The horror…: “Angst”

June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

At first it might be somewhat surprising to think that this little known Austrian film from 1983 – little known probably on account of it having widely received X-ratings in most jurisdictions and maintained them for so long – isn’t more frequently cited as one of the greats of the horror genre, because in many ways it is. But it only takes a second’s recollection of what it’s like to actually sit through this supremely unsettling work to realise why it’s not featured on more ‘top however many’, ‘greatest’, and even ‘best you’ve never heard of or seen’ lists. Even perennially revered – and rightfully so – films like Tobe Hooper’s original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Exorcist” have elements of perverse excitement to them and moments that are bound to thrill. The former evokes a very grindhouse, very drive-in, so-wrong-it-must-be-right sense of fun while the former is scandalous in a prestige way that would have surely found audiences leaving theatres talking in hushed but excited whispers, saying, ‘oh my God, did you see what she did with that crucifix?!’ Plus the outstanding art direction in “Chainsaw Massacre” manages to wring a garish, primal kind of beauty from the ugliest subject matter, acknowledging that Leatherface is – like it or not – an artist of the macabre. Fact is, even the most artistically ambitious of horror classics – those that would stand up as great pieces of cinema period – even these would get a bunch of friends excited for a weed-laced re-watch session. But not for a second viewing of “Angst”; surely no one can get excited for that…unless maybe intellectually. In a literal sense, few movies could possibly be expected to approach the level of pure horror that this piece, directed by Gerald Kargl, manages to reach. It would not be at all shocking if it turned out that Kargl’s feature filmography is so tiny on account of him descending into a prolonged nervous rut after having made this movie, which would certainly not bode well at all for the actors, especially not Erwin Leder who plays the lead and who hopefully received a good long debriefing at the close of shooting. Sure, there are piles of movies – especially of late – that are quite content to drown a viewer in violence, gore and dementedness, but the trick to these and the reason that they can be digested by scores of blank faced teens who groan-laugh/laugh-groan ironically at each gratuitous kill is that there are formal elements to these scenes which actually end up blunting the potency of their unpleasantness, or at least distracting from them. It’s the same reason big-budget action tent pole releases that involve scores of people being mowed down with automatics are deemed fit for consumption by thirteen year olds whereas a film like “Irreversible” is quickly shuffled into a containment chamber as though it were Bubonic Plague. In short, presentation is perhaps more important than content when it comes to determining how said content is received, and with “Angst” the presentation is downright nauseating, in the most bravura way possible.

The aforementioned Leder, almost Nosferatu-like in the way that he skulks, plays – with troubling brilliance – a convicted murderer on the day of his release from prison after serving a decade long stint for ending an old lady. Adopting a drolly confessional voice-over narration reminiscent more of Bresson’s “Pickpocket” than something more sordid, the film follows this nameless individual whose first instinct on leaving prison grounds is to find someone to off. He is not only unapologetic and relentless in his pursuit, but he does not display any signs of self-questioning, any indication that he wonders why exactly he has these urges and what purpose submitting to them might serve. Almost as a knowing dig by the filmmakers at the rehabilitation/correctional process in which incarceration is supposed to play a major part, Leder’s character mentions off-hand that prison is where criminals are meant to learn how to be better people, which he says while clearly anticipating his just-got-out-of-prison celebratory slaying. For the next seventy minutes the viewer is subjected to a uniquely photographed portrayal of what it may be like to submit oneself utterly to a force so powerful it might seem like a divine calling, or a curse. Watching this film, it makes complete sense that the man who directed “Enter the Void”, Gaspar Noé, reveres this film alongside “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Shot by Zbigniew Rybczynski, “Angst” features immediately distinct use of very high-angle tracking shots, almost god’s eye (or devil’s eye) views of the main character as he walks down the street and around and through buildings. These shots basically pre-empt the kind of visual aesthetic utilised in certain role-playing games like the “Grand Theft Auto” series or even “The Sims,” the kind used to emphasise how much of a pawn each character in the game is; how much they exist to satisfy the entertainment desires of the gamer. Then there is the virtuosic use of a camera mounted on the actor himself – the kind used to such memorable effect in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”, virtuosic here because the camera is a great deal more mobile that would be expected for a piece of apparatus fixed to a moving body. It (the camera) seems to swivel around him, as though the viewer is invited to assume the position of some demon that hangs around like a fly, attracted to the junkie-like desperation evident on his face and in his manner. In combination, these two techniques create a powerful sense of, well, many things: that this man’s physical body is at the utter mercy of his psychological obsessions, that he may be subject to out-of-body-experiences, that he may in fact be the tool of evil forces and spirits, that he is so removed from statistically normal human psychology that the ‘usual’ shots simply won’t suffice. But all this visual artistry, unlike other films in the horror canon, does little to shield or distract from the oppressiveness of the sequences being presented. “Angst” is simply not fun to watch despite wall-to-wall admirable visual flourishes, but it is plenty powerful and it is horrific through and through which is more than most supposed horror films can claim with sincerity.

So is “Angst” some sort of psycho-killer apologist statement? Probably not. There is – on display in the film – evidence that the filmmakers are curious about what exactly it is that enables someone to commit and recommit such acts of staggering violence with diminishing levels of awareness and an inability to view their behaviour in a context outside of their own needs and fantasies. Ultimately, there is the implication that the killer in this movie and similar individuals are in the throes of some kind of debased anxiety disorder, or that their pathology at the very least has strong components of anxiety of the kind that plagues true obsessive-compulsives who feel that they simply must do this or that in order to alleviate the overwhelming sense that all will not be well unless they carry out this or that. It’s terrifying to think that there are people in these particular psychological prisons, and perhaps more terrifying to think that – if faced with such an individual who has it in their mind that they must kill in order to simply feel…okay – nothing could in fact be done to dissuade them from stabbing you into oblivion. It should be said, however, that Leder’s unnamed character is perhaps more than just a victim of his vices. There are clear indications that he enjoys and cherishes what he does, though there are also moments of clear self-disgust and repulsion, for example his bout of dry retching after he has absolutely skewered the young lady and lapped up her blood in a deeply sexual manner in what must be one of the grimmest, most repulsive scenes of violence ever committed to film. The movie which comes closest to “Angst” in capturing the frankly sickening, ‘everyday’ quality that murder might have in the eyes of someone whose life is dedicated to it is “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, an inevitable comparison and a film that probably supersedes its Austrian counterpart on account of it simply being far more watertight and practically perfect. Where “Angst” falls short of undisputed horror ‘glory’, if that is even the right word, is that portions of its apparently famous score (which is said to be more well-known than the movie as a whole) seems to be attempting to express a panic and disorientation that the visuals on their own suggest fairly successfully. There are two of three moments in which this drum-heavy stretch of cheeseball-80’s-action-score music appears, but these are mercifully few in a film that does not dish mercy out all that generously (at least not to humans, though adorable brown Daschunds seem to be an exception) .


The horror…: “Night of the Demon”

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.


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