Review: SUSPIRIA (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Viewed at Hyde Park Picture House as part of #LIFF2018.

It would be remiss of me to not mention that Suspiria is gory. While the original poured deep red colours into its set design and cinematography, the gushing blood red in this incantation of Suspiria are reserved only for the acts of body horror that occur. The violent body transformations are shocking and nauseating, and dreamlike fast cuts of disturbing imagery have a trance-like, subliminal power. Certain scenes will last for a long time in the memory, that’s for sure.

Welcome to Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria, a 30-year ambition finally realised and hot off the heels of his evocative  2017 sun-drenched tale, Call Me By Your Name. A switch to horror and a ‘remake’ of a Dario Argento classic befuddled many, but with a stellar cast, an updated but equally unforgiving plot and flashes of gore, Suspiria tantalises and mystifies in equal measure once again.

Set in Berlin in 1977 at the prestigious Markos Company dance school, Tilda Swinton is Madame Blanc, the austere but brilliant principal who is immediately drawn to new American student, Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannion. As Guadagnino has been keen to point, Swinton also plays Lutz Ebersdorf as Dr. Josef Klemperer, a kindly psychiatrist that is more or less the emotional centre of the film.

Chloë Grace Moretz’s cameo as Patricia looms large over the opening acts, a young student targeted by the teachers within their secret coven, but determined to escape their grasp. Johnson, previously seen in Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015) alongside Swinton, is mesmeric as Susie, unknowable and seeming naive to the real trade of the Markos Company. Johnson and Swinton’s scenes together, even those as they stare at one another within a mirrored rehearsal room or appear to be talking without speaking across a crowded restaurant, are electrifying.

As points of view shift, the well-worn narrative of ‘an American in a strange country’ is left behind as Susie soon becomes a dancing conduit for the coven’s sadistic spells. Contorting, tribal dancing are never too far away from seeming like demonic possession and the camera, and Madame Blanc’s gaze, lingers on Susie’s unexpectedly libidinous movements. We are left to wonder if this is just her dancing style or has her time at the Markos Company transformed her already?

A history of the coven’s acts are hidden deep in the bowels (wrong choice of words there) of the school, horrific antiquities and weapons of choice such as the swift metal hooks that swipe as Thom Yorke’s haunting soundtrack swells. Berlin in 1977, the backdrop of the film seen on TVs or echoed through a radio, is a turbulent time that saw the hijacking of a plane and kidnappings by the Red Army Faction. The real world events act as a counterpoint to supernatural violence and its struggles for supremacy. Female autonomy, expressed through cruelty and occultism subterfuge, is attainable, if only as a result of atrocity and suppression. Taking place in a decade that rode the wave of radical feminism and when Germany continued to grapple with its position as a post-war nation, the coven’s secrets mirror the setting’s overwhelming struggle for normalcy. The coven’s power is an affirmation of the period’s feminist movement operating on the fringes of mainstream society.

The abuse of power is an overwhelming force throughout Suspiria, from the long-lasting generational guilt and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, to the coven’s secret manipulation and disposal of unsuspecting students. The school’s faculty are like a rubber band, stretching and contorting between the need for secrecy and culpability. As Susie, Patricia, Sam and Dr Klemperer become further entangled in the dance school/coven’s acts, the more they become manipulated, enlightened and repulsed by the coven’s violent tyranny.

A warped, unsettling and nihilistic film that slips from grasp just a handle on it seems within reach, Suspiria is likely to frustrate as many as it is devilishly delights. Immaculately directed and designed, Guadagnino shows once again why he is a contemporary master at period detail and sensuality on screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: HALLOWEEN (2018)

If you have been listening to the hit podcast My Favorite Murder, you might be a tad more clued up on the horrors of serial killers lately than most, and you will know that serial killers were pretty prolific in the 1970s – operating slap-bang in the Vietnam War, before the Cold War preoccupied 1980s and the ‘satanic panic’ of the decade. The period informed the horror monsters of cinema from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Friday the 13th (1980).

So it’s easy to see why John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) itched at the fears of so many upon its release. Now 40 years later, are these fears still terror-inducing? As one character in the latest reboot-sequel, Halloween (2018) says, there are so many more scary things to be afraid of these days, why focus on a long-imprisoned middle-aged serial killer wearing a (warped William Shatner) mask?

But as the new instalment, directed by David Gordon Green, posits, the societal fear might have changed, but the bogeyman of trauma will still haunt. This rings true in a world that is seemingly constantly having to cope with the reveal of past and hidden crime, from the abuses of the casting couch, a would-be senator’s college frat parties and most public spheres across the spectrum. Crimes can be buried, perpetrators might even be caught, but the slate is rarely wiped of the vivid trauma that will affect whole lives and communities. This is part of the reason why Halloween unexpectedly gets to be a relevant tale for our times. The slow-moving man in a mask might induce the odd titter from modern viewers of the original, but Michael Myers works as a reincarnated spectre of our world-weary anxiety.

Jamie Lee Curtis, one of the original ‘final girls’, is finally given an opportunity to put demons to rest, namely Myers, who first murdered her friends four decades earlier in 1978. The quiet, bookish 17 year-old Laurie has transformed into a hard, jacked-up action woman in the intervening years, isolating her family in the process. The film demonstrates how Laurie has coped, for better or worse, choosing life as a self-created recluse in her fortress-like compound.

Laurie’s strained relationship with her family, namely her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak), is excellently depicted, hinting at a childhood scarred by a mother’s maniacal determination to better equip her family to eliminate invading evil. One scene where Laurie implores Karen to take hold of a gun for her own familial home’s protection is a particularly telling moment, saying plenty about the cognitive dissonance that occurs in the people of Haddonfield, Illinois when seeking revenge on a murderer…with murder.

Halloween manages to be a satisfying generational story as well as a truly blood-splattering gorefest, upping the scares of Carpenter’s original for a modern audience without slipping into lazy gratuitousness. The score, also updated by Carpenter himself, is more lavish, much like the rest of the film (the Halloween of 1978 was made on a shoestring and the gloriously understated Carpenter always stated he was the cheapest composer he could afford). The same haunting piano stabs once again, but this time with added modern synths, playing ominously over the nostalgic opening credits.

After the countless sequels and reboots that Halloween inspired (when even WAS Halloween III: Season of the Witch, though!?), David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley managed to make a continuation worth telling, a rare feat in Sequel City, Hollywood. It does descend into the well-worn horror tropes, much of them first conceived in the first Halloween, but manage to play out as affectionate nods rather than tired rehashes.

Just a final note to say what a thrill it is to have Jamie Lee Curtis headlining a movie again. She really gave her all to this role and it shows. Long live the mature female lead and the final girl. Now thanks to Halloween (2018), that’s the same thing.

 

 

 

Review: A QUIET PLACE (2018)

Amazingly, my local cinema was truly engulfed in silence on Sunday night. Despite the optimistic purchases of popcorn and other confectionery, they were all but forgotten once A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s (of The American Office, It’s Complicated and Away We Go) debut horror feature took hold.

The concept is gripping one: you make noise, you die, which is essentially a movie tagline writer’s dream, and follows a family who must live life in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. What we do know is that most of Earth’s human population has been wiped out by an invasion of alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing.

All of this is expertly told without over-explanation or exposition. The streets of an already sleepy town are strewn with undisturbed leaves from passing seasons, drugstores have been raided and trails of sand have been marked so that surviving inhabitants can creep quietly without fear of detection. One such band of survivors are the Abbott family. They talk in whispers, but mostly by cannily using American Sign Language, in part due to the fact that one of the children is deaf.

Scenes of the family attempting to go about their daily lives are still somehow fraught with tension. Even an innocent game of Monopoly is dicing with death. Our discovery that the mother, played with steel and gumption by the always brilliant Emily Blunt, is also pregnant is gut-punch of a plot point.  The camera pans over the wall calendar to glance at the due date, and a wave of dread hits. The family wouldn’t survive an inadvertent clink of plates on the dining table, never mind the arrival of a screaming newborn baby.

Coming in at just 90 minutes, the film makes quick use of the premise, turning even the smallest of drama into an opportunity for the family’s devastating annihilation. The protruding nail on the stair scene in family romp Home Alone will forever now send me screaming back to the gory horror of A Quiet Place. And when the father, also played by Krasinski, takes his youngest to a nearby waterfall, it is an understated scene of catharsis for both his understandably nervous son and the audience.

I’m not sure I want to put too much weight onto the allegorical nature of the film’s themes, but the best horrors have always played on societal fears. That’s just Film School 101, right? A Quiet Place is equally ripe for unpicking. Pressure to keep quiet and obfuscate, plus our increasing acquiescence about being ignored in a world of noise and fake news are flipped on their head in this silent wasteland. Expression, the act that differentiates us from animals, is somehow now the method of our own extinction. So when Blunt and Krasinski come together to share an earphone rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon,  it is a touching moment, but its one that disturbs the silence we’re now all too comfortably complicit in.

As expected, the good old-fashioned tropes kick in wonderfully and the Alien-style cat and mouse chase across the family’s farm makes for an unbearable watch at pretty much every beat of the action. With multiple perilous set pieces to grip the armrest through  and a monster that is seemingly unbeatable, A Quiet Place is a sweat-inducing time in the cinema. Nerves are shredded and nails are bitten and as soon as it ended, I wanted to do it all over again.

The Final Showdown: Horror narratives and closure in ALIEN (1979) and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

“The structure of horror narratives are said to set out from a situation of order, [to] move through a period of disorder caused by the eruption of horrifying or monstrous forces, and finally reach a point of closure and completion in which disruptive, monstrous elements are contained or destroyed and the original order is re-established. The audience’s pleasure is supposed to be based upon the expectation that the narrative will reach this particular type of conclusion, and the eventual fulfilment of this expectation.” (Mark Jancovich in Horror: The Film Reader, 1992)

From Mark Jancovich’s quote, it would be natural to assume that the very nature of the horror film hinges on the reassuring quashing of the villain. This article will explore how two seminal horror films deal with this genre convention and endeavour to question just what or who can be identified as ‘monstrous’.

Made eleven years apart, much of the broader narrative in Alien and The Silence of the Lambs is similar: grisly murders occur in both films, each one revealing more tantalising information to the audience, both highlight a key villain or villains, both have a central female character and both contain a plot device in which the conclusion rests with the extermination of the main threat. Commercially both films were successful at the box office and have spawned subsequent films and numerous imitations. The ‘monstrous’ in Alien is immediately easy to identify: an aggressive alien life-form which terrorises a spacecraft crew. The ‘monstrous’ in The Silence of the Lambs takes on a number of guises, including the loose serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill and the incarcerated Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Alien wears its threat ‘on its sleeve’ by granting the ‘monstrous’ as the titular character, and yet emblazoned on the promotional posters is what seems to be the most natural object associated with the life-cycle: the egg. This implies that the “monstrous” could come from even the most ‘natural’ of beings- one that we may all recognise.The Silence of the Lambs on the other hand portrays a highly-intelligent psychiatrist with a penchant for cannibalism and a rampant and impulsive serial killer who skins his victims and ‘refashions’ their skin, hopefully people we are unlikely to encounter. Likewise, the “horrifying” is exactly what these antagonists set in motion over the course of film. For example, in Alien the foetus-like alien attacks Kane and “attaches itself with a deathly grip on his face” (Barbara Creed, Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien, 1993), breaches the quarantine of the ship Nostromo and begins to kill each crew member with brutal skill. Buffalo Bill, who at the start of The Silence of the Lambs has already kidnapped, abused and killed a number of women, invites the spectator to witness his M.O. in the capture of a senator’s daughter, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter lives up to his name and ingeniously escapes from confinement in a series of “horrifying” set-ups.

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It is essential for the audience to understand and empathise with the correct characters in the story in order for these ‘monstrous’ beings and “horrifying” acts to be recognised.  And as Roger Ebert notes, The Silence of the Lambs also works as it succeeds in genuinely frightening the audience without just being a throwaway “thrill show” (The Chicago Sun Times, 2001). In Barbara Creed’s article Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien, Creed refers to the alien as a “monstrous creature” and yet also implies that the alien is born to a “mother”, possibly emphasising the natural and organic nature of a being which harbours a monstrous potential.

In regards to The Silence of the Lambs in particular, the film is a result of an eternal fascination with the guise of the serial killer. This interest runs through into horror genre and in The Kingdom of the Unimaginable: The Construction of Social Space and the Fantasy of Privacy in Serial Killer Narratives (1998), Stephen Hantke believes: “Since we have radically divorced ourselves from him, his person and his space become radically fictitious. The more we fantasise about him without acknowledging that we are separated by nothing but genre conventions, the more we close the gap on between him and ourselves”. Hantke understands that since we are appalled and disgusted at the serial killers vicious acts, we are easily drawn into the story by our ability to recognise the film as a piece of fiction and at the same time separate ourselves in order to desire swift retribution for the character of the serial killer.

The interesting aspect of Jonathan Demme’s classic which may counter the Jancovich ideal about the containment of evil, is the new and unsettling realisation that Dr. Hannibal Lecter is in fact likable: “He may be a cannibal,” Roger Ebert quips, “but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you)” (The Chicago Sun Times, 2001). We also begin to see the blossoming of a ‘friendly’ relationship between the Clarice Starling and Lecter, one which ought to make the audience uncomfortable, but instead through Starling’s instinct makes the audience go along with her faith that he will not harm her (“I have no plans to call on you, Clarice, The world’s more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy”). In interviews as transcribed by Laura Sydell’s article Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot (2008), Jodie Foster explains the legacy of Lecter and his impact on an audience: “He’s not just a cardboard villain. You see his vulnerabilities; you see that he cares for her in the way that he can. That he has a kindness toward her … and yes, we’re seduced by that humanity, by his light touch with her…” Perhaps then this explains how as an audience we can feel satisfied with the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs which sees Dr. Hannibal Lecter walking free in an anonymous crowd to “have an old friend for dinner”. Perhaps because we have already witnessed the ‘silencing’ (for want of a better phrase) of Buffalo Bill, we can begin to accept the idea of an escaped Lecter who is neither “destroyed” nor “confined”.

In contrast to The Silence of the Lambs, Alien takes a good half an hour before Kane played by John Hurt is attacked by a being from one of the eggs. In Roz Kaveney’s case study of Alien in From Alien to The Matrix: Reading Science Film (2005), Kaveney explains: “we have been lulled by Scott’s leisurely pacing into a false sense of security and started to think of this as a film in which we get to observe the future in a realistic way and without much excitement.”. Therefore we can deduce that Scott deliberately paces the film to unleash the monster where it will make its most horrific effect on the audience. Once the famous ‘chest burster’ scene occurs after an apparently relieving and relaxed crew meal, there is no doubt that whatever Kane encountered outside the ship will continue to wreak fatal havoc inside too. The scene had its desired effect on audiences in the cinema on release. In an interview for Empire Magazine to celebrate the Blu-Ray release of the Alien Quadrilogy, Ron Shusett who wrote the original story with Dan O’Bannon claims, “After the chest burster it was just deafening, you couldn’t hear for several moments.” The associate producer Ivor Powell went on to embellish: “People jumped up, some actually ran, there was spewing in the loo!”. Moments of such prolonged gore are scarce in The Silence of the Lambs (a glimpse of the murdered security guard is momentarily revealed and Lecter’s attack on said security guard is shot at an angle so that we mainly see Anthony Hopkins’ blooded face). This could suggest that whereas we are directed to instinctively call for the alien’s termination after it’s savage murder of Kane, when Lecter escapes his cell and the police’s misdirection is revealed, we are left instead in shock and awe at the man’s genius as well as in disgust.

Other additions to the list of villains in these two films come in the form of Ash (played by Ian Holm) in Alien and Dr. Chilton (played by Anthony Heald) in The Silence of the Lambs. A perhaps coincidental parallel can be drawn between these two characters upon closer inspection. Ash, a calm yet stern and logical science officer/doctor at the beginning of the film is a person of suspicion to only Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). After an unsettling scene where he attempts to suffocate Ripley by ramming a pornographic magazine into her mouth, it is revealed that he is in fact an android, planted by the ‘Corporation’ whom the crew work for, to bring back the alien regardless of loss of life to the crew. A shocking revelation to the remaining crew (though perhaps not entirely for Ripley) and a twist in the plot for the viewer, Roz Kevaney in A Franchise Case Study: Alien (2005) proposes that in the end it is “no surprise”. Ash’s adherences to authority during several points in the film do reveal his allegiances and Kevaney does point out that it isn’t the first case of ‘robot gone bad’ in cinema, describing him as “counter-revisionist”. Dr. Frederick Chilton is introduced as a bureaucratic annoyance at the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs and his cringe-worthy attempts at flirting with Clarice Starling and her curt re-buff is the catalyst for the audience’s dislike of the character. We may also take offence at the unfeeling way Chilton shows Starling the photo of the injured nurse, moments before she is about to encounter Dr Hannibal Lecter herself. Even during the scenes in which Chilton and Lecter are in his cell, Chilton is still the more unlikeable character despite Lecter being the convicted killer who needs to be restrained. When Lecter spots Chilton’s pen (which he uses later to escape his handcuffs), Chilton’s idiocy is almost laughable as it is hazardous.

Both Ash and Dr. Chilton represent an authority which is unrealistic, restrictive and in some cases, dishonest. They provide an opportunity in the plot for the surrounding characters (including the protagonists, Starling and Ripley) to subvert the authority they uphold. In some ways, Ash and Chilton represent the “original order” that Mark Jancovich claims must be restored which is vital for a successful horror film. We could even label Ash and Chilton as the real ‘horrifying’ and ‘monstrous’ aspects of these films as they are protected by an establishment which is supposed to keep us away from harm. It is safe to say that most viewers probably experience relief when Ash is finally ‘killed’ via Parker and Lambert’s swift intervention, and there’s doubtfully many who do not feel a mischievous twinge of gratification at the sight of Hannibal Lecter appearing to ‘dish out’ his revenge on Chilton in the final scene of the film.

One cannot deny however, that for much of Alien is spent hunting down the alien and attempting to exterminate it or that the greatest relief is when Clarice Starling finally defeats Buffalo Bill in a nail-biting showdown in the basement filmed through the night-vision goggles in The Silence of the Lambs. Therefore to some extent, both films employ the classic horror trope of ‘The Final Girl’, meaning that the audience is directed to empathise and identify with a female character who usually survives at the end of the film (Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, Carol J. Clover, 1993). Ellen Ripley is the last human survivor of Nostromo, single-handedly defeating the alien and living to tell the tale in the following sequels of the franchise and though Clarice Starling is not the only one to survive Buffalo Bill, Starling survives the ordeal after their encounter and ends his reign of terror. As an audience of a horror film which understands its genre traits, ‘The Final Girl’ is identifiable within Alien and The Silence of the Lambs. The “narrative closure” which Mark Jancovich speaks of is provided in the assurance of their survival. However, to reduce both Ripley and Starling to a film character convention would be doing a disservice. ‘The Final Girl’ suggests vulnerability, virginity and a helplessness that neither Ripley nor Starling overwhelmingly exude. In fact, Mark Jancovich’s own chapter in Horror: The Film Reader (1992), Genre and the Audience: Genre Classifications and Cultural Distinctions in the Mediation of The Silence of the Lambs denounces Starling’s vulnerability, stating that Jodie Foster’s performance as being a “commentary upon victimisation, rather than simply (as could be argued) an instance of victimisation”. In fact he even highlights the trap of comparing Ripley and Starling and explains that Foster’s performance was a conscious effort to separate itself from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. In the case of Ripley, Clover’s definition of ‘The Final Girl’ in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film (1993) also falls short :“The Final Girl is introduced at the beginning and is the only character to be developed in any psychological detail. We understand immediately from the attention paid it that hers is the main story line”whereas Ripley does not stand out as a main character for a good section of the film. In fact, Dallas the captain of the ship is the more suited character to ‘helm’ the story, but is killed early on in the film. Ripley however is “…watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore she takes in and turns over. Above all she is intelligent and resourceful in extreme situations” having voiced concerns about Kane’s return to the ship after contamination in the first forty-five minutes of the film and her cool reception of Ash from the start.

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Though both films offer a release of pleasure once the main antagonists are eradicated, neither offers complete narrative closure for their individual plotlines. In Alien Ellen Ripley’s final words are “The other members of the crew, Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash and Captain Dallas are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed…This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off” but no concrete explanation of alien, its creation, its purpose of its aggression and whether danger has absolutely subsided is given. We aren’t even assured as an audience if Ripley will definitely live. We rely on the safety of the pod as we did in the opening scenes of the film, but our ideas about the safety of the ship/space environment have since changed due to the events of the film. For the finale of The Silence of the Lambs, evil still remains on the loose in the form of a free Dr. Hannibal Lecter. And though Clarice Starling qualifies as an FBI agent and celebrates with her peers, the phone call she receives from Lecter places her on edge once more at the mercy of their warped relationship. She may have ‘contained’ one criminal (Buffalo Bill) but the flight of Lecter leaves just enough unease in the viewer to feel duped out of a clear-cut ending and a pleasurable desire for more. We can conclude then, that though a level of “narrative closure” in a horror film can be achieved through the containment of some of their most “monstrous” and “horrifying” aspects, we can gather that the most successful of the horror genre leave some aspects of the film’s plot for the viewers to ponder over themselves. After all, the thrill of terror is in part its ability to embed itself in the conscience of those who experience it and in both Alien and The Silence of the Lambs, the terror is part of the pleasure.

Review: THE HAUNTING (1963)

After watching Friday the 13th Parts 1-3 (1980, 1981, 1982 respectively) and witnessing the body count stack up well before we ever see Jason Voorhees don the famous hockey mask, I decided to take a retro trip down horror memory lane (you know the one, it has over-hanging trees and a creepy caretaker who tells you to turn back) and return to one of the earliest but creepiest haunted house films, The Haunting (1963).

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In stunning black and white Panavision, the film was directed by the incomparable Robert Wise. Right after shooting West Side Story (1961) and two years before The Sound of Music (1965), Wise was always an artist behind the camera first and foremost, and the horror trickery and innovation is what immediately stands out on returning to this classic. It is clear that Wise must have had fun making this film, experimenting with new technology in the form of infra-red film and 30mm lens for the ghostly panning shots and low-angle camera takes which can be seen throughout.

The story is what we’ve come to expect from the haunted house genre. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a paranormal investigator, brings together a group of people  to investigate a suspected haunted house by gathering and  recording evidence in order to prove the existence of the supernatural. Stage actress Julie Harris plays the susceptible Eleanor ‘Nell’ Lance, a woman who is uniquely touched by the possible spirits within the house. In a ground-breaking role, Claire Bloom is Theodora or ‘Theo’ and is generally thought of as being the one of the first lesbian characters in Hollywood cinema. Though sanctioned by the film studios to keep the evidence of her sexual orientation to a minimum, to the contemporary viewer, it is harder to ignore even adds to the already dialled-up-to-the-max tension in the film. As Nell becomes increasingly enamoured with Dr. Markway and the house itself, Theo beings to show a slight hint of jealousy. When Nell and Theo are locked together in their bedroom, the tension of the scene goes beyond the fear of the paranormal, but the fear of the unknown in terms of their relationship with one another, platonic or otherwise.

The film takes the usual twists and turns, slowly making each character more suspicious of one another and ramping up the spookiness until the final act of the film. What starts off as a pleasant stay (well, free food and board sounds pleasant enough to me anyway!) at a beautiful country house soon turns into a psychological nightmare of a place where all your fears and doubts are amplified. Indeed right until halfway through the film, Nell is still convinced she is there for a relaxing holiday regardless of the success of the study, but is soon traumatised by her grave past.

What makes this film stand out from the numerous haunted house pictures that thrilled audiences in this era is that we are never quite sure if what Nell has seen is genuine or if we are witnessing is just the manifestations of her own tortured psyche. Since all the spooky happenings are directed at her or are in her presence, we can never be certain of their validity. While this is a perfect get-out clause for the writers,  the lack of explanation ultimately creates an unsettling film which leaves the viewer frustratingly still in the dark by the end of the film.

The Haunting is an important horror film which ought to be included in any must-see lists for classic horror fans. Like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) released two years before, the horror genre was in flux. No longer able to solely rely on the popularity of the Dracula and Frankenstein outings, filmmakers had to look to within the human psyche to explore what could really frighten us. The Haunting is a successful experiment in this ideal and remains spooky today. Please whatever you do however, DO NOT watch the horrific 1999 remake of this film. It IS scary, but for none of the right reasons…

Review: FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)

“Nobody wants to see vampire killers any more, or vampires either. Apparently all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins” says veteran actor Roddy McDowall in the scenery-chewing role of Peter Vincent, the hard-on-his-luck TV horror host in Fright Night. And in 1985, he was almost certainly right. The glory days of Hammer Horror had long gone and slasher flicks were filling cinemas and terrifying teens. Fright Night however is a fantastical return to the vampire legends which have passed into the mytharc of horror films for almost as long as film has existed.

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Of course, this being the 1980s, a healthy dose of angst, love and lust was added generously to the mix, presumably striking a synthesized chord with every high-schooler of the time. The brief flash of annoyingly pert movie breasts as the vampiric lothario sets his fangs on his prey would have titillated many teens- in the movie theatre and on devilish late-night telly. Ultimately, Fright Night closes in on what made Hammer Horror so popular in the first place: blood and the potential of a bit o’ skin. Undead or otherwise…

Fright Night begins uniquely enough. Teen Charley (William Ragsdale) suspects his new neighbour is a vampire and sets about trying to drive him out. Reluctantly aided by his ‘frienemy’ Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) and his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse), the film rattles off every vampire cliché and myth you’ve ever heard of and runs with it. The vampire in question, Jerry Dandridge, played by the gleefully evil Chris Sarandon is smarmy and seductive, and terrifyingly persuasive and charismatic in equal measure. For me, one of the best scenes is in a down-town nightclub where Amy comes dangerously under his spell and her role is transformed as merely the nagging girlfriend into a sexual, rhythmic being. You want her to escape the the villain’s grasp and yet you are also fascinated by the tempting lustful power of evil. And if that doesn’t get you,  then who doesn’t love a good gawp at some terrible Eighties disco fashions…!?

Aside from the good-looking teens, the heart of the film comes from Roddy McDowall. A fading figure of horror; a former movie ‘vampire-killer’, McDowall’s Peter Vincent is firstly motivated by money but ends the film finding faith in the creatures in the night he had for so long parodied and profited from. Brandishing his crucifix once again in the climatic scenes, he finally develops the courage to believe, transforming a meaningless symbol into an effective weapon. Though McDowall is a reliable source of humour throughout the film, a protracted scene in which he witnesses the death of a vampire alone in Charley’s house could easily have been omitted but offers emotional gravitas to a film largely relying on its duty to deliver on scares and playful violence. Speaking of which, the special effects are still impressively unnerving, building on the success of films such as An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984) and delivering on the real-life gore which would eventually be lost with using CGI entirely.

If you’re looking for a fun, sexy vampire film more likely to tantalise than traumatise, then Fright Night is the film for you. Fright Night‘s director and writer Tom Holland went go on to storyboard the 2011 remake starring Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin and David Tennant as Peter Vincent. As remakes go, it’s fun, but sink your teeth into the original, it might just be to your taste…

Drawing back the shower curtain: Voyeurism in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960)

psycho

“I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It’s none of my business.” They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.” (Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock, 1985)

At the time of making and releasing Psycho, the restrictive codes of Hollywood cinema were beginning to dissipate, and the move from an age of ‘cinema-goers’ to ‘television-viewers’ was starting to worry the establishment of ‘Old Hollywood’. In Raymond Durgnat’s book ‘A Long Hard Look at Psycho’ (2002) Durgnat describes how Psycho and its characters were intended to appeal to the evermore powerful teenage market and the more mature audience who were used to his previous successes:

“Norman…geared to the increasing interest in psychology. Though pushing 30, he’s an arrested teenager; still mother-bound and Anthony Perkins was popular with teenage girls. As for Marion and Sam, they are too socially unsettled, lonely, and to that extent psychologically ‘marginal’, and so have strong appeal for niche-market teenagers, but still interest without alienating mature spectators.”

This increased “interest in psychology” also gives much credence to the film’s critical psychoanalysis which has surrounded the film since its release. It’s almost as if the film intended to strike up debate as much as it intended to shock. Of course, the subject matter of the film itself was not entirely new to the American public. Adapted from Robert Bloch’s novel by Joseph Stefano, Psycho was inspired by the serial killer Ed Gein (1904-84) whose capture and discovery of his horrific crimes began a media frenzy. The story is recognisable and influenced such other films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Bloch explained the creation of the killer Norman Bates in David Thomson’s book ‘The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder’ (2009) saying:

“…the character would be equivalent of a Rod Steiger type at the time, who lived alone- a recluse more or less, who didn’t have a lot of friends. How would he select his victims? I came up with his being a motel-keeper because of easy access to strangers.”

This decision to switch from the forty-something, ogre-like Bates to the obvious good looks of Anthony Perkins’ Bates appears to be a conscious effort to take into the account the viewer’s expectation (or lack of, as the case seems to be) of the characters deeper mental state by being portrayed with someone who can ‘appear’ likeable and trustworthy and unlikely to be a serial killer. By doing this, the film can explore how a killer can exist within the unlikeliest of people and how mental illness is a universal concern.

The film begins with the opening credits created by Saul Bass, a graphic designer who worked with Hitchcock on a number of films, such as Vertigo (1958) (another film which deals heavily with voyeurism). Combined with Bernard Hermann’s staccato violin score, the titles immediately place the viewer on edge and consist of moving lines which move along the screen to reveal names of cast and production members. This linear effect perhaps alludes to window blinds, rather fitting since immediately after, the camera zooms to a seedy hotel room window partially covered by a Venetian blind- a blind which hides from the outside world Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis engaging in a lunchtime affair. Known for being a particularly difficult sequence to shoot, according to Durgnat in ‘A Long Hard Look at Psycho’ (2002) it would “bid for the longest continuous distance travelled by a camera” and was another example of Hitchcock striking out to challenge normal shooting practice, just as he did in Rope (1941) eleven years earlier.

Throughout the first half of the narrative, Marion Crane is the subject of a number of gazes, from the leering Mr Cassidy in the office, to the suspicious Police Officer and ultimately by Norman Bates. These gazes are represented both technically (camera angles, point of shot) and by the script and the representation of the characters. In the office scene, Mr Cassidy sits on Marion Crane’s desk placing the camera to view her from a slightly senior position of the client. Furthermore, the lifting of her head at his words “My sweet little girl” and his response: “Not you- my daughter!” also suggests that Marion is aware of male attention or is often flattered by clients with whom she encounters. Her understanding of her position in the male gaze is possibly what made her good at her job in the first place and appears to coolly deal with Mr Cassidy’s attentions. In contrast, upon encountering the Police Officer on the highway and again at the used car garage, Marion is viewed as a potential deviant from the law. Marion’s unease at being questioned shows how easily guilt has manifested itself in the way she relates to others. Perhaps the officer was showing natural concern and vigilance for a woman parked on a quiet freeway? But as a viewer who knows of Marion’s activities, we too feel he is being overly invasive and therefore implicates us in the crime also. The dark, opaque sunglasses the officer wears seem intrusive, aggressive and block the viewer (and Marion) a chance to interpret his character via his eyes.

The most significant character in terms of the male gaze towards Marion is of course Norman Bates. As a repressed, insular man with little interaction with the outside world and other people, the arrival of Marion at the Bates Motel is a significant moment in the film and also in Norman’s life. It is clear he desires her; he is nervous around her and noticeably excitable. The overheard conversation with Norman’s mother (“I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper. By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds,”) is an example of Marion’s own temptation to listen in and look where she shouldn’t and is just one of the first instances where Marion appears to step over the line into Norman’s private affairs. The parlour room in which they have lunch is filled with Norman’s stuffed birds, many frozen in full flight indicating perhaps the action of capture and the bird’s all-seeing point of view on its prey. Norman’s declaration to Marion: “You, you eat like a bird” reinforces the interpretation that Norman has an ‘eagle-eye’ view of Marion. In the next scene, Norman spies on Marion through a peep-hole hidden behind a painting. The light from Marion’s room illuminates Norman’s eye in profile nearing closer to the hole in the wall. The camera shifts to Norman’s point of view and instantly implicates the viewer in the voyeurism. We are both shocked at his invasion of her privacy and yet cannot turn away. Spying on Marion getting undressed invites us to witness the cause of Norman’s arousal and the manifestation of his desire from behind a wall- forever kept apart from any possible sexual gratification. Moments later, the famous shower scene occurs.

In ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’ by Tania Modleski (1988), Modleski outlines how “In Film Studies, Hitchcock is often viewed as the archetypal misogynist, who invites his audience to indulge their most sadistic fantasies against the female.” In this way, the shower scene is perhaps an opportunity for the presumed male audience to see their deep-set sadistic desires played out on screen. This idea is emphasised in Laura Mulvey’s famous article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). If this scene was in reverse (as in, the camera viewpoint was from Marion’s perspective) the effectiveness of the scene would be lost, as Modleski (in ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’) concludes that though, “Psycho [is] a film which punishes audiences for their illicit voyeuristic desires…they ignore the fact that within the film not only are women objects of the male gaze, they are also recipients of most of the punishment.”

Many aspects in the shower scene hint at the theme of voyeurism and looking. When Marion enters the shower, she is visibly delighted in its baptismal qualities, relieved in her decision to return the money. The shower head could resemble an eye, looking down, offering her a chance for redemption. After her shocking murder, her blood is left to run down the plughole, the water still running. This then turns into a shot of Marion’s eye (an eye which saw her killer and faced up to her ‘punishment’) with a look of terror still on her face, and the water still running in the background. Hitchcock always drew storyboards before every scene he ever filmed, and so it is not entirely impertinent to presume that all of these allusions to the voyeuristic eye were purposely included. The book-ending of Marion’s lifeless eye and Norman’s peeping Tom eye, and the counter-clockwise flushing toilet (almost) ridding Marion of her sin with the water running counter-clockwise down the plughole, all highlight Hitchcock’s continued focus on the conduct and aspects of a voyeur.

psycho-shower

Furthermore in Laura Mulvey’s article, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, she argued  how the conditions of the cinema theatre practically invite people to objectify women in the anonymity of darkness. Hitchcock understood the workings of the cinema environment and even manipulated them by adopting a famous campaign to prevent cinema-goers from walking into Psycho mid-way through the film (a practice unheard of at this time). In his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock emphasised how much he worked to manipulate the viewer and see only what he allowed them to: “…the game with the audience is fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was manipulating them like an organ.” (Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Hitchcock, 269) For example, Hitchcock knew that many people would be expecting to see a star like Janet Leigh to be present for much of the film. He played on the enticing images of Leigh in a brassiere on the movie posters and punished the viewer by killing her character in the first 47 minutes of the movie.

As well as Psycho, films such as Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954) and Notorious (1946) all deal with the notion of looking, both in their plots and in the artistry of the film-making. Since so much of Hitchcock’s films are based in psychoanalysis, one cannot underplay the importance of the human psyche when judging what we can and cannot see in films such as these. So much of what we have since learned from Freud deal with the conscious eye and the subconscious reaction (Norman’s attraction to Marion (conscious) plus ‘mother’s’ violent reaction to his sexual desire (subconscious)).

In The Times article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Psycho, directors were asked to recall their experience and interpretation of the film. Wes Craven the director of Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream movies explained how Psycho was “almost pornographic in the way it impacted on people at the time.” This statement is still true today. More than any one scene in the picture, the film as a whole was an overwhelming visceral experience aimed at alerting the senses, especially sight. Whether you want to or not, you just can’t stop looking:  and as Thelma Ritter concludes in Rear Window (1954), “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms.”

psycho (1)

‘Hitchcock’ starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as Alma Reville and concerning the making of Psycho is in UK cinemas on 8th February 2013. Watch the trailer.