Every Halloween, we present a week’s worth of perfect holiday programming.
Unfriended: Dark Web
The template for the perfect scary story is pretty much set in stone, and it’s unlikely that any technological advancement is going to change that. The ghost tales devised by the Victorian writer M.R. James at the beginning of the 20th century will remain the bedrock for the genre as we know it. Though there had been forerunners of the form in the mid 18th century, from such writers as Charles Dickens and Sheridan Le Fanu, both of whom James cited as essential influences, he alighted upon and would consistently return to a basic, endlessly reproducible scenario: an antiquarian or scholar, usually fusty, male, and set in his ways, comes into possession of a relic, manuscript or other object of mysterious provenance and great interest, and this item turns out in some way to be haunted and/or coveted by the being who once owned it.
His possession of this forbidden artifact—which he was led to via his curiosity more than an overt thirst for transgression—wreaks havoc. Sometimes it merely forces him to come to terms with his own calm, logical, nonspiritual way of seeing the world, as in James’s 1904 masterpiece “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and sometimes it unleashes a force that becomes a quite literal threat on his life, as in “A Warning to the Curious” or “Count Magnus.” It’s a scenario that appealed specifically to James, who was more of an antiquarian and academic than a writer in the first place, knocking out about a story a year, usually when Christmas was coming around, so he could read them to his students by candlelight at Kings College or Eton, where he served as provost. By all accounts a stodgy, conservative fussbudget, and likely a closet case, James was fearful of what he saw as a rapidly changing world, a fear that may have made him hopelessly backwards-looking, but which contributed to a rich, collection of exquisitely written, pared down stories that are still able to give us shivers more than a century later.
James’s stories are bound to stay evergreen because every generation of the post-industrial western world thinks they’re living in the most rapidly technologically advancing period yet known to man. The ghost story as we know it was a reaction to the changes afoot in secular modernist society of the 19th century, and to the chasm opening up between life as it had been lived and the unseen forces that now seemed to be carrying it along. While ghosts—the repressed past intruding upon the present—can symbolize anti-progress, they can also be gathering clouds of doom, pointing towards an unsure future.
One of the few recent horror movies that gave me the particularly Jamesian pit-of-stomach dread that comes from peeking a little too far below the surface of our seemingly safe everyday existence is 2018’s Unfriended: Dark Web, Stephen Susco’s rigorously conceived sequel to the also impressive yet more predictably moralizing Unfriended (2014). It’s perhaps a film that few would upon first glance consider classical or elegantly shaped, yet Dark Web’s ruthless exploitation of contemporary fears—of losing one’s identity, of being found out, of making one wrong misstep that has everlasting consequences—are firmly rooted in the scary story template. In “Oh Whistle,” the young professor Perkins absconds with an ancient, hieroglyphic-laden whistle he discovers buried in the sand amongst the groynes of a coastal town in eastern England; he later makes the mistake of blowing it. In Unfriended: Dark Web, our ostensible hero Matias (Colin Woodell), pilfers a laptop from a coffee house’s lost and found; it’s not as magical as the strange artifact buried on a rocky shore, but it’s useful for his purposes, and, like Perkins, he definitely should have left it where found it.
It’s impossible to continue talking about an Unfriended film without describing its singular aesthetic gimmick, which is its seamless appearance of taking place entirely in one unbroken “take” on a laptop’s desktop screen. Constructed of a complex network of open app windows, of Facebook and Skype conversations, of Google searches and sinister file transfers, the film is a single, multi-windowed screen, which reflects back its user’s mounting anxieties as he slowly comes to realize that the laptop he scored is not as “clean” as he had hoped. Poor sweet Matias only wanted to use the computer to finish making an app that will help him communicate with his girlfriend, Amaya, who’s deaf. As he keeps receiving panicked and angry messages, demanding that he return it where he found it, his perspective becomes ours; every breach of his privacy feels like an intrusion of our own. It’s a visual composition that constantly doubles us as viewers, as we’re both looking at Matias—his face is usually on cam—and looking at what he’s looking at: it’s an effective expression of 21st-century identity crisis, in which, fully cognizant of being under eternal surveillance, we become hyper-aware of our own presence and physicality.
As in the classic ghost story, the owners of the object are coming back to claim it—in this case black-hooded figures who might be real, but who appear as staticky, pixellated manifestations of otherworldly evil. Or perhaps underworldly evil: as the title implies, this thing goes deep, man, all the way down to the heavily encrypted world of darknet that has inspired countless contemporary urban legends, here envisioned as a journey to Hades by rowboat, animated with rudimentary, Atari-era graphics. As though they’ve been hit with a fatal computer virus, all of his friends—who have gathered in their respective spaces to partake of “game night”—also are, in a sense, infected by association. The film’s logic is like a less literal Ringu: as soon as one sees the horrifying images, there’s no way back. The excavations of the dark web are essentially files buried deep within our collective subconscious. And rather than paint Matias’s friends as a group of hapless, self-involved millennials, Susco twists the knife by making the group cruelly likeable.
The simplicity of the single-screen gimmick belies the escalating twists and turns of the plot, which leave you even more hopeless with each passing minute—hopeless not just that Matias, Amaya, and their buddies will get out of this alive but also hopeless for the future of humanity. Unfriended: Dark Web is a morbid, cynical piece of work, ultimately putting the fate of these characters in the hands of anonymous users who treat people’s lives like Friday night entertainment. Matias’s desperate attempts to stay on course, solve this terrible game, and come out alive feel pointless well before the nasty conclusion. It made me feel even worse to think that Olivier Assayas’s demonlover came to similar conclusions about our relationship to gaming and technology fifteen years earlier.
Yet if Unfriended: Dark Web scared me—and it did—it’s only because, for ninety minutes, it made me think that I was scared of my computer. The film is exploitative in the most effective way, testing my own fears. If I click on a bad link, or press send on a regrettable email, or tweet something inappropriate I cannot take back, is my life over? It made me believe, even for a moment, that the contemporary technologies we rely on are nothing more than portals to other worlds—much worse worlds. Of course it got to me. Warnings to the curious never go out of style. —Michael Koresky
On March 21st, 1974, the BBC aired a mystical curiosity entitled Penda’s Fen, which, according to contemporaneous eyewitness and press accounts, struck and captivated its viewers in an uncommon fashion for a TV program before disappearing quickly into the mists. The film received only a single additional airing on the channel 16 years later. Penda’s Fen was written by playwright David Rudkin and directed by under-sung stalwart of British cinema Alan Clarke, who, about a decade out from producing his most renowned works, was in the midst of a run of jobs helming episodes of the anthology series Play for Today, featuring original teleplays and adaptations.
The film follows soon-to-be 18-year-old lad Stephen through a series of visionary awakenings as he begins to tread upon the shaky ground of adulthood. As in Britain in this immediately pre-Thatcherite moment, so in Stephen: within the boy’s pale, fragile frame, crises of sexual identity, politics, tradition and religion are being waged. His father is the local vicar, but the boy seems far more rigorously orthodox in his interpretation of the Gospel. He blasts British composer Sir Edward William Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius so loudly his mother turns off the record player. He ascribes to a modern brand of reactionary politics, but is continually tempted to delve into his country’s mythic agrarian past; meanwhile his father discourses at length and with no small amount of erudition on the fascinating intermingling of Christian and Pagan cultures that have helped define contemporary Britain. He dresses in the uniform of his all-boy’s military school, but it is revealed early in the film that this interest in appearing cleaned and pressed is partly to impress the hunky local milk boy who shows up at his door every morning.
As in Elgar’s Gerontius, dreams and visions will serve as vehicles for the passage to knowledge in Penda’s Fen. We watch as the tightly wound Stephen experiences a daily existence in which the sureties of his childhood beliefs—in his religion, his country, his tastes, his future and, even, the provenance of his parentage—are successively rocked; his only outlet for processing these contrasting feelings comes during sleep. His nighttime adventures are strange affairs, at times homoerotic and featuring the milk boy. At other times a frightful stone-faced demon appears and perches on his chest in bed. Before long, Stephen’s visions creep into his waking life as in an extended afternoon sequence spent in the presence of the long-dead Elgar. Stephen is beset upon from all sides with options to define himself, and it is unclear for much of the film where his ultimate allegiances will settle.
If these dreams and waking visions of Stephen’s are often uneasy rather than outwardly frightening, it is clear that something is not well in his home of Pinvin, a small shire in the West Midlands. One night, a boy out for a joyride relieves himself in the fields and comes back to his friends with his hand burnt to a crisp, yelling about a man in the fire. There is much talk in the village of possible nearby nuclear testing, of secretive government programs buried beneath hills that once might have been home to fairies and pagan kings. The town’s name, Pinvin, is an evolution from “Penda’s fen”—King Penda of Mercia being a 7th-century pagan king who waged war, for a time successfully, against encroaching Christianity; a “fen” an often flooded marshy area, many of which were drained for mundane agricultural purposes centuries later. Even in the town’s name we find a rich, ongoing frisson between Britain’s past and present.
Penda’s Fen features familiar trappings of scary movies—there are jump scares and touches of body horror, and a lingering potential for some undefined malevolence to descend. But mostly we witness a boy grappling with his upbringing and himself. It doesn’t terrify or disgust, but it does offer stranger, uncannier pleasures, similar to those popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s by occultist author Arthur Machen (who somehow recently figured heavily in the fourth chapter of Mariano Llinás’s La Flor). Instead of frights, Machen conjured up worlds behind worlds, unexpected ecstasies to be found in unruly nature for those who would dare to pierce the veil of everyday reality. It’s a vision in which a golden sunset comes bearing the palpable thrill of dangerous nighttime. And where naked trees on a skyline bespeak of an eternal, unknowable consciousness that counts time in deeper ways than humans can fathom. Clarke often cuts to landscape shots that seem intent of capturing something of the thrilling cosmic possibilities of Machen’s The Great God Pan or The White People.
Penda’s Fen is now something of a legend in its home country. Time Out London chose the film as one of the 100 best of all British movies, and it has even inspired a collection of appreciative essays published by Strange Attractor, a UK purveyor of unusual and magickal texts. (The film is now available on Blu-ray, and for those immediately curious there is a YouTube link featuring a delightfully campy BBC introductory sequence.) Throughout, Clarke’s brusque, unadorned filming style pairs unexpectedly well with Rudkin’s florid, visionary scenario, though, for his part, Clarke claims to have not fully understood the screenplay. The director’s later ambient thrillers Contact and Christine are threaded through with menace and hints of violence, and, here, similarly unsparing shot lengths and simple setups place us deeply in the uneasy space of Stephen’s perspective, heightening the dread merely by looking directly at it. At the film’s close, Stephen runs for the barren hills where he is confronted by one vision of a possible Britain, but rejects it, calling on aid from pagan Penda instead. In with the old, out with the new. —Jeff Reichert
A deep obsession has taken hold of someone that you don’t even know is watching you, studying you, assessing you for parts. The horror of any stalker film revolves around this dissonance, where elaborate logic clashes with arbitrary monomania. Every gesture is ripe for close reading, feeding a one-sided projection.
At the start of William Wyler’s mod-Gothic 1965 film The Collector, we seem to be in the headspace of butterfly collector Freddie Clegg (Terence Stamp). Evoking John Fowles’s diaristic novel, Freddie narrates his purchase of a cottage estate for its remote location, and the chirpy score and brilliantly sunlit fields seem to reflect his state of mind. But that perspective falls away once Freddie chloroforms art student Miranda Gray (Samantha Eggar) and locks her in his basement, and we’re tasked with sussing out his motives. When Miranda awakens, she finds herself in a dungeon. It’s been newly flipped to resemble an antique-y bed and breakfast, but frilly lampshades only amplify the creepiness of the cold, stone walls. There’s a bookshelf of early 20th-century art books calibrated to her expected taste, a fully stocked closet, and, way too intimately, an underwear drawer.
She initially suspects she’s been taken for ransom, or for sexual captivity. When Freddie arrives with a breakfast tray, he insists on purer intent, more unsettling for its warped rationale: “I want you to be my guest,” he explains, venturing the idea that Miranda might fall in love with him if she simply spent time with him. Wyler spins unease from Freddie’s practicality, as he puts forth a façade of propriety and hospitality—and repeats that he would never take lecherous advantage—to frame her imprisonment as an utterly fair, even humane, controlled experiment.
Though this was only Stamp’s third screen credit, he was already playing against type: he broke out in 1962 as the blisteringly sexy title character of Billy Budd, and by the end of the decade, he would obliterate bourgeois complacency by sleeping with an entire family in Pasolini’s Teorema. To pull off a convincing incel—so successfully that the character would make it onto the cover of a Smiths single—he’s cosmetically made over like a waxy Addams Family member, almost straitjacketed into constricting three-piece suits. He brings a disconcerting physical commitment to the performance, all tightly hunched shoulders and stick-straight arms, evincing a reflexive repression before erratically acting out. His blue eyes deaden into lasers trained on Miranda’s every move, as though trying to absorb her. Ultimately, Freddie seems to stare right through her: he dissolves her personhood into a series of data points, a specimen for observation. Likewise, his childlike delivery imparts an ominous detachment—when they speak, there’s no sense that he can relate to Miranda beyond the version of her in his imagination.
Eggar’s Miranda scrambles forcefully against a mounting sense of doom as she gradually realizes that her humanity means nothing to Freddie. To compound Eggar’s character’s isolation, Wyler instructed everyone on set to give her the silent treatment. Instead, she’s an apparition of deep-rooted class conflict: Freddie first became obsessed with her on a shared bus route in Reading, where he extrapolated a silver-spoon upbringing compared to his own working-class roots. Miranda’s art school background makes him bristle with memories of his social outsider status; while she tries to empathize with him about art and literature—and maybe convince him to free her—he lashes out, deeply distressed, at what he perceives as class condescension. While Miranda desperately grasps for any pathos that she might be able to tug in her favor, she comes up against Freddie’s dead-end dreams of romance: the only way he can conceive of conquering this cycle of resentment.
Even as a delusional ideal, Freddie’s version of love seems to preclude any real interaction, or even sex; Freddie breaks a couple of times to caress Miranda, but he grows frustrated by a falsehood within the gesture, defeated by the impossibility of her reciprocation. At one chillingly ambiguous point, when Miranda is unconscious, that dynamic is left open-ended. Transgression is especially frightening as we watch Miranda exhaust all of her escape strategies, which recasts Freddie’s initial conditions as smoke and mirrors. The unique control that he seeks is paralleled by his butterfly collection, the only possessions to which we are privy: now-lifeless aesthetic objects, pinned inside a case for safekeeping. So, too, does he want Miranda to be real and not-real, compliant while theoretically living and breathing. —Chloe Lizotte
Someone’s Watching Me!
American televisions in the 1970s delivered some of the era’s nerviest, scariest horror moviemaking. The relatively inexpensive and speedy productions meant writing, performance, and atmosphere-on-the-cheap had to furnish fright in lieu of studio budgets, in many cases forcing the kind of ingenuity that had powered scrappy theatrical successes from the decade past, like Night of the Living Dead. Steven Spielberg’s proving-ground killer truck movie Duel (1971) was made for $450,000 and looks and moves like it might have cost at least thrice that—it achieves its intensity mostly through a virtuosic visual economy. Short stories by Duel screenwriter Richard Matheson also formed the basis for the hair-raising Karen Black showcase Trilogy of Terror (1975); working frequently with producer/director Dan Curtis (sort of the Roger Corman of the subgenre), the I Am Legend author had a hand in many of the best ’70s TV horror entries, including The Night Stalker (1972) and Dead of Night (1977).
A majority of these movies (1970’s Crowhaven Farm and 1977’s Night Drive are two other examples from the bounty), often hyped as special broadcasts or “movies of the week,” were directed by capable toilers with names like Richard T. Heffron and John Llewellyn Moxey, but with Someone’s Watching Me! (1978), John Carpenter joined the ranks of dabbling young auteurs like Spielberg, Tobe Hooper (Salem’s Lot, a bigger-budget exception to the norm), and Curtis Harrington (Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell), flaunting their dollar-stretching ability and experimenting with the alternative production methods offered by television assignments. In 1976, Carpenter was in his late twenties with Dark Star (1974) and that year’s Assault on Precinct 13 to his credit when Warner Bros. first hired him to write a feature script based on a story about a Chicago woman who made the newspapers after being violently menaced by a voyeur. When eventually repositioned for TV and ready, it took only 18 days to shoot, and NBC aired it on November 29, 1978 as a "Tales of the Unexpected Special," despite it having no connection to the TV horror anthology show Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected.
To Carpenter fans watching today, the film—with its bold, graceful camera movements, lucid spatial coherence, paranoiac themes, and expert pacing—is immediately apparent as the work of the stylist behind Assault and the production he commenced immediately after, Halloween (1978). Its story, shifted to Los Angeles, follows modern single woman Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), a director of live television who secures a job at station KJHC (the last three initials are Carpenter’s, in one of many little winks), and an apartment in the Lovecraftily named Arkham Tower, a state-of-the-art high-rise with “80 miles of wiring and cables,” computerized air-conditioning, smart elevators, and every other then-modish convenience. Arkham’s also where we just saw (in telescope-vision) a female tenant fall to her death soon after being told “sweet dreams” and “I don’t give up” by a raspy caller. The latter’s prying telescope soon alights on Leigh, who becomes the new recipient of similar unbidden, bullying phone calls, as well as gifts from a made-up travel agency called Excursions Unlimited. When Leigh isn’t being harassed from the neighboring tower at home, she is fostering a friendship with lesbian colleague Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) and romance with philosophy prof bar pickup Paul (David Birney).
In Carpenter and cinematographer Robert B. Hauser’s frames, negative space becomes a threatening void waiting to be filled by a darting peeper, and stylish tricks like reverse dolly zooms and increasingly deafening phone rings ratchet up the tension, reinforcing the nightmarishness of Leigh’s predicament, and playing on the fears of any single woman attempting to live alone in a big city. It’s especially upsetting to watch Leigh tormented because, as portrayed by the prettily gap-toothed Hutton, she’s so lovably goofy, sitting cross-legged on the couch, awkwardly joking with her Arkham real estate agent, and constantly deprecating herself with spoken thoughts like “Dummy, you meet a man and suddenly it’s all toes,” or (into the mirror) “You are one of the world’s true bozos.” Upon first meeting Paul, she breaks the ice by introducing herself twice, and confesses her fear of “being raped by dwarves—you could’ve been on stilts.”
The cut-rate Saul Bass-ish opening credits of this voyeurism tale tip off the Hitchcock influence straightaway, and Carpenter most explicitly homages Rear Window in a nerve-shredding scene in which Leigh breaks into the suspected perpetrator’s apartment while Sophie watches through a telescope (a gift from the stalker!) across the way from Leigh’s apartment. (Barbeau, who also featured in Carpenter’s The Fog and Escape from New York, as well as Creepshow and Swamp Thing, and married the filmmaker, brings sarcastic humanity to the role of a matter-of-factly out gay woman and loyal pal.) Another slickly orchestrated scene has Leigh angrily and ill-advisedly marching to the laundry room with only a letter opener to confront her tormentor; slowly crouching underneath a rusty drain grate, a suddenly fearful Leigh holds her breath while a shadowy male ashes a cigarette overhead. As he did in Assault, Carpenter masterfully exploits the invasion of vulnerable, confined spaces as a deep source of terror.
As in They Live (1988), Carpenter’s ace suspense set pieces supplement an arch satire of consumerism, the irony here being that the same technological advances that afford Leigh such a comfortable big city lifestyle are the ones that allow her watcher to monitor her every word and movement with cutting-edge listening bugs and viewing devices. Though Seinfeld fans might be distracted that a primary suspect is played by Len “Uncle Leo” Lesser, Someone’s Watching Me! maintains its vice grip through the payoff. Carpenter returned to the small screen the next year with an Elvis biopic starring Kurt Russell. In 1993, for Showtime, he directed Body Bags with Hooper. That Someone’s Watching Me! could without question pass for a theatrical feature should surprise no one familiar with either Carpenter’s artistic standards or the surprisingly high level of quality that marked ’70s made-for-TV horror. —Justin Stewart
The Queen of Spades
From I Walked with a Zombie, through The Wicker Man to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, xenophobia is a much-used but seldom remarked-upon component of horror. The embedding of the protagonist-victim into alien surroundings is second nature to horror writers and grimly familiar to audiences; in this set-up, every discernible distinction from the character’s norms and way of life escalates the fear quotient. The entire story of Thorold Dickinson’s 1949 Ealing classic The Queen of Spades is set in pre-revolutionary Russia, but here the xenophobia is reversed. Our proto-antagonist, Suvorin (Anton Walbrook), begins the film disgusted by the sight of two gypsy performers—a singer and a dancer—in a tavern. His precise complaint is unspoken, but it is clear he sees them as prostitutes and mongrels. However, their act is not merely sublime, it is bewitching. And together with the haunting chiaroscuro of Peeping Tom cameraman Otto Heller’s photography, it elevates this elegant melodrama (based on a Pushkin short story) to a lavish curio from its very first scene. What’s more, its rich, hallucinatory aesthetic completely disavows its indigent, stagebound production history (St. Petersburg was recreated on a shoestring by veteran Ealing designer William Kellner in a tiny, creaking film studio in Welwyn Garden City; Thorold Dickinson was given the director’s job a week before shooting started, following a dispute with the producer’s first choice). Suvorin’s contemptuous reaction to the beauty of what the filmmakers and the women create in this exquisite opening sequence tells us from the get-go almost everything we need to know about him.
In Walbrook’s unself-conscious hands, Suvorin is simply vile: an intensely proud but unerringly damaged husk of a man, he invites no compassion and unequivocally deserves what’s coming to him. What’s more, he is a virtual deserter, professing his admiration for Napoleon (“a general at 26”). There is no sense of the film entreating its audience to sympathize or even identify with this embittered, callous individual who responds to his kindly batman’s dutiful “Goodnight sir” with a venomously dry “get out.” As an officer in the tsarist army from a working-class background, he cannot socialize with his comrades because he has no money, so he pretends it is beneath him to play cards.
Too proud and impatient to work or wait, Suvorin will stumble upon a supernatural get-rich-quick scheme, courtesy of a book pushed on him by an ornery bookseller: “The Strange Secrets of the Count de Saint Germain.” It tells the tale (dramatized in flashback) of a Countess—the most beautiful woman in Russia—who fifty years earlier had sold her soul in return for the secret of winning at cards and went on to make her fortune. We are not told how her story ends. It is during this flashback that the audience is abruptly confronted with a devilry that the film had hitherto not entirely foreshadowed. As the Countess goes to meet with her dreadful contractual counterparty (“Tchort,” aka Satan himself) in the bowels of a stately home, she disappears: her character fades to black; and behind this emptiness we hear only her chilling scream before a rapid cut. Her ordeal is never explained but she reappears, altered for good.
Suvorin, undeterred, will soon come to realize that this legendary Countess is still alive. Obsessed, he immediately concocts a hateful plan to seduce her ward (Yvonne Mitchell) so that he can get close to the Countess and learn her secret. The older Countess is played with tremendous authority by the titanic Shakespearian actress Edith Evans, making her debut in talking pictures—extraordinarily, given her fame and vocal singularity—at the age of 61. (She had created two roles for George Bernard Shaw and given legendary performances of Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth on the stage—later she would provide the definitive Lady Bracknell on screen.) Evans’s hyper-realistic performance (which is not to say naturalistic, as nothing about the character itself is natural) is weighed down as much by the rigors of a cursed, emotionally solitary life as by the short hundredweight of furs she wears. The Countess is talked of in the town as a witch and, like Dickens’s Miss Havisham, seems to assume her emotionally zombified fate with aplomb. The film does not shirk the cruelty of Suvorin’s scheme: in a startling sequence, a shot of the scribbling Suvorin is intercut with the sleeping ward’s face, upon which an extreme close-up of a spider is superimposed, clambering across its web towards its prey. The effect is both limpidly poetic and strangely surreal, as if Luis Buñuel suddenly broke into the editing room. Later, during a climactic sequence depicting Suvorin’s descent into madness, Dickinson employs elaborate sound effects based on reversed recordings of jet engines and taped newsreel excerpts of bomb blasts during the Blitz.
Anton Walbrook is captivating in his unbridled performance style and his total espousal of an old-school, self-destructive and tragic protagonist. But there is something more, too. Walbrook was one of those great film actors who made full and courageous use in his work of his essential otherness (he was an Austrian Jewish homosexual working in a foreign country and language). Although a classically trained actor, in nearly all his memorable English-language performances—but most notably Gaslight (1940)—he drew explicitly on his alien heritage (most obviously represented by his Germanic baritone voice and clipped diction) while in The Queen of Spades he appears to invite the audience to side against him for subconscious reasons other than what he says and what he does. Starting with his accent (his fellow officers and “friends” all have the expected English received pronunciation of the Russian army), he also walks and holds himself differently, gazes inexplicably into the distance with his piercing eyes, even his diminutive stature marks him out: it is less psychosis—at first—than disorientation. It puts the audience, seeking a hero to identify with, onto the back foot, which contributes to the viewer’s own ongoing perplexity.
But what grounds this moral fantasy tale in its own theater of horror is not the eye-catching performances, the arch romantic style, the sudden outbursts of terror-inducing action or even the scenes of atmospheric, mist-enshrouded haunting—it’s the oppressive sense of a doomed humanity, of characters emptied of their consciences and resigned to a cynical merry-go-round of greed and heartlessness. When calamity inevitably ensues at the card table, the awfulness of Suvorin’s fate mirrors his own cold-blooded, venal view of life. His scream of anguish—high-pitched, sonorously resonant of the Countess’s own—tears through the fabric of the film, bringing his dismal, hate-fueled existence to a mercifully premature end. —Julien Allen
“The psychologists were interested in my inner life,” goes the psychopathic narrator in the preface of Austrian director Gerald Kargl’s first and only feature film, Angst. Banned all over Europe at the time of its release, and only recently made available in the United States, the 1983 film (also known as Schizophrenia), considers the provocations that make criminal psychology, and the serial killer genre, so popularly alluring—and bites back against our reasoning impulses. Consider Hannibal Lecter’s gourmet preparations of human meat; The House That Jack Built and Jack’s architectural aspirations; Seven’s John Doe and his canonical text–informed methodology. These marvelously deranged minds unite barbarism and intellectual prowess as one formidable foe, dignifying our fascination with the challenge. The least interesting “minds to hunt”—to riff off David Fincher’s crime series Mindhunter—are the dumb brutes, the basic slasher villains with their crude, predictable bloodlust. Yet Angst takes an interest in the “inner life” of such a brute. Here, Kargl seems to mock the systematic breaking down of madness into case study. Indeed, there’s comfort in outwitting and understanding a sick mind. Instead, Angst draws zealously from a killer’s dizzying chaotic nature, laid bare in all its cruel and pathetic hedonism.
Angst depicts roughly 24 hours between a man’s release from prison and his capture. Played by Erwin Leder, the nameless killer feels no guilt, so subject is he to his carnal desires. Restless and excited, the man cannot sleep through his last night in captivity, he confesses in an extended voiceover narration that lasts through to the end of the film. With freedom comes the possibility of satisfaction: he will kill again, he assures himself. In an unsuspecting world of bourgeois normies, his presence is conspicuously deviant—his eyes shifty, his angular frame hunched like Kinski’s Nosferatu dressed in ill-fitting clothes from another era. As the man searches aimlessly but enthusiastically for victims, cinematographer Zbigniew Rybczynski’s camera follows him in expressionistic high and low angles, drawing back into spectral crane shots as he spontaneously crosses lawns and streets with the erratic movements of a purely instinctual being. (Gaspar Noé’s immersive, whirligig filmmaking owes much to Angst, which he considers one of his greatest influences.).
Somewhere between the blunt nihilism of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and the charged eroticism of a sleazy B-slasher, Angst sees its protagonist ripping through the sedated, grey world of an Austrian nowhere. Kargl develops a visual language that renders on all fronts the ache and anxiety, the hunger and impetuousness of a fleeting day and night desperately seized. When the man first stumbles upon a gas station café, he’s overcome with the possibilities (though ironically, he will return to the same place in the film’s closing arrest scene, a circumscription that suggests the limits of his transgressive behavior). Rybczynski’s camera glances the cracked, scarlet lips of two possible female victims across the counter in close-up; dreamy puffs of hair and cigarette smoke; the narrator audibly gnawing on a large bratwurst; the faces of concerned onlookers folded into the mix as the man grows visibly excitable in a flutter of rapid cuts.
The man has no master plan, only an animal sense of opportunity. He wings it, as it were, until the right conditions are presented, which he finds in an isolated home, empty, save for some kitchen utensils, a stray bed in the living room, and a paraplegic man who witlessly calls the killer “Papa.” Off moments like the paraplegic’s misidentification, or a female cab driver who resembles the killer’s earliest sexual partner, direct the narrator into recalling details from his early life. Abuse and abandonment, animal mutilation, a premature sexually sadistic relationship: these confessions add up to the making of a monster, preempting the film’s conclusive notes that drily announce that the killer was “driven by a sadistic tendency caused by his unstable childhood.” Such a diagnosis comes off like a banal pronouncement, an impotent afterthought.
The hunt ensues and we confront, in all his raving physicality, the sheer ugliness of the man’s presence as he attempts to enact his desires. Once the remaining residents arrive, the killer strikes, panting and wide-eyed as he races to lock the exits and disable a young woman, the most able-bodied member, by frantically tying her limbs to a doorknob. Shaky handheld close-ups show the killer’s intoxicated expression amid his choking of an older woman; the brutality made all the more jarring by the stunned silence and physical inferiority of his victim. In his shambolic movements, the killer oozes desperation, a man made king for a day with all the anarchic energy of a hyperactive child. Recalling the suspense-generating canine function in John Carpenter’s The Thing, the film only ever averts from the killer’s state of mind to consider the murdered family’s doe-eyed pet dachshund as he nonchalantly inspects the house and its new visitor. The pup remains an ambiguous presence, offering doses of mild pathos held at an unsettling distance within the animal’s fundamental unknowability, while mirroring the killer’s own impotence.
Yet turning away from the violence on-screen, we are sucked into the killer’s memories, the blood-curdling and infinite stuff of his imagination—which proves just as horrific as any visualized atrocities. Kargl ensures there is no escape from the killer’s “inner life,” giving us and the psychologists precisely what we asked for. In the killer’s narration we hear the stray details of his trauma, the horror of his yet unrealized fantasies. In a cab, steady voiceover recalling violent memories clashes with the driver’s mounting alarm as she senses something wrong with the man in her backseat, leaning awkwardly forward as he tries to make a weapon of his shoelaces. Krautrock pioneer and Manhunter (1986) composer Klaus Schulze’s score, a current of electric drones and drips, swells as these elements collide. The panicked driver, the frantic killer, and his chillingly flat narration of vaguely related thoughts combine to create a mood of dissociative dread that isolates the killer’s determination, and registers his potential victim as a loud, wriggling piece of meat.
Some might criticize the film as the mere formal choreography of lunacy, yet below the surface Angst is gutsy in its linking of murder to the essential striving of desire, which is by its nature arbitrary and gratuitous. A final race down an underground tunnel has the killer tearing into his female victim, then burying himself in her blood in an act of sexual climax. But part of what makes Angst so distressing is how the man hungrily, stupidly strives in the face of certain failure. After drowning the paraplegic man and essentially scaring an old woman to death, he notes in frustration of these highly expected but fleeting moments of fulfillment: “I had imagined it differently.” Immediately after he hatches a plan to show future victims the corpses of the old ones—foolishly and hastily loading the bodies into a stolen vehicle—his joyride is cut short by suspicious cops. The evidence is conveniently on hand. Thwarted again. He might say: Better to have desired and lost than to not have desired at all. —Beatrice Loayza
Amazing Stories: “Go to the Head of the Class”
The Robert Zemeckis who drills full bore into genre is the Robert Zemeckis I’ve always responded to the most. The time travel story mechanics of Back to the Future, the California noir template of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and the Hitchcock stylings of What Lies Beneath are certainly not presented without significant twists, but their internal genre logic remains: they move along with all the requisite beats, and so thoroughly satisfy audience expectation that they never feel schematic. While What Lies Beneath and Death Becomes Her are his closest experimentations with horror, his purest expressions of this most historically disreputable of genres have been shorts made for television anthology series, including the playful noir “You, Murderer” and his deranged Santa slasher “All Through the House” for the HBO series Tales from the Crypt, and, most impressively, “Go to the Head of the Class,” his delightful Legend of Sleepy Hollow riff for the Spielberg-produced eighties NBC show Amazing Stories. In all cases, Zemeckis descends into pastiche without burying himself in winking reference.
One way to know the success of a self-conscious genre exercise is how it’s taken by those most genuine, guileless viewers: children. To put it simply, Zemeckis’s TV shorts uniformly terrified little me. My memories of watching “Go to the Head of the Class” as a seven-year-old upon its first airing on November 12, 1986 are quite evocative and specific. The episode, which was part of the ill-fated anthology show’s second season, had been heavily hyped in promotional ads, both because it was one of only two episodes in the series’ entire run that lasted a full hour, and because it was directed by Robert Zemeckis, then a Hollywood superstar following the previous year’s release of Back to the Future. (In amusing counterpoint, Amazing Stories’ most prominent horror episode from the prior season, “Mirror, Mirror,” was directed by Martin Scorsese but, perhaps as evidence of his precarious status in the Hollywood firmament in the mid eighties, the director’s participation was not at all comparably hyped.) Adding to the excitement was that this episode was to star Christopher Lloyd, Doc Brown himself, in a change of pace as a diabolical high school teacher. Adding to my anxiety was that looming “Parental Discretion Advised” warning that accompanied the TV ads for the episode, not to mention my mother’s scary-reassuring pre-show promise: “We can turn it off if it gets too scary.”
As it turned out, it got too scary from the very beginning, but I was too mesmerized to want to turn it off. Much like Scorsese had done in his episode, Zemeckis situates us in the film’s mood and genre mindset by opening with footage from an influential B movie. In Scorsese’s case it was the 1966 Hammer Film Plague of the Zombies; for Zemeckis, we first see the climax from William Castle’s hokey-beautiful 1959 The House on Haunted Hill, featuring incredible screamer Carol Ohmart being terrorized by a goofy plastic skeleton dangling along on a wire to the voice of Vincent Price. The footage is from a television left on after hours. As the camera zooms out on the television, presumably following some creepy late show, nighttime dissolves to morning light, and we notice a messy bedroom, strewn with monster paraphernalia—including a skull and crossbones telephone that laughs diabolically as it rings—clearly the private fortress of a ghost-and-ghoul-saturated teen. It belongs to Peter, a suburban-kid underachiever played by perpetually slack-jawed, wide-eyed Scott Coffey, then a poor man’s Eric Stoltz—who was then, by virtue of being replaced in Back to the Future, a poor man’s Michael J. Fox. Peter’s main obsession, even more than the latest episodes of Frightmare Theater, is classmate Cynthia—aka Cyn—his leather-jacket-over-pink-shirt goth-punk crush, played by proto-queer icon Mary Stuart Masterson, photographs of whom are stuffed into nearly every crevice of the room.
Peter’s brand of teen horniness is considered a crime by his Shakespeare-spouting English professor Mr. Beanes, who mocks his students for their “puny, paltry, pubescent, puerile, pedestrian vocabularies” and regales them with a chalkboard-screeching lesson on Macbeth, claiming that “S-E-X” was the real motivation for all its horrors. Beanes is also a sadist whose humiliations include forcing a swaggering jock to swallow an old piece of gum stuck to the bottom of his desk and, the ultimate punishment, making his students “Meet the Misters,” which is basically putting them in torture stress positions as he piles heavy books into each outstretched hand. As played by Lloyd, who’s having a grand old time pivoting away from his cuddly Back to the Future scientist, Beanes is a sweaty, stringy-haired pedant whose scowl makes him look like a cross between Danton and Beethoven. It’s surely no accident that Beanes resembles nothing so much as a bust, disembodied from the rest of his form.
In retaliation for Beanes’s terrorizing of Peter for admitting to copying Cyn’s homework assignment—which was actually a chivalrous save for Cyn, who in fact copied Peter’s paper—the two devise an unholy, E.C. Comics–like revenge plot on Beanes. Playing an album by her favorite goth-rock band Blood Sausage backwards, Cyn comes upon the instructions for a witchlike curse that will get Beanes where he lives: giving the bloviating pedagogue a nasty case of hiccups. The ingredients are the stuff of pure pulp: severed bat wing, dirt from freshly a dug grave, the fingertip of a blood relative, a jar full of live katydids. Of course all of this happens in an echoey family crypt in a graveyard more fog-enshrouded than a John Carpenter coastal getaway. After being unable to snip the tip of the long-dead ancestor’s finger with dull garden shears, Peter, running out of time as the clock reaches its twelfth midnight chime, overzealously throws the skeleton’s entire severed hand into their makeshift cauldron.
Rather than go home and hope for the worst/best, the kids sneak a peek into the window of Beanes’s Gothic Victorian house, which looms behind a wrought-iron gate adorned with a KEEP OUT sign. Instead of the delight of hearing their teacher hiccupping maniacally, Peter and Cyn are met with a disturbing image: Beanes laid out on the floor of his living room, his limp body illuminated by flashes of a rousing storm’s lightning. In a flurry of guilt, the kids try to reverse the curse, laying his unresponsive body out on his bed and finding another incantation. Though in hastily tearing Beanes’s photo out of the school yearbook as a “graven image” to use in the ritual, Peter rips it in half, separating the head from the body. You know what’s coming. The pièce de résistance: the professor’s eyes open, though when his body rises from the bed, his head stays on the pillow. And the severed head is alive and snorting mad.
Zemeckis’s alacrity with cutting-edge special effects—soon to be cemented with the groundbreaking Roger Rabbit—is on full display in the final passages of the episode, revealing the long, intricate curse plot as mere set-up for the extended payoff of seeing the frightening decapitated figure, in overcoat and scarf, running around the creaky, shadowy house and, later, the small town’s dead-leaf-strewn streets, with Lloyd’s screeching head cradled under its arm. Sometimes it’s an animatronic prop with an Aardman animation-like expression, at others it’s Lloyd’s face, smartly concealed in ingeniously placed latex. There’s a primal kick to the image for sure, conflating Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman and strict schoolmaster Ichabod Crane into one unsettling reference point. It’s also a great joke: the teacher that has long intimidated and mocked you for not “using your head” is now literally throwing his at you. It’s like a milder, almost family-friendly version of Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator from the previous year, although this detached head is similarly sex-obsessed: the last time we see it, it’s perched on Peter’s bed, sticking its teasing tongue out at the boy lasciviously.
A dreamlike final scene, set back in the classroom, takes the episode out of the cartoonish and into the realm of the uncanny. “Go to the Head of the Class” ends with a diabolical laugh and a close-up on an expression of exaggerated, frozen horror. The nasty short form of anthology television allowed Zemeckis to remind us that sometimes the monster can’t be defeated. —MK