Every Halloween, we present a week’s worth of perfect holiday programming.
Once upon a time, at the beginning of this century, Kiyoshi Kurosawa led us into the dark, dark wood of the modern age and wove a tale of inescapable sadness. The story he told was so grim, and the images he used to describe it were so frightening, that in retrospect perhaps it became easier to giggle it away. When I first saw Pulse in the pitch black of the Walter Reade Theater in 2001—one of the scariest and most unsettling experiences I’ve ever had in that incomparable place called a movie house—our lives hadn’t yet been fully ingested into the machine, and the thought that evil ghosts might live there felt plausible, or at least powerful as an idea for a ghost story, which have long been predicated on a distrust of modern advancements. When Pulse finally received official American theatrical distribution four years later, it felt dated in its Y2K fear of technology; those were the days of Friendster and MySpace, naïve, smiling places that appealed to a generation still tickled by the novelty and promise of interconnectivity, sites that now seem downright egalitarian compared to the social media beast that has recalibrated and repurposed how and why we use the Internet. Watching the film—which posits that each of us is the author of our own debilitating solitude—in 2020 is a different story.
Kurosawa’s ability to capture and convey the feeling of insinuating dread as an existential, social fact rather than a condition to be alleviated was already widely acknowledged after his 1997 Cure, a shiver-inducing tale of a mesmerist serial-killer in which the impulse to murder is passed from one to another as though a contagion. Pulse’s initial notoriety coincided with the beginning of the international J-horror craze, placing it alongside films like Ringu, The Grudge, and Dark Water, with which it shares a handful of elemental scare tactics—unnerving strings on the soundtrack, a predilection for sudden flashes of haunted screens, contorted human bodies in unnatural motion—but which is otherwise an entirely different, far more melancholy affair. Even if the central cautionary conceit might entice future generations to only watch the film as a goof, Kurosawa’s approach to his detached portrait of human despair mitigates any potential for eye-rolling.
Pulse centers around a group of university-age students, who are somehow connected by what at first seems like a curse, but which turns out to be far more widespread. Michi (Kumiko Aso) visits her friend Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), to pick up a computer disk from him. In his grey little apartment, she discovers that Taguchi has hanged himself there, which Kurosawa shows us and Michi in a disturbing shock cut. On the retrieved disk Michi and her friends discover an image of Taguchi’s own room, the small computer screen showing the same room infinitely, while a reflection of a face in another screen beckons from the top left corner. Meanwhile, we meet Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato), a shaggy blond luddite—and hence the film’s only true romantic—trying to figure out how to install Internet software onto his clunky desktop Mac; Kurosawa shows him hesitantly typing his security info like he’s entering into a devil’s bargain. His online experience starts with a rather ominous, War Games-like message, however: “Would You Like to See a Ghost?” This is followed by one of the film’s most dreadful images: a figure, another assumed young person, head covered in a trash bag, inching towards the screen on a rolling desk chair. The mystery form begins to slowly remove the black plastic from its head, but Kawashima opts out before we can see the reveal.
Kurosawa will continue to be more preoccupied with what we cannot see. Pulse, for its occasional, theme-telegraphing heavy-handed dialogue (“We all live totally separately,” one young woman mourns), is quiet and doleful, and rather than amp up the terror, it proceeds to effectively drain itself out. The ghosts have begun oozing into our realm from the spirit world, using pre-cloud Internet as a conduit; their grand plan is one of misery, exploiting our vulnerability through our reliance on technology. These demonic forces have little interest in bravura set pieces or spectacular deaths; even the film’s most memorable on-screen suicide is seen from a silent distance, almost out of the corner of Michi’s eye. The film’s most potent recurring image is of lonely, haunted souls who have turned into ghostly intimations of their former selves, fading away into ashen smudges on the wall—an evocation of the Hiroshima atomic blast, reports of which indicated that dark imprints of incinerated humans were left visible all over the city.
Ultimately, this is a film about apocalypse, and Kurosawa replaces the usual auguries of panic and fear with a slow, creeping realization that the world is being emptied of human life. Aside from a scene late in the film in which we see a newscaster ticking off the names of the missing and a climactic, almost off-handed shot of an airline jet crashing into a cityscape (both remarkable elements in a film that made its world premiere seven months before 9/11), Kurosawa prefers to avoid sweeping gestures. He knows that regardless of the cause of the catastrophe, the scariest reality to face resides within. Rather than kill people, these ghosts have a more dastardly plan: they want to make us immortal by trapping us in our own loneliness. It’s a pandemic of isolation, and I can’t imagine that any of us today would not get a chill of recognition out of that. —Michael Koresky
In the subgenre of found-footage thrillers that take place entirely within the confines of a disembodied computer screen, a person’s digital impression becomes its own kind of ghost. The Unfriended series toggles between the supernatural and the uncanny, from demonic revenge to murderous cults, all the while illustrating the unique trail everyone leaves on their various corners of the Internet; Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is more interested in the granular ephemera left behind—after the daughter of David Kim (John Cho) goes missing, we follow along as he tries to retrace her digital steps and stumbles across a much messier version of his daughter than he thought he knew. Is it possible to fully understand someone from the personal information they put into the Internet? And when you come upon something you’re inclined to disbelieve, how do you parse reality from fakery?
More and more found footage movies incorporate such questions. A character might admit to tampering with footage or omitting key information. But there’s a lingering feeling that there’s more to such logical explanations. The breadcrumbs left behind, in the form of the Tweets, Facebook updates, emailed receipts, CCTV footage, blog posts, and GPS coordinates, cohere into a kind of crude sculpture of our desires, thoughts, and feelings. And they may reveal something truly horrifying: that what we’ve always feared may be real.
There’s a moment in Rob Savage’s quarantine-shot, Zoom-set 2020 horror film Host that epitomizes this. A young woman named Caroline walks into her bedroom, rummages through her dresser, brushes her hair, and checks her phone. We see this exact movement occur several times over the course of the film’s 56 minutes because this is a recording that Caroline has made as her Zoom background. It’s difficult to describe why this is one of the most unsettling details of Host without giving too much away. On its own, the idea intrigues for all manner of reasons that pertain specifically to the plot, even if Caroline couches it as a bit of isolation-themed fun. But it has something of the ghostly afterimage about it, a 21st-century updating of nineteenth-century ghost photography, in which double exposure and a mistake of light could create an image of something that was never there.
Host was conceived, shot in isolation, and delivered to its studio, Shudder, within 12 weeks. The idea stems from a viral video Savage made in which he investigates a mysterious sound coming from his attic while on a group video chat. In the original video, Savage uses a homemade cardboard camera rig to incorporate a jump scare from the footage film [REC]. The feature-length outgrowth of Savage’s prank takes place on a normal evening during quarantine. Haley (Haley Bishop) is hosting a Zoom séance with some of her friends. Apart from errant references to protective face masks and isolation-related skincare routines, Host’s relation to COVID-19 is fairly tangential, for the better. Things go awry when one of Haley’s friends doesn’t take the séance seriously, and her pranking brings forth a demonic presence, which proceeds to freely jump from one woman’s house to the next as if it’s embedded in Zoom itself.
The constraints placed on Rob Savage and his crew seem to have been nothing less than practical inspiration. Speaking to Short of the Week, Savage says, “We knew we wanted to get it made before the day-to-day reality changed. We wanted it to be something that we could shoot and release within lockdown, or as close as we could get . . . We basically went out with the viral video to a bunch of places and the pitch was basically, ‘Give us a bit of money and trust us.’” There’s so much talent on display here, from deceptively complicated special effects and stunts to uncomfortably convincing performances from a cast also acting as their own directors of photography. Through it all, there’s a sense that what’s unfolding is happening in real time. Obviously, this is the ideal that other Internet found footage movies aim for, but, rather than cycling through multiple websites and apps, like the more frenetic Unfriended films, Host begins and ends on its chosen platform, preserving the novelty of its form while keeping the viewer’s focus on the action.
After watching Host a second time, I thought of this passage from Ambrose Bierce’s 1893 short story “The Damned Thing”:
“I remember...that once, in looking carelessly out of an open window, I momentarily mistook a small tree close at hand for one of a group of larger trees at a little distance away. It looked the same size as the others, but, being more distinctly and sharply defined in mass and detail, seemed out of harmony with them. It was a mere falsification of the law of aerial perspective, but it startled, almost terrified me. We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity.”
We’re so used to suspended, altered, and mangled reality on the Internet that, in the context of Host, it takes the unthinkable to shake us. In a year of isolation and long-distance communication, something as simple as feeling a hand on your shoulder when you think you’re alone is more than enough. —Nicholas Russell
Something is very off as brooding twenty-something Brian curls up in bed, convalescing from sudden dizziness. As he rolls around in a clammy sweat, alarming bloodstains appear on his sheets, and his ceiling light morphs into a blinding eyeball. Then, the room starts to flood with electric blue water, oddly soothing as it crests into his nightstand. This makes it hard to remember the alarming way that his story started: the elderly couple screaming at the sight of an empty bathtub, where they’d planned to feed…something…the animal brains they picked up from the neighborhood deli. Even Brian’s sickness didn’t seem so straightforward, his bedroom unsettlingly awash in midnight-blue gel lights. Now, though, Brian is blissed out. Until the water level rises above his face.
The opening ten minutes of Brain Damage (1988) are a gorgeous testament to what horror-exploitation filmmaker Frank Henenlotter could do with a $600,000 budget, a significant step up from his $35,000 cult debut Basket Case (1982). Iconic as Basket Case’s eponymous wicker-basket-bound, lumpy de-conjoined twin Belial may now be, Henenlotter was unhappy with the film’s lo-fi stop-motion practical effects, and, in the midst of the mid-’80s horror comedy boom, he didn’t want his work to come across as self-consciously arch or emptily flippant. But taking horror seriously doesn’t necessarily mean bloating it with forced pretensions: the genre is made for much weirder routes into phobias and vices, and Henenlotter is Henenlotter because his professionalism never precludes a sense of humor. His films, all New York–area satires of social mores, have a camp sensibility that would be at home alongside Paul Bartel’s B-movies, although with a more perverse appetite for gore and guts.
Brain Damage’s entry point into a substance abuse story is a phallic-looking, hallucinogen-injecting, velvet-voiced animatronic worm. This is Elmer, the creature responsible for the bloody hole in the back of Brian’s neck. Crafted by visual effects duo Gabe Bartalos and David Kindlon, he’s a veiny and misshapen little demon, but his goofy smile and pendulum-style head bobs suggest a Muppet. He explains to Brian (Rick Hearst, credited here as Herbst before he adopted his stage name) that these trips are the start of a “new life…without pain, or worries, or loneliness, a life filled instead with colors and music and euphoooooria,” and his roguish charm flows from a melodious vocal performance by John Zacherle, the cult horror movie presenter and radio DJ who was known for his spooky novelty music when he wasn’t running for President. (Zacherle reappears in Henenlotter’s equally bonkers 1990 film Frankenhooker as a madcap meteorologist.) Elmer isn’t so adorable when Brian requests another hit: he dilates open a fleshy-pink, gaping maw and drills a syringe-like proboscis into the base of Brian’s skull, right to his brain, where he dispenses a few drops of blue liquid. Then the “fun” begins, as Brian runs through a junkyard, laughs hysterically at psychedelically tinted cars, and unwittingly lets Elmer loose on a security guard to gorge upon his brains. Brian has no memory of these murders, only a faint afterglow of the trippy high and a craving for his next fix.
Brain Damage came out in the decade of “Just Say No”—parodied in Frankenhooker with an insane original song called “Never Say No,” featuring lines like “safe sex is for wimps”—and most of Henenlotter’s movies play with how fun vices can seem when absurdly movie-fied. This usually brings him back to sexuality; after all, this is the mind behind 2008’s Bad Biology, about a seemingly star-crossed pair brought together by mutant genitalia and uncontrollable libidos. But that film also deals with questions of taste: some of the exchanges between the main character, a photographer, and her boss about what’s permissible in editorial shoots must have been cribbed from Henenlotter’s discouraging pitch meetings in the ’90s. That feeds right into the film’s explorations of social stigmas; of what is or isn’t polite to talk about or dramatize. Some unholy descendant of William Castle and Herschell Gordon Lewis, Henenlotter wants his movies’ delirium to be fun, but he’s sincere about it; they’re magnetic in a way that makes their unmistakable oddities strangely human.
It turns out that Brian’s id is a mess, and Elmer is his dealer. We don’t learn too much about what Brian’s life looked like before Elmer, but there are some context clues: his bedroom is decorated with posters for Suicide and Bauhaus, bands not incompatible with a certain misanthropy, and when he falls ill, he seems a little too eager to cancel on his girlfriend Barbara (Jennifer Lowry) and shoo her off to a concert with his leering brother Mike (Gordon MacDonald). Clearly there’s some desire on his part to drop out of a drab, predictable life: Barbara had planned on moving in with Brian in a couple of months, but now he’s going with Elmer to press his ear to blaring amps at CBGB-style clubs. And a queer reading is not a stretch—Elmer usually wants to feast on built or beautiful men, and it’s hard to shake the image of him popping out of Brian’s pants for a grisly fellatio-murder, a scene that drove several crew members to walk off the set. The fatalities of Brian’s addiction may conjure the collateral damage of drug use, but Henenlotter also lets the story speak to bigger, unresolved internal urges without forcing any single allegory to fit.
Brain Damage is, after all, a movie that rejoices in the infectious chaos sown by Elmer—or Aylmer, as his previous owner (Theo Barnes), Brian’s elderly neighbor, insists, drawing out the first vowel like Daniel Plainview hissing “drainage.” In a meandering monologue, the old man describes the little guy’s long journey through history, with each twist predicated on Aylmer becoming too strong for his human host. It seems inevitable that this will happen to Brian, but the monologue itself is also lightly hilarious: delivered at a quick, dramatic clip, Barnes relishing the trope-y nature of the exposition. Brian might try to kick the habit at a flophouse on the Bowery, but Elmer, or Aylmer, will be singing his deranged tunes long after he’s gone. After all, Elmer represents something too vast to control: that sense of humor, violence, and carnality. It’s hard to know what would be left of Brian afterwards, since there wasn’t much of him before. —Chloe Lizotte
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
“You’ll be on the other side soon,” says the hard-faced ferryman to the trio rolling up to his car barge in a hearse—a self-consciously ironic mode of transportation that’s also a vehicle for self-fulfilling prophecy. Water and mortality go together in John Hancock’s not-quite-canonical 1971 psychological horror movie Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, recently given an online streaming boost via the Criterion Channel, whose programmers boldly—and correctly—placed it in amidst brand-name '70s genre classics like Don’t Look Now and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, two movies whose aesthetics and atmospheres it could be said to anticipate. Like Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse masterpiece, Jessica exercises the archetypal premise of city mice encountering (and swallowed up by) the Old Weird America, represented here in its northernmost outpost of Upstate New York, in a small town whose residents are notably elderly and infirm, including a few stragglers in VFW jackets. And like Nicolas Roeg’s Venetian Gothic, it pivots on a protagonist who’s at once obliged and hesitant to listen to and heed the voice inside her head.
Recently released from a sanitarium after an unspecified—and, it’s implied, potentially misdiagnosed—bout of mental illness, Jessica (Zhora Lampert) is grateful and eager for a change of scene; the relocation of her household, which includes husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and his pal Woody (Kevin O’Connor) to a riverside farm is an act of economic downsizing wrapped in a cozy veil of self-care. Rest and relaxation are what Jessica needs, but the evil trick of the film’s screenplay—co-written by Hancock with Lee Kalcheim—is that our heroine is blocked on two fronts: not only by her own myriad, simmering anxieties (which get heightened once it becomes clear that the townspeople are unimpressed by the gentrifiers moving in on the sly) but also by the presence of a willowy, vaguely hippified squatter, Emily (Mariclaire Costello), who takes her hostess up on the offer to stay and hang out. As Emily integrates herself into the pseudo-family unit—and as we learn more about the town’s tragic, possibly vampire-bitten history— the film reveals its shape as a parable of psychological instability deepened by possibly supernatural intrusion. Even before the fangs come out, we might say that Jessica has let the wrong one in.
It’s been written that Hancock originally conceived his debut satirically—as a bitter comedy channeling the negative energy of the end of the 1960s into a story of self-styled counterculture-vultures who pick the wrong nest. Certainly, the scenes of gentleman farmer Woody blithely piloting industrial machinery through the group’s new orchard and spraying DDT all over Eden are grimly funny (Joni Mitchell would be appalled), and in general, a lot of the menace in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has to do with the feeling of wrong-place-wrong-time. But there’s also a sense in which the film’s pale, emotionally unguarded namesake seems to belong to her new environment, and it’s the push-pull between spooked terror and a resigned sense of destiny—of being drawn in thrall towards some larger reckoning—that anchors the otherwise free-floating spookiness.
The film wears its threadbare resources comfortably (if not proudly), scoring its most haunting effects via nothing more elaborate than shots of figures standing and staring stock-still in the middle distance; as in any good ghost story, the characters often seem to be watching us. Critics have cited The Turn of the Screw as a narrative and thematic influence, and the comparison scans, certainly more than the contemporaneous, putative Henry James prequel The Nightcomers (1972), with its hammy Marlon Brando lead performance and self-conscious, envelope-pushing sexual aberrance. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death doesn’t go to extremes—its gore, while admirably red-blooded, is never excessive—and there’s a scrappy transparency to its construction that heads off any pretensions at the pass. Viewed retrospectively in a moment of “elevated horror” (a term considerably more obnoxious than most of the movies to which it’s been hung like an albatross), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s modest, carefully modulated variations on old tropes reach out of the past as a relief. They’re a reminder that in horror movies—as in vacation real estate—intimacy can provide its own form of spaciousness. Beginning with Lampert’s terrific performance and extending through the other actors as well as the locations, the film feels fully inhabited. —Adam Nayman
The Velvet Vampire
By the time Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire invaded theaters in 1971, erotic vampire movies were all the rage overseas. Harry Kümel’s Delphine Seyrig showcase Daughters of Darkness and the first entry in Hammer Studios’ lesbian vampire trilogy, The Vampire Lovers, had unleashed unto audiences glamorous, sultry bloodsuckers with a touch of softcore, while Jesús Franco and Jean Rollin were just getting started. Rothman, a female outlier in the mad, mad world of American exploitation cinema, had just released her second feature, The Student Nurses (1970), to specialty box office success. The Velvet Vampire, her next movie under the banner of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, riffs on the nebulous romanticism of contemporaneous European vampire fare and switches out clammy decadence for a counterculture-inflected California desert haunted by the specter of Charlie Manson. On a commercial level these flicks catered to largely male fantasies of lusty ladies with a murderous streak, and The Velvet Vampire was no exception (though its dull reception would suggest that it failed in this endeavor—it’s got sex and blood, but not quite enough for Corman devotees at the time). With Nurses, a feminist drama masquerading as horny nurseploitation, Rothman managed to pull off a pro-choice, anti-police, and anti-Vietnam War movie within the trappings of male-gazey grindhouse; her follow-up is as furtively subversive, and haunting in the ways it considers sexual liberation.
Susan (Sherry Miles) and Lee (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ Michael Blodgett), a young, beach-blonde married couple, publicly role-play as two strangers at an art exhibit, a saucy, smirking game witnessed from across the room by a chic brunette (Celeste Yarnall) decked out in red. Susan and Lee dabble in outré behavior that befits the era of free love, but at this stage it’s mostly pretense. Susan simmers with jealousy when the enigmatic woman, Diana Le Fanu (named after Sheridan Le Fanu, the author of Carmilla, a queer, pre-Stoker vampire novella), captivates her himbo hubbie with a sophistication and forwardness that makes her look childish by comparison. Despite Susan’s sulking, the two hit the road for a weekend getaway at Diana’s deep-desert pad, located in a dead-end wasteland with a sprinkle of oddly unfriendly locals—it’s more like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than Palm Springs.
Vampire movies commonly upend bourgeois mores via supernatural seduction, yet in Rothman’s film the sexual revolution does as much to push our ditzy couple towards the vampire’s embrace as any form of mind control. At the same time, Lee and Susan don’t buy into “liberation” equally. Lee’s intentions are quite obvious. He intends to go to bed with Diana when Susan’s not looking, and openly engages in dune buggy-themed dirty talk with their host at the dinner table as a distraught Susan pokes at her steak tartare. She doesn’t like raw meat, whereas Diana snacks on dribbling livers—and then some, we learn, when she corners a mechanic with the help of her loyal underling. The scorching desert would seem an odd place for a sun-adverse being, yet the solitude and hallucination-inducing heat suits the vampire’s needs and schemes. And in step with her taste for the hardcore—the raw meat, the Bataille-esque philosophies on eroticism—she may very well be aroused by such a liminal existence.
At night, Diana peers through an enormous mirror at the couple having sex, a voyeurism that reduces them to her mere playthings; she then manipulates their dreams like putty: a recurring ethereal sequence sees the vampire stepping into sensual sand dunes, pulling a naked Lee from bed with Susan mid-coitus. The sumptuous fantasy—the blue sky against Diana’s crimson gown, the curling, gilded headboard, the entrancing acoustic guitar score—is so transcendently and forcefully romantic it begins to feel unsettling. This uncanniness is not unlike the velvet vampire herself, a centuries-old being whose love for her long-deceased husband is so powerful and enduring it becomes morbid and grotesque when we learn she preserves his body as a mummified corpse.
Diana insists on exploring the desert and seeing the sights, which, amusingly amount to little more than a graveyard, a bat cave, and a wooden shack. At this last place, Susan opts to sunbathe rather than explore. As she catches rays in her bikini, a rattlesnake slithers its way onto her legs; Rothman crosscuts between this impending threat and Diana and Lee canoodling out of sight. Susan’s screams cut short the seduction; Diana collapses to her knees to suck the venom out of Susan’s flesh. You can hear the squish of fluids in a moment that offers a more visceral thrill than the eventual midnight tryst between Diana and Lee. Here, Susan catches the two in the act, wriggling naked on the floor. The moment is as much an erotic exchange between Diana and Susan as it is between Diana and Lee—the women lock eyes without him noticing, cutting through the scandal of infidelity with a new kind of pleasure, and the realization that Diana’s sexual invitation extends to Susan as well. Diana’s love knows no boundaries—men or women, living or dead. Her vampirism embodies liberation and destruction at the same time.
Despite Diana’s treachery, our sympathies remain with her. When she chases Susan back to L.A., she gradually transforms from this spectral menace to something more desperate and pitiable. Her humanity is in her eyes. In the end, she weeps and flails when a mob of cross-wielders encircles her and the sun bores into her exposed skin. This moment of persecution feels gendered, bookending the opening scene where we see our velvet vampire dressed in eye-captivating scarlet, walking alone at night through an empty city. She glimpses a motorcycle—a recurring symbol of allure and danger in Rothman’s oeuvre—before experiencing every woman’s worst nightmare. Pinned to the ground by a burly stranger, she would appear to be defenseless. But as if dealing with a regular nuisance, she uses a knife to dispatch her assailant with ease, then dusts off and reapplies her makeup by a nearby fountain. According to lore, vampires cannot see their reflections. Yet when Diana opens up her compact mirror, we see her lips, her eyes looking back at us with a strength and sadness that feels familiar—she sees herself.
The opening scene of Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1974) takes place in the twilit jungles of Vietnam during the final years of the war. We are dropped into eerie darkness as two American GIs move silently through the night. A plane screams overheard and the forest is suddenly aglow with burning trees and gunfire. One of the two soldiers, Darren, is hit and collapses to the ground, screaming. For a moment, the swift brutality of the sequence is broken: the sound drops out and we see from the fallen soldier’s POV a chillingly hazy image that looks not unlike a death mask. The image shrinks away, as if we’re witnessing the shuffling off of this mortal coil, but eventually returns to focus revealing the mask to be the second soldier, Andy Brooks (Richard Backus), looking down on his comrade. In slow-motion, his lips moving, Andy’s chest erupts from another bullet. His shocked and stunned expression in the moment of his own death freezes over the entirety of the opening credits—Clark won’t let us look away.
Next we’re in a typical American home, as a typical family wearing typical clothes sits down for a typical meal. But there’s obvious tension around the dinner table—mother Christine and father Charles (Lynn Carlin and John Marley, who played the troubled couple in Cassavetes’s Faces) seem quite at odds in how they are dealing with their son Andy’s ongoing deployment in Vietnam. Christine is relentlessly, neurotically upbeat and seems almost in denial that Andy is gone at all, while more taciturn Charles is clearly burdened by anticipating the dreaded knock at the door. Their daughter, Andy’s younger sister, seems acclimated, if unskilled in the role of mediating these opposed impulses. Yet, on this particular night, the knock does indeed come. But later that same evening, before the family can truly register the dire news, Andy is found standing in the dining room shrouded in darkness.
Andy’s reintegration into his old life doesn’t go smoothly. The ashen-faced youth is withdrawn, uncommunicative. When a group of younger neighborhood kids comes over to visit with their returned hero, he becomes violent, squeezing his family dog to death in front of them. When’s he’s not sitting inside his bedroom, wearing sunglasses, endlessly creaking back and forth in a rocking chair, he takes strange trips to the town graveyard, scratching away at a headstone in the night. He refuses to allow his parents to let the neighbors know that he’s come back. Clark’s film—a riff on W.W. Jacobs’s classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw”—was made about six years before PTSD was defined as an actual mental disorder, but as in John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light, the film allows us to recognize that something is deeply amiss with our returned soldiers, whether or not we have an actual term at the ready for it.
We know throughout Deathdream (originally titled Dead of Night), that Andy has been killed and what has come back to the Brooks family is some sort of blood-sucking revenant—this not-Andy creature is connected to a rising body count in their idyllic hometown (in actuality, Brooksville, Florida, not far from the Gulf Coast, marking this as possibly the earliest cinematic depiction of Florida Man). As in the best scary movies, the tension relentlessly mounts, especially in a creepy game of cat and mouse Andy plays one evening with the local doctor who has figured out something is not quite right with the boy. Clark even stages a gooey, gory creature reveal in the finale courtesy of special effects makeup guru Tom Savini, here doing his first film work before running off to join Romero’s merry troupe. Yet, if one removed all elements of horror or the supernatural from Deathdream and kept the rest—a son returned home from war, irrevocably changed, unable to assimilate back into daily life; a family pushed to the brink after years of worry, and then, when their dearest wish has finally been answered, left further wrecked by their inability to grapple with a new reality—it’d be just as frightening.
Bob Clark set the terms of the slasher film with Black Christmas released in the same year as Deathdream), defined the contours of the teen sex comedy with Porky’s, and, then, of course, delivered us cinema’s most watched slice of family holiday nostalgia with A Christmas Story. In this lesser-known film, he’s created a scathing indictment of the Vietnam War and the strictures of the traditional family unit; Deathdream remains far ahead of its time (Clark was also a filmmaker who, in 1983, had the smart sense to make the villains of his teen sex comedy sequel the KKK) and far grimmer than any zombified thriller needed to be. Clark’s best-known films share with each other, and Deathdream, is an overwhelming sense of familiarity, a grounding in the quotidian particularities of lives that we might have once lived, or are living as we watch. Before more killing, before a shocking suicide, before a frenetic police chase—all of which Clark proves he’s more than game enough a director to manage—we’re made to witness, moment-by-moment the silent terror of an ordinary nuclear family slowly splintering apart. And in the climax, when Christine, clearly now fully aware that her son is not her son anymore, chooses to aid in the creature’s escape anyway, we clearly can see the power of a mother’s love—pure, unceasing and in this case, devastated by war, left painfully hopeless and tragic.
The Devil and Daniel Webster
Among the most fascinating and troubling ingredients of courtroom dramas is that all-too-familiar moment when opposing counsel chat amicably with one another—in the lobby, or in the courtroom itself prior to the judge’s arrival. This so often confronts and confuses the audience’s emotional involvement in the outcome of the case. In The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Satanic Mr. Scratch (played as a cheeky, Rumpelstiltskin-like figure by Walter Huston) and Daniel Webster (the real-life lawyer, orator, and New England statesman portrayed by a sage, avuncular Edward Arnold) meet before the climactic trial, a simple breach-of-contract case for which the stakes could not be more enormous.
Our journey to that point in the film has been thrilling. It’s the story, set in the 1840s, of an upstanding New Hampshire farmer named Jabez, who in a fit of intolerable suffering sells his soul to Scratch for a case of gold and subsequently loses everything that mattered to him. Yet now, before the Devil gets to claim his ghastly debt, he and Webster—hired as Jabez’s lawyer—drink together and exchange pleasantries, for that is what civilized courtroom opponents do. But when the case is spent, so too is Daniel Webster’s patience. His restraint and civility, coupled with his sublime oratory, have won the day. And Scratch is banished.
Based on a short story published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1936, William Dieterle’s 1941 film—released by RKO a few months after Citizen Kane—is a heady, ambitious cautionary tale blending the Book of Job, the legend of Faust, progressive New England politics, and German expressionist horror. The German-émigré director himself had a direct connection to that creative movement, having played a bit part in F. W. Murnau’s Faust in 1926. His subsequent Hollywood career—after an early best picture Oscar for The Life of Emile Zola—hatched the unforgettable visage of Charles Laughton in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and in 1948, brought us his haunting fantasy meisterwerke Portrait of Jennie. Dieterle’s ability to blend intellectual profundity with oppressive, lingering terror alimented by sublime moments of spectral photography is made all the more affecting by how lightly the whole enterprise is worn. The Devil and Daniel Webster is a film brimming with humor, which delivers elegant political stylings in between the ghostly shocks and the eye-catching, throat-grabbing anguish. In this sense, Dieterle makes himself the successor to his countryman Heinrich Hoffman, the 19th-century psychiatrist whose grotesquely illustrated morality tales were written to terrorize German tots onto the righteous path.
The rural Christian setting of Jabez’s family farm, where he lives with his goodly wife Mary and dutiful mother (also Mary), is bathed in fertile, bestial Old Testament imagery. The homestead is soon brought low by moments of natural misfortune—a pig going lame, a fox in the henhouse—which Dieterle amplifies with echoes of spiritualism and mythical New England lore to imply a test from God (a snowstorm in August is mentioned). Jabez is poor and his offhand comment about selling his soul to the Devil for two shillings (the moment he says it, his face has moved into shadow, reinforcing his hope that he was not overheard) immediately summons Huston’s impish Scratch, who wears a deerstalker to cover his horns and is genuinely charming and funny. Where God had only suffering to offer Job, Scratch has pleasure—or the promise of it—to offer Jabez, but only what money can buy. (The film’s original title was in fact altered to All That Money Can Buy, to avoid confusion with another RKO release of the same year: The Devil and Miss Jones.)
Around the same time, the principled, charismatic politician Daniel Webster—whose first appearance shows him rejecting the Devil’s advances—is making a name for himself in the country, promising to work tirelessly to free the poor from oppression. “Who can enjoy political liberty, if deprived of personal liberty?” he asks rhetorically, in one of his speeches in the village square. Applied to our setting, this means delivering unfortunate New England farmers from the enslavement of loan sharks. Scratch tries to help with his campaign. “I’d rather see you on the side of the opposition,” says Webster. “Oh, I’ll be there too,” replies Scratch.
Over the seven years of Jabez’s foul but regrettably well-drawn contract, the farmer turns progressively, inexorably, from Job to Midas. Scratch, his creditor, is there every step of the way with his box of tricks. Money isn’t the root of all evil in The Devil and Daniel Webster, but man’s weakness is ever-present, and money is the most efficient tool of oppression, for it turns men against each other. Like a bookkeeper filling an addict’s account with free bets just as the addict is ready to go cold turkey, Scratch introduces the enchantress Belle as Jabez’s housemaid (the French actress Simone Simon, who would catch fire the following year in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People), while a simple handshake—call it a free rider—extinguishes Jabez’s nagging conscience. He spends the rest of the time rubbing his affair with Belle in his wife’s face, while poor Mary tends to the upbringing of their troubled, nascent Donald Trump Jr. of a son.
When the reckoning comes, Jabez has turned into a rich man, to whom all his erstwhile friends are in debt. The bell tolls, and in a perfectly realized moment of supernatural horror, a party Jabez throws in his mansion is attended not by the invitees, but by a group of the undead whose souls had been claimed by Scratch. Here, Jabez realizes his downfall and he falls on Mary and Webster for forgiveness. Out of principle, Webster agrees to challenge Scratch and demands a jury trial to which Scratch attaches one condition: if Webster loses, he forfeits his own soul as well as Jabez’s, a result which would palpably gift the Devil his greatest prize.
A petty jury is summoned, literally from Hell: men, American citizens all, who have chosen money over the welfare of their neighbors (Blackbeard and Benedict Arnold are among them). Prefiguring the celestial pleadings in A Matter of Life and Death, this verdict belongs in a much higher Court. The existential threat to Daniel Webster, the film’s compelling mouthpiece for the values of the republic (that political power is vested in the people, who elect representatives to wield it on their behalf)—the horrifying sacrifice facing this humane Utopian, defending an American dream based on something other than money, selfishness, and greed—turns the entire case into a battle for the soul of America. It’s Halloween, 2020. There are three days to go. —Julien Allen