Why do we subject ourselves to the experience of horror? What prompts us to voluntarily enter fictional worlds that bring us in close contact with painful, difficult questions about our own mortality? In his book The Philosophy of Horror, theorist Noel Carroll tried to rationalize, or at least arrive at a working definition of, the paradoxes crucial to the longevity of the horror genre, in literature, cinema, and elsewhere. There is no easy answer to why we are inevitably drawn to the things we are most repulsed by, though Carroll provocatively puts forth many possibilities, including the awe, catharsis, and psychosexual thrill of that which transcends normal definitions of social or moral acceptability. Furthermore we apply these emotional responses within narratives which arouse a number of emotions—curiosity, skepticism, longing—the resolutions of which can be supremely satisfying. In other words, even if these fictions burrow into our darkest places and make us uncomfortable, ultimately they reaffirm our central belief systems. So the process of being scared in a sense justifies our existence, makes us feel human.
So many things scare us. And so many things that scare us have been exploited by horror movies over the past century, as I’ve come to realize after doing eight years of this annual Great Pumpkins series for Halloween. Many of these fears are of the slow, agonizing death variety. Others are simply of bodily violation. Then there are of course the monsters, those hideous inhuman beings that inspire physical revulsion simply by their presence; and ghosts, manifestations of the inexplicable, forces that surround us yet are invisible or unconquerable and by the very possibility of their existence force us to confront the inherent immateriality and fragility of life.
Basically, if we’ve learned anything from the history of horror fiction, there’s a lot to fear. Yet if all of these fears could be categorized under one larger umbrella definition, it would be the terror of isolation. Death, torment, ghosts, monsters: if confronted with any, we are faced with one vicious truth—our essential solitariness. Is our single greatest fear, finally, loneliness? Horror, then, serves as a reminder that we are ultimately, intractably alone on this insoluble journey, from the day we enter the world until we shuffle off this mortal coil.
Horror films generally don’t rely on narratives of loneliness. A remarkable exception is Roman Polanski’s great 1976 The Tenant, which rounded out his unofficial apartment-house trilogy, following 1965’s Repulsion and 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. Though it’s an anti-thriller of sorts, it’s also a horror film, entirely about a solitary man succumbing to his own paranoia. The film’s demons are internal. It has a monster at its center, but it’s called the self. Designed to be inherently unsatisfying, the film doesn’t feel as sculpted or polished as the earlier films, preferring instead a raggedness in style and perversity in tone that leave the viewer supremely unsettled, even untethered. It doesn’t move ahead, but spirals into ever smaller circles, until it closes in on itself. There are no lessons to be learned, no puzzles to be solved, no answers to be delivered. It ends where it begins. In visualizing the figurative and literal descent of one strange little man, The Tenant stares into a pitch-black void.
The premise is single-minded to the point of hysteria: our imploding, faceless hero, Polish-born Trelkovsky—played with unforgettable, genuinely jarring blandness by Polanski himself—moves into a Parisian apartment where the former tenant, Simone, had attempted to kill herself by jumping off the balcony. He slowly comes to believe that not only are his suspicious neighbors and landlords trying to drive him to do the same, but that they are trying to turn him into Simone. The most fascinating aspect of The Tenant is the general lack of ambiguity in the scenario: grim and inhospitable and xenophobic as those around him (played by a stern, crow-faced crew of aging actors such as Melvyn Douglas, Shelley Winters, Jo Van Fleet, Lila Kedrova) may seem, Trelkovsky’s accusations are so off-the-wall, and his actions so increasingly wonky, that we’re not left to even entertain his thoughts. Rather than invited to share his paranoia, we experience the world through a knowingly mad lens.
The world as seen with his eyes is not a pretty place. As genuinely scary as parts of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby are, Polanski never equaled the surreal horror of much of the imagery in The Tenant. The most shiver-inducing sights in the film are the stock-still figures Trelkovsky sees looking back at him from windows across the courtyard. Teasing him with unwavering stares and impossible immobility, they appear to be expressionless, life-size cardboard cutouts (until, later, they start to move… which is even worse). If Polanski’s character is the film’s darting, nervous bird, these figures serve as his scarecrows, implacable and taunting. The courtyard becomes the site of many other terrifying images, including a trussed-up neighbor in a court-jester mask pointing up at Trelkovsky with fiendish, plastic glee, and a bouncing ball momentarily replaced by a tossed human head as it falls past the window in slow motion. On a plot level, this is dissociated imagery, borderline nonsense—but every image, captured by the great Sven Nykvist, with a nervous camera, hits with the force of a nightmare. The apartment itself begins to be no longer safe: a human tooth buried in a hole in the wall; grasping hands bursting through windows à la Repulsion; furniture that seems to grow in size based on the character’s mental state. And there is of course the figure of Simone herself, lying in the hospital, wrapped in bandages head to toe like a mummy; unable to speak, she wails at Trelkovsky, directly into the camera, with a gaping, gap-toothed mouth and one bloodshot, pleading eye.
There are other characters in The Tenant—including some crass coworkers with whom Trelkovsky doesn’t fit in, and Stella (Isabelle Adjani), the friend of the late Simone, as callous as she is gawkily beautiful—but they all only serve to alienate our main character and reestablish his isolation. Rarely has a horror movie been so aloof, so devoid of tenable confrontations. The Tenant’s fear isn’t just driven by the possibility of losing one’s mind, it’s about the terror of realizing that it’s already happened. Most horror movies are designed to be seen with others; we aid in each other’s catharses. The Tenant is altogether different. To watch it is to be alone. —Michael Koresky
Burn, Witch, Burn!
Women are so often the brunt of violence and the victims of supernatural terrorizing in horror films that it’s refreshing when they assume roles of power—even in villainous ways. Hence the essential problem of contemporary witch narratives, based as they are on Reformation-era anxieties and puritanical fears, and therefore the descendants of age-old misogyny. It’s so ingrained in the culture that even Lars von Trier got a general free pass with Antichrist, a vague investigation/exploitation of these beliefs. For better and for worse, stories about witchcraft will always center on women; their success ultimately depends on how and where they prefer to situate such gender coding. Among the century’s influential supernatural fictions (though it is not widely known beyond cult circles) is Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife, which placed a narrative of witchery in a contemporary, academic setting. Sidney Hayers’s 1962 adaptation of the book, set in a small English college in Cornwall, superbly tows the line between celebrating and condemning its antiheroine, Tansy (Janet Blair), a novice witch who, as her professor husband, Norman (Peter Wyngarde), discovers early on in the film, has been casting spells that she believes will help further his career.
The story pivots on an acknowledgment of the limitations placed on women in society and specifically within this milieu. Rather than remain simply ladylike and supportive, Tansy is revealed as the one pulling the strings. Or is she? One of the most impressive things about Burn, Witch, Burn! is how purposefully ambiguous writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (both also of Twilight Zone fame) leave much of the narrative. Is Norman’s fortunate career indeed a product of Tansy’s spells, or just the result of hard work and the usual process of getting ahead? And, more urgently, is his turn to bad luck due to his forcing Tansy to destroy her totems and trinkets of black magic upon his discovery of them? From her response (and the hiss of their nasty black cat), it’s clear his biggest mistake was tossing into the fireplace his own photograph, which she had kept close to her breast in her necklace locket. In a sense, Burn, Witch, Burn! is predicated on a political gender reversal: Tansy is revealed as the protector, and it’s a role that Norman snatches away from her. Perhaps the true fear in this film is not that she may be a sorceress but that she may be a woman in control.
Of course, ambiguity in most horror films only lasts so long. In his first scene, Norman writes the words “I DO NOT BELIEVE” on the chalkboard during a class on superstition, which immediately marks him as a foolish pragmatist just waiting to be schooled. Claiming superstition to be reflective of humans’ primitive, futile attempt to control one’s environment, Norman, the writer of a thesis titled “Neurosis and the Modern Man,” is the classic skeptic who will have to succumb to all that goes against all his principles and standards of rationality. Wyngarde (seen a year earlier as the enigmatic Quint in The Innocents) is a model of didacticism; it’s endlessly amusing to see the physically compact actor, in his wide array of high-waisted, beltless slacks, slowly turn into a sweaty, stammering mess as he tries to make sense of the spells and counter-spells that make up the film’s thrilling, convoluted second half. Here, the mundane, domestic rhythms of the film’s quiet first act give way to a fantastically overwrought melodrama—it’s Tansy’s scarily deep love for Norman that drives her sorcery, not a hidden evil. Unfortunately for them she’s not the only witch on campus: we come to realize the other male professors’ careers are likewise based upon their wives’ supernatural machinations—which makes it especially dangerous when they’re up for the same promotions.
All of this business could easily have been exploited for comic effect; a better title for the film might have been I Married a Witch, though René Clair claimed that one for Fredric March and Veronica Lake twenty years earlier for an occult romantic comedy. Yet Hayers fashions a fairly serious and often frightening film from this potentially goofy material. Most of the film’s gestures toward real horror are of the Lewton, off-screen variety, including some fitfully chilling Poe-esque rap-rap-rapping at the door at one point, but thanks to a late plot development, there is the need for one major special effect, and it’s a still-impressive one, revealing that, yes, there is indeed a reason for the film’s much worse original British title, Night of the Eagle: the rare case where the U.S. release name change was actually a good decision, however sensationalist.
For the film’s U.S. release, American International Pictures added a lengthy opening—an overture of sorts—in which a tremulous male voice reminds us that witchcraft is still practiced all over the world, and even proceeds to intone a chant over a completely black image to dispel evil spirits “that may radiate from this screen.” It’s a cheap, sub–William Castle tactic, but it’s effective as a mood-setter and as a reminder that most of what we see in Burn, Witch, Burn! is oddly plausible. More importantly, its characters’ motivations are relatable, simply more extreme versions of everyday social power games. The film never fully makes its leading witch a villain. Tansy is a woman we don’t see often in scary movies, or any movies for that matter—a likable Lady Macbeth. —MK
Tourist Trap, a nasty little nugget from 1979, is the kind of movie that proves the resilience of the horror genre. By description, the film—directed by first-timer David Schmoeller and produced by Irwin Yablans, just off the phenomenal success of his Halloween—sounds like it would be dead on arrival: a hodgepodge of devices and plot points from decades of other quintessential horror movies combined in not particularly elegant fashion. Some nubile young city slickers find themselves far from home on a strange rural route, where they encounter a backwoods eccentric (granite-jawed professional athlete turned TV star Chuck Connors) who owns a strangely tricked-out wax museum populated by disturbingly lifelike mannequins. With the men at this point mostly out of the picture, the proprietor tells our wholly uninteresting but undeniably pretty heroines to not wander too far astray, and there’s some ominous talk of a mysterious brother—perhaps skulking around the creepy adjacent house? Of course, this frightening fraternal figure, burly and donning incongruously feminine masks (and speaking in a goofy frog-like croak) has gruesome plans for his new guests. Oh, and he also seems to be telekinetic.
Even the most casual horror movie fan has probably already played the game of spot-the-reference from this brief outline. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and House of Wax scenarios dovetail, with a twist of Psycho, a splash of Carrie; plus it has a central preoccupation with the scary possibilities of plastic dummy faces, clearly indebted to such ventriloquist creepshows as Dead of Night and the mannequin horrors in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and Lisa and the Devil. Yet to dismiss 1979’s Tourist Trap out of hand completely would be similar to bemoaning every new horror remake out of some kneejerk sense of purism or brand loyalty. A more charitable way to look at movies, especially of the horror genre, is to place them in a storytelling tradition, with essential elements passed down through generations, morphing and expanding and subtly shifting emphasis based on the person telling it, like campfire tales or urban legends. Tourist Trap was not the first nor would it be the last to recycle such tested narrative ingredients. Wes Craven had already dipped into the Texas Chainsaw civilization-vs.-primitivism pool with 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes; De Palma goofed on Psycho’s split-personalities twist with 1973’s Sisters. It’s also worth noting that all four films just mentioned have since been remade, as have Carrie and House of Wax, which in 1953 was already a reimagining of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. Additionally, the basic story template of city kids running afoul of country creeps is one that doesn’t seem to show any signs of being put to rest, turning up again and again, including such gory numbers as House of 1000 Corpses and Wrong Turn.
The influences in Tourist Trap therefore may be obvious, even bald-faced, but they retain their primal pull. It wears them on its sleeve, raw and exposed. But more importantly, though all these tropes don’t really cohere in any sensible way (the telekinesis thing just gets dropped), their concatenation makes for a truly nightmarish quality: anything could happen at any time and it would function well enough within this haphazardly established world. It’s not efficient or stripped-down, words we like to use to praise particularly good B-horror—rather, it’s a befuddling combination of spare parts that doesn’t seem to know how to play by its own rules. Today this sort of roiling horror stew would probably be created as an ironic mash-up; Tourist Trap, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like homage. It’s serious as a coronary. It wants to scare you, and it knows how to do it.
Schmoeller expertly pulls the rug out from under the viewer right from the beginning, in a minorly bravura opening sequence. With barely a hint of back story, we’re immediately thrust into a bizarre, even nonsensical, but nevertheless terrifying situation. The first of our pretty young things, in this case a virile, open-shirted blond guy, enters the only gas station in sight, looking for assistance with the broken-down car up the road, where the remainder of his friends are patiently waiting. Not finding anyone at the front desk, he pokes around the back room, where he spies a sleeping figure. Once he disturbs what turns out to be a mannequin, the little room comes alive with all manner of seemingly animatronic pranks, including, most disturbingly, a dummy head with a terribly impressive jaw span. Soon, the poor stud is assaulted by all manner of flying objects, seemingly hurled around by unseen ghosts—he is finally, fatally gored in the side. Whereas often a slasher movie (and which Tourist Trap is one, even if it’s embellished by the supernatural) will cut fairly quickly following the death of one of its principal meat puppets, Schmoeller does something genuinely surprising. After the camera captures the victim’s face, now frozen in gaping, wide-eyed terror and disbelief, it slowly pans around the room, taking in the inexplicable crime scene we’ve just witnessed. Both giving the audience a chance to breathe and offering a humane sense of dignity to our now deceased nobody, this punctuation sets us up for something a little off-kilter.
This isn’t to infer that Tourist Trap is not a thoroughly grotesque, occasionally repellent movie. It has one major death by suffocation that’s fairly extreme in its cruelty, and it never quite reconciles its clear themes of female objectification (most of the mannequins are women, including Connors’s preserved wife, whose death, it turns out, drove him to insanity) with the way it represents them. We know little about the three girls who end up as the monster’s potential playthings (one played by future Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts), and the film seems to prefer it that way. The film is more than anything an excuse for visual shocks and viewer discomfort, each jump expertly scored by Pino Donaggio, De Palma’s legendary composer. With Donaggio’s help (his music anticipates his work on next year’s Dressed to Kill in the use of breathy, synthesized women’s voices, which can sound like erotic exhaling), there’s even an eerie beauty to all those horrific dummies, with their nearly dismembered, gaping maws. According to Schmoeller—who would go on to direct such cable mainstays as The Seduction and Puppet Master— the film was inspired by an experimental video project from his graduate-school days, which had exploited the surrealness of a line of JC Penney mannequins. Such images are clearly Tourist Trap’s most memorable; designed by Texas Chainsaw’s art director Bob Burns, these evocations of the living dead have more disturbing power in their stillness than any pack of marauding zombies. At one point, during a harrowing climactic moment, Schmoeller just cuts to a succession of dummy heads, their jaws dropping wide one by one like so many chilling Jacob Marleys, unclasping the ribbons tied around their chins. No matter how may times you see it, it’s a scream. —MK
Trilogy of Terror
When Karen Black passed away of ampullary cancer this past August, the New York Times eulogized her as a “versatile character actress,” which is true enough. Black’s intense yet strangely self-effacing turns in keynote early seventies studio movies like Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, and Nashville testify to her unique agility, as well as the inveterate adventurousness of a performer who rarely bore the burden of appearing at the top of the bill. One of the reasons that Black seemed so willing to get down and dirty in her acting is that she didn’t have a marquee name to tarnish.
In 1975—the same year of the patriotically apocalyptic visions of Nashville and The Day of the Locust, both of which she energized with superb supporting performances—Black was handed the keys to a custom-made star vehicle: Trilogy of Terror, an ABC Movie of the Week helmed by television veteran Dan Curtis (of Dark Shadows fame). The shadow that Trilogy of Terror cast over Black’s legacy is long indeed; the film was so successful that it pigeonholed her in genre movies for the last three decades of her career, from 1979’s Killer Fish (an Italian Jaws rip –off) to 1986’s Invaders from Mars to 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses, wherein Rob Zombie was clearly trying to pay Tarantino-ish tribute to a beloved scream queen.
An old-style horror anthology with nicely gimmicky casting twist—each of its three stand-alone segments stars Black as the protagonist—Trilogy of Terror is famous mostly for its concluding segment, “Amelia,” written by horror maestro Richard Matheson. (The other stories—an O. Henry-ish doodle about a meek teacher who turns the tables on a lecherous student and a predictably twisty tale of two sisters (hint hint)— aren’t much to speak of). The eponymous heroine of “Amelia” lives alone in a modern high-rise, and returns home one day after work carrying a heavy wooden trunk. Matheson, who also wrote the story “The Box,” knows the suspense value of an incongruous container, but he isn’t coy about divulging this one’s contents: the film is barely two minutes old before Amelia produces a grotesque, darkly colored doll and sets it on her coffee table with a shudder: “Boy, are you ugly.”
The Zuni fetish doll, helpfully described in an accompanying paper scroll as “He Who Kills,” is as surely a descendant of the malignant marionette in Dead of Night as he is the forerunner of Chucky in Child’s Play—an animate avatar whose diminutive stature belies a lethal follow-through. In the abstract, “Amelia” sounds silly, hoary, and derivative: Karen Black is stalked around her apartment by something from the prop department. And yet, as directed by Curtis and scripted by Matheson—and especially as acted by Black—the segment unfolds as something truly nightmarish, a pitched battle that reveals itself as an interior struggle.
The parallels between Amelia and her new acquisition are made blunt right from the get-go: Curtis frames them in a sly two-shot, the doll slightly in the foreground, which announces that we’re watching a two-hander between evenly matched opponents. The real tip-off, though, is the almost immediate transition from Amelia’s offhanded crack to the doll—“Even your mother wouldn’t love you”—to her tortuous conversation with her own mom, apologizing for breaking plans so that she can see a (male) friend at her apartment. Over the course of Black’s monologue, we see that Amelia is browbeaten, lonely, and trying to break away from the hectoring woman on the other side of the line, and that she hates herself for it.
Watching an actor who had made her name playing sexually liberated women—recall her acid-tripping prostitute in Easy Rider—play such a cowed character has its own built-in irony, but Black navigates the stock aspects of the role with aplomb, and even sells the clunkiest passages of Matheson’s dialogue, where Amelia—trying to change the subject away from her own failings—explains to her mother that the doll supposedly has a warrior’s spirit inside of it, and that breaking the chain around its next will set it loose. “I will not get a headache,” she exhorts herself, beginning a pep talk about her impending wonderful evening that would be grimly pathetic if not for the way Black invests it with real, fragile vigor—a foreshock of a bolder and more perverse sort of empowerment.
The queasy joke of “Amelia” is that after the doll comes to life and antagonizes Black’s character in escalatingly violent ways—scurrying around menacingly in the dark and stabbing at her bare legs with his miniature spear, all of which is more compelling than it sounds owing to clever, patient editing—it eventually possesses her body. The film’s last shot anticipates the kickers of 1976’s The Omen and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video by fixing on Amelia’s face as she turns to us and grins, her mouth suddenly filled with the doll’s long, white teeth (a truly freaky makeup effect complemented by Black’s otherwise feline features). She’s gone over to the dark side, and woe betide anybody who gets in her way—especially her mother, who we know is on her way to the apartment, a lamb to the slaughter.
Another critic might read all sorts of racial subtext into this tale of a white woman menaced and ultimately consumed by an aggressive, male-coded African totem, but it resonates equally as a sly (and perhaps deeply misogynist) send-up of seventies women’s liberation parables: the mousy, indecisive singleton has been replaced by a voracious man eater. And it’s a happy ending, because Amelia has gained a backbone to go along with some fangs. Her final pose—crouched, barefoot, in a bathrobe, absent-mindedly thumping her kitchen knife on the floor in a ritualistic manner—is iconic not because of its faintly chintzy neo-creature-feature aesthetics but because it so palpably signifies freedom and entrapment in the same image: Amelia is dead, but she’s smiling like she’s never been more alive. Amelia seems cheerfully resigned to her fate as a freak, and so does Black, with the difference being that only the latter ever had to try to live that new look down. —Adam Nayman
Ganja and Hess
Bill Gunn’s disturbing 1973 Ganja and Hess follows the exploits of wealthy anthropologist/geologist Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead ‘s Duane Jones), who becomes a vampire after his crazed assistant Meda (Gunn) stabs him with a dagger possessing an ancient African curse. Meda soon commits suicide, but Green falls in love with his assistant's haughty widow, Ganja (Marlene Clark), who learns Green's secret and becomes his vampiric partner in crime. The film’s producers had desired another straightforward Blaxploitation cash-in after the success of the lurid Blacula (1972), but the fiercely individualistic Gunn delivered a muted, moody melange of contemporary class commentary, Afro-European symbolism, and vampire mythology. With its elusive structure and inextricable fusing of sex and death, Ganja and Hess most keenly recalls the psychologically troubling work of Nicolas Roeg, whose Don’t Look Now—also released in 1973—would make a fine, perverse double-bill with Gunn’s film.
Ganja and Hess’s boldest, most chilling aspect is its complex, allegorical treatment of intra-class tensions within what we might (rather unsatisfactorily) dub America’s “black community”; this constitutes its purest rejection of the Manichean “stick it to the Man” social dynamics often favored by the Blaxploitation genre. Hess is happy to swan around with his financial peer group in his rural, palatial environs, but he actively seeks out the urban poor and needy for his victims. Coldly rational about his business, Hess raids a blood bank (a crucial social service), murders a Harlem prostitute and her pimp, and then, horrifically, a young mother. When Ganja gets in on the act, she seduces and destroys an urban black community worker. The film’s oblique ending seems to suggest that even if Hess has seen the redemptive Christian light and renounced vampirism (as my pal the terrific critic Brandon Harris has pointed out, the film delivers “a meditative and uncondescending representation of black protestant Christianity”), Ganja will continue to prey on the needy.
Ganja and Hess’s thematic discord is matched by its dizzyingly diverse form. It is elliptically edited, with spooky recurring cutaways to mysteriously masked white aristocrats and images of a gambolling ancient African tribe. The kaleidoscopic sound design, too, consistently unsettles: the refrain which repeatedly accompanies Hess’s burgeoning bloodlust—a conflation of buzz-saw noises and African chanting—evinces a combination of modern urban industrial grind and a squalling primitivism. The film’s fragmented nature extends to Gunn and cinematographer James Hinton’s consistently oddball compositions. In one of the most understatedly chilling scenes, Ganja condescendingly addresses Hess’s black manservant Archie (Leonard Jackson) at the dinner table. The way Archie’s head is cut off at the top of the frame recalls the racist caricature of permanently headless Mammy Two Shoes in Tom and Jerry cartoons; the scene is uncomfortable because it fully implicates the viewer in Archie’s powerlessness. Another discomfiting example of historically charged imagery arrives when Hess discovers the suicidal Meda halfway up a tree. While Meda’s disembodied voice prattles on, all we can discern against a background of inky black is Meda’s dangling feet to the left of the frame and the noose he’s fashioned for himself on the right. Even though the scene ostensibly deals with Meda’s self-loathing, we can’t help but think of lynching. Billie Holiday’s wrenching ballad “Strange Fruit” (“blood on the leaves and blood at the root”) comes to mind, particularly within the context of this blood-soaked vampire movie.
It is both ironic and apposite that the distribution of Gunn’s film was as fractured as the work itself. After it had been rapturously received at Cannes Critics Week in 1973, it was released back home in a bowdlerized sexploitation cut under the prosaic title Blood Couple, and later on VHS in the U.S. under five alternate monikers, each more cringe-worthy than the last (Black Evil, Blackout: The Moment of Terror, Double Possession, Vampires of Harlem, and Black Vampire). The treatment of Gunn’s film reflects a sad historical tendency for challenging black “art-house” fare to be suppressed, mishandled, or fundamentally misunderstood (see: Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Wendell B. Harris’s Chameleon Street). And yet, in spite of this rather depressing trend, there is a paradox at work: for me, in spite of the sympathy I feel for the filmmakers let down by such prejudice or short-sightedness in each case, I also feel that the consequent film maudit status fosters a significantly enigmatic extratextual charge. Such an effect is particularly pronounced in the case of Ganja and Hess, whose every frame seems haunted by ghosts and glitches. —Ashley Clark
Dead of Night
This horror anthology classic was released in 1945, just one month after the formal end of the war, when the British were ready for some escapist scares and even laughs at death’s expense. It’s also why David Lean’s flippant ghost story Blithe Spirit, from the same year, may’ve come as a relief (Noël Coward’s stage version had premiered in 1941 and was controversial for its wartime irreverence, though still very popular). As a delivery system for terror, Dead of Night would have been something of a Trojan horse, coming out of an Ealing Studios already best known for comedies, which would perfect that mode a few years later with the likes of Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob. That light touch is evident here, too, but never before or after would the studio produce a true horror picture, which is fine since they nailed it on this frightening first attempt.
The film’s linking narrative, directed by Basil Dearden, is similarly misleading at first. A passerby (Mervyn Johns) pauses, then turns into, the drive of a charming cottage in the sunny English countryside. There, a no-nonsense psychiatrist (Frederick Valk) and a group of guests assembled Ten Little Indians–style offer mostly cynicism and humoring repartee when the man tells them he’s dreamed this entire meeting beforehand, and that in his premonitions things eventually turn nightmarish. The host’s words of greeting to the man (“Rather a cheek on my part asking a busy architect like yourself to come down and spend the weekend with a set of complete strangers”) reveal the film’s amused self-awareness of this framing tale’s archetypal nature, but also belie the genuine horror of (much of) what’s to come. Johns is brilliant at conveying his character’s confusion and impotence to prevent perceived calamity. He grievously reveals that he sees himself beating a young female guest “savagely, viciously,” though even this is dismissed by the girl’s mother (“Such fun, charades! I’m sure he can hit somebody else instead.”) In a curious gambit to both deflate tension and reinforce the harried visitor’s mystical inclinations, the guests each tell a tale of their own experiences with the uncanny, in segments directed by different Ealing stalwarts.
The most foretelling antecedent of Dead of Night might be Went the Day Well?, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti for Ealing in 1942. Like Dead of Night, that scarifying (and awesome) propaganda film starred Mervyn Johns, and followed sequences of rural British custom and comfort with the heights of outrageous, revengeful violence (here in the service of eliminating traitors and German invaders). As with episodes in seasons of TV shows, it’s fun sport to pick bests and worsts in an omnibus film, and Cavalcanti’s ho-hum segment of a Christmas party game of hide-and-seek that leads to an attic meeting with a ghost boy wins my vote for Dead of Night’s most disposable bit. But Cavalcanti makes up for that, with interest, in the film’s celebrated final story about a ventriloquist and his dummy. In short order, Michael Redgrave manages one of his signature roles as Maxwell, a puppeteer driven sweatily, palpably mad by a marionette named Hugo that may or may not be animate. Whether alive or an outgrowth of Maxwell’s self-tormenting psychosis, the grinning, tuxedoed and wigged slab of wood is one of cinema’s nastiest, most hateful little villains. In jail for shooting a rival, Maxwell receives a final visit from Hugo, who mocks Maxwell and says he’ll be teaming up with the recovering rival (“Maybe we’ll come and visit you — you know, a private show for the loooonies!”) Maxwell then [spoiler] beats Hugo to “death,” a grotesque act for an adult man, sure, but made especially disturbing by how theatrically horrified is an observing warden’s reaction. Isn’t this prisoner just punching a toy? Why is the warden acting like a child’s being murdered? Itself influenced by Erich von Stroheim’s The Great Gabbo (1929), Dead of Night’s ventriloquism sequence inspired multiple Twilight Zones, and numerous other episodes and films (including the Trilogy of Terror segment discussed by Adam Nayman above).
The dummy sequence is rightly the film’s most notorious and well-regarded, though many of the other segments, if less discussed today, are scary in their own right. A funny, Charles Crichton–directed entry, adapted from H. G. Wells, about two golfing buddies in love with the same woman, is the film’s most atonal, but its lightness with death still manages to disturb, at least more than Blithe Spirit’s facetiousness. Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, beloved as the cricket-obsessed chatterbugs Caldicott and Charters in The Lady Vanishes and other films, here switch sports as the golfers willing to have the other one die so as to get the girl. The Wayne character’s ghost’s hijinks with a floating golf ball are pure silliness, but his slow, melancholy, suicidal walk into a water hazard after a fraudulent loss is legitimately unsettling. A sequence about a haunted mirror, directed by Robert Hamer, makes expert use of simple camera placement, blocking, and set design. Looking into the large, cursed gift from his wife Joan (Googie Withers), Peter (Ralph Michael) sees into the baroque bedroom of a man Joan later learns cracked up and killed his own wife out of unfounded jealousy. Much credit for both individual victories like the trick shots in this segment, and for unifying Dead of Night as a whole, must go to cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. This was one of the first credits for that legend, whose others include Ealing classics, Joseph Losey’s The Servant, and the Indiana Jones movies. (Slocombe will turn 101 in February 2014.)
In the hearse driver sequence, directed by Dearden, it is Slocombe and Stanley Pavey’s lighting (producing doppelganger shadows) that gives one racecar driver’s hospital room its unshakable eeriness. The driver Hugh (Anthony Baird) is recuperating from a crash when one night he opens the disturbingly swaying curtains to discover it’s bright daytime outside. On the street below, a hearse driver looks up (the camera zooms in) and cheerily remarks, “Just room for one inside, sir!” Later, a lookalike streetcar operator will say the same thing to Hugh, discouraging him from boarding before the car proceeds to careen off a bridge. How the film turns this most benign of lines, spoken by an aging, Wallace Shawn-esque working actor bloke named Miles Malleson, pure Ealing central casting, is key to its particular, strange magic. This special quality is what gives traditional scary stories like this one of death pre-apprehended—based on a 1906 short fiction by E. F. Benson—disquieting new life.
Perhaps also taking a page from Cavalcanti’s previous film, Dearden, in the finale of his linking narrative, tops Went the Day Well?’s climactic maelstrom with a heady, hallucinatory sequence that ties in elements of everything that came before (including a very alarming walking Hugo). At the end, Johns’s architect, on the advice of his wife, accepts an invite to a country cottage, and we’re back where we began. This circular structure might be a forced effort to cohere all that came before, but it’s a neat and just-sly-enough trick, and it’s more effort than some anthologies bother to make. While flashes of Dead of Night do stand out more than others, it’s the multiplicity of these moments, and the entirety’s tone, that make it so unforgettable a masterpiece of horror. —Justin Stewart
The Blair Witch Project
Any discussion of The Blair Witch Project must out of necessity situate the film in a specific moment, both in terms of cinema history and the viewer’s personal experience. It’s both a blessing and a curse that this most unlikely of American blockbusters is destined to be stuck in time: the memory of that dark summer of 1999, when the meagerly budgeted horror movie (Fortune magazine reported $60,000 in 2009, but a note from the filmmakers on the Artisan DVD release claimed $22,000, while a Wikipedia entry places it at $35,000) petrified and angered moviegoers in equal measure, at least sustains the film’s reputation; yet this still disturbing, nigh essential work of horror deserves so much more than a sniff of nostalgic recognition.
The Blair Witch Project is neither opportunistic nor easy, as its many detractors may claim. Like any great horror movie, it’s bone-chilling because it preys upon primal fears (the dark, the unknown, unforgiving nature). I found the movie so completely terrifying upon first viewing that it sat inside me for weeks like an indigestible lump. It was a special advance screening set up for NYU film students, a clearly savvy way to create more buzz after its notorious Sundance premiere. In pre–social media days, it created more of a whisper campaign than a cultural saturation. A major Internet marketing push, at this early stage, made it more of a mysterious word-of-mouth item than an easily spoiled meme. Its website was a fount of misdirection: creepy “documents” and video clips that put forth the notion that the content of the film was real. As a result of the mythical screenings and all the enigmatic publicity material, Blair Witch was spoken about in curious, hushed tones, a campfire story of sorts. Not much was known about it, other than that it was supposedly very scary, and that it took the form of the unearthed lost footage of three vanished young documentary filmmakers. Being privy to nothing more than this—not even whether the film would “show” anything—undoubtedly helped in experiencing Blair Witch Project’s escalating tension. Yet the film does not function as a one-time-only emotional roller coaster. As a recent viewing confirmed for me, it’s impeccably structured, elegantly conceived, surprisingly mutlilayered, and even accidentally poetic.
Foreboding a generation of increasingly less effective first-person docu-horror, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s little experiment was made on the cusp of the digital revolution, which makes it seem even more of an artifact than originally intended. It’s shot on two formats, HI8 videotape and black-and-white 16mm, along with a DAT recorder lugged around by the trio’s unofficial soundman, Michael. The Blair Witch Project is unthinkable without the weight of all this equipment, which becomes a heavy burden for the filmmakers to bear as their plight grows increasingly dangerous. For amateur movie pipsqueaks Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, all that filmmaking gear seems less empowering than it does toilsome. Lost in the Maryland woods in the midst of a feeble, ill-planned journey to document a terrible demon who, legend has it, haunts Burkittsville and surrounding communities, the three come across as unserious, nervous, quarrelsome nincompoops. GPS-starved and unable to read maps or follow bodies of water to safety, they are nevertheless sympathetic, relatable incompetents, driven by curiosity and youthful artistic drive. They have relied on technology to document their world, but it cannot save them.
Once they’re deep in the woods, the film begins to summon the fearful allegorical heft of great nineteenth-century fictions by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving. Like “Young Goodman Brown” or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Blair Witch traffics in a specifically American tradition of superstition, in which the ghosts of a Puritan past rise up out of the inky black night to exact revenge—as in those nightmarish stories taking shape amidst the endless thickets of trees that cover the country’s northeast. These are threats simultaneously natural and supernatural, symbolic and literal—and the characters are helpless in the face of both. Blair Witch makes the prospect of being lost as scary as being stalked by a murderous ghost (of course, put those two scenarios together, and you have something much, much worse). Heather’s insistence that, despite all evidence to the contrary, “it’s very hard to get lost in America these days, and it’s even harder to stay lost,” is the film’s signature line of dialogue, however tossed off by an improvising actor. Their disbelief is two-pronged: they are simultaneously faced with, and unable to accept, their current reality (they are indeed walking in circles and, without a trail of breadcrumbs, are unlikely to find their way home) and unreality (a supernatural force is hunting them).
There’s enough richness in the conception itself to potentially carry the film, but Myrick and Sanchez’s low-budget innovation and visual approach is clearly what made Blair Witch such a phenomenon. For an eight-day shoot, the three actors were indeed stranded in the woods (albeit mostly in a monitored area of a Maryland state park and aided by a Global Positioning System which might have benefited their characters), their direction supplied via outline and daily updates, their spontaneous responses onscreen partly the result of unexpected stimuli. Ominous images abound—clusters of deliberately placed rocks, witchy twigs and sticks. After a while, the film’s simple, effective structure becomes clear: by daylight the three trudge through the forest searching for escape; at night they’re terrorized by ambiguous sounds that seem to get closer and closer to their tent.
It’s a rinse-repeat narrative framework that has traces of the best stories by the great British horror writer M. R. James, whose characters, often amateur supernatural investigators in over their heads, find themselves perturbed by ambiguous terrors, which increase with each encroaching nightfall. These hauntings are more times than not inexplicable; in James’s “A School Story,” while two characters are relating past ghostly occurrences that took place in their private school, one mentions a troubling tale: “There was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, ‘I’ve seen it,’ and died.”
Brief but chilling, and never rationalized, this tale augurs the blood-curdling final image of Blair Witch. It’s supremely scary not only for the grim visual composition and the change of setting (an abandoned house in the middle of the woods) but also because of the remarkable and simple aural effect created by the dissociation between the camera and sound. Heather carries the 16mm camera as she descends to the basement, her hair-raising screams recorded by Michael’s DAT, now abandoned in the cellar. At first we hear her cries echoing from below, even though we’re seeing everything from her grainy, black-and-white point of view; and as she reaches the bottom level, her terrified shrieks get closer and grow louder, until finally she alights on the terrible vision in the corner. Her scream ceases. The camera is knocked away and crashes to the ground, giving us an askew image of the floor. For a few moments, the film flickers away like life draining out of a living being. Then, an exhilarating, ballsy cut to the final credits. No music, as has been the case throughout. We have been respected enough to be left suspended in fear. Not even Paranormal Activity, ten years later, a film similarly predicated on off-screen sound and the unknown, and composed largely of static images of a single room, would be allowed such climactic minimalism. (A silly final special effect was added last-minute.) Scarier is Blair Witch’s simple, white on black font. It looks ever so jittery. Is the film off its sprockets, or are we shaking? —MK