June 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I concur with Quentin Tarantino’s impression of Brillante Mendoza’s eighth feature film and second Cannes entry, Kinatay, as expressed by the American filmmaker in this bit of collegial correspondence scribbled in red ink on hotel stationery during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino applauds Mendoza’s dedication to the experiential perspective of the film’s lead character, Peping; praises the under-exposed, grainy depiction of horror that characterises the latter two-thirds of the film, and the relative anti-drama of the whole affair. That Tarantino, king of immaculately aestheticised violence, would praise a peer for practically being his antithesis is indeed of interest, but his appreciation of Mendoza’s approach was nonetheless shared by that year’s Cannes Jury, who awarded the Filipino filmmaker the Prix de la mise-en-scene for Best Director. At the risk of defending a picture that I don’t particularly care for, I must say that I do not necessarily contest their decision. Kinatay displays a certain clarity of purpose, a quality which few similarly grim and confronting pictures can consistently claim to have achieved with any degree of success. Whether Mendoza’s artistic purpose in turn serves a broader cultural or political purpose is where the debate might rapidly become a losing battle for those in the ‘pro’ camp. Inspired by the actual experiences of a young police academy recruit, Kinatay follows a newly-wed trainee whose part-time dealings with a crew of dirty cops ostensibly turns into a full-time contract when he is made a witness and peripheral accomplice to the belly-turning murder of a prostitute called Madonna. Beginning with Peping’s very low-key, good-natured daytime wedding, the first ‘act’ of the film ends with a fade-out of the setting sun after which his nightmare commences. It’s an obvious visual pun, as if to imply that the sun is also setting on Peping’s moral and spiritual freedom. Roger Ebert famously declared Kinatay to be the worst film ever selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, a claim which smacks of hyperbole despite my reservations about the movie. The late (and largely great) critic accused Mendoza of ideological bludgeoning, but could not quite articulate – in this piece – what this ‘Idea’ was and is. Frankly, neither can I. As a cautionary tale warning of the immense gravitational pull of crime on those in its orbit, Kinatay had me quietly promising myself that I would never associate with any individuals who exude even one percent of the malice and soul-blunted disregard for life exhibited by the on-screen killers. Without a doubt, such individuals live and breathe in their unfortunate communities, and similar crimes have in fact plagued Mendoza’s turf, let alone the wider world. But is a film like Kinatay what it takes to galvanise public awareness of and outrage at law enforcers who not only fail to uphold safety but who in fact actively propagate social degeneration? Who amongst us is not all too aware that violence and barbarism exists, and that death can arrive with shocking suddenness, even for those who dance with it on a daily basis to the point of feeling somewhat immune? Perhaps Kinatay is simply the result of a filmmaker translating a captivating story to screen in a manner which seemed – to him – most appropriate. If anything, Mendoza’s picture is at least an unapologetic alternative to the glut of cinema that seeks to extract entertainment from the gutters of human behaviour; a cinema at the centre of which sits the likes of…my beloved Basic Instinct?
May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
1974 belonged to Bob Clark, the same way it did Francis Ford Coppola who unleashed his cross-hook combo of “The Godfather II” and “The Conversation” that very same year. Of course, no one can and should ever discount the fact that milestone works from Fassbinder, Polanksi, Casavettes and a whole host of greats also hit the cinematic landscape at this time, but 1974 really did belong to American writer-director Bob Clark (in his own independent way) who released two bona fide gems of the horror genre within the same twelve month period: the most notable precursor to Carpenter’s “Halloween” – Black Christmas” – and “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night.” To cut directly to the chase and save the preamble for later, these two independently made horror films are striking for their attention to character and performance, quite possibly made clearer when one considers that horror films as a whole have a tendency towards the archetypal if not the stereotypic, and a greater focus on mechanics and raw function than on nuance. Watching “Black Christmas” years back, the generosity afforded both the characters on the page and the actors on the set strongly emanated from the screen. While the spine-tingling threat of a killer is painted with low-budget virtuosity from the get-go (utilising the kind of POV shot that would later achieve greater fame in Carpenter’s “Halloween” for the smoothness and assurance of its glide), on equally clear display is Bob Clark’s interest in the social and emotional dynamics of the sorority house on which the unseen killer has set his sights. Now, while he – Clark, that is – may have invested so much time in creating brief but telling portraits of the film’s main characters in order to establish a degree of human cost to the massacre that is about to occur, films as great as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been able to effectively inflict very affecting violence on characters that are largely spare, daresay ‘functional,’ in the way that they are drawn. But the thing that writer-director Clark does with his characters in “Black Christmas,” with his actors specifically, is inject a certain loose-limbed freedom into the performances which may or may not heighten the intensity of the kills, but which would most certainly be joyous for a viewer who craves but doesn’t expect to see such character nuance in an American independent horror film. Well, it turns out that what Clark achieves in “Black Christmas” he also achieves in “Deathdream,” his Vietnam era – quite possibly anti-war – ‘zompire’ (or ‘vambie’) movie.
In the opening sequence of “Deathdream” private Andy Brooks (played very curiously but somewhat perfectly by Richard Backus) is shown being gunned to death while on duty in Vietnam, only to turn up on the doorstep of his family’s home in suburban Brooksville, Florida (where the movie was shot) to the ecstatic relief of a delusional-from-fear mother, the mildly sceptical surprise of a collectedly impatient father, the stunned acceptance of his sister, and the varied responses of everyone else that he once knew in his seemingly close-knit hometown. Mentioning that he is somewhat changed would be a superfluous downplaying of the events that unfold in this barebones picture, but it would also be unnecessarily evasive not to acknowledge that “Deathdream” is a (perhaps knowingly) obvious exploration of the effect that war has on the social fabric of a family, a community, a nation. But it may also raise the question: ‘is there – [was there] – something about the Vietnam War in particular that makes it – [made it] – especially toxic on a social level?’ Lynn Carlin as Christine Brooks is probably the most archetypal character in the film, the kind of movie mother who seems to love her son more than she does her daughter in a weirdly doting way that hints at Freudian-via-Greek Mythology sexuality. If one were inclined to add an extra layer of supernaturalism to the film, they could claim that Christine’s pathological belief that Andy is alive somehow contributes to the juju or what-have-you that ends up zombifying him. In sharp contrast to her is John Marley as Andy’s father, Charles, himself a WWII veteran who seems to have been already prepared for the loss of a son, only to be ironically thrown by the fact that his son is not only returned, but changed. One of the film’s sharpest lines comes when Charles’s frustration at Andy’s zombie-like taciturnity and newfound ability to murder a small animal he once loved dearly as a pet comes to a head. When he returned from his blood-soaked military service, Charles states, he might’ve changed a touch but not even close to Andy’s level of dysfunction and sociopathy! It’s interesting to consider the slew of post-Vietnam films released in the seventies and early eighties, pictures predicated on the idea that Vietnam ruined servicemen and servicewomen somewhat irreparably, and to then compare these to the post-war American film landscape of the 1940s and 1950s. It might be fair to assert that post-WWII American cinema was more focused on new threats (those of possible future nuclear warfare, communism and the Cold War) than it was on decrying the horrors of WWII. While noir filmmakers found ways to express the fatalism and nihilism that the war’s dance with depravity/death-by-millions may have injected into the American psyche as a whole, there isn’t an overwhelming sense in those pictures that WWII destroyed a generation so much as aged them prematurely, by decades. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that that war had a degree of moral justification, at least in a way that Vietnam couldn’t take a torch to. Consider, then, films as mainstream as “Taxi Driver” and “The Deer Hunter” which directly draw causative links between Vietnam service and the psychoemtional decay of their central characters. Perhaps there was a sense that the war waged in French Indochina, due to the ambiguity of its aims and its questionable justifications, killed everyone who served in it (at least from an American perspective) be it physically or psychologically; either way, whether you returned home in a casket or multi-medalled in the backseat of a car, you were dead, dead to your old self and those you once knew and who once knew you. This may all sound overly hyperbolic, but this is exactly the source of drama from which Clark and his collaborators appear to have drawn while making “Deathdream” and making it work like a well-restored old engine.
The hints of knowing villainy underlying Andy is at first a little disconcerting, as though Buack’s performance is misguided, and for a while it might feel this way. Andy almost appears to take perverse pleasure in quietly disturbing those that are trying so hard (to varying degrees) to accommodate his return, whether by attempting to surreptitiously rehabilitate him or by openly accepting that he is broken but at no fault of his own. The speech he makes to the family doctor, Dr Allman, suggests that Andy is somehow punishing if not simply spiting the society that forcefully sent him off to die. It’s only when this scene is contrasted with the film’s closing moments that the true anguish at the core of the film’s ‘protagonist’ comes to the fore, hauntingly expressed on a remarkably well made-up face that must surely stand as one of the most effective instances of creature cosmetics in the independent horror canon if not further afield. Andy, like the best film fiends, is as much a victim of himself as are the people from whom he drains blood, a victim of his newfound bloodthirst, of the guilt he might feel for playing a part in a potentially unjust war and the concurrent rage he feels towards the nation that would think to place him in such a position. Like Travis Bickle and company, Andy is painfully confused and conflicted, and the fact that he – like them – reconciles these emotions by developing a destructive and misanthropic worldview, rife with contradictions, is precisely what makes him so unpredictably dangerous, and unexpectedly, sympathetically sad.
From a monster mythology standpoint, “Deathdream” is wholly unique, hence the neologisms (zompire and vambie) used earlier. Like the titular character in George A. Romero’s downright vampire masterpiece “Martin,” Andy is not the elegantly invincible ghoul of the Dracula lineage but a surprisingly wretched and decidedly human species of undead, one who obtains his sanguine sustenance by messily killing people and injecting himself with blood like a junkie, which may mean that “Deathdream” is some sort of a precursor to Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” if not a direct influence. Is Andy a vampire, or is he a zombie? Like most vampires he is a blood parasite who seems to hunt at night. But, like Martin, he is not particularly affected by sunlight, and the lifeless, automatoid way he behaves and moves (often swinging menacingly back and forth in a rocking chair in a way that resembles Sam Neill’s character in Zulawski’s “Possession”) imply that he is a walking dead man. While overall evidence might skew more towards him being a vampire than a zombie seeing as zombies tend to lack any appreciable level of sentience, the fact that Andy’s ghoul-lineage is not as plainly clear as the vast majority of creature-feature horror films is part of what makes “Deathdream” so damn distinctive. Maybe Bob Clark decided to focus on a different kind of entity driven by pain, alienation and a sense of being wronged by the society for which they were willing to sacrifice everything: the Vietnam Vet.
March 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
‘The attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue.’
So state the final words of the texted epilogue that brings Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 film to a somewhat lumpy-throated close. The movie’s last real ‘beat’ (screenplay terminology for a moment of emotional, thematic or narrative significance) arrives seconds before the aforementioned coda and shows single mother Carla Moran (played excellently and with force and commitment by the admittedly always forceful-looking Barbara Hershey) being told by the spectral malevolence that has been tormenting her and her children, ‘welcome home, cunt’. She responds to this obviously male-sounding guttural utterance with a resolute but pained smile, as though she has prepared herself for a future in which she will always and indefinitely be at risk of being violated but is determined to lives as normal and happy a life as she possibly can in spite of it all. Paired with the previously quoted sentence, “The Entity” could probably be read in several ways: as a lament for the reality that male-against-female sexism and violence is still alive and kicking (as much in 1982 as is depressingly the case in 2015); that sexual exploitation can still hide in plain sight; or it could be an expression of the fact that an art form that has for so long seemed to take perverse pleasure in subjecting female characters to the physical and emotional wringer will continue to do so if only for the fact that art reflects human experience and that this kind of human experience shows little sign of becoming ancient history. Of course, it could also be reminder of the fact that there are individuals and families out there – wherever ‘there’ is – who have been and may still continue to be victimised by forces that few can corroborate, fewer can explain and from which nobody can truly protect them at present, as may be the case with Doris Bither and her family, wherever they are. All three readings are dire, either in themselves or by implication, and it would take a pathologically glass-half-full kind of person to find any satisfying element of positivity in this final statement, that ‘the attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue’
Carla Moran is the fictionalised version of the aforementioned Doris Bither, a single mother and resident of mid-seventies Culver City, California, who was the main focus of relentless emotional and sexual violence at the hands of unseen forces (poltergeists?) and whose life and home were at one time subject to the gadgets and psychobabble of paranormal investigations before she upped and moved to Texas where, as the coda states, the occurrences failed to cease if they did abate to some extent. Hershey’s Moran is doing what she can to move up in the world, ‘up’ being a better job and the ability to make rent on time, for example. She is a character of will, with a decent store of pride and a sense of self. There is also significance to the fact that she is attractive because this informs the way in which her interaction with the men in her life comes across on screen, which is to say somewhat seedily and furtively sexualised, from her boyfriend Jerry to her paternalistic, potentially boundary-crossing psychiatrist Sneiderman. Unfortunately and out-of-the-blue, as is the case with Doris, Carla finds herself being held down and raped in the supposed safety of her own bedroom, in her bathroom, in her living room and in the presence of her children who themselves are not off bounds as is certainly not the house, the windows and everything in it. The most frightening thing about the events depicted in this film is the force of the violence and the strange sense that this force, this entity, wants Carla to suffer, to be scared, to be ever uncertain of her safety. Her ghostly assailant evokes the same eerily oppressive male rage that emanates from drunken football hooligans out for opponents’ blood or inarticulate mobs of men who seem to be out to destroy simply because they must, a phenomenon explored chillingly in a masterpiece like “Wake in Fright.” In fact, for a certain portion of this film, “The Entity,” the possibility of the perpetrator actually being human, or that Carla is suffering post-traumatic symptoms from previous or ongoing acts of violation, still looms. Maybe director Furie and Co had decided to adopt an expressionistic approach in order to suggest that sexual violence is more about the violence than the sexual contact between two people, more about the horrific impact on the victim than the mechanics of the act. There is also the fact that these atrocities could just as easily be committed by an individual or group of individuals who decide to break into her house for one purpose only. In this sense, the film is most effective as a communicator of horror in its earlier moments when the focus is on Carla’s violation, confusion and fear as opposed to its subsequent fascination with electrical discharges, demonic apparitions and micro-gales that explode through homes; the horror is most potent when its basis is in the reality that any woman, any child, maybe even any man, could find themselves violated in the place that they naturally feel most safe. It’s the same reason “Psycho” hit such a nerve back in 1960, preventing travellers from checking into lonely motels or utilising said motels’ showers. As with most films from the genre, the ever present desire of filmmakers to eternalise the source of danger and the root of fear only works to diminish the significance of these things.
This of course leads to the question ‘what is there to be gained in witnessing the silly and exploitative sight of Carla Moran’s prosthetic breasts being fondled by invisible hands, especially once the rapes have already been so powerfully represented with much less explicitness?’ One can probably understand the filmmakers’ desire to prove to an audience, as well as to Carla’s flaky boyfriend Jerry, that these acts are in fact the result of a supernatural presence, and to show off their effects chops which may or may not have been lacking even by 1982 standards. Maybe if the effects were themselves less obviously fake it wouldn’t seem as though the film were making light of something that is inherently heavy. To give credit where credit is due though, on the whole, each incident does bear some sense of significance, narrative or otherwise, and it can’t really be said that the depictions of these are generally gratuitous (it’s always sad when the quality of something is based more on the absence of demerit than on the presence of merit.) As for the men in the film, the range of portrayals is not as caricatured as some might make out. While the supernatural and initially unprovable nature of Carla’s attacks is a nifty way to acknowledge the culture of denial and victim-blame that exists where violence against women is concerned, there are men in the film who seem to be on Carla’s side even if their interests range from scientific conquest to establishing the superiority of their supposedly rational understanding of the world. Dr Sneiderman, the psychiatrist who loses Carla’s trust as the film progresses, is of particular interest. When he first appears on the scene in a hospital consulting room after Carla is nearly murdered in her own car, there is a slimy awkwardness to his very doctorly matter-of-fact questioning. It’s a first impression the character cannot overcome and it simply creates the sense that, belying his obsession with helping Carla and ensuring that her ‘delusions’ are not fed into by the parapsychological researchers that set up shop in her home, he is somehow attracted to her or at least to the fact that he knows so much about her sexual experiences. He quickly becomes the face of chauvinism, a man whose good intentions hardly conceal his desire to dominate emotionally and psychologically, one of which he himself may not be completely aware. To risk being sensationalist, Sneiderman could be seen as the titular entity’s human co-perpetrator, only that he is more focused on exerting emotional power though much less successful at it than his phantom counterpart.
In general “The Entity” is a pretty good film, maybe even a touch underrated, but it has some nagging problems, the most disappointing aspect of all being Furie’s decision to go ‘big’ towards the end such that ‘the entity’ comes across more and more as some sort of hulking gargoylish demon, which in a strange way negates the gender elements or at least files them down to a small pile of dust which can nonetheless get into one’s eyes and cause fits of coughing and sneezing. While one might blame this Michael Bay move on a culture that began – from only a few years prior to this film’s production – to overvalue flashing lights, big noises and mayhem over subtle thrills, there is the creeping sense that the ‘demonisation’ of the entity was a conscious effort to prevent the movie from seeming like a feminist or anti-male statement or at least to steer away from as much of a political reading as possible, which ironically makes the film seem only more exploitative: ‘woman fondled and raped…by cantankerous fantastical fiend!’ when the fact is that violence of a sexual bent is much more likely to be perpetrated by a woman’s father, her partner, a workmate, or the guy she thought was a friend. It’s simply disingenuous for a film to take as its premise the real-life story of Doris Bither, only to decide halfway that it is unwilling to tread the inevitable political minefield. Funnily, in attempting to run away, Furie and friends end up stepping on a whole lot of mines.
February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s crime procedural, released in 1997, would make for the perfect subject in a debate that seeks to determine how exactly a thriller differs from a horror film and which of these two genres “Cure” fits into. Any adjudicator with a lick of sense would be biased in favour of it being a horror film for whatever the label is worth, but humour both sides for a moment:
Those in favour of “Cure” being a thriller might argue that ‘the horror genre is exactly as it states, a genre; and what is a genre but a compendium of conventions and tropes which one can chose to adhere to or which one can choose to subvert? The point being that these conventions form the core of a genre and must be observed, whichever fork one ultimately decides to go down creatively. Many films contain moments that chill, that frighten, that disgust, that haunt, but does this make them all horror films? Could every film that contains a humorous scene or two be reasonably labelled as a comedy? For this reason, any film that hopes to be considered a genuine entry in the horror genre must adhere to this genre’s chief criteria, one of these being that the primary aim of the film should be to evoke the fear response (which in itself can be tricky to prove), and another being that the premise must involve a classic element of horror. Murder is not a classic element of horror, nor is crime in general, or blood, or fear. Actions and themes are not elements of the horror genre, entities are. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, demons, witches, goblins, gremlins, assorted monsters…all the traditional expressions of humanity’s desire to comes to terms with a malevolent universe. Then there is the modern era of horror where humanity itself can be a representation and extension of said universe, being inexplicably wicked in ways that make it – make us – seem supernatural or abnormal: serial killers, tyrants and sadists, and remnants of the occult. Now, this is not to say that a film like “Schindler’s List” does not depict unspeakable horrors, but the central entity is far too diffuse and pervasive, systemic, despite stemming from one misguided, mustachioed mind belonging to perhaps the one human being closest to attaining the status of supernatural monstrosity. Which is why a film like Dreyer’s “Vampyr” at which and during which many contemporary audiences would probably find themselves yawning and falling asleep is technically a horror picture whereas a film like “Blue Velvet”, while it can cause the heart to race and the mouth to go dry, is probably more of a thriller. Frank Booth may be crazier and more violent than the original on-screen Nosferatu, but he’s ultimately just a scary gangster who’s into rough stuff and kinky shit.
In response to the above, those in favour of “Cure” being a horror film would argue that ‘the aim of a horror film should not be to simply scare but to evoke horror, and that scares can be and often are momentary while horror can and often does linger far longer. Where fear will trigger the sympathetic response of a galloping heart, a peaking blood pressure, dilated pupils and cold sweating, horror works on a more intellectual level, affecting and informing one’s worldview and emotional landscape long after the instance of acute terror has been and gone. There probably was a time when people lived in dread of supernatural entities, but for modern society, horror art only truly came into being when that which presented itself in the pages of books and on screen dragged itself out of the theatre and into people’s homes; when the focus of fear was not on that which most people believed to be hocus pocus but on that which everyone was aware could be very well living around, with, or within them. Is “The Shining” horrific because of the elevator gushing with blood or the vision of the two dead twins in the hallway, or is it a touchstone of modern horror cinema because it hammers home the idea that you could be married to ‘evil’ or fathered by it? In the same way, “Cure”, ostensibly a police procedural that follows Tokyo Detective Takabe and his psychiatrist colleague Sakuma as they endeavour to solve a spate of seemingly ritualistic murders committed by a disparate array of perpetrators, none of whom can remember let alone explain their terrible actions, finds its horror in domesticity, in the drab, the daily and the usual. The investigation eventually leads to an enigmatic and apparently amnesic young man who may or may not be inciting these murders by hypnotic suggestion. Silly as the premise might sound, the approach taken by Kurosawa ensures that any skepticism regarding the plot’s plausability are kept at bay during the film’s runtime, and by the time the end credits roll and one begins picking apart whatever improbabilities and inconsistencies might exist, the creeping horror that the film creates would have already seeped into the subconscious and began working at it. So while it might take the shape of a thriller structurally and visually and adopt the pace of a psychological drama, “Cure” is probably more worthy of being labelled a horror film than the 101 so-calleds that seem to premiere every month, trashy pictures featuring cheap scares and gratuitous gore that will barely trouble the soul once the popcorn tub hits the bottom of the bin at the theatre exit.’
As previously stated, a sensible adjudicator would give the victory to the latter. But why? What is the horror that “Cure” evokes and why is it so potent? The fact is this: while Kurosawa’s movie contains images that may very well belong in a horror film – faces being peeled of skin and a disturbing mummified monkey – most of it is generously paced and photographed in a stately manner and with an autumnal palette. But it is this very gentleness that gives the film its pervasive sense of dread, the sense that violence is not always cognizant of its existence, like a wolf in sheepskin that thinks it’s actually a sheep. If these murders are being incited by a process of hypnotism, and if they are always carried out against individuals that bear some significance to the perpetrator, what deep, untapped reserves of rage exist within even the most benign-seeming individuals? An elementary schoolteacher, a general practitioner, a low level cop…folks who would be generally considered average, by-the-by people are shown here to harbour feelings so deep and so malevolent that even they may not be aware of these until they manifest in the act of killing. But the horror is not so much that any old person could, out of the blue, pick up a knife and carve a giant ‘X’ into their partner’s throat, but that subterranean deposits of resentment exist at all; that they are there regardless of whether or not they ever show themselves. An early moment in the film touches on this: while picking up his dry cleaning, Detective Takabe finds himself standing next to a man who is muttering angrily, violently to himself – totally unaware of Takabe beside him – only to switch on a dime, almost unaware, and politely receive his dry-cleaning with a smile and genuine-seeming word of gratitude. How aware is this man of this rage within him, and if so, how much does he know about it? Does he have the slightest inkling what he may or may not be capable of?
The young man, Mamiya, who is likely at the centre of this strange homicidal ‘movement’ keeps asking people who they are. At first it seems that his amnesia is the cause of this until it becomes clear that the question is partly rhetorical and wholly existential. Most people appear to be thrown by the question, as though it is something they have never ventured to consider. Perhaps herein lies the true horror: the idea that one can live with someone by virtue of being that very person while not knowing even the tiniest bit about them, being completely unaware of that which informs their behaviour and their thoughts and that which slowly eats away at their souls. The way in which “Cure” paints this picture is subtly terrifying. It could be said that the film’s final stretch leans a little too heavily on elliptical storytelling as a way to utterly disconcert viewers emotionally, leaving them to wonder whether or not Mamiya has somehow found a way to plant murder in the minds of Takabe and/or Sakuma. Kurosawa should perhaps have trusted more in the robustness of his film’s psychological pull, but even if “Cure” makes a misstep or two in the last ten or so minutes, the very final shot finds the heart trampolining briefly up into the throat. Where a person could easily watch a zombie movie, yelp a handful of times and walk out into the night completely relaxed and not in the least bit jumpy, it would be kind of surprising for someone to walk away from “Cure” without feeling even vaguely unwell.
January 21, 2015 § Leave a comment
One thing that stands out most sharply in this roundly outstanding film is how fine the performances are, all of them. Peaking with the delicately restrained flamboyance Niall MacGinnis gives as [apparent] cult leader Dr Karswell and finding its thematic and emotional grounding in Dana Andrews’ equally disciplined turn as a thinking man hanging desperately to his rationality, the acting in this 1957 British production directed by the masterly French-born American Jacques Tourneur is largely the reason for the film’s success, if not as a fright fest by contemporary standards then as a work of psychological horror by any standard. Mercifully limiting explicit depictions of the titular demon to two scenes that bookend the picture (the latter being probably more effective than the earlier), the focal point of the horror at the heart of “Night of the Demon” – or perhaps more correctly, the dread – is not on the frightening physicality of a monstrous entity but on the oppressive ethereality of uncertainty; how doubting the cohesion of one’s understanding of reality may be – probably is – the root of fear and all that comes in its wake, be it superstition or intolerance, amongst others things. In fact, the palpability and power of the creeping anxiety that elevates “Night of the Demon” above most ‘horror’ pictures is directly tied to the protagonist’s utter allegiance to reason and rationality, because when cracks and fissures begin to appear in his conviction that everything can and does have a rational explanation, the one thing that ensures the viewer’s emotional security suddenly comes frightfully undone.
Two characters meet on a UK-bound flight and not under the best circumstances: one is fitfully trying to get some shuteye while the other, who simply can’t sleep, is keeping the former awake with her reading light. The sleepy one is somewhat famed psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews), on his way to attend a conference where fellow academic Professor Harrington is expected to present a psychological expose on the aforementioned Dr Karswell and the satanic cult he ring-leads. The reader on the other hand is Joanna Harrington, herself a psychology graduate turned schoolteacher and one burdened with the responsibility of making some sense of the bizarrely sudden death of her uncle, whose name and identity need not be spelt out at this point. Ms Harrington is played, by Peggy Cummins, with a seriousness that does not at all seem caricatured or stuffy even though there is every risk of it appearing so if only on account of her very proper British manner and speech, her insistent agnosticism and her almost reproving beauty. Whereas the pigheadedness that many film characters seem to display as they go poking about in dark and dangerous places is often frustratingly, cynically plot-driven, the aforementioned scene in the airplane – one which might appear pointless, even needlessly light and droll – establishes Joanna as a firmly and unapologetically inquisitive type; the type who would disturb fellow travellers with her reading light simply because her brain cannot stop working at however many thousand feet above the Atlantic she happens to be. And for the perceptive viewer who can foresee that these two transatlantic commuters will soon join unlikely forces, it must come as a very pleasant surprise to see that they do not end up falling helplessly in love, though it would not be at all unexpected if the conclusion of the movie marks the beginning of an off screen romance between the two. Dr John Holden – ‘of course’, one might add – does not shy away from putting forward the obligatory moves any warm-blooded heterosexual Fifties alpha bachelor protagonist would be expected to when faced with a pretty ally, and Joanna Harrington is not beyond playing along every so often, showing that she too wouldn’t mind a bit of loving. Yet, no hinted fornication, no steamy kiss, no declarations or even suggestions of love, just playful and fleeting expressions of carnal interest: this unbroken sexual tension is quite shockingly contemporary, even for today, one can’t help but feel.
Then there is Mr MacGinnis who, with his Pan-like pointy beard and temperate air of smarm, underplays – but only just, if indeed at all – Dr Karswell. Yes he is eccentric; one would have to be in order to head an occult society that warrants a widely publicised investigation, but he is not overly so. He behaves and speaks like a Bond villain who has not yet succumbed to self-parody, one who is complex enough to appreciate that his malevolence is really in service of self-preservation as opposed to plot-servicing megalomania. The sequence of scenes in which Harrington and Holden visit Karswell at his country estate – where he is entertaining local children with a magic act, dressed up as a somewhat demonic clown – is an example of how the actor offsets the garish and cartoonish with a somewhat naturalistic sense of the everyday and the benign, the result being the gentle dissemination of sinister vibes that aim to slowly work upon a viewer’s mind. The secondary effect of this theatrical realism that MacGinnis employs is that the vulnerability, fear and cowardice which are later revealed to be among Karswell’s primary driving forces make complete and utter sense. The cult leader’s underlying terror becomes retrospectively evident.
But most of all, Dana Andrews, in a performance that wouldn’t necessarily be called great, does exactly what a sharp actor should do: he appreciates the specific aspects of Holden’s worldview which would render him a perfect horror film protagonist and slowly attempts to instil in everyone around him, viewers in addition, the firm sense of security to which he prescribes. For a significant portion of “Night of the Demon” Dr Holden holds fast to his rationalist conviction in the provability of phenomena and the dangers of suggestibility. But even for a man as steadfastly non-superstitious as he, it only takes a seed of doubt to begin eroding at one’s entire sense of what is real, what is possible and what can or cannot be known let alone proven by scientific methods. By playing Holden as an almost arrogant skeptic who will suffer delusory nonsense only so much yet who has private, disquieting moments of uncertainty, Dana takes viewers by the hand, assures them that there are no such things as demons or bogeymen and leads them into a darkened forest, only to release his grip and make a run for it when the paranormal manifests itself, however momentarily. His very rigidity is what makes the moments of uncertainty so unsettling, not just for Holden as a character, but for the audience relying on him to maintain their sense of security. It’s comparable to a car that has no crumple zone or a skyscraper on the San Andreas Fault that isn’t designed to withstand earthquakes: even a minor shock will cause a wealth of damage. Then there is the moment in which Holden’s fear of death seems to completely bulldoze his wall of reason and he practically usurps a colleague’s hypnosis session with one of Karswell’s followers, a convicted murderer, hoping to learn something about an enigmatic parchment that may or may not have been used to lay a deadly curse on him. It is frankly thrilling.
It is unfair to belittle the effects employed to bring the demon to life, and it may very well have shocked little trickles of pee and poo into the pants of audiences back in 1957, but it would be hard pressed to have the same effect now. But luckily for “Night of the Demon”, its potency as a horror picture lies not in its SFX but in Holden and the spectacle of watching this presumed man of science let fear of the unknown and the unclear leak into him, one paranormal occurrence at a time.
November 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s difficult to view and appraise – without growing resentment – a film that is considered by some prominent critical voices (Jonathan Rosenbaum being chief amongst them) to be the or at least one of the crowning achievements in renowned B-picture producer Val Lewton’s relatively small but influential filmography. Said difficulty presents itself not too long after director Mark Robson’s “The Seventh Victim” hits its stride, if one can call it that – more like a slow, anergic trudge – and morphs into a resounding disappointment by the time the literally clunky final shot rolls around. The film is frequently noted for having a bizarre plot, an odd assessment of a narrative that can be synopsised thusly: high-schooler Mary Gibson (played by a serviceable Kim Hunter) goes in search of her death-wishing older sister Jaqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks looking very much like her surnamesake Louise Brooks), a cultist who has gone into hiding after evoking the bloodlust of her brethren by seeing a psychiatrist and possibly exposing their secrets. So plot-wise, this is no “The Big Sleep.” The film has also been praised for its noirish poetry though there is not one shot or sequence worth recalling, unless perhaps the creepy scene during which Mary Gibson re-encounters Lou Lubin’s dead detective in a deserted subway car, or the admittedly haunting shot of Jacqueline Gibson sitting in a chair, surrounded by black-clad ex-fellow Satanists, debating whether or not to commit suicide on their terms or on hers. Betsy Connell’s eerie jungle sojourn in “I Walked with a Zombie” and Alice Moore’s high-heeled jogs through chillingly empty New York City streets or her night-time pool swim in the brilliant “Cat People” evoke a thrilling and protracted sense of dread matched by nothing in “The Seventh Victim.” The soundscapes in the former two pictures, both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (for Val Lewton), are simply rich enough, detailed enough to complement the visual sparseness and simplicity that renders those films perfect for preying upon a viewer’s jumpy imagination. Conversely, “The Seventh Victim” seems somewhat deprived, as though the film begs that the viewer pretend to be terrified by the mystery of a missing woman or by the presence of the occult in Greenwich Village, rather than enticing them to give in to the terror that should already nag at them, incited by the contents of the movie itself. Where the best of the best B-grade horror productions from the forties and fifties – and all periods for that matter – circumvent their lack of funds/resources by turning want into ascetic efficiency and poetic minimalism and ensuring that silence and stillness manifest as resounding emotional disquiet, this 1943 film simply feels demoralised by its low-budget status.
“The Seventh Victim” seems to be frequently described within the same breath as being both a horror and a noir; perhaps a noirish horror or a horror noir? But where exactly does the horror reside? Assumedly, its credentials as a chiller are founded in its occult/supernatural leanings, but this picture desperately needs an injection of “Rosemary’s Baby” or even “The Wicker Man” where Satanism is concerned. The band of cultists at the centre of Jacqueline Gibson’s disappearance may be portrayed in the way that they are – refined in a callous way, bourgeoisie more than bohemian – in order to capitalise on the notion of ‘the banality of evil’; that these people are frightening precisely because they may very well be your folks’ lawyer or your aunt’s obstetrician but that they would also gladly feast on your dripping, severed neck (though they probably wouldn’t). This is exactly the case with “Rosemary’s Baby”, the only palpable dissimilarity being that there is a chasm of difference in the energy that the two respective groups of actors bring to their portrayals of ‘evil’ with an urbane face. This is not to say that every actor must dominate their scenes like Ruth Gordon does in Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece, but how can one be terrified by a tired band of tarot card enthusiasts – which is how Jacqueline Gibson’s mob come across, either this or the ‘passively’ powerful illuminati – or whatever demonic force it is that they represent, especially when their ineffectuality if confirmed in a hokey scene towards the end of the film in which the Lord’s Prayer is wielded like a paper sword against a dead adversary?
Maybe the noir angle is the most interesting element of the film, the depressive rut that Jacqueline seems to be in for the film’s entirety and which culminates in a final moment that so desperately wants to be bittersweet but which seems rather blah. It must be said that the idea of a key character who maintains a room with a noose and stool in place so as to maintain her sense of self-determination is worthy of sitting up and taking notice, and it is somewhat surprising to hear ‘suicide’ and similar terms bandied about with relative candidness in a picture from this period. One can only imagine that such a morbid outlook would have made hairs stand erect on the backs of neck and arms when the film first premiered, and that the deeply coy depictions of ‘sordid’ lifestyles and realities – lesbianism, the occult, suicidality and fatalism – would have made for a potentially potent stew of fear and dread in a then contemporary audience, but once this era-dependent effect is made redundant with time, the film must maintain its powers of terror on either an intellectual or a deeply primal level, or at the very least possess undeniable artistic merits, something that a film like “Cat People” does with such elegance and assurance.
The dismay this movie inspires is sadly not allayed by the acting. Jacqueline, when she appears, not only fails to live up to her apparently heart-stopping beauty but bears none of the eeriness of the titular character from Otto Preminger’s “Laura”, though it must be said that she is at least a moderately intriguing presence, the same of which cannot be said for anyone else in the picture, perhaps apart from down on his luck poet Jason Hoag or Dr Judd, the psychiatrist. There is an element of exhaustion to the performances, particularly after the film hits its midway point. Movies from this period, especially American studio ones, display a certain type of acting that seems very conscious of blocking (the way in which actors move and position themselves within the confines of set and the camera’s view of it). In the best pictures from this period, this very ‘staged’ approach is simply part of the artistic fabric. There is a certain theatre, a formality and structure to the dance of actors around each other and across the set that compliments and is complimented by all other elements in these films; it can be like beholding a tango or waltz, appreciating how grace and beauty can be supported, even enhanced, by such stricture and rigid technique. But when there is something lacking – be it actors with range or presence, a screenplay with narrative originality or linguistic flair, or bold, visionary images – this ‘blocking’ becomes transparent and rote and it becomes clear how little else there is.
How many things are more disheartening than sitting down to view an apparent masterpiece and walking away having seen what you’d swear was a dud? It’s enough to make one doubt what one even considers good cinema.