimsy studio cash-in on the earlier film’s success. What I got, however, was a heartbreakingly beautiful treatise on loneliness and an elegy to the virtues of the childhood imagination. Sublime.

Henry Fool (Hal Hartley, 1997, USA)

My watching of Hal Hartley‘s films had thusfar been both intermittent and somewhat scattershot, so researching him for October’s 20th Century Cube screening proved to be an immensely rewarding immersion in his back catalogue culminating in this, his magnum opus – a sprawling, ramshackle indie-epic, retaining elements of his signature style and recurring themes whilst expanding his canvas to envelop larger, more far-reaching concerns. In telling the story of Simon Grim, a shambling combination of Chauncey Gardner and Charles Bukowski, Hartley here alights on a definitive, if inherently contradictory, statement on the nature of his own artifice.

The Landlord (Hal Ashby, 1970, USA)

As with Powell’s The Edge of the World what was striking about The Landlord (1970), Hal Ashby‘s feature debut, was how fully formed his directorial vision arrived – both men’s careers testament to the virtue of working one’s way up from the lowest rungs of the film industry. Here, as in Harold and Maude (1971), Ashby again takes fire at the cloistered mores of white, bourgeois America, here presenting a wryly humorous look at race relations against the vibrant backdrop of a pre-gentrified New York.

Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937, US

Only a cursory glance at the cast list of Stage Door (1937) – featuring such luminaries as Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and Lucille Ball – suggests this is practically essential viewing, but what really stands out in this gossipy backstage comedy-drama is the film’s whip-smart dialogue, delivered with enough sarcasm and at such velocity to give both Hecht and MacArthur a collective seizure.

Haunted Mirrors: The Dark Side of Robert Hamer

As part of its Ealing: Light and Dark season, which runs from 22 October to 30 December at the NFT, the BFI today re-releases its oft-overlooked kitchen sink noir It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), providing a timely opportunity to reassess the career of its director Robert Hamer, a man whose faltering career David Thomson described as “the most serious miscarriage of talent in the postwar British cinema”. Hamer’s decline is perhaps one all-too familiar in the annals of British film history, a career beginning with much promise, yet ultimately marked by artistic compromise, isolation and self-destruction, with the result that there can seem a capricious, contradictory nature to his small body of work, one which began in supernatural horror (Dead of Night (1945)) and ended with light farce (School for Scoundrels (1960)).

Yet look beyond the superficial differences between his films and there can be found common threads. As Charles Barr notes, in Hamer’s films “you find a gallery of individuals, across the range of classes, whose sexual and emotional drives and strongly repressed and as strongly burst out, only to be damped down in an adjustment to the prevailing Ealing/British dispensation which […] accepts restraint on sex drive and ambition and class resentment”. What is fascinating about Hamer’s output is how, amidst diverse social and historical contexts, repeating themes and motifs come together to form a consistent vision of the British condition. “I want to make films about people in dark rooms doing beastly things to each other”, ran Hamer’s oft quoted ethos, and arguably no other British filmmaker has presented in so few films such a comprehensively pessimistic, dark vision of society and its mores.

As as Robert Murphy’s mini-biography of the director at Screenonline states, one important piece of recurring imagery in Hamer’s films is that of the mirror, and that is the one I wish to focus upon here. A useful starting point is the aforementioned It Always Rains on Sunday, as it provides a fulcrum around which several other films can be balanced, not least because it features two actors, Googie Withers and her husband John McCallum, whose films with Hamer both come in his most artistically fertile period (1945-1952) and display the use of the recurring visual motif to its fullest. In the film Withers plays Rose Sandigate, a former East End barmaid now married to a dull middle-aged man (played by Edward Chapman), who learns that her violent former lover Tommy Swann (McCallum) has escaped from prison and is now on the run. In a virtuoso sequence, a dissolve takes us from her combing her hair in the mirror in her drab, domesticated present to a flashback to her first meeting with Swann, glimpsing him in the mirror behind the bar in which she used to work.

Edward Chapman and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
John McCallum and Googie Withers in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Here, the function of the mirror is as a kind-of portal to an idealized, romanticized past, and an escape from Rose’s drab, repressed life. In some ways it also feels like a reference to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, a woman condemned to domestication, only able to view life’s “shadows of the world” through the lens of a looking glass. In rendering quasi-physically the difference between the lustrous mirror world of the past and the everyday routines of the present, Hamer finds an elegant visual expression of fantasy and repressed sensuality, and as the narrative unfolds and Tommy’s very real presence returns to Rose’s life, the diametrical planes between these mirrored worlds of reality and fantasy begun to blur together with predictably catastrophic consequences.

Withers made two other films with Robert Hamer at Ealing, most significantly the ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment of their famous portmanteau horror Dead of Night, released some two years before Sunday. Once again, the theme is repression, a mirror acting as a conduit between an exotic fantasy world and mundane reality: Withers plays Joan, about to be married to her fiancee Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), and who one day buys for him as a present an antique mirror. Note in the still below that when we initially see the mirror, the ‘real’ couple in the foreground are out of focus, instead inviting us to view the pair separated by the triptych frame in the reflection.

Ralph Michael and Googie Withers in Dead of Night (1945)

At this early stage in the narrative, the mirror has no other function than to illustrate visually the suggestion of possible emotional distance between the two characters, something which will be developed further when the mirror’s supernatural properties manifest themselves and Peter finds himself unable to see his fiancee’s reflection at all, as well as crystallizing his paranoia about his bride-to-be and her relationship with her ‘friend’  with whom he suspects she is having an affair. Yet as the story progresses, the mirror motif comes to take on a second main function, namely that of underscoring an overall sense of  the couple’s bourgeois complacency. Although we are in a different, more affluent social milieu to that of the couple in It Always Rains on Sunday, the mise en scene of the segment is again one of drab domesticity. The houses in which they live are shown to be cold, sterile, ordered places of social propriety, while the visions which Peter has in the mirror are in direct opposition, exuding warmth and a seductive exoticism.

Ralph Michael in Dead of Night (1945)

Here, as with It Always Rains on Sunday, is the mirror’s trap: the promise of an exotic fantasy world as an escape from the dissatisfaction of drab domesticity, but one which ultimately leads to destruction. So too is there a temporal element – just as Sunday‘s mirror allowed its protagonist to hark back to the past, Peter’s fantastic vision of a Georgian bedchamber, while not of his own past and thus not strictly a flashback, is one rooted in times gone by, with the accompanying suggestion that the idealized values, mores and hierarchy of a past time are what he, and perhaps many other socially conservative backwards-looking Britons, wish their lives and their country could return to.

Hamer’s other film with Googie Withers, the Victorian-era melodrama Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), makes much less use of the mirror motif, though there are occasional glimpses: in one scene David Sutton (Gordon Jackson), in a slight echo of the Dead of Night still above, fusses over his appearance and is chastised by his sister Victoria (Jean Ireland), who states, “I can’t think what’s come over you lately David. You do nothing but fiddle with your necktie and look at yourself in mirrors“.

Gordon Jackson in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

It is, for the most part, a throwaway scene though gains greater weight when considered in the light of Hamer’s preoccupations: David is the son of repressive patriarch Edward Sutton (Mervyn Johns), the local chemist whose life centres on very Victorian notions of order and discipline (elegantly underlined by the film’s title, a reference to the overly fussy way he ties up his customers’ parcels). David’s increasing attention to his sartorial presentation is seen as an attempt to break free from these moral strictures and become a ‘man about town’, but one which is repeatedly crushed by his father tyranny which leads him, in an act of defiance, to frequent the raucously wanton confines of the local pub, in effect functioning as the film’s exotic otherworldly mirror plane. There, he meets the landlord’s wife Pearl (Googie Withers again) and becomes embroiled in a murder plot: once again, the mirror’s alluring promises leads to destruction. As a sidenote, Withers at one stage is caught in the reflection in a mirror, just before the film’s dramatic peak here:

Googie Withers in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

Another example of Hamer’s striking use of mirrors occurs in The Long Memory (1952); though ostensibly centred on John Mills’ character Phillip Davidson and his quest to hunt down the people who lied at his trial and caused him to have to spend 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the real interest is in the sub-plot between his former lover Fay Driver (Elizabeth Sellars) and her relationship with her policeman husband Bob Lowther (once again, John McCallum). As Davidson closes in, Bob becomes increasingly cognizant of the possibility that his wife perjured herself all those years ago and that she has been hiding the truth from him ever since. As with It Always Rains on Sunday, a criminal past comes back to shatter domestic equilibrium (significantly with McCallum on the right side of the law in this case), and truth and fantasy collide with inevitable catastrophe. Hamer again frames the couple in a mirror’s reflection, visually forcing together two characters who are actually physically, and emotionally, far apart:

Elizabeth Sellars and John McCallum in The Long Memory (1952)

Mirrors then, for Hamer, are used as a device to illustrate divisions, disconnections between characters whose emotions are separated into the realm of fantasy, whether as a result of domestic repression or self-deceit, but regardless have already set them irrevocably on the road towards self-destruction. In 1949 Hamer made a film called The Spider and the Fly, which takes its name from the 1829 poem by Mary Howitt, a cautionary tale which warns of the alluring deceptiveness of surface appearances and the allure of the exotic unknown. For Hewitt, like Hamer, the mirrored reflection is the most untrustworthy of images, within which may find us deceiving ourselves the most.

“Sweet creature!” said the Spider, “you’re witty and you’re wise,

How handsome are your gauzy wings, how brilliant are your eyes!

I’ve a little looking-glass upon my parlour shelf,

If you’ll step in one moment, dear, you shall behold yourself.”

2012 Tweet Review Round-up

Sara Paxton in The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011, USA)

21 JUMP STREET (B+) Amiability marred by misplaced crassness, but smart & witty throughout, reflexively subverting teen movie tropes with aplomb

ALPS (C+) Lanthimos’ rigorous sphere of morbid social dysfunction here feels an admirable folly; reflexivity mildly enlivens lethargy

AMOUR (B+/A-) Humanity, and Haneke, stripped bare. Unfliching, insidiously horrifying, unimpeachably performed, tho restraint borders on passivity

THE AVENGERS (A-) Assembly instructions: slot sub-franchises [B]-[E] into film [A]; glue together with wit, warmth & visual flair. Nailed it.

BARBARA (A) Profoundly moral yet never pedagogic and, unlike ‘Others’, oppression by gesture& suggestion powerfully, insidiously devastating

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (B-) Strikingly hermetic, appropriately ramshackle world-building, muscularity drowning out creaky Malickisms

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (A-) Warm, affectionate meta-cinematic glow dissolves into Polanskian purgatory between reality & art. Mesmerizing.

BOMBAY BEACH (B+/A-) The messy underweave of the American social tapestry. Visually elegant, disarmingly non-judgemental, quietly remarkable

CABIN IN THE WOODS (B+) A cellarful of meta-chuckles, though setup leaves some awkward problems which the script only partially resolves

CARNAGE (C+) Fizzingly acrid chamber farce a shoo-in for the arch misanthrope Polanski, but as cine spectacle becomes increasingly wearisome

CHRONICLE (B+) Found footage gripes aside, a relentlessly entertaining tranchette of teen super-hijinks, flying while grounded in reality

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’

A DANGEROUS METHOD (C-) A welcome mischief sometimes undercuts semi-serious façade, but ideas too inchoate, central conflict too stagnant

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (B+) Most satisfying of the three: a thrilling leap, inadequate only in terms of its own (impossibly?) lofty ambitions

DREDD (C-) Nails its heads-a-poppin’ aesthetic, but script, narrative and scope naggingly unsatisfying, carrying the air of a TV series pilot

ELENA (A-) Pulsating, fastidious ice-cold noir & dissection of Russian society, elegantly camouflaged beneath surface of glacial mundanity

THE GIANTS (B-) Beguiling hard edged boys own fantasy; freewheeling/lackadaisical (to taste), unassumingly génial, delightfully performed

GRABBERS (B-) Hugely endearing Irish small town creature feature, delicately genre savvy & a great paean to the joys of getting pissed

THE GREY (D+) Marooned between existential hardship drama and creature feature, sadly unwilling to acknowledge own crescendoing silliness

LE HAVRE (B+) More colourful comings-and-goings in Akiland, with a dash of Pierre Etaix & a warmth which embraces like a salty sea breeze

HOLY MOTORS (A-), or “Faces Without an I”? Barmy mélange of cine amuses-bouches, deftly juggling notions of performance, spectacle & self

THE INNKEEPERS (A-) Smartly keeps its scares rooted in the subjective, but it’s the warm, endearing characters which persist in the memory

INTO THE ABYSS (B-/C+) Compelling subject matter, grand themes, but strangely feels a minor Herzog: too much respect, not enough Werner

IRON SKY (F) Limited resources no excuse for this level of all-round incompetence. Concept shorn of laughs, satire already horribly dated

ISN’T ANYONE ALIVE (C-/D+) Playful anti-genre mischief surgically undercuts apocalypse expectations & pathos; fleetingly amusing but jejeune

JOHN CARTER (B+) Derivative, yes, but still hugely enjoyable romping fare, directed with storytelling nous & wit. Who cares how much it cost?

THE KID WITH A BIKE (B-) Brightly-hued, dark-edged fairytale, landing between Bresson & De Sica. Energetic, but nagglingly Dardennes-lite

LAWLESS (D+) Aimless, listless jumble of incongruities. Rompishness amuses but never stirs, punctuated bursts of violence an affectation

LOOPER (C+/B-) Entertaining enough knotty yarn, admirably freewheeling in its storytelling, but overstuffed with billowing, under-developed threads

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (C+) Moody, meritorious, meticulous but ultimately meritricious. Fragmentary structure renders material oddly inert

THE MASTER (B+) Eschews straight dialectics for murkier blurs. Enigmatic rope-a-doping deliberately estranges, heavier punches hit hard

MOONRISE KINGDOM (B-) Further variations on familiar themes; younger leads a reinvigoration, partially puncturing shell of meticulousness

NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT (A-) Plaintive, yet wonder-filled meditation on overlap between the corporeal & the cosmic; unpretentious, sublime.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (A-) A sprawling miniature, elegaic & comic; pick as much from the twined contradictions as you wish

OUTPOST: BLACK SUN (D+) Technically adept, if chronically under-lit, but story’s a bore; flavourless characters had me rooting for the Nazis

THE POSSESSION (C+) Polished studio product, no more or less. Ditches early character work for derivative, predictable hokum

PROMETHEUS (B-) An odd beast, jarringly swivelling between the hokey and grandiose, but entertains more & more as it slowly shows its hand

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (B+) Garishly compelling, yet locates pathos & humanity amidst capitalist grotesquery, trumping Inside Job’s didactisism

[REC]³ GENESIS (B-) No idea what, if anything, defines the franchise any more, but this was great, ribald taffeta-clad fun

RUST & BONE (B-) Remain unconvinced by Audiard’s worthy Melotrash material, but performances & corporeal blend of the tender & visceral are stirring

SAMSARA (D+) Yes, a feast for the retinas, but for the brain it’s undernourishing; synthesis of imagery feels cumulatively trite& sophomoric

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (C+) After the (cold) fact doc sluggish out of the blocks, though slow reveal eventually yields ANVIL-like poignancy

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (D+) Staid, sophomoric meta-ness wearisome, causing gags to fall flat. Outer narrative shell dull cf scripts-within-script

SHAME (C+) Technical virtuosity is dazzling, but wanton meticulousness blunts material. Too much glistening surface, not enough murky depth

SINISTER (B-/C+) Throws its net wide, pecking corn like the metaphorical blind hen, though with surprising frequency. Effective sound, Hawke classy

SWANDOWN (B-) Psychogeographical search for confluence between Herzog & Jerome K Jerome. Fleetingly piquant, but poignancy punctures whimsy

TABU (A) History as memories of a papered-over, near-mythical past. Upshift into swooning reverie of Nerudan yearning a minor miracle

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (C-) Alice Cooper in the Cities? Penn’s oddball perf a grower; pathos, ideas & momentum all frustratingly staccato

TINY FURNITURE (B-) Hardly revelatory, but ample flashes of drollery & pathos. Painfully well-observed and – crucially – never feels vain

TOWER BLOCK (C+) Frantic LIFEBOAT-meets-Broken-Britain setup, better before moralizing & explanations. Cutaways to gunman a misfire

THE TURIN HORSE (A-) Precise, rhythmic four-beat gait hypnotic, bearing this heaviest of burdens; allegories near-parodic, yet tantalising

W.E. (D-) Lacklustre, ill-conceived, though not the outright catastrophe I expected. Still, a poor man’s Sofia Coppola is a poor man indeed

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012, C+) Ornate, serviceable retread. DR can’t hack backstory heft but gleeful relentlessness of jumpy second act a plus

YOUNG ADULT (B+/A-) Smartly reduces bunny-boiling down to a gentle simmer, steaming off credulity but thickening the delicious character darkness