2010s, Action-Adventure, Biopic, Sports

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

aka Le Mans ‘66

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Director: James Mangold
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller

By Roderick Heath

Rain, speed, dark: the opening scenes of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari offer a driver’s-eye-view of racing on the famous Le Mans circuit at its most treacherous, deep in the night where the world loses all texture but the consequences of lapsed attention can be deadly. This proves to be a dream-distorted memory of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), winner of the race in 1959 who learns he has to quit racing as he’s developed a heart condition. Ford v Ferrari casts its mind back to the heady days of 1960s motor racing, a time when the sport was on the cusp of new technological wonders but was still leaning heavily on the eyes, minds, guts, and nerves of its committed builders and drivers. The title frames the story as one of clashing brand names, but the more vital battle here is between the dynamic grunts in the cockpits, pit lanes, and factory floors, and fatuous executives engaged in territorial pissing.

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The story grows out of an attempt at corporate rebranding, as young sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) tries to turn around a buying slump for Ford as it trundles along under the glum stewardship of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). Hoping to imbue the Ford marque with new, hip appeal, Iacocca talks the boss in trying to buy the great Italian car manufacturer Ferrari. That company has been dominating racing with its brilliant, carefully fashioned cars for several years, but has run out of money. Iacocca travels to Italy to arrange the purchase with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), only to be contemptuously seen off after Ferrari uses the Ford offer to leverage a buy-out from Fiat instead. When Iacocca reports Enzo’s barbed and personal insults, emphasising that the boss is just a feckless inheritor and maker of ugly, boring cars, Ford II decides to get revenge in a fitting but arduous manner, in setting up his own racing division.

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Iacocca hires Shelby, who has set up a fledgling car design enterprise, to attach his concern to Ford with the aim of producing a champion car. Shelby fixes on Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an eccentric and often truculent British-born racer with a knack for winning but no head for business or public relations, as a most fitting collaborator and driver. It’s an uneasy partnership: Miles takes such exception to Shelby’s criticism that he tosses a spanner at him, shattering his own car’s windscreen instead, turning off some Porsche bigwigs who were interested in hiring Miles as a test driver. Miles, who lives with his wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe), has recently had his garage taken from him for unpaid taxes, but still hesitates at Shelby’s offer because of his uncompromising streak, a streak that, once he does sign on, quickly rubs another Ford exec, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), the wrong way as he sees through the marketing glitz around the Mustang. Beebe nixes Shelby’s intention to have Miles drive at Le Mans in 1965, which proves to be a good thing as the first Ford cars entered prove glitch-prone if promisingly fast. Shelby has to repeatedly convince Ford II to let him run the show, and eventually Miles proves his mettle by winning at Daytona, setting up for an epic clash with Ferrari at Le Mans in ’66.

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Ford v Ferrari is a potent example of an endangered breed of moviemaking in contemporary mainstream cinema, a breed that used to be pretty commonplace: an ambitious, well-produced entertainment taking on a story rooted in fact, armed with all the technical might and storytelling savvy Hollywood has to offer. One justification for the all-consuming vortex that is contemporary franchise cinema is that it helps directors who sign on for a spell get other, more risky and personal projects financed. Ford v Ferrari represents the payoff for James Mangold after slogging his way through two vehicles for the Marvel comic book character Wolverine. A lot of people liked those films but they bored me silly, for they demonstrated Mangold had no affinity for the fantastic genres as he tried valiantly to skew them towards his native turf of melodrama driven by strident, conflicted characters, but could never quite contend with him such efforts foiled the best qualities of each mode. Ford v Ferrari is much more a work in Mangold’s wheelhouse, a tale of striving and grounded struggle for male protagonists whose objects of aspiration promise release from, and intensify the pain of, their private hells.

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It’s a touch surprising that Mangold, who debuted with a modest entry in the ‘90s indie film stakes, Heavy (1995), has proven to be one of current Hollywood’s most dextrous artificers, one who’s gone to a lot of effort to become a plain master of his craft on a technical level. Ford v Ferrari is beautifully crafted, with a palpable sense of physical context. Mangold’s second outing, Copland (1997), was a crime tale inflated well beyond its rather modest storyline by being overloaded with stars and production values when Miramax decided to try and make it a major award contender, resulting in a bruising flop, but Mangold persisted and rebounded with the slick and popular drama Girl, Interrupted (1999) and the psychothriller Identity (2003), a film that amusingly rendered Mangold’s interest in fractured personalities trying to piece themselves back together in gleefully literal and schlock-fun manner. His 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, whilst inevitably reducing the scope of Cash’s achievements, evinced Mangold’s cunning talent for digging out the raw nerve of a strong, essential storyline, in a manner that reproduced Cash’s own propensity for mythic-moralistic yarn-spinning, style and subject uniquely well-aligned.

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The emphasis in Ford v Ferrari on antagonistic personalities who eventually realise a hair too late they’re friends also recalls Mangold’s flavourful if lumpy remake of the canonical Western suspenser 3:10 From Yuma (2007). Ford v Ferrari reproduces some of the best qualities of Mangold’s work on Walk The Line, particularly Mangold’s feeling for period detail and sensibility, and gift for being attentive to his actors without devolving into shaggy indulgence. Ford v Ferrari might have grown as a project out of Michael Mann’s long-frustrated intention to make a biopic about Enzo Ferrari, as Mann was a producer here. The initial precepts of Ford v Ferrari, from its title on down, describe a clash between European and American sensibilities and business methods, and propelled, at least initially, by the potent emotions lurking behind the pudgy, pale faces of suit-clad industrialists. The script, by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, tiptoes around the more disturbing political associations of both companies, Ford as founded by a rabid anti-Semite and Ferrari by a former Fascist collaborator, but it retains a surprisingly attentive engagement with its various characters, and companies, as social phenomena.

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Ford II encourages Shelby to get to work by pointing out the building where the company built bombers during the war and instructing him to treat their venture the same way, as a war of worlds. In our peculiar epoch, such a story could be taken as a metaphor offered in dogged celebration of an Anglo-American partnership, for all its fraternal fractiousness, sticking it to snooty Europeans, in line with some political desires amidst Britain’s ongoing divorce from the EU. But as the film unfolds it disowns such readings, or at least complicates them. Shelby presents himself as the archetypal American individualist, half-cowboy, half-artisan, a man who once flew the bombers Ford built and who gives speeches wearing a Stetson. Miles, a man who’s left one country for another, is the battered progeny of an age, a war hero who nonetheless acts in a way that makes Beebe describe him as a beatnik, and whose intense, angular physicality on top of his unstable behaviour suggests he may be suffering from lingering PTSD, even if he manages most of the time to expend it in racing. His wife’s well-used to his mercurial strangeness and understands too well his particular addictions because she shares them to a degree, terrifying her husband as she drives the family wagon at speed whilst chewing him out for being evasive over his dealings with Shelby. His evasiveness is rooted in his deep-set ambivalence for the idea of becoming a company man, a deal with the devil he knows well will sooner or later cost him some big lump of pride.

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Mangold’s visual shorthand captures contrasting aesthetics as rooted in cultural gaps, Ferrari having his breakfast in the workshop of his factory in leafy old world surrounds that mimic the old padrone overseeing his villa’s business, versus Ford II ensconced high in his shiny tower, a man who almost accidentally embodies a specific moment in human history trying to work out the biggest trick in business, how to transcend that moment: can the great modernist project survive its own all-consuming will? Ford II makes his workforce, both on the factory floor and in his executive ranks, the ultimate cost of failures of imagination and will, when he shuts down the assembly line in mid-flow and asks his employees to imagine that as a permanent state of affairs. “James Bond’s a degenerate,” he comments when Iacocca tries to use the fictional hero as the perfect example of a style icon for a new generation as a fantasy of gone-wild thrill-seeking and licentiousness, sharply contrasting the Ford imprimatur’s self-perception as a pillar of parochial American values. Enzo is offered the personification of a certain European ideal of the owner-manager who protects his brand and his personal aura with the integrity of an artist. Ford II speaks another kind of language, flying in and out of race events in a helicopter, stirring the mockery of the Italians but also stating to the world at large he’s a being from a vastly different stratum of business, one who exhibits his imperial, dynastic might in new ways.

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Letts, who’s also of course a playwright, beautifully nails the key moment of the drama when Ford II absorbs the import of Ferrari’s insults, the look of stirred anger blending with a shade of blank despair, the one weak spot in his armour expertly located and pierced. But it’s telling that even as Ford v Ferrari gives unexpected insight into what makes a man like Ford II tick, it carefully parcels that empathy. Mangold takes unseemly delight in a sequence where Shelby takes Ford II out for a ride in his new racecar only to leave the great industrialist weeping in shock and fear, newly respectful of the abilities of people who can work at such extremes. This gives way quickly to a more familiar narrative pitch, concentrating on Shelby and Miles as the men who do the real work, building and wielding formidable hunks of technology, in tension with an increasingly corporatized enterprise. By the last act the games of plutocratic dick-measuring have given way instead to the efforts of risk-taking inventors and performers. It doesn’t take much critical squinting to see Ford v Ferrari as Mangold’s report on his experience as a director working for big studios on carefully packaged product, arguing his belief that in the end even the most valuable property has to be turned over to creative people whose ways and means are alien and fear-inducing to boardroom types.

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Bale plays a version of Miles, who was generally known as a polite customer in real life but here is portrayed as a prickly misfit brilliant at his job but hampered by a volcanic temper that he almost seems to unleash with calculation just to see how people will react to it. This is Bale plainly offering rather a variation on his own public persona, star performer as a being who must walk the existential line. But this also aids Mangold’s conflating purpose: the car/movie industry needs such personalities to make things happen, Miles as star performer and Shelby as visionary director. Bale’s a natural-born scene stealer, although Damon, asked to play the more grounded straight man, gives one of his most effective performance, sharpening his drawl to a point in moments like when he has to muster an effective argument for Ford II to keep the racing team going. Shelby and Miles’ working relationship reaches a crisis point when Beebe forces Shelby to hire other drivers for the ’65 Le Mans, a benching Miles takes with surprising calm and settles for listening to it on the radio whilst working on a car (in reality he competed in the race along with Bruce McLaren in a Ford, but retired with gearbox trouble, but hell, this is the movies). When Shelby begs Miles to work with him again, Miles punches him in the face, overture to a John Ford-esque moment of manly expiation of friendly contention through fisticuffs. The following year, Miles wins both Daytona and the Sebring 12 hour race, and goes into Le Mans on a red-hot streak, for the ultimate duel with Ferrari’s team.

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Car racing movies have a long if not always honoured pedigree in movies, reaching back to Howard Hawks films like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Red Line 7000 (1965) and extending through the likes of James Goldman’s Winning (1969), Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder (1990), Renny Harlin’s Driven (2001), and Ron Howard’s Rush (2013). There are even distinct narrative affinities between Ford v Ferrari and Ben-Hur (1959) in the theme of a man with a race-winner looking for the right driver to prove both a personal and cultural point. The two best films on car racing date on the subject are John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966) and Lee H. Katzin’s Le Mans (1971), both of which were hefty hunks of pricey filmmaking but expressive and unusual in their filmmaking and muted in their emotional palettes, avoiding the triumphalism we now more squarely associate with such films: they came out of a day when a sports movie could also be a study in alienation and disaffection. But the racer subgenre very often concentrates on characters who remain in some fashion enigmas to themselves and those close to them, trying to understand what pushes them out to such extremes of life and death, cutting them off from the ordinary world.

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The more telling inequality between Frankenheimer and Katzin’s films and Mangold’s, products of a more cinematically adventurous age, is that the older films aimed to offer almost poeticised evocations of speed and motion, like the awesome depiction of a car crash depicted in fragmented and lapping time in Le Mans. Whereas Ford v Ferrari is, like many contemporary films, obsessed with nailing down a specific storytelling arc, an approach that does at least facilitate Mangold’s preoccupation with characters trying to understand themselves. Mangold’s visuals have real beauty that sometimes grazes the poetic in their way, but they’re thoroughly contoured into straightforward function. Mangold’s sharp yet textured images, his use of rich colours and light come in frames rendered with a clear, illustrative force, are one of the pleasures of his best films: his filmic approach is both muscular in a contemporary fashion but also quite classical and unmannered. The racing sequences here are some of the best ever staged, with Mangold’s framings expertly tethered to lines of linear motion, the soundtrack replete with the sonorous thunder of a well-tuned muscle engine at full throttle, cars moving at great speed as rivals and friends crash and hunks of wreckage tumble about your ears.

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The brilliant climactic recreation of the 1966 Le Mans race depicts with immediate verve and intensity the experience of driving a car pell-mell through thickets of rivals amidst flurrying rain and dark, frames awash with gushing spray and red taillight glow and boiling flame, a realm where Miles is most perfectly himself, delivered from a world of compromise and pettiness, brushing the edges of the sublime state he believes resides in the zone above 7000 rpm. But the whole film is wrapped in a lush gloss apparent even in interpersonal moments as when Ken talks with his son whilst sitting on a stretch of LA airport tarmac the team likes to use for practice runs, transformed into an amphitheatre of technological grunt amidst the glowing mid-century twilight. Mangold uses James Burton’s instrumental cover of “Polk Salad Annie” as a recurring leitmotif on the soundtrack, an instant dash of distilled retro Americana that also communicates the sheer fidgety urge to defy a limit and the love of rolling velocity encoded in its nervously thrumming rhythm. Ford v Ferrari actually digs into the business of making a winner as well as noting the forces that often get in the way of making a good movie. I mean, car.

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There’s a fine sense of detail in the sequences depicting the process of creating a great race car, coating supermodern machines in bits of flapping wool to analyse wind dynamics, as Shelby, Miles, and the Ford brains steadily piece together what they learn and develop and arrive at the GT40, a car with a huge bundle of horsepower jammed into the rear of the car, and coming up with novel notions like a completely replaceable braking system when Miles almost gets wiped out as the car’s braking system locks up during an endurance test. What hampers Ford v Ferrari is its habits of narrowing its focus down to some stock-standard conflicts and refrains. Lucas is again stuck playing the kind of snooty establishment antagonist he embodied in A Beautiful Mind (2002), aggravating through the pinewood texture of his voice. The battles with the Ford hierarchy and Beebe in particular have roots in fact but it’s an aspect, along with the constant swaying between Miles’ work and his home life, that starts to interfere with the pace of the film. And yet the conventionalities are frustrating but serve a function that doesn’t quite become clear until the end.

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The emphasis on the conflict between the racers and the executives proves eventually to have a different cumulative meaning than is usual, and the refrains to Lee’s mostly happy home life, often seem superfluous despite Balfe’s terrific performance as Lee’s stalwart lady, but it ultimately becomes clear that the Miles’ story is one of how what makes us love some people is also what we know well might take them from us some day. Moreover, the climactic race, which has the lustre of folklore amongst race fans for understandable reason, presents a fascinating dramatic situation where character and machinery both are tested. What’s ultimately most interesting about Ford v Ferrari is the degree to which it’s not quite a classic crowd-pleaser, becoming rather a story of heroes trying to identify their deepest, truest yardsticks for success rather than those imposed by worldly expectations. Branded legend is invoked only to force the audience to identify with men who eventually realise their talents and abilities always come second to the interest of those whose business it is selling a product. Enzo Ferrari’s gesture of respect is ultimately tipped to Shelby, not Ford II: European auteur gives respect to American studio hand. The genius of Shelby’s team and Miles’ ability are ultimately subordinated to this interest, as Beebe talks Ford II into arranging the three Ford cars in the race to cross the line together.

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It’s a chance for a perfect publicity photo that however cheats Miles of his win, as McLaren (Benjamin Rigby) is declared the winner for a technicality through backstage chicanery. The irony however is that Miles has already achieved his own standard of achievement, setting incredible lap records with ferocious driving, and defeating both Ferraris in duels. Finally he decides to obey the company decision as he finds he’s outrun the need to win alone. The cruellest punchline lies in wait a little further down the road, as Miles dies as a car he’s testing careens off a desert test track, the old braking problem still a lurking imp ready to upturn all faiths of men. Shelby gives the spanner Miles tossed at him to young Peter, and settles in his car for a fit of grief as he wolfs down his heart medication. A surprisingly ambivalent ending for such a movie, leaving the question as to whether all this defiant business is actually worth anything in the face of the human wreckage left in its wake. But the way Shelby drives off confirms he still has the fire in the blood, perhaps an irreducible component of the human condition that burns itself out in different people in different ways — the sense that life is not life unless it’s known at the very limit. Ford v Ferrari certainly doesn’t reinvent the cinematic wheel. But it is the the sort of film that gives popular moviemaking a good name.

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2010s, Best of list

25 Essential Films of the 2010s

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By Roderick Heath

Ten years ago I wrote a list of what I dubbed essential works of the new millennium’s first decade. When I read the list today I see some movies I wouldn’t put on there now, by filmmakers I’ve entirely lost faith and interest in, and a few movies my enthusiasm for then baffles me now. Those stand alongside choices that still give me pleasure. Often it’s the picks that seemed slightly daffy then that still feel the worthiest to me.

The last decade of cinema has skidded about like a seismograph chart, agonising, terrible, brilliant, endlessly inventive, profoundly lazy, embattled and almighty. As a mass-market art form cinema has narrowed to an excruciating degree in its viable stories and styles. Gaudy riches still turn up with a little digging the world over, and yet as such ore has widely and easily available as never before, at the same time general appetite for it has become more stringently parsed, and the ways we watch cinema increasingly hermetic and detached from a communal experience.

But I’m not interested in launching any screeds or prophecies at the moment, but in celebrating a selection of some of my favourite cinema of these past ten years. Movies that represented for me a glorious swathe of creative energy, movies that, for whatever reason, vibrate with a specific kind of life in my memory, imbued with mysterious flesh in pursuing their chosen aesthetic to the limit. As I usually do when composing such surveys I maintain a rule of one representing work per director.

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12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was understandably greeted as a great moment in issue moviemaking, offering an often agonising portrait of the foulest aspects of American slavery as experienced by Solomon Northup, filmed with unwavering clarity and helping to fill out a wide gap in screen culture. But it was also a clinical, fixated examination on themes introduced in McQueen’s previous films, applying precise psychology and tensile dramatic force to the dynamics of power as revealed in the tale, sifting through the perverse undercurrents binding owned to owner. In a film about a system that aimed to dehumanise, McQueen instead managed the tricky task of identifying precisely what was human about it.

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Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

One of the most original adaptations of classic literature of recent years, Wright’s best film to date was a throwback to the days of the Free Cinema in refusing to let filmic form or cultural inheritance ossify. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard turned Tolstoy’s novel into a meta-theatrical event, confining it mostly to a sound stage/playhouse imbuing events with both aspects of recessive luxury and claustrophobic intensity, and capturing the swooning, self-dramatising romanticism of its heroine right up to her last moments. The result was far too dynamic for the Downton Abbey crowd and not solemn enough for awards season. Dario Marianelli’s score was a strong candidate for the decade’s greatest.

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The Assassin (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2015)

Several movies on this list represent a solitary release for major directors in the decade, which says much about the way cinema’s most singular visionaries have too often been left stranded in the contemporary movie landscape. Like Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, Hou’s lone outing blended his familiarly minimal yet lushly decorated aesthetic with a venture into popular genre fare, distilling its folk tale basis to a dreamy evocation of a past that never was, described in hovering images that hunted for both great beauty and an essential motif about identities chosen and imposed.

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Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)

Bastards didn’t net the same level of attention as some of Claire Denis’ other films in the past few years, but it was the one that stuck in my memory like a splinter. A contemporary noir film blended with a particularly twisted take on Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Bastards was occasionally repugnant in portraying the lowlifes amongst the high life, conveyed through an aesthetic pitting the elegance of film against the seedy implications of video, where people become a tradeable commodity and everyone finally knows which side their bread’s buttered on. Vincent Lindon was marvellous as the ultimately upright but also fatally outmatched hero.

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Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

A colossal flop that might well have ended Michael Mann’s directing career for good, Blackhat is nonetheless the one film I keep coming back to as a pure product of the 2010s, a seemingly straightforward thriller that keeps unveiling new layers and textures with each viewing. Certainly no other release seemed quite as engaged with the actual state of things in the mid-decade, from the radically shifting balances of geopolitical power to the indifference of the warriors out on the liquid frontiers of cyberspace, and the proxies of barbarity and justice enacted Einstein’s predicted future war in devolving from sublime codes and ethereal streams to brute intimacy of steel and lead.

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Drug War (Johnny To, 2013)

Hardware to Blackhat’s software, Drug War saw Johnny To abandon the crystal castles and shadowed alleys of Hong Kong and cross to the Chinese mainland’s grey-flowing highways, to portray the drug trade in concert with perceiving a great, unmoored populace afloat and adrift on the tides of a great new capitalist dream, people and product alike on the move. Earthier and more procedural than many of To’s more operatic crime flicks, Drug War’s climactic massacre, and the ingenious punchline of its antihero literally chained to a victim of his machinations, managed nonetheless to offer a beggaring spectacle of life and death, authority and outlawry in death grapple.

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Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2011)

The 2010s saw many attempts to revive the musical, but most proved lumbering and arduous if not hideously irrelevant. Girl Walk // All Day was improvised on the streets of New York as a mixture of internet-enabled happening and digi-neorealist fusion of On the Town and Joyce’s Ulysses, built around Girl Talk’s mash-up album. Krupnick provided one of the keenest cultural artefacts ever assembled, fleet-footed and ebullient in its unforced naiveté, a love-letter to both polyphony and the polyglot, impish but also firm in its defence of creative verve and the individual’s place both amidst and apart from the community, in the face of consumerist folderol and urban detachment. Infinite plaudits to stars Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya, and John Doyle.

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The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai, 2013)

A nominal biopic of Ip Man, The Grandmaster proved rather one of Wong’s town square-like narrative conjunctions where his assailed but persisting hero fought for attention amidst forgotten rivals for folk hero status, as a way of exploring the ruptures that have defined modern China’s identity as well as giving new, macrocosmic dimensions to Wong’s eternal themes of frustrated ardour and personal evolution. All was wrapped up in some of the most ravishing visuals ever committed to film.

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The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

It’s possible that Tarantino’s most recent work Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood will firm up as his best film, and Django Unchained will probably stay his most popular. But for the moment I’m sticking with The Hateful Eight, a more contentious work, as the exemplar of his 2010s labours. A bleak and pitiless, if still blackly hilarious and happily grotesque, semi-remake of Reservoir Dogs, the film offered a dismantling of the western genre via a combination whodunit and slasher flick, pitting the titular disagreeable octet as avatars of America’s various tribes (racial, gender, political) in close combat. The grimly mirthful punchline affirmed civic identity as a mesh of dubious legends, uneasy alliances, and the very real bite of the law’s knot.

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John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Perhaps it’s entirely proper that the best-crafted, most fluently directed, and sheerly entertaining action-adventure spectacle Hollywood produced in the 2010s was also one of its most punishing box office failures. Former animation director Stanton’s eye drank in the lush curlicues of vintage scientifiction with a big movie gloss, and John Carter was a last hurrah for old-school space opera and pulp sci-fi delivered on grandiose scale before the genre’s tattered remnants would be hoist again by the revived Star Wars series with all the weird texture and high romanticism surgically removed. Stanton’s film was a lot of fun, but also no other film of the ‘10s had a setpiece as charged with outsized emotion and spectacle as Carter’s berserker battle with the wild Thark horde as he expiates his tormenting grief and defends his new loyalties.

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Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)

Terrence Malick’s decade was switchback-inducing: 2011 brought the widely hailed, grandly allegorical The Tree of Life, a film that proved for the 2010s what Goodfellas had been for the ‘90s in endlessly pervasive stylistic influence, and 2019 saw him return to relatively familiar narrative with A Hidden Life. In between Malick released a divisive sequence of impressionistic, improvisatory dramas. I could readily have chosen two or three of his films for this list. But I went with the Knight of Cups because it stands as Malick’s most extreme and dynamic experiment in poetic image flow and his most adult, recasting his own early experiences in Hollywood as an utterly present-tense tale of body and soul in turmoil, replete with flashes of mutable beauty.

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Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2013)

Kiarostami’s final film was largely overshadowed in regard by its immediate precursor, the intimate and ingenious piece of puzzle theatre that was Certified Copy. But Like Someone In Love, a work that saw its director at home in the strange climes of Tokyo, stands for me as one of the most gracious swan songs in cinema, a tragicomic portrait of an elderly professor who gets wedged between the escort he hires for an evening’s company and her angry boyfriend. Kiarostami suggested great wisdom ironically through noting how often we can be as foolish in our twilight years as in our youth.

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Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Spielberg’s best film of the decade, and perhaps the best traditional, mainstream drama by anyone in the 2010s, offered the official historical companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, and the less scabrous balance to The Hateful Eight, in recounting Abraham Lincoln’s covert and overt struggles to outlaw slavery in the context of wartime bloodshed and political contention, revolving around the doomed President but encompassing an entire epochal sensibility and the great gallery of its brilliantly portrayed protagonists. Armed with a nigh-perfect Tony Kushner script and Daniel Day Lewis’ uncanny central performance, Spielberg walked the line between rough-and-tumble expedience and high-flown idealism with the same grace as his hero, articulated through a blend of unfussy realism and gently neo-expressionist evocations to describe national identity balanced on a bayonet’s edge.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)

Young tyro Bi Gan’s second film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a testimony to the way expressive ambition can transform a wispy basic proposition, in depicting a middle-aged man’s return home to contend with his past and the people he’s lost. Bi synthesised the expressive lexicons of Chinese-language cinema’s recent heroes, their diverging temptations to extremes of raw authenticity and wistful meditation, as well as taking advantage of technological advances to push forward into a new zone of expression, creating a bifurcated epic exploring ambiguous tracts of memory and the hyperrealism of a dreamscape. The result was deeply personal whilst also expertly describing the mainland nation’s unease in a transformative moment where the recent past seems tantalisingly fragmentary in recollection and the present mysteriously insubstantial even in its enveloping immediacy.

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The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

Between the opiated antinostalgia of The Immigrant and the monomaniacal futurism of Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z moored James Gray’s output in the decade, leaving behind Gray’s fixation with New York’s folk mythology to contend with a more international brand in depicting Percy Fawcett, an explorer offered as both nascent mystic for a secular age and lost agent for emerging modernity seeking out proof of persistence in the wasteland, trying to reject the Conradian only to rediscover the Melvillian. Lost civilisations beckoned from the mist whilst the familiar ones warred and decayed, and the hunt for the sublime laid waste to the beloved.

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The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The Master isn’t the easiest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films to love, not as dazedly funny as Inherent Vice nor as cunningly romantic as Phantom Thread, his subsequent works. But it sported Anderson’s most sharply composed imagery and allusive screenwriting. Like The Lost City of Z, The Master subsumed a quintessential figure of twentieth century flimflam, in this case recasting L. Ron Hubbard as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, nominal guru for a very Andersonian populace of variably needy and bullying personalities. But Anderson’s focus fell on Joaquin Phoenix’s debased postwar drifter, an imp of the perverse offering a wealth of neurosis for Dodd to mine for dubious insights as well as embodying the siren call of a gloriously unilluminated underworld under all the bright Ike-age lights.

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Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2011)

The lengthy final labour from one of European cinema’s most restless talents, Mysteries of Lisbon adapted Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel as a tale perched between epic Victorian bildungsroman and modernist absurdism, trying to depict the perverse forces that give shape to people and nations. Young hero João finds his tenure on Earth not so much an autonomous life but a tide pool the waves of history personal and political occasionally deem to fill, his personality forged as the by-product of wars and crimes, even whilst surrounded by characters with fluid identities, personal legends, and lodes of guilt and suppressed passion. Ruiz’s fluid, elusive aesthetic swapped the often jaggedly experimental tenor of much of his work for a piercingly evocative and intangibly romantic palette.

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Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Night Moves gained less fervent attention than Kelly Reichardt’s other work of the decade but was, again, it was for me somewhat easily the best of her films, her feel for immediate environment meshed nimbly with a nervelessly-told, steadily ratcheting pseudo-thriller. The story depicted a trio of environmental activists turned eco-terrorists who set out to blow up a dam only to reap unintended consequences: Reichardt picked at a thread until everything came unwound, as a nominal act of worldly conscientiousness was relentlessly stripped of illusion until the heart of darkness was exposed in a most unexpected setting.

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Palme d’Or for his excellent depiction of pathos and solipsism Winter Sleep, but that film couldn’t quite escape the long shadow of its predecessor, which made Ceylan’s international reputation. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offered a most ironic echo of frontier mythos in a long yet spare and ineffably patient portrayal of a gang of officials forced out into the Anatolian night to retrieve a murdered man’s body, contending with landscapes physical and mental where history seems to stand still, waste and decay are taking hold, and the guttering flame of youthful promise hovers just out of reach. The cold light of day illuminates only a stiff corpse and grieving family, proof of an eruptive tragedy that also elucidates a much smaller brand, the moment when you realise you have less days ahead of you than behind.

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Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

A blissful islet of the gaudily, blithely youthful amidst the grizzled heavy lifting of the 2010s, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World kicked off a terrific triptych of films from Wright extended by The World’s End and Baby Driver. Wright converted a beloved underground comic book into a contemporary spin on a ‘60s psychedelic comedy that was also a surprisingly acute study of a phase in life, as a young bohemian hero contends with romantic rivalry and corporate inanity whilst trying to map out his own maturity, interweaving a broad satire of contemporary hipster mores with manifold plays on musical and cinematic touchstones.

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A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation brought Farhadi to wide international attention, as his blend of novelistic texture and filmmaking attentive to performance meshed for a classical brand of mature drama so many western equivalents seemed facetious in aiming for. Farhadi’s subsequent shift to a wandering maker of familial melodramas, whilst still producing excellent work, stripped him to a certain extent of the particular quality he wielded here in his study of the labyrinthine absurdity of Iran’s bureaucracy, seemingly constructed to foil and frustrate all coming in contact with it as a punishment for being merely human, and the wayward and contrarian impulses of such people, who all pay steep prices for their yearnings and frailties.

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Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

After spending most of the ‘00s working on prestige vehicles to finally land an Oscar, Martin Scorsese’s 2010s oeuvre was more diverse and restless, ranging from the stylish gimmick thriller Shutter Island to the wizened epicism of The Irishman (which I haven’t yet seen), anchored by The Wolf of Wall Street, a huge and raucous hit, and Silence, met with scarcely a shrug by a mass audience. Silence dragged the viewer through a vision of worldly authority and ethereal piety at war with a perfervid blend of cruel immediacy and pensive neutrality. The result neatly rounded out a rough trilogy contending with faith with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, but also engaged with the same basic proposition as Scorsese’s more secular dramas, fixing on men eventually trapped beyond the assurances of community, whilst still desperately trying to find some small way of holding onto a particular conviction all too intimately bound in with a self-regard that will be relentlessly pounded out of them.

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

Late bloomer Hogg’s The Souvenir nominally offered a pretty familiar project in abstract, an autobiographical tale of tragic youthful romance and an artistic bildungsroman, fixating upon that odd phase in an artist’s life when creativity is a crying need but both subjects and style must be earned in the great gamble of life. But Hogg’s relentlessly intelligent and sinuously evasive artistry made it much more — an enigmatic character study, a fervent study in troubled romance, a suggestive depiction of a period zeitgeist, a multifarious nod to traditions of British cinema, a puckish analysis of class and identity.

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Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011)

Zack Snyder’s fourth film managed to be many things at once: a pseudo-feminist psychodrama about power and abuse, a bleak gothic fantasy about ruination and survival, a sexed-up neo-musical, a post-modern discourse on role-playing and gaming, a comic book romp with far more visual invention and style than any official entries in that mode, and more. As such it stood almost alone as one of the very few films that felt properly engaged with a pop culture fast migrating to an online and virtual zone and winnowing experience through portals of image-making, whilst also nailing down the psychic roots of the insane popularity of superheroic avatars in our search for fantasy liberators within and without.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2018)

Argentine director Martel tackled a native literary classic and forged a historical recreation at once palpable and dreamlike, a stage where her antihero slides by degrees down through a social hierarchy and finishes up quite literally disarmed, but also ennobled as one of the first true citizens of a strange new world rather than a mere emissary of the old. The story, with its relentless arc of downward mobility and humiliation, was basically downmarket Kafka, but all was elevated by Martel’s envisioning, replete with images conveying flashes of extraordinary mystery and sensuality and a sense of the deeply surreal confrontation of societies large and small, making ruthless sport of colonialist myth whilst offering a sliver of grace for its bit players.

Others:

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike) ∙ Allied (Robert Zemeckis) ∙ Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke) ∙ Aferim! (Radu Jude) ∙ Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari) ∙ Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans) ∙ Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland) ∙ Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra) ∙ Blancanieves (Pablo Berger) ∙ Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) ∙ The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) ∙ Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) ∙ Concussion (Stacey Passon) ∙ The Counselor (Ridley Scott) ∙ Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro) ∙ A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) ∙ Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) ∙ The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong) ∙ Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark) ∙ Domino (Brian De Palma) ∙ Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn) ∙ Elle (Paul Verhoeven) ∙ Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda) ∙ Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) ∙ The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) ∙ Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter) ∙ Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie) ∙ Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) ∙ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson) ∙ Holiday (Isabella Eklöf) ∙ In Fabric (Peter Strickland) ∙ Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) ∙ Kill List (Ben Wheatley) ∙ Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd) ∙ Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin) ∙ Leap Year (Michael Rowe) ∙ The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach) ∙ Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) ∙ Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) ∙ Museum Hours (Jem Cohen) ∙ The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell) ∙ The Nice Guys (Shane Black) ∙ No (Pablo Larrain) ∙ Noah (Darren Aronofsky) ∙ Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) ∙ On the Road (Walter Salles) ∙ Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang) ∙ The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) ∙ Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman) ∙ The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi) ∙ Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) ∙ Shadow (Zhang Yimou) ∙ The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) ∙ Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin) ∙ Still the Water (Naomi Kawase) ∙ Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie) ∙ Sully (Clint Eastwood) ∙ Tabu (Miguel Gomes) ∙ The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone) ∙ Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) ∙ Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) ∙ Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) ∙ The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung) ∙ Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara) ∙ Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait) ∙ You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey) ∙ Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) ∙

Significant blind spots:

A Quiet Passion ∙ Almayer’s Folly ∙ Amour ∙ Arabian Nights ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Biutiful ∙ Capernaum ∙ Chi-Raq ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Florida Project ∙ Fruitvale Station ∙ A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ∙ Goodbye to Language ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ A Hidden Life ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ The Irishman ∙ Leviathan ∙ Margaret ∙ mother! ∙ Nymphomaniac ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ Room ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Shame ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Square ∙ Son of Saul ∙ Sweet Country ∙ The Turin Horse ∙ Toy Story 3 & 4 ∙ White Material ∙

Inessential Movies of the 2010s:
Not necessarily the absolute worst films of the decade and certainly not comprehensive, but a list of movies that, for whatever reason, I felt great and unremitting contempt for.

Concussion (Peter Landesman)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Seventh Circle of Shit Remake Hell: Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel) / Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) / Robocop (José Padilha) / Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)

Standard
1950s, 1970s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi, Thriller

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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Directors: Don Siegel / Philip Kaufman
Screenwriters: Daniel Mainwaring / W.D. Richter

By Roderick Heath

I said, “Hello!” again, a little louder, jiggling the phone, the way you do, but the line was dead, and I put the phone back. In my father’s day a night operator, whose name he’d have known, could have told him who’d called…But now we have dial phones, marvelously efficient, saving you a full second or more every time you call, inhumanly perfect, and utterly brainless; and none of them will ever remember where the doctor is at night, when a child is sick and needs him. Sometimes I think we’re refining all humanity out of our lives. – Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers began life as a serialised story in Colliers Magazine and was published as a novel in 1955. Finney, a former copywriter and journalist, became adept at writing in many a genre with the discipline of a shrewd professional. He wrote many crime stories, some of which were also adapted as films, including Phil Karlson’s 5 Against The House (1955), although his biggest publishing success was the 1970 time travel tale Time And Again. The Body Snatchers was received harshly by some science fiction writers and critics as a variation on an already well-worn idea: Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick had already explored very similar notions. Even when adapted as a movie in 1956, it was following Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953) in employing the theme of people in a small town replaced by alien doppelgangers. But Finney knew how to place such a story in a resolutely believable and human context, and Don Siegel’s adaptation immediately made the story the most famous variation on the theme, lodging itself in the popular consciousness and birthing the phrase “pod people” in common parlance. The hyped-up retitling initially gave it a trashy lustre but the film’s quality quickly grabbed critical attention, helping cement Siegel’s reputation.

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Siegel himself, unlike Arnold, wasn’t drawn to science fiction by inclination, and like Finney was more associated with thrillers. But it was precisely this likeness, each creative hand’s skill in grounding a tale in an immediately substantial and quotidian sense of the world, that would lend the story its specific texture. Eventually Invasion of the Body Snatchers was lodged as a diamond-hard genre film classic, an eternal touchstone for anyone who saw it when young and had their love for dark thrills galvanised. It also proved a ready template, officially remade three times, and imitated and lampooned endlessly. Philip Kaufman’s first remake, released in 1978, rode a wave of new interest in sci-fi cinema following the success of Star Wars (1977), as studios scrambled to find genre properties that could be quickly given a new gloss with modern special effects. Kaufman’s version immediately inspired and influenced a string of remakes, including John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988), adding new lashings of gruesome corporeal detail and radicalism to a fairly clean-cut and beloved movie in a manner that divided fans of the originals. But the most interesting disparities between the two films speak more of the radical social shifts in the twenty-two years that separate them, and the distinctive perspectives of their directors.

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Siegel was noted as a studio hand who’d risen to become a master editor at Warner Bros., and fought to get a break as director. Far from finding himself washed up as the studio system declined, Siegel thrived in the grittier climes of the 1960s and ‘70s, noted for his spiky tales of antiheroic misfits and his fascination for dramas pitting avatars of anarchy and control in direct, almost schizoid opposition. Kaufman, by contrast, was a literate bohemian turned filmmaker who started making movies in the mid-1960s but who didn’t start gaining traction until his fortunes aligned with the emerging Movie Brat generation. Both films retained the same basic structure and stuck fairly closely to Finney’s storyline, although Kaufman’s version transferred the setting from the small California town of Santa Mira to the urban zones of San Francisco and altered aspects of the character drama. Finney’s lead character Miles Bennell is a doctor in his home town Santa Mira who reconnects with his former teenage flame Becky Driscoll, and they edge into a tentative romance again as both are recovering from divorce.

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Kaufman and his screenwriter W.D. Richter reconfigured this so Bennell, rechristened Matthew, is a health inspector and Becky, now Elizabeth, is a colleague and friend with an obvious spark of connection although Elizabeth’s married. In both versions Bennell begins encountering anxious people who report that loved ones have been replaced by beings that look, sound, and act just like the people they know and yet are missing some vital defining trait. Bennell consults a psychiatrist friend, named Dan Kauffman in the original and David Kibner in the remake, who insists the phenomenon is purely mental. But Bennell’s writer friend Jack Belicec and his wife call him to take a look at a mysterious body that’s appeared on their premises, looking like an unfinished version of Jack. A terrible truth begins to emerge: people are being replaced by lookalikes growing out of seed pods with an extra-terrestrial origin, mimetic organisms able to absorb every characteristic of humans save any capacity for authentic emotion.

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Finney’s book had laid down a fine blueprint for describing the tensions between communal and individual identity. The main characters cut across the grain of their surrounds and old-fashioned social presumptions, with Miles and Becky as divorcees, whilst Miles and Kauffman and Belicec comprising something like the intelligentsia of their town with just a faint hint of the siege mentality such cliques often feel, an aspect Kaufman would elaborate on, just as their names nod to the polyglot state of American society. Siegel’s version doesn’t expend a great deal of time setting up the social backdrop of Santa Mira, because he doesn’t need to: it’s so damn ordinary, the people wandering through it familiar with their howdy-neighbour grins, everyone performing a function, from Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) to Kauffman (Larry Gates) to Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke) to gas repairman Charlie (Sam Peckinpah). The first sign of disturbance to the status quo comes as Bennell sees young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) running away from the family fruit stand, gripped by the conviction his mother isn’t his mother. Bennell soon finds the same apparent delusion gripping several other people, including Becky’s friend Wilma (Virginia Christine) who swears her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t her Uncle Ira. “A strange neurosis, evidently contagious – an epidemic of mass hysteria,” Kauffman judges it, and to Miles’ question what causes it, responds: “Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.”

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Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has long been the object of debate as to whether it can be considered as a political parable, with factional readings rooted in its era taking it as either a metaphor for the anti-Communist panic of McCarthyism, where a community gangs up on a small and hapless group to destroy or assimilate outliers, or rather the opposite, a vision of Communist infiltration, as the lookalikes conform to certain canards about the Red Menace, detached and enforcing a collective, hive-mind-like system. The quote from Finney’s book above indicates his target was something at once vaguer and more thoroughly encompassing, a general portrait of modernity as a state of perpetual, alienating shock, defined by a constant succession of nudges away from immediate human reference into a state of prophylaxis. Political readings blur into each-other from such a perspective, the desire to project insidious and malignant motives onto an Other a desperate attempt to return shape to communal experience, which is subject to a constant, intense process of homogenisation. Siegel had a love for characters who, for whatever reason, exist on the outskirts of society and try to operate according to their own very peculiar code. Here he’d found a perfect ironic text to explore his obsession, one that allowed him to make his heroes at once beings apart and the final exemplars of “normality,” the act of retaining their individuality valorised above all else but also doomed to cost them everything.

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At the same time, the story echoes more personally and immediately, speaking to a basic aspect of human experience that’s hard to portray dramatically. The fear of changes in people we know and love, the tiny, almost imperceptible alterations in behaviour that can signal anything from infidelity to senility, the noticing of which can often make the observer feel like they’re the one losing their wits. The way the story ties Bennell and Becky’s resuming relationship to the larger drama emphasises their frail and worldly-wise sense of becoming and cherishing, starkly contrasting the relentless assimilation of the alien invasion. When the lovers are confronted by the replicated Belicec and Kauffman, they insist it’s a blissful deliverance from all the fractiousness that defines human identity, the passion that brings pain, a sort of instant shortcut to a Zen state that represents however not triumph over flesh but the mere deadening of it. Kaufman would take up this facet, envisioning poddom as a kind of transubstantiation that fulfils in detail familiar religious visions – release from the tyranny of flesh and self, the achievement of perfect pacifism and embrace of a higher, gestalt truth – with infinitely cruel sarcasm.

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Part of what was innovative and notable about Siegel’s approach to Invasion of the Body Snatchers lay in the way he completely avoided the usual signifiers of a film in its genre. No dreamy expressionist visuals until the very end or familiar stars, no bug-eyed monsters or giveaways to suggest the alien point of view or airy, poetically meditative dialogue, but unfolding more like a mystery thriller or police procedural a succession of revelations and inferences. Pretty much to be expected, given that was Siegel’s usual purview. He was following Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) in taking up that approach, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers took the method a step further: the most monstrous thing it can conceive is beings who look like people but who are not, the most frightening thing a horde of neighbours chasing you through the street in blank determination to erase what makes you you. Shots of Bennell and Becky running through the dark streets of Santa Mira’s downtown, glaring lights reflecting off wet tar, and dashing through empty office buildings and across the desert landscape, is more purely film noir stuff, close to Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Private Hell 36 (1954), or Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955). The connection with the latter film, a portrait of corruption and conspiracy proliferating in a nominally average small town, is especially strong, as Siegel applies the sci-fi element to such bedrock.

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The body on the Belicecs’ dining table, grotesquery in the midst of the utterly banal, alien horror manifesting in the space where the characters usually play at small town sophisticate, signals a narrative shift as an invisible phenomenon suddenly becomes substantial and paranoia becomes reality. Soon horror is suggesting itself everywhere, in cellars and greenhouses and farm fields, but remains excruciatingly hard to pin down. Siegel’s expert use of deep focus in widescreen frames constantly places his characters in coherent relationship with each-other and with strange phenomenon, containing them neatly within the same reality despite the protestations of hallucination. This leads to the crystallising moment where he films the replica Belicec’s eyes slowly peeling open, with Belicec and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) in the far reaches of the frame, trying to last out a vigil at their kitchen counter, Teddy alerted by the flicker of movement to a new and terrifying development. Another expert use of the same method comes when Bennell spies in through the window of Becky’s father’s house and sees the cabal of the replaced preparing to distribute pods, whilst a hand reaches into the frame and grips his shoulder. When the danger and perversity become more urgent and disorientating, Siegel’s proclivity for vertiginous low and high camera angles becomes more and more blatant, becoming defining aspects of the film’s most vivid scenes.

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Bennell queasily senses a likeness, having witnessed Becky’s faint disquiet at her father (Kenneth Patterson) making a mysterious trip to his basement. Sure enough, as Bennell breaks in and checks out the shadowy cellar, he finds a similar doppelganger of Becky, so he sneaks up to her room and snatches her away. In both Siegel’s and Kaufman’s films, the psychiatrist character is a rhetorical villain, offering up rationalisations in trying to convince Bennell and his friends that they’ve hallucinated or misinterpreted what they’ve seen. He almost convinces the characters the problem is all in their mind, and yet the psychiatrist is swiftly and easily subsumed to the alien purpose, or was perhaps part of it all the time. Kauffman/Kibner is identified as part of an infrastructure of detachment and learned distrust of the senses. The psychiatrist in each movie even essentially parrots socio-political readings of the narrative of the film he’s in. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you. Both homunculi vanish and Grivett grouchily reports to Bennell, Belicec, and Kauffman that the male form was found burning on a bonfire out on a farm. The many people who had insisted relatives had been replaced like young Jimmy and Wilma report to Bennell that they were mistaken and everything’s fine. This seems a victory for good sense. Except that as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs to try and leave behind the bizarreness by having a barbecue in Bennell’s backyard, they discover giant seed pods in the greenhouse that pulse and foam, and split open disgorge humanoid forms that begin taking on the likenesses of the four.

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Most good films detailing the eruption of the fantastic amidst the familiar hinge upon the question as to just when what’s logical – in the sense of what conclusion about a situation that can be reasonably deduced from the facts – ceases to obey one set of presumptions and dictates another. The heroes of such tales are usually those who make the leap a little earlier than anyone else. The discovery in the greenhouse marks the pivot in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this regard, but it’s a narrative that cleverly obfuscates all certainty in other aspects. We never know when most of the townsfolk are replaced or even if Bennell, Becky, and the Belicecs are the last humans there. This loss of a common reality is the most insidious aspect of the narrative. At what point do the humans become aliens, threatening the native population? One detail in Finney’s novel the films intriguingly avoid mentioning is the fact that the replicas only have a very limited life span, and can’t sexually reproduce, in essence moving about the universe like a locust swarm laying each planet they come to waste. Both films engage the pod people less as a specific parasitical enemy and more as a purely social phenomenon. This might seem to rob an aspect of urgency from the films, but it does throw into relief the notion that really concerns Siegel and Kaufman: what is humanity, and what are we willing to endure to hold onto it?

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Siegel’s film is inexplicit about how aspects of the alien replication work. Part of the physical process is glimpsed in the greenhouse, fleshy human forms rapidly taking shape as would a pumpkin, a blend of familiar forms of propagation to signal the completely alien. Some sort of psychic process seems to be involved in the transference of memories and character. It becomes clear that the vital stage of replacement occurs during sleep, when the pod people have the capacity to download the minds of their models and to upload their own. Which does make one wonder why the pods bother replacing bodies at all, although there’s some potent metaphorical value in there. It makes sense that just as there are people who get by in life despite lacking any sense of integral identity or feeling by mimicking others, so too there might be other species doing it too. Kaufman would be very finicky in nailing down the details in his version. Either way the greenhouse discovery makes the source of the doubles and their nature clear to the protagonists: the psychological narrative, the problem of knowing one’s localised reality, gives way to a battle for existence, but both are seen as stations on an existential continuum. Bennell and Becky hide out from their pursuers in Bennell’s surgery overlooking the town square, where they become witnesses to the replica horde suddenly converging once the first morning bus has been through to distribute truckloads of pods.

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The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ connections reached both backwards and forwards in screen history. Siegel would more aggressively pursue the theme of the lone wolf warrior in films like Edge of Eternity (1959), Coogan’s Buff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971), and offer a gendered examination of collision of the one and the group in The Beguiled (1971). Kevin McCarthy gained by far his best-known screen role in it, but his casting at the time certainly carried association with his performance as Biff in the Fredric March-starring adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1951), another story rooted in the superficially placid yet tense mood of post-war America where someone finds someone they love isn’t the person they think they are. Gene Fowler Jnr’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) would take up the alien masquerade theme as a manifestation of gender angst. One of the many later films Siegel’s would clearly influence would be George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its similar sense of besiegement within the superficially normal and the terror of loved-ones become emotionless shells, although Romero would twist the idea with the ultimately more marketable concept of a total removal of identity.

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Siegel’s film would echo through a host of films both within and without the sci-fi and horror genres, lurking in the DNA of thrillers in the 1970s like The Parallax View (1973), where the humdrum turns menacing and the infrastructure of daily life becomes enigmatic and oppressive. So when it came time for Kaufman to make his version, he gave the ‘70s paranoid trip a fitting terminus in also bringing it full circle. The pod people motif involves the ironic creation of civilisation that works better according to civilisation’s own ideals where the zombie tale eyes the animalistic underside of social identity. Finney’s novel ended in an upbeat fashion as Bennell’s assault on the pod growing farm results in the aliens abandoning Earth, realising it’s too tough a planet to colonise. For once a Hollywood adaptation decided to go in another direction and embrace a grimmer outlook. The climactic sequence of Siegel’s film is justly immortal as Bennell reaches a busy stretch of highway, the pod people halting their pursuit in caution as Bennell enters the lanes of traffic bellowing out hysterical warnings, Siegel’s camera viewing Bennell’s sweaty, bedraggled, mad-eyed visage as he tries desperately to alert the world only to be lost amidst the din and disdain. The good doctor has become just another nut, as Siegel switches to one of his characteristic high-angle shots and zooms out from him, leaving him stranded in his pathos.

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This, the film finally seems to say, is what we’re all offered as a choice in life: to become braindead in conformity or to be a madman howling at cars in warning. Siegel’s initial cut of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dismayed test audience, so his backers, Allied Artists, and producers Walter Mirisch and Walter Wanger, shot a wraparound sequence that turned the bulk of the movie into a tale recounted by Bennell to patient but sceptical doctors, Hill (Whit Bissell) and Bassett (Richard Deacon), after Bennell is brought into a police station in a frazzled, near-hysterical, but lucid state. It’s usually considered an awkward and obvious appendage as has been excised from some prints, particularly as it despoils the perfection of the highway scene. But it’s never really bothered me, in part because the act of narrating the story gives the film context that engages the possibility of an unreliable narrator. The very end as Hill realises Bennell’s been telling the truth thanks to a very well-timed traffic accident, leaves us on a tantalising note: can any action be taken in time? And what about Bennell, on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion?

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Kaufman and Richter (Richter would go on to write Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, and direct The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, 1984, both movies that couldn’t find an audience but which became cult objects), in updating and transposing the original’s story, radically altered aspects of its meaning. The relatively unruffled hominess of the Ike-era small town setting is swapped out for the jostling, already mistrustful environs of a mid-1970s American metropolis, where the oddball is always on the boil and the architecture already seems encoded with a disdain for the human, thrusting pyramidal skyscrapers and facades of glass and steel cutting the human connections into cubist fragments. Where Bennell in the original has the noble task as town doctor of ministering to his local flock, Kaufman’s Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is tasked with seeking out filth and carelessness as agent of benign bureaucracy resented by those he surveys: he’s introduced as a looming face distorted in a peephole lens, and infuriates the manager of the swank restaurant he inspects as he insists an object he fishes out a bubbling dish is not a caper but a rat turd. Kauffman, renamed Kibner, is not just a psychiatrist but a writer of successful advice books, peddling fashionable New Age bromides to his audience. Belicec in the original seemed an avatar for Finney himself as a modestly successful and personable writer, so Belicec becomes Kaufman’s frustrated shadow in his version, a frustrated poet and angrily authentic bohemian. Belicec decries Kibner’s work even as he hopes to ride it for a little benefit, weeping by himself after failing to get a chance to read his work at Kibner’s book launch, even whilst running a mud bath with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright).

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Kaufman makes his Invasion of the Body Snatchers a more literal horror movie than Siegel’s, with flashier camerawork mediating realism with a slow dissolution into a neo-expressionist nightmare, and extended sequences of nascent body horror and gore. And yet Kaufman takes a more leisurely and quirk-sensitive time in setting up the story with flashes of wit and menace as well as incidental characterisation. The credits unfold over visions of alien spores flocking on the surface of a strange planet and being disgorged into space, floating through the void before landing on Earth in rainfall, making the presence of the aliens explicit from the start. Kaufman zooms in to study the alien spores growing parasitically on Earth trees and eventually growing into small, blooming pods. Elizabeth picks one and tries to identify its species, whilst contending with her dentist husband Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), who takes time out from watching football immersed with headphones on to come ravish her: theirs is a marriage that seems cheerful but has the quality of a college hook-up nearing its use-by date. The next morning Elizabeth awakens to find Geoffrey already well-dressed and acting in a taciturn, almost robotically severe manner, cleaning up the broken glass she kept the pod in on her bedside table, and spiriting out a strange load of matted material to a garbage truck.

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Whereas Siegel kept the slowly metastasising invasion in the shadows until the last portion of film, Kaufman offers, mostly through Elizabeth’s eyes at first, a sense of a cabal forming and taking grip. She glimpses Geoffrey meeting strangers around town, handing each-other strange objects wrapped in blankets or bags, unspoken accords forming. Michael Chapman, who had shot Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver two years earlier, was called upon here to expand his feel for inner city psychosis, expounded through shots that play with diffused and disturbed vision. Grainy zoom shots of ambiguous dealings. Faces seen through or reflected in distorting mirrors or glass, or looming out of shadows. One shot of Bennell hiding in a cupboard in Geoffrey and Elizabeth’s house is pure Expressionism. Handheld camerawork to capture a sensation of woozy, disoriented isolation. Chapman’s camera notes a man dashing across the street as it pans onto Elizabeth heading to work, faint screeching sounds and people starting to chase after the man unnoticed by her, just more city weirdness to tune out. Soon she’s pounding pavements seeing strangers all around on buses and the like who seem somehow charged with strangeness, the din and frenetic movement of the cityscape not quite obscuring the change at its heart. Bennell’s shattered windscreen, broken by an angry cook at the restaurant he shuttered, becomes a quasi-abstract pattern. It’s through this that Bennell and Elizabeth glimpse a panicky, urgently warning man they almost run down as he dashes in front of them: why, it’s Kevin McCarthy, still sounding the alarm, only this time to be swiftly run down and killed by pursuers.

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This inspired cameo gives Kaufman’s film less the lustre of a remake than a quasi-sequel, taking up where Siegel left off. He left Bennell as the incarnation of a world spirit crying out for attention and awareness, whilst Kaufman runs over it. Siegel himself appears later as a taxi driver. When Bennell takes Elizabeth to meet Kibner, the psychiatrist’s encompassing roster of condemnation and proposed causes for paranoid conviction now includes a disintegrating family unit and people who can’t handle responsibility because life is too confronting. Belicec sticks up for the bohemian spirit as bawls out Kibner’s book: “Where’s Homer? Where’s Kazantzakis? Where’s Jack London?” Meanwhile his wife Nancy accidentally draws attention to the problem of trying to alert people to disintegrating reality when one is already deeply plugged into New Age kookiness, as she brings up Von Daniken-via-Quatermass notions. Then again, who’s to say she’s wrong? The omnipresence of the garbage trucks in which the replicas dispose of the shrivelled remains of the replaced become Kaufman’s most bitterly amusing touch, the most fitting etude for a consumerist society to be deposited in the rubbish by a parasitical species.

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Despite their differences in outlook and temperament, Siegel and Kaufman were nonetheless united in their fascination with and determination advocacy for individualism. Perhaps indeed it’s one trait shared by just about any creative in the western tradition. Abel Ferrara’s awkward, misjudged 1992 version, which to a certain played as less as another remake than as a companion story simultaneous to Kaufman’s, nonetheless included one brilliant sequence rooted precisely in this artistic sense of humanity, in which the one remaining human child in a class is outed when the kids are all made to draw: the human offers colour and form whilst the aliens all come up with static-like fuzz. Kaufman’s sense of political parallel is more pointed and self-conscious, however. Kaufman senses in frustration an oncoming conservatism after the flowering of the Counterculture that would soon bring about Reaganism. Perhaps his most memorable tweak to the way Siegel presented the pod people was to give them a distinctive shriek they release to alert others of their kind when a normal human has detected them, usually with a finger thrust out in identifying accusation.

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This nerve-rattling touch gives the pod people a more immediately alien, monstrous quality, but also more draws out the notion of social horror acutely: the humans become the hated enemy, the deviation, that must be abhorred. Holocaust metaphors are hard to miss, particularly in a late scene in which Bennell watches, in deadpan distress, as a busload of school children are unwittingly ushered into a building to be assimilated. As in Siegel’s film, Kaufman builds to a sequence where Bennell and Elizabeth are confronted by the fake Kibner and Belicec, calm proselytisers for the change who Bennell finishes up killing in a terribly intimate struggle. Like Siegel, Kaufman would devote the rest of his career to celebrating gutsy people apart after having defined his personal nightmare. But where Siegel’s vision became increasingly antisocial, Kaufman tried to celebrate an ideal, helping create Indiana Jones and glorifying the Mercury astronauts and turning Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin into bohemian swashbucklers. Kaufman stages his take on the original film’s greenhouse scene out in Bennell’s backyard, where he, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are resting: Bennell falls asleep sprawled in a sun chair. Fine tendrils from one of the pods are seen attaching themselves to his body for the sake of absorbing his physiognomy and then mind.

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This brilliantly executed scene did for makeup and prosthetic effects what Star Wars had done for spaceship action the year before in showing an audience a sudden leap forward in a special effects art, presenting a convincingly corporeal vision of the replication of process, twitching, shivering bodies growing rapidly. Only Nancy’s interruption, screaming out to Bennell as she spies the malefic scene, awakens him and forestalls the process. Bennell hacks his replica to pieces with a shovel and the gang flee the house. In both films Bennell can’t bring himself to attack Becky’s replica and so attacks his own instead. Another of Kaufman’s great scenes, a moment charged with the essence of ‘70s screen culture, is a montage sequence in which Bennell tries to alert authorities from pay phones in the San Francisco downtown. Random voices from a distant regime fending off his warnings drone on audio as Kaufman’s visuals employ swooning hand-held camerawork, tracking Bennell as he wanders the city and makes his calls, all sense not just of structured society and authority disintegrating but reality along with it, as Bennell falls down the rabbit hole into complete disconnection from the world, the city completing its transformation from enveloping community to enemy territory.

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As the conspiracy busts loose and the heroes are driven out onto the streets, the style becomes increasingly baroque. Bennell, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are glimpsed under a flight of stairs, only their four sets of eyes visible through gaps in the woodwork, as their pursuers pound down the steps before them; then the fleeing foursome’s shadows are seen dancing upon the wall of the Embarcadero like they’ve become refugees from a Murnau film. Kaufman’s genuine engagement with the original is also nodded to in two sequences that are also inspired enlargements upon Siegel’s. In the original Bennell and Becky’s efforts to move undetected amongst the pod people by acting emotionless are foiled when Becky screams in concern for a dog that nearly gets hit by a truck. Kaufman has Bennell encounter the bedraggled, homeless busker Harry (Joe Bellen) who sleeps with his dog in the park: Bennell kicks at a pod lying near him to save him from assimilation, but later as Bennell, Elizabeth, and Nancy escape a locale teeming with pod people a grotesque chimera comes loping towards them, the dog with Harry’s head, tearing a scream from Elizabeth. It feel like a black-hearted gag taking aim at too-little too-late liberalism as well as an episode seeking some genuine perversity in the evocation of new frontiers of flesh.

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The second variation plays on a haunting sequence in Siegel’s where Bennell follows the sound of eerie music only to find it’s only on a radio ignored by the replica people working on a pod farm. In Kaufman’s version, this becomes a more expansively operatic moment as Bennell hears a mass bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” echoing from the waterfront and thinks they might be able to escape on a ship still crewed by humans, only to find as he ventures close that pods are being loaded onto the ships for exporting. The simultaneously mocking and plaintive sense of spiritual longing and human grandeur takes Siegel’s ironic scene to a new place here, all the more tragic in the sense of such art and feeling being erased. Perhaps the greatest moment in Siegel’s film comes when a completely exhausted Becky collapses as she and Bennell try to flee a cave where they’ve hidden. As Bennell tries to pick her realises she’s fallen asleep just long enough, no more than a few seconds, to be possessed by the aliens, her black eyes opening slowly with impassive and depthless regard: Siegel cuts from viewpoint to viewpoint – Bennell’s horrified reaction, eyes wide with shock and revulsion, mirrors the possessed Becky’s – as it becomes clear at last this is a nightmare there’s no waking up from.

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Kaufman’s version of the same moment is less immediately vivid, but it has its own sick power. Bennell returns from the waterfront to find Elizabeth asleep and lost. He sits cradling her body until it crumbles into a fibrous mess, and her replica arises from the scrub nearby, naked and remade as a blankly carnal thing that mocks the way Bennell and Elizabeth played at platonic friendship that finally became passion with the sarcastic permission of the alien invasion: Elizabeth becomes a mere body there’s no point in trying to make love to. Faced with the choice between honouring Finney or Siegel’s endings, Kaufman and Richter chose to do both, which makes for a slightly awkward if still vigorous set of climaxes. Fleeing the fake Elizabeth, Bennell comes across a warehouse where the pods are being cultivated, and he manages to lay waste to the place by dropping lighting rigs on the nursery and starting a fire. But faced with no chance to escape the city, Bennell returns to the Department of Health building and seems to make a play of operating normally amongst his colleagues, now all silent, pokerfaced, utterly futile beings for whom the workaday treadmill has become a robotic routine, a bleak and tedious reductio ad absurdum for all late capitalist life.

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The sting in the tale waits until the very last shots, as Bennell wanders solitary in the town only to encounter Nancy, who gives away her humanity by giving him a complicit grin: Bennell lifts a hand and points at her, releasing the demonic alien scream of accusation. Kaufman’s camera zooms into the black void of the screaming maw. It’s one of the most memorable and ghoulish endings in fantastic cinema, capping the movie with a note of bottomless angst and horror. And yet it’s also ambiguous. Many critics felt the end of Kaufman’s film implied there had never been much point fighting the pods and that the pod Bennell simply represented clapped-out acquiescence. But what does it mean that Bennell became a pod person? His yawing-mouthed cry evokes both his counterpart in Siegel’s film as he raved his desperate warning, and also his own choked-off scream as Elizabeth crumbles in his arms. Did he simply run out of steam, unable to keep himself awake? Did he give in because it was too painful to be alone? Or did he, as the last glimpses of him gazing at the replicated Becky possibly suggest, give in in order, in whatever pathetic, degraded, impotent state, to share it with her? The horror of the ending of Siegel’s film is that Bennell seems inhuman when bellowing and crying out in a most human way. The horror of Kaufman’s is that our most human need, for other humans, could lead us to abandon humanity.

Standard
1950s, Horror/Eerie, Japanese cinema

Black Cat Mansion (1958) / The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959)

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Bōrei Kaibyō Yashiki / Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan

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Director: Nabuo Nakagawa
Screenwriters: Jiro Fujishima, Yoshihiro Ishikawa / Masayoshi Ônuki, Yoshihiro Ishikawa

By Roderick Heath

Nabuo Nakagawa is considered one of the defining figures of Japanese Horror cinema and perhaps its first real master, although he’s not as well-known as many who followed him. Masaki Kobayashi would give the genre international attention with his famous Kwaidan (1964), and that film, along with Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) have become common touchstones for any genre fan looking beyond the bastions of Hollywood and Europe. The explosion of the specific national genre’s popularity in the late 1990s, as it became known as “J-Horror,” would make directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, and Hideo Nakata famous. The Kyoto-born Nakagawa, who had an interest in social realist writing when he was younger, wrote some amateur film criticism that gained him attention, before he started working at Makino Film Productions. That studio went bankrupt in 1932, but Nakagawa had gained experience as an assistant director and made his debut as a director proper on the 1934 film Yumiya Hachiman Ken. Nakagawa weathered World War II at Toho directing comedies, but he only began to truly define himself as a filmmaker with a specific outlook after the war, as he turned to noir tales and then horror movies when he moved to Shintoho. Nakagawa soon revealed a particular talent for uniting supernatural motifs found in Japanese folklore and mythology with the more familiar genre forms of western horror literature and film.

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Nakagawa shared distinct traits with his major western counterparts of the same period, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, and Roger Corman. Like them he developed an intensely atmospheric visual style, and tried to invest horror cinema with new aesthetic force and style to fit in with an era of widescreen and blazing colour. Some of his works, like Vampire Girl (1959), betray layers of fascinating if not always successful effort to unite the genre lexicons of east and west, trying to assimilate the traditional European idea of the vampire figure by calling back to the troubled history of Christianity trying to take root in Japan, blended with a mishmash of gothic horror tropes. Perhaps Nakagawa’s best-known work is his startling 1960 epic Jigoku. Nakagawa had conceived of Jigoku as the ultimate statement on his regular theme of karmic retribution, and, after several years of making movies at the familiar breakneck pace required of a Japanese genre filmmaker, he cut back on his output to concentrate on it. Jigoku proved to be the last release of Shintoho, which collapsed soon after, leaving Nakagawa to wander from studio to studio, only able to complete sporadic projects.

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Jigoku saw the director mediating his own career progression in his approach, starting off with a relatively modest portrait of ordinary characters that shades into a tale of guilty deceptions and crimes, resulting in a mass poisoning, whereupon the film radically shifts style as the dead characters are thrust into Jigoku – the Japanese Buddhist concept of hell – to be cruelly and gruesomely tortured for their sins. Nakagawa took liberal advantage of one freedom his foreign rivals didn’t have, a relatively lax censorship regime in Japan when it came to gore, and so the climax of Jigoku is a startling succession of bloody and nightmarish images no western filmmaker would dare for quite a few years yet. Of the movies Nakagawa made in the years before Jigoku, two of the best are Black Cat Mansion and The Ghost of Yotsuya. Black Cat Mansion is the more generic-feeling of the two, and yet it’s still marked by some unique visual and structural tricks, as well as the richness of its cultural grounding. The opening sequence strikes a deliciously eerie mood as Nakagawa’s camera explores a hospital at night during a blackout, a torch picking out a path through the dark corridors and up flights of stairs. Sights like a dead man being wheeled along a corridor by masked and gowned orderlies are charged with morbid and numinous import.

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A doctor on duty, Dr. Tetsuichiro Kuzumi (Toshio Hosokawa), sits in a pool of candlelight and listens uneasily to the sound of footsteps as he waits for the lights to come on again. He drifts into a reverie, recalling a time a few years earlier when his wife Yoriko (Yuriko Ejima) was stricken with tuberculosis. Tetsuichiro abandoned his practice in Tokyo and moved with Yoriko back to Kyushu, where she and her family came from, to give her a chance to recover. Yoriko’s brother Kenichi (Hiroaki Kurahashi) arranged for them to move into a long-abandoned, rundown manor house, a place once called Spiraea Mansion for the flowers that used to grow in its yard. Weird signs begin proliferating even on the road to the mansion, as Kenichi has to swerve to avoid hitting a black cat on the road, almost crashing through a protective barrier into the sea. The mansion, once they reach it, looks like a place the Addams Family would delight in occupying, with great, stout wooden doors in the perimeter wall. The yard is overgrown and fetid, whilst the interior proves dirty and dilapidated, with a stain on the wall Yoriko takes for blood, and footprints in the dust that suggest someone’s been roaming the house barefoot. Yoriko spots an old woman with long, white hair within the old servants’ block. She calls Tetsuichiro and Kenichi back to check out the stranger, but the crone proves to have vanished when they look in.

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Despite the initially distressing impression, the Kuzumis renovate and repair the house as a comfortable abode and convert part of it into a modern clinic so Tetsuichiro can continue practicing whilst Yoriko recuperates. The barefoot old woman is seen again, disturbing the family dog Taro and approaching Tetsuichiro’s assistant (Akiko Mie) like a patient. Whilst the assistant fetches the doctor, the crone infiltrates Yoriko’s room and tries to throttle her, but dashes away as her husband and his assistant return. During the night, Yoriko is scared the crone will return, despite Tetsuichiro’s assurances, and then her husband is called away to see a patient. With Tetsuichiro gone the crone reappears, kills Taro, and again tries to strangle Yoriko. Realising he’s been lured away, Tetsuichiro speeds home and manages again to intervene in time. The next day Tetsuichiro and Kenichi visit a Buddhist priest to try and learn what’s going on. The priest begins recounting the tragic history of the mansion.

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From the opening in the hospital, Black Cat Mansion displays Nakagawa’s gifts for generating a carefully cordoned atmosphere. His roots as an artist interested in everyday people and problems meshed intelligibly with his gift for portraying the bizarre and the grotesque, because he saw clearly how they relate. The worst horrors in his cinema always stem from some profane mix of greed, lust, and faithlessness, and the supernatural is only ever a marker for the lingering toxicity of human violence. The narrative structure employs three different layers of flashback, and each step backwards invokes a different understanding of the story. The Kozumis’ relationship is straightforward, caring husband and sickly wife, with the ghost woman’s stalking presence actualising the way disease is eating into Yoriko. But it also reads lucidly as a story about the post-war recovery, as modern Japan tries to reorientate itself and get back on its feet but has to contend with the lingering ills of a vicious and iniquitous feudal past, which becomes the setting for the second layer of flashback. The framing of the story in the modern hospital sees a clean and modern environment, symbol of the restoration of a fully functioning and modernised society, suddenly claimed again by dark forces, and the pensive memory of a carer.

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Nakagawa’s ardour for extended, sensuously evocative tracking shots is quickly evinced in the opening where the camera creeps through the hospital corridors. Equally apparent is his penchant for shots composed along rigid lateral lines that suit his widescreen compositions and convey a sense of space that’s cage-like – a design flourish he’d taken further in The Ghost of Yotsuya. In one great shot Yoriko is glimpsed lying on her convalescing couch, the evil intruder slowly rising into the frame behind her to one side. Nakagawa’s key stylistic choice for Black Cat Mansion was similar to Otto Preminger’s in Bonjour Tristesse, made in the same year, inverting the common technique of filming flashbacks in black-and-white to convey a remembered texture. Here the modern sequences are shot in a faintly blue-tinted monochrome, replete with touches of stark expressionism, whilst the flashbacks to the distant past are shot in bright colour. The splendidly squalid decay of the mansion as the contemporary couple enter it, with black crows crowding onto twisted, denuded tree branches, and footprints clear in the dusty halls, ushering the viewer into a peculiarly Japanese take on the familiar old dark house drama. Backdrops are painted in as squiggles of skeletal black.

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When the film shifts into a period vision, everything looks like a classical scroll painting where the serenely logical interface of black and white Go stones is daubed with glistening red blood. The contrast seems to set a glum and menacing present day in tension with the lush splendour of a bygone age, but this proves to be a purposeful miscue, as any romantic sentimentality about the past is lethally put down in the course of the historical narrative with a lethal efficiency Nakagawa’s cynical counterparts in the jidai geki style like Kenji Mizoguchi or Kihachi Okamoto would’ve been proud of. Nakagawa’s films engage most of the images and motifs that would resound in J-horror’s later popular heyday, like female wraiths with long, face-concealing hair, and terrifying and deadly manifestations of demonic entities punishing offences. Like western ghost stories, the Japanese kind envisions haunting and supernatural manifestation as a totemic marker for crimes and tragic events, perpetually affixing a space with a sense of portent, but with a slipperier, less predictable sense of the mutable boundary between the earthly and the mystical, filled with perverse transformations and manifestations, with an added aspect of karmic retribution dogging malefactors until they pay for their villainies.

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Black Cat Mansion also involves a brand of animism inherent in a lot of Japanese folklore, which holds cats as creatures with manifold supernatural powers and avatars for potent spirits. In Buddhist lore cats were considered generally evil, whilst the local Japanese traditions often saw them as playful and protective, a tension of tradition that Nakagawa cleverly negotiates as the cause of the haunting emerges. Nakagawa might have taken some inspiration from Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s ukiyo-e artwork “Okabe” (“The Cat Witch”) which portrayed the common traditional folklore of cat spirits manifesting in either animal form or as a stooped and withered old hag, glimpsed threatening a young woman seeking shelter in a temple. This is applied to a sort of werewolf story. The historical narrative, which occupies about half the film, concerns the master of the Spiraea Mansion in the late 1500s, Lord Shogen (Takashi Wada), a man with an almost lunatic temper and paranoia both stoked and left unchecked because of his great power. On the day he’s to meet and play a young Go master, Kokingo (Ryûzaburô Nakamura), Shogen gets worked up to a pitch of homicidal fury because Kokingo arrives late.

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The Lord chases after and almost kills his loyal servant Saheiji (Rei Ishikawa), only sparing him because Shogen’s son Shinnojo (Arata Shibata) begs him to. Kokingo is advised to tread carefully during his match with Shogen, but after the Lord postures as an experienced player only to keep making rushed mistakes and trying to violate the rules, Kokingo berates him. Shogen promptly and repeatedly slashes Kokingo to death with his katana. He gets Saheiji to help him conceal the crime and tell Kokingo’s wife Lady Miyaji (Fumiko Miyata) that her husband, shamed by losing to the Lord, has gone off to study in private. Miyaji is visited by her husband’s ghost, however, leaving a bloodstained robe with Shogen’s crest on it, and Miyaji grasps the truth. She visits Shogen in his rooms to accuse him, but the Lord barely seems to notice, sparked instead by his delight in her beauty to rape her. Miyaji performs seppuku, after praying that her and Kikongo’s beloved cat Tama will lap up her blood and become a spirit of wrath cursing all the members of Shogen’s household to the end of their bloodlines: Yoriko and Kenichi are descendants of Saheji.

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Nakagawa’s portrait of Shogen as a man already close to totally unhinged under the influence of aristocratic privilege borders on black comedy in the degree of his outrageous and utterly unchecked licence, mixed with a tint of the pathetic. Shogen’s demands to take his moves back during his match with Kokingo, his enraged, murderous pursuit of his servant, and his brutal rapes of both Miyaji and his son’s would-be fiancé Yae (Noriko Kitazawa), all have the quality of a greedy, vain, monstrous boy despite his advanced age. His supernatural torment only has to push him a little way to drive him wild enough to lay waste to everything around him. First the bloodthirsty cat spirit Miyaji unleashes takes possession of her form and then attacks Shogen’s blind, elderly mother (Fujie Satsuki), taking control of her form and using it to attack the others in the household. Meanwhile blood keeps leaking from the wall of Shogen’s room, and he keeps seeing the spectral figure of Kikogen with a bloody gash to his face and Miyaji. After Shinnojo reports seeing his grandmother active and fully-sighted, catching fish from the mansion’s pond, Shogen realises the truth and tries to kill the cat demon with Sahieji’s help, but she flees. Slashing madly at the shades tormenting him, Shogen accidentally slays Yae and attacks his son; forced to defend himself, Shinnojo finishes up stabbing his father but takes a fatal wound himself.

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There’s a bit of accidental humour value in the cat demon when it comes into focus at last, ears sprouting to attention as it springs to battle off Shogen, but there are some vivid, more consciously humour-laced touches, like glimpses of the creature licking its slashed arm and licking milk from a saucer in silhouette. There’s also more deliberate humour in the way the demon unleashes telekinetic powers to force victims and foes to spin about, contort, and flip around: the demon has the ability to literally treat people like puppets in the same way Shogen has a socially prescribed right to. The climactic sequences of Shogen’s madness approach the outskirts of psychedelia a few years early as the hovering visages of the ghosts frame Shogen thrashing around, dazzling colours projected upon him, representing his descent into utter delirium. The bold redness of the bloody blotch leaking from his wall contrasts the sickly pale-green hue of the ghostly Miyaji’s face. The return to the present, as the priest finishes recounting the legend, restores the film to its monochrome look. The priest gives Tetsuichiro some written prayers to pin around the mansion to ward off the demon, but during the night the wind rises and dislodges one. When her husband goes out to fix some shutters, the demon appears in Yoriko’s room, stark white mane of hair and thrusting fingers electric against the darkness, and again starts strangling her.

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When Tetsuichiro returns he finds his wife sprawled and apparently dead, whilst a patch of the plaster on the wall crumbles and reveals the long-hidden secret of Shogen’s crime: Kokingo’s skeleton, caked in dry, black, rotting flesh. The demon dissolves into the wall and the skeleton slowly keels over amidst a shower of debris. Nakagawa dissolves back to the present-tense with Tetsuichiro in the hospital. The lights come on, the source of the footsteps that creeped him out proves to be Yoriko, not only not dead but entirely well, bringing him food. Tetsuichiro muses on how burying Kokingo’s remains finally laid the demon to rest, and they couple find a small kitten they decide to adopt. As a happy ending this isn’t unwelcome, and it makes perfect sense in underlining the return to the present as a statement about the national recovery. But it’s still deployed in a jarringly breezy and hasty manner. The following year, Nakagawa would apply some of the stylistic and storytelling methods he had mastered on Black Cat Mansion and other films to a more hallowed and officially elevated subject. The Ghost of Yotsuya took on a very popular property for filmmakers at the time, as a version of Nanboku Tsuruya’s famous kabuki play Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan, which was also tackled over the years by respected directors like Keisuke Kinoshita and Shiro Toyoda, but Nakagawa’s is by and large regarded as the best.

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The popularity of Tsuruya’s work as a basis for horror films in the post-war era might well be put down to how it deals with guilt, responsibility, and awful memory, describing the mournful figure of a wife left to her own devices, by a warrior whose tunnel-visioned sense of the world is soon overwhelmed by the memories of atrocities committed in the name of servicing his demanded right to glory and enrichment. Such a tale offered a framework for commentary on the lingering phantoms of World War II and the post-war world, as the pursuit of money and success became increasingly compulsive as a way of avoiding such introspection. Kinoshita’s 1949 version rendered the ghosts purely psychological, partly because it needed to negotiate the occupation era’s ban on historical irrationalism. As a story it has close similarities to the “Black Hair” tale that comprised the first chapter of Kwaidan. Again, Nakagawa takes pains to root the drama in an entirely worldly sense of human folly before anything like the uncanny intrudes, and indeed for much of its length The Ghost of Yotsuya is essentially samurai noir, Double Indemnity (1944) with kimonos and katanas.

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Nakagawa stages the crucial opening all in one, long, decorous tracking shot, with a trio of figures walking homewards at night by lantern light, orange orb floating before a stark, shadow-cast wall. Into the frame dashes Iemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi), a young and ambitious but penniless samurai who wants to marry the daughter of the respected elder Samo (Shinjirō Asano). Samo is contemptuous of Iemon, however, and brusquely refuses his request, infuriating Iemon so terribly that the young man draws his sword and slays Samo and his friend Sato. The third man, the lantern carrier Naosuke (Shuntarō Emi), isn’t terribly concerned about his boss’s death, and agrees to help Iemon in covering up his deed. Iemon and Naosuke tell Samo’s daughters Oiwa (Katsuko Wakasugi) and Sode (Kitazawa again) that their father was slain by the bandit Usaburo (Yôzô Takamura), who had a grudge against Samo for slashing his face for a transgression. Iemon and Naosuke pledge to help the sisters and Sato’s son Yomoshichi (Ryūzaburō Nakamura) track down and kill Usaburo, but they ambush Yomoshichi, stab him, and toss him over a waterfall whilst on the hunt for the bandit: Naosuke has a passion for Sode, and Iemon’s complicity in getting him out of the picture was the price of his silence.

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A couple of years kater, however, nothing’s going right. Both Iemon and Oiwa and Naosuke and Sode are living in Edo, trapped in dire poverty as Iemon can’t get a position, and he and Oiwa have a small, wailing baby. Sode, who hates Naosuke but is nonetheless tied to him, has managed to keep him from marrying her so far because he promised not to until the revenge was complete. Whilst his marriage to Oiwa slides into abuse and loathing, Iemon protects some young ladies he encounters in the streets from some hoods, impressing their father Itō (Hiroshi Hayashi) so much he wants Iemon to marry his eldest daughter, Ume (Junko Ikeuchi). Naosuke, seeing an opportunity, earns money from Itō by conspiring to finish off Iemon and Oiwa’s marriage, and eventually he talks Iemon into poisoning Oiwa and setting things up so that it looks like she was justly slain for being caught in infidelity with her good-natured masseur, Takuetsu (Jun Ōtomo).

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Black Cat Mansion revealed the similarity to English Shakespearean and Jacobean drama in Nakagawa’s take on his native tragic mode, with evildoers dogged by ghosts representing their interior boles of guilt and trauma, and the similarity of the traditions is even more noticeable in The Ghost of Yotsuya. Nakagawa makes Iemon an antiheroic character reminiscent of the protagonist of An American Tragedy, ensnared by his own blend of desperate aspiration and emotional weakness which manifests ironically in acts of effective violence. The spasm of homicidal anger he turns upon Samo and Sato is easy to understand and even justified to a certain extent by the samurai code of honour, as he’s been humiliated and belittled, but also confirms Samo’s low opinion of his character, attacking unarmed men because he can’t control his temper. Naosuke serves as helpmate and conspirator in Iemon’s crimes, but also embodies his baser self, containing and reflecting his darkest instincts, in a manner close to the symbolic characters of morality plays. The doubling of the sisters Oiwa and Sode also proves consequential as Sode maintains a certain strength of character and sufficiency her sister pathetically loses in trying to play the perfect wife to Iemon, as Sode fends off Naosuke’s advances and tries to make him hold to his promise to avenge her father, and eventually even takes up the sword to try and avenge her family.

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Nakagawa’s adaptation of the play sheared off many complications and subplots, making Iemon’s role in Oiwa’s death more direct as he agrees to using a poison on Oiwa that disfigures her terribly and then kills her. Oiwa’s drawn-out death scenes are wrenching and pathetic as she beholds her gnarled and scarred features in a mirror, forced to wear the mask of bottomless corruption and horror that is her husband’s life like a living Dorian Gray portrait: the operatic cruelty reaches its finest pitch as Oiwa tries to brush her hair and tears a great chunk of skin with the hair attached from her scalp. Unable to believe the way she’s been repaid for being everything required as wife to her husband, Oiwa in her distraught state she stabs her baby rather than leave it to be raised by a man like Iemon. The gormless Takuetsu, who at least has the decency to desist when he realises that Oiwa doesn’t want him as a lover, becomes another victim as Iemon attacks him, hacking off an arm and stalking after him to deliver the coup-de-grace. Nakagawa pans from a shot of a filthy patch of swamp where frogs chirp away over to the Iemon house where Takuetsu writhes in his death throes, and intercuts erupting fireworks as communal celebrations go on in the world beyond, with the grim business of nailing Takuetsu and Oiwa to a shutter to weight them down before dumping them in the swamp.

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At times The Ghost of Yotsuya feels like a ruthless parody of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi trilogy, or at least an incidental inversion of its precepts and those of many other works in the jidai geki, countering the romantic sprawl of Inagaki’s historical Japan and celebration of the warrior ethic as a pure way of living, with a squalid portrait of pride versus poverty and hyperbolic cruelty turned on the innocent, all shot in a similar palette of stylised colour. Iemon and Naosuke’s assault on Yomoshichi, where they stab him under the arm and hurl him over a waterfall, in particular feels like a mockery of the constant use of waterfalls as a visual and thematic refrain in Inogaki’s trilogy: the swamp where corpses are sunk and ghouls arise becomes the true mimetic landscape thereafter. Sources of grace are in very short supply in Nakagawa’s survey, but wellsprings of shame and fear plentiful. As opposed to Black Cat Mansion’s Shogen, who was an avatar for unchecked power and predation that infantilises its wielder, The Ghost of Yotsuya offers Iemon as a man who practices cruel and expedient violence and deserves his comeuppance, but who is both more sympathetic and more culpable because he’s not a mindless thug or cold psychopath. He is rather a being who feels compelled to commit horrendous acts because it’s in the nature of the world to push him to such ends, not seeing any external, natural fount of order and justice to counter them.

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Tsuruya’s story demonstrates belief that such a natural law does exist and claims its price, be it through corrosive psychological impact or haunting proper, and as Nakagawa would state even more forcefully in Jigoku, he held a similar faith. “I don’t expect you to know how I feel,” Iemon growls disconsolately at Naosuke when the other man celebrates the good fortune they’ve just bought in murder, as he seems to meditate in bewildered pain at how something he once wanted enough to kill for became something in itself to be euthanized. The Ghost of Yotsuya counts as one of the most elegantly sustained visual experiences in horror cinema, with Nakagawa working with his regular cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto for a softly textured colour look that realises the inherent battle between a corrupt universe and the scant beacons of light and hope through a constant war of dark shadows, musty browns and greys, and patches of redemptive brightness. Nakagawa’s framings become increasingly obscured by a mesh of intrusive physical details. Household fixtures like the vertical bars on a balustrade constantly intruding into the frame. Interior drapings of gauze and cloth close in.

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A sense of entrapment and smothering closeness dominates. During that long opening shot, Nakagawa’s camera takes up an attitude where a tree trunk looms between the pleading Iemon and the virulent Samo, a fatal and fateful division manifest between them. Naosuke’s slaying of the bandit Usaburo is staged in a small clearing amidst looming tree trunks, like great fingers squeezing in on them. Amachi would work again for Nakagawa in playing the undead lord in Vampire Girl, his fiercely angular features perfect for a Byronic demon lover figure, just as Nakagawa carried over the eye-catching Kitazawa from Black Cat Mansion. Some of the images Nakagawa had conjured for Black Cat Mansion recur in The Ghost of Yotsuya, particularly the terrorising visions of the mutilated dead that drive the wrongdoer into a frenzy, like Takuetsu’s apparition with a gory slashed face, as well as the key sequence in both films where the haunted killer lashes out at the shades assaulting him only to slay the living by mistake. Perhaps the best scare moment sees Iemon hearing Oiwa’s spectral voice and glancing around, not seeing her, and then suddenly looking up to behold her sprawled on the ceiling, moaning dire threats. Nakagawa cuts from the putrid reaches of the swamp where Iemon and Naosuke have disposed of the two corpses to the sight of Ume in her wedding regalia, a headdress of fanning white material about her face, a forceful alternation between muck and ritualised decorousness.

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The film builds to an astonishingly beautiful passage as Oiwa’s ghost visits Sode, who doesn’t yet know she’s a shade, and leads her through a densely foggy night to the inn where Yomoshichi is staying, the two women drifting against a backdrop of dense fog past twisted trees and reeds, the lantern sign of the inn appearing as a solitary light hovering amidst the murk like a promise. Meanwhile Iemon is visited in his wedding bed after marrying Ume first by a squirming snake on the mosquito netting and then by ghosts that make him strike out wildly with his sword, only to realise as his vision clears that he’s slain his wife, father-in-law, and a servant. Iemon flees to a temple where he has monks pray for him, sitting in the centre of a prayer circle with a protective chain about him. When he dares venture out of the temple, he encounters Naosuke in the swamp who unthinkingly salvages a comb and robe from the water not realising they belonged to Oiwa, whilst Iemon sees Oiwa and Takuetsu’s bodies rising from the swamp to accuse him, driving him into a frenzy as the winds rise and the sun’s glow becomes an abstract sworl amidst rolling mist. Fleeing back to the temple still assailed by visions, Iemon is infuriated by Naosuke’s goading admonitions and his candour: “I’m impressed! The samurai is as much a villain as I am.”

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Iemon promptly rises up and slays Naosuke. Nakagawa turns this into a surreal interlude as the floor of Iemon’s temple chamber becomes the swamp and Naosuke’s body falls beside Oiwa’s, infernal red glowing in the windows, before the scene returns to normal and Iemon is left stand over just Naosuke’s corpse. The relentless hounding of ghosts is not however enough to actually destroy Iemon. It is instead left to Yomoshichi and Sode, who attack Iemon in the temple with swords, bent on delivering revenge although Iemon’s still a fearsome fighter. They battle in the temple’s graveyard, an ideal zone of Japanese Gothic. Iemon flinching as the ghosts keep appearing to him as he fights, but after taking wounds at last impales himself on Sode’s sword, surrendering to his own death wish and succumbing with a repeated plea for Oiwa to forgive him. The last shots, of a calm, restored Oiwa holding her baby, in the mist at the temple gates, before the rising sun, suggesting if necessarily forgiveness for Iemon than at least peace for the restless dead.

Standard
1940s, Horror/Eerie

Son of Dracula (1943)

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Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenwriter: Eric Taylor

By Roderick Heath

World War II proved an ironic boom time for Hollywood’s horror cinema. Such was the general assumption that piling morbid and fright-inducing images on top of all too immediate worries and losses was too much for the public at large that the British government banned them all for the duration of the war. But appetite for the genre remained strong in the US, even as it entered a period of declining fortunes, with many a short, cheap horror entry tossed onto movie screens, still often entertaining but generally lacking ambition. Horror films actually provided a neverland where audiences could escape the war, as very few genre entries mentioned it, except as background or as a subtext. Lon Chaney Jnr’s arrival as a genre star with George Waggner’s Man Made Monster (1940), quickly amplified when Waggner cast him in The Wolf Man (1941), helped give Universal Pictures’ horror franchise a new shot of life, and the studio quickly started casting Chaney in the studio’s familiar roster of monster roles. Universal would smother their renewed fortunes through a succession of cynically produced, if certainly well-made and entertaining meet-ups between their monsters, like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943). The Val Lewton series made for RKO would represent the supreme achievement of the decade, and a handful of other filmmakers took inspiration from them at the time, but the Lewton brand was ultimately too rarefied a mould to popularise, and after the end of the war horror films almost vanished from English-language screens for the next decade.

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Son of Dracula wasn’t the first time Universal had tried to concoct a follow-up to Tod Browning’s Dracula, a film that had proven the biggest hit of 1931 and gave impetus to the entire idea of sound-era horror cinema. The idea that a vampire didn’t necessarily have to stay (un)dead even after the usual rituals of staking or sun exposure wasn’t yet a familiar motif in screen genre lore, and Bela Lugosi was so strongly associated with his star-making role that any notion of recasting it seemed self-defeating for a long time. So Universal offered Dracula’s Daughter in 1936, featuring the statuesque Broadway actress Gloria Holden as Countess Walewska, the equally sepulchral offspring of Dracula, and Edward Van Sloan reprising his role as Van Helsing. Dracula’s Daughter was initially met as a disappointment, only to gain appreciation much later to the point where it’s now one of the best-known Universal horror entries, entirely for one notable scene with needling erotic overtones, in which Walewska attacks a young, female photographic model. This scene has been long since installed in a pantheon of notably queer-coded vignettes cutting against the general faith Old Hollywood kept such things neatly hidden away. Trouble is, otherwise Dracula’s Daughter is a dull, clumsy affair, a by-product of Universal’s confusion when it came to enlarging and evolving their franchise.

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By contrast, Son of Dracula is probably the best of the works Universal made in the 1940s. Although it lacks the tragic stature of The Wolf Man, it makes up for it in the beauty of its imagery, the sly perversity of its story, and the clear imprint of a fraternal creative team, Carl and Robert Siodmak. The Siodmak brothers were born in Dresden, members of a German-Jewish family with roots in Leipzig: Robert, born in 1900, was the elder, and Curt came two years later. Years later, Robert would pretend to have been born in Memphis, Tennessee, to obtain a visa to Paris and get out of Germany after the Nazi ascension. Robert tried his hand at banking and theatrical directing before he found work in cinema through the director Curtis Bernhardt and later with his own cousin Seymour Nebenzal, who hired him to forge new movies out of recycled stock footage. Nebenzal eventually produced Robert’s first proper feature, People On Sunday (1929), a work that made Robert’s name and involved a host of the future talent that would eventually crowd together in Hollywood, including his brother Curt, who co-wrote the script with Billy Wilder and also invested in the project, and Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, and Eugen Schufftan amongst the crew. Robert’s affinity for what would later be called film noir was already apparent in The Man in Search of His Murderer (1931) and Storms of Passion (1932), before he was singled out for attacks by Joseph Goebbels, and decamped first for France and then Hollywood.

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Curt, meanwhile, made his name as a screenwriter and pulp novelist, gravitating often towards the evolving science fiction genre. His novel FP1 Doesn’t Answer was adapted into a trio of films in 1932 (each in a different language), whilst his later works The Beast With Five Fingers and Donovan’s Brain would become staples. When he followed Robert to Hollywood, Carl soon became a go-to figure for fantastic cinema, contributing to several major films of the era, including the scripts of The Wolf Man and I Walked With A Zombie (1943). He also wrote storylines for many of the later Universal entries including Son of Dracula, which reunited him with his brother professionally, although the actual script would be written by Eric Taylor. By this time Robert was rising rapidly through the ranks at Universal, escaping the ghetto Ulmer became stuck in, and soon becoming one of the major directors of the noir age with works like Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1948), and The File on Thelma Jordan (1949). Of the films he made at Universal as a studio hand, two of the most cultish were Son of Dracula and Cobra Woman (1944), beloved for very different reasons and yet works linked on a fascinating level as smuggled reflections on the raging war.

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Son of Dracula followed the lead of the previous year’s The Mummy’s Tomb in bringing a familiar monster to American shores, opening in the railway station of a small Louisiana town as a train rolls in. Plantation princeling Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) and local GP Dr Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) have come to meet an important visitor, Count Alucard, who proves not to be aboard. Only his luggage arrives, and Brewster notices the crest and the letters of the Count’s name which are, of course, Dracula spelt backwards. Alucard was to be the guest of wealthy but elderly and frail landowner Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), at the invitation of his daughter Kay (Louise Allbritton), at the estate of Dark Oaks. Kay has an obsessive fascination for the supernatural, a fascination the Count supposedly shares and which has made her idolise him, although she’s engaged to Frank. The welcoming ball the Caldwells throw for their absent guest still goes ahead, and the Count (Chaney) proves to be hovering outside, transforming into a bat and infiltrating the house to attack and kill the Colonel, which is taken for death by heart attack. A lately rewritten will gives the estate money to Kay’s sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers) and leaves Kay the house and plantation. Kay pleads with Frank to not to doubt her no matter what she does, but soon she meets clandestinely with the Count and marries him. Frank, on the warpath, confronts the couple on their wedding night and, after the Count hurls him across the room, Frank shoots at him. The bullets seem to pass through the Count, and Kay, who shelters behind, collapses dead instead.

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Siodmak’s aesthetic wielded an updated, carefully controlled version of the classic Expressionist style that had permeated the German cinema he started off in, and would use it to lend his noir films, tales of earthy violence and folly, an aspect of overwhelming psychological distress, a mimetic zone where the illusory constantly threatens to reshape the tangible. That style perhaps reached an apotheosis perhaps with the killer’s viewpoint in The Spiral Staircase erasing the mouth of the mute heroine, but continued to permeate his hardboiled stories, like the climax of Criss Cross where characters fade in and out of the dark like agents of fate. Son of Dracula’s superb studio simulation of a southern gothic atmosphere is first explored in an early sequence in which Kay leaves the Caldwell mansion and visits the ancient gypsy seer, Madame Queen Zimba (Adeline De Walt Reynolds), she allows to stay in a waterfront shack. Allbritton’s Kay with her jet black pompadour contrasted by the swirling silk about her body, strides a trail between tangled trees and reeds, a vision of morbid beauty, tracked by Siodmak’s gliding camera, escaping the prim white halls of her home for the landscape that’s forged her imagination, a wonderland of dangling Spanish moss and rippling swamp water caressed by moonlight. Queen Zimba waits in her shack with black raven sitting on hand, feeding the potion in her brazier, withered face and curling smoke inscribed by candlelight. Zimba tries to warn Kay of the bleak fate awaiting her – “I see you, married to a corpse!” – but a bat invading the shack terrifies her so much she promptly dies of a heart attack.

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Meanwhile Siodmak pulls of a beautiful tracking shot as he retreats from the mansion window, the ball in full swing within, and locates the Count, cowering in the shadows, awaiting his chance to invade the mansion. When he does, taking a bat form, he flits through the household corridors and transforms, sneaking up on the luckless Colonel Caldwell as he puffs a cigar in his bedroom. The sultry reaches of the southern bayous seemed to have an appeal for European directors taking on American thrillers around this time, considering the likes of Andre De Toth’s Dark Waters (1944), Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water (1943), and Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp (1946). The out-of-the-way, backwoods atmosphere and fetid remnants of a collapsed feudalism with lingering old world manners still permeating the deep south might have seemed a coherent and appealing zone for such artists, as well the obvious potential in the picturesque and dreamlike qualities of the bayou environments. Certainly such a setting was made for a horror film. Son of Dracula depends on a peculiar dichotomy. Siodmak presents Dracula as an avatar for an invasive, parasitical foreign evil in a manner that at once recasts the original plot of Bram Stoker’s novel and invokes wartime anxieties of invasion by infiltration, whilst also evoking the not-quite-buried skeletons of slavery and exploitation: Dracula proposes to use the plantation class in the way they used and profited from others. His quest is to find a “young and virile race” to feed amidst, finding a ripe one in the American polyglot, lending Dracula’s canonical hunt for new feeding grounds a hint of an ubermensch mentality in search of lebensraum. Or is it untermensch?

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The ripe, proto-camp Technicolor fantasia of Cobra Woman would let Siodmak pivot to an inverted proposition to this beware-the-fascist-invader narrative, instead viewing the war against Nazism through a sequin darkly, stranding plucky heroes on an island ruled by a death cult with a snaking-armed variation on the Nazi salute, plucking out random sacrifices to feed its bloodlust and secure its power. Many Universal horror entries, unthinkingly or not, finished up celebrating mob law and lynching as townsfolk, pushed too far by murders and mayhem, set out in gangs with blazing torches to cleanse their locale of malefactors. This refrain started with James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), which gave fuel to a quality of populist energy in Universal’s horror imprimatur, in courting the audience’s simultaneous feelings of exclusion and rejection in the Depression milieu leading it to identify with the monster, and also a desire for communal identity and mass action blurring into mob justice (Whale clarified his vision as one of persecution of the outsider in The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, but the problem remained elsewhere). Siodmak pointedly avoids this pattern, and indeed turns a sceptical eye upon Frank’s efforts to wield his smug sense of position in his community to browbeat Dracula. This feels unexpectedly close to the portrayal in Cape Fear (1962) of a clash between the undoubtedly evil and the discomfortingly ineffectual network of good old boys who allow such evil to flourish through misjudging their own power and distinctness from the rotten underworld.

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Rather than wilt before Frank’s threats to have him jailed or run out of town which might carry some weight if this was a Tennessee Williams play, Dracula grips him by the neck and makes him feel like a child in an adult’s grip, unmanning him to such a degree that Frank starts his fast spiral into near-lunatic dislocation. Kay meanwhile signals the arrival of something new in pop culture, the horror movie character who also represents a variety of horror movie fan, enthralled by dark fantasies, and a brand of rebel bohemian spirit anticipating everything from the Beatnik to the Goth and the Emo. As with the ecstatic blooming of camp in Cobra Woman, Siodmak conjures this new figure from amidst the official seriousness and grimness of the war, embodying a reaction. Kay is ecstatically morbid, seeking new dimensions of experience and deliverance from the ordinary. “What do they know of these occult matters?” she questions in frustration in contending with the smaller minds she lives amongst. Eventually it emerges that she courts a nocturnal existence, hoping to obtain it through playing up to the Count to obtain his vampiric gift, and then pass it on to Frank, her true love. But he remains far too attached to the everyday world, and so must be forced to join her. Already pale and stark of feature under her crown of black hair before she becomes a member of the undead, as a vampire Kay slides in and out of the shadows, skin white as milk and sometimes dissolving into vapour, eyes gleaming with otherworldly light, airily assuring Frank “you have no choice” as she explains her plans to make him her undead mate and helpmate in eliminating the Count’s controlling threat.

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The film’s second great interlude of gothic beauty comes as Frank tries to follow Kay as she drives into the swamps, losing track of her whilst Kay descends to the water’s edge in a remote corner of the swamp. Dracula’s coffin rises from the depths and the Count, taking the form of a curling mist, slides out of the coffin and takes form upon it, riding it like a gondola in sublime smoothness across the bayou as Kay awaits in beaming anticipation. There’s a dash of drollery in the way Siodmak contrasts this vision of otherworldly grace and unholy accord with the more humdrum, as Dracula and Kay go knock on the door of a bewildered small town JP to be married, a notion so obscene that the winds rise and thrash at the door once they enter the JP’s house, but the portents of the elements go unnoticed. Siodmak keeps the tone very close to the worldly precepts of noir throughout, identifying Frank’s furious reaction to the charismatic stranger subsuming his place and placing the control of the Dark Oaks at the centre of the narrative: even when eternal life is involved, or perhaps especially then, property remains a good motive for murder. Frank’s attempt to shoot Dracula only to kill Kay instead, conflates a clever use of the supernatural with the hysterical overtones of much noir like Ulmer’s Detour (1945) where the hero keeps finding himself implicated in crimes against all his intentions, rooted in a fear that at any moment the shape of reality might distort and the absurd become the only certainty. Notably, Siodmak would later offer, in Criss Cross, essentially the same basic story and triangle between sucker, femme fatale, and evil overlord.

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Siodmak’s third great, if brief interlude of horror style comes as Frank flees Dark Oaks, pursued by Dracula as a bat: Siodmak even offers a high-angle shot of the bat hovering over Frank as he dashes through the undergrowth. Frank collapses on a grave in a cemetery, and the bat lands on his prostrate form, nuzzling up to his neck, only for the moon to emerge from behind a cloud and cast the silhouette of a grave-marker cross on Frank. Siodmak inverts the field of cast light and dark so the cross shines blazing light. Dracula flees to the edge of the cemetery and cringes ruefully at his missed chance. Frank manages to stumble his way to Brewster’s house, and Brewster investigates his hysterical tale of killing Kay: caught by Dracula investigating the cellar of Dark Oaks, he’s ushered upstairs where Kay proves to be apparently alive and entirely lucid, if a touch spacey. In the morning, Brewster finds Frank has fled his house and gone to confess to Kay’s killing to the local sheriff, Dawes (Patrick Moriarity), who insists on investigating despite Brewster’s assurances. To everyone’s shock, they find Kay’s body laid out in a coffin in the family crypt. Brewster manages to avoid being arrested whilst Frank is locked away in the local court house, and he welcomes the arrival of Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg), a Hungarian-born authority on folklore who knows the Dracula legend inside out.

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Son of Dracula inserts an interesting, prototypical aspect of the metafictional as it portrays a world in which Stoker’s book exists and is known to the characters, and Brewster is portrayed reading it, trying to tease fiction from fact. Having spotted the game in the name Alucard, he asks Lazlo if any members of the historical family are still alive. Lazlo proposes that considering that the original Dracula was destroyed, the one they’re dealing with is a descendant. As Lazlo explains to Brewster that Dracula can transform himself into animals or a mist, Siodmak ingeniously has Dracula take that precise cue to enter Brewster’s living room by wafting under the locked door and appear to his foes, forestalled in his attack only by Lazlo’s canniness in having a crucifix in his pocket to drive him out again. Much as J.R.R. Tolkien’s remedy for evil was described by one critic as a yeoman sensibility based in ale and common sense, Siodmak’s answer for migrating vampiric masters is a pair of cool-headed old men smoking pipes, unhurried, almost folksy in response to the eruption of supernatural evil in their community – “A nauseating thought,” Brewster comments with a wince at one point as Lazlo proposes accurately what the nature of Kay’s plot could be. Brewster the embodiment of canny, homey Americana and Lazlo the wise embodiment of European poise.

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Except that Brewster and Lazlo don’t really do much to stop Dracula, instead forced to contend with the narrower precepts of policing and proof. Brewster’s most forthright achievement comes when a young boy, bitten but not killed by Dracula, is brought to him, and Brewster performs a palliative measure, painting small cruciform over the bite marks. Son of Dracula contributed a couple of permanent concepts to screen vampire lore, as the first to actually portray, through simple but effective animation and editing effects, Dracula transforming into a bat, and the notion of him leaving behind only a skeleton when killed. The most distinct and ingrained quality of the Universal horror brand was its sense of the genre as something fundamentally tragic. The studios’ films created a place of sepulchral passion and deeply sublimated sexuality mixed with the worship of Thanatos, soaked into the textures of the chiaroscuro photography. A place where the monster is a victim as well as villain, consumed by a need that also leads them to consume others, a quality joining the Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man, as well as less storied characters like the various ill-fated scientists Boris Karloff and Bèla Lugosi played, or Onslow Stevens’ luckless humanitarian doctor in House of Dracula.

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Dracula never quite fit this template as a character despite giving the marque its adrenalin dose: it wasn’t until much later that the notion of Dracula as cursed and timeless lover floated by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola would surface. Dracula served more as a catalyst for assailed lovers to feel the pain of unnatural desires tearing them apart, a force of refined, malignant erotic wont coming between them and the sanctitiy of heteronormative union, a note sounded in the Browning film as Mina mourns her relationship with Jonathan Harker as vampirism slowly takes her over. Siodmak makes much more of this theme whilst subverting it at the same time through Kay and Stanley, whose childhood love turned corrupted adult passion finally reverts again in the final moments of the film: Kay becomes an agent of corrupt adventuring for whom the Count is a mere means to an end, and Frank seems to be tempted right up to the threshold of eternity to share it with her. Like a true surrealist, Siodmak sees the force of love dragging a couple not towards the insular and the permitted but out into the wilderness, a place where only the ferocity of one’s commitment to passion can hold one together.

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Chaney had formed his screen persona playing average men with lodes of tragic luck and pathos, including his breakthrough role as Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939) as well as his signature role as Larry Talbot. His father’s reputation as the “man with a thousand faces,” an actor famed for his demanding and often excruciating physical transformations, became a difficult inheritance for his son. Chaney Jnr had acted at first under his real name of Creighton but only gained career traction as directly took on his father’s mantle, but unlike his rubber-limbed, almost professionally masochistic dad, Chaney Jnr, stocky and specific, was no such multifarious performer. Nonetheless he played the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and the mummy in three entries of the Kharis series in addition to returning to his role as Larry Talbot four times. To play Dracula he was made up with suavely greying temples and a sharp moustache, a look that makes him seem a little like a rough draft for Vincent Price’s horror persona. A few snarky tongues noted that the beefy Chaney looked like an extremely well-fed for a vampire. He’s merely okay in the role, lacking the silken charisma of Lugosi’s nobly diseased conqueror or the intensity of John Carradine’s gentleman pervert take in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, although he does project the character’s aggressive authority well, particularly as his imposing stature properly dominates.

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Chaney Jnr is at his best in the finale as Dracula tries desperately to extinguish the fire consuming his coffin leaving him without a resting place before the dawn, his frantic, panicky reaction palpable in a manner Chaney Jnr was effective at: his horror antiheroes are most vivid when exposed before terrifying forces of fate. Two aspects of Son of Dracula hamper it naggingly despite its fine points. One is casting. Allbritton looks the part but she and Paige lack the right kind of contrasting passion and neurotic vibrancy to really sell the amour fou Siodmak seemed to want to generate in their relationship, on top of Chaney Jnr’s unease in his part. Ankers, the official Universal scream queen who had been effective opposite Chaney Jnr in The Wolf Man, is wasted here in a role that doesn’t even give her a chance to give her famously shrill lungs a workout. The other is Taylor’s uncertain screenplay. Taylor had written Dick Tracy movies and he brought a rather stolid touch a little too much like B detective movies to the horror films he was assigned to, also including The Phantom of the Opera (1943), where the horror elements are subordinated to investigation and tepid romance. The narrative here belongs to the twisted threesome of Dracula, Kay, and Frank, but too much of Son of Dracula is devoted to Brewster and Lazlo arguing with Dawes and others about the veracity of things vampiric. Another foil is the film’s general cheapness with a straitened wartime budget, forced to hang around a few basic sets and fill out screen time not with action but talk.

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But the flashes of mysterious beauty and covert perversion continue as Kay materialises in Frank’s cell and tries to talk him into killing Dracula, wafting through the cell bars to stage his escape and drinking blood from his neck as he sleeps whilst in bat form, a deeply strange new frontier in erotic encounter. Kay still strongly resembles the familiar femme fatale figure here but goes one step further, becoming a literal phantom lady, free-floating animus goading Frank to defy limits of life and society: she can even help him casually subvert the law, usually the reef her kind leads mean like Frank to run aground on. She gives him the information required to track down Dracula to his sleeping place, in a disused, dried-out draining tunnel at the swamp, a detail thankfully overheard by Frank’s prison watchdog Mac (Walter Sande), who takes Frank for a nut: “Some goofball talkin’ to himself!” But Frank does manage to escape with Kay’s aid and finds Dracula’s coffin. Dracula returns to catch Frank before he can flee, but is quickly confronted by the sight of his coffin ablaze. The vampire hysterically tries to extinguish the fire. Failing that, he instead starts throttling the life out of Frank, only for the breaking dawn to send its lances of light through the gaps in the wooden structure, causing Dracula to collapse in a puddle and dissolve like a bad dream.

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As a climax this is a welcome eruption of the visually dynamic and physically brutal after all the chat. Siodmak cleverly delays sight of the burning coffin until Dracula himself sees it over Frank’s shoulder, whilst the rising sun appears out of a stock footage netherworld, and Chaney’s Dracula is dumbstruck by his own vulnerability, keeling over and fading away, another failed ubermensch. But it’s the very end that makes the movie, as Frank stumbles into Dark Oaks and finds Kay laid out in her coffin in what used to be the old playpen they shared as children, a frigid sleeping beauty and bride awaiting her mate, the veiled canopy a travesty of the wedding bed. Frank even completes the foiled ritual by taking a ring from his finger and placing in on Kay’s. When the ponderous trio of Brewster, Lazlo, and Dawes arrive after finding Dracula’s remains, they find Frank has not joined Kay but set fire to her coffin instead, the veiled canopy consumed by flame, a Viking funeral for a false idyll. Siodmak films Frank’s mournful visage through the burning silk, suggesting that the veil of complicity and abnormal love has been stripped from over his eyes, but leaving him abandoned, solitary and earthen, in an existence stripped of wonder and passion. Which is the fate worse than death?

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The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

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aka Dance of the Vampires ; The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck

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Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski

By Roderick Heath

The Fearless Vampire Killers has long suffered a benighted reputation. It’s remembered to pop culture lore chiefly as the film on which Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate met. Tate’s sorry fate and Polanski’s later disgrace tend to weigh heavily on attempts to appreciate the film’s near-unique, bewitching blend of horror and comedy, two modes notoriously difficult to blend. The Fearless Vampire Killers was Polanski’s follow-up to his first two films made in Britain, the psychological horror film Repulsion (1965) and the tragicomic thriller Cul-de-Sac (1966), films that established Polanski as a force to be reckoned with outside his native Poland, where he’d first gained notice with his debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962). The Fearless Vampire Killers saw Polanski working with a comparatively large budget and filming in colour for the first time, on a production shepherded by producer Gene Gutowski and co-written with Polanski’s regular writing partner Gerard Brach, partly filmed around the Italian Dolomites. Originally screened as Dance of the Vampires upon release in the UK, the film was retitled The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck for its American release, heavily edited, appended with a new, animated opening credit sequence, and marketed overtly as a campy, farcical parody. Seen in this form the film was largely dismissed as a creative blip before Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the film that brought Polanski to Hollywood with a bang. The proper cut has long since been restored and generally known by the plainer title of The Fearless Vampire Killers.

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The original title perhaps contained more of the essence of Polanski’s odd melding of elegance and bite, in a film that his cinematographer Douglas Slocombe correctly saw a sensibility strongly rooted in a rarefied central European evocation of fairytale menace. Certainly, Polanski intended to make sport of the waning Gothic horror film revival of the late 1950s and ‘60s, particularly Hammer Films’ beloved imprimatur with its boldly textured use of colour and lushly coded sexuality. Ironically, Polanski gained a bigger budget and heftier technical collaborators, like Slocombe, than what he was targeting could dream of. With Repulsion Polanski had helped formulate the modern horror movie with its basis in socially transmitted evil and psychological roots of mayhem, inaugurated by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, advance a few more degrees. But The Fearless Vampire Killers is executed in a fashion that reveals Polanski’s deep affection for and peculiar understanding of the gothic style of horror movie even as he’d done his bit for rendering it antiquated, crossbred with aspects of silent movie comedy and Yiddish music hall humour. Polanski cast himself in the film as Alfred, the gangly, jittery assistant to Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowran), a former teacher at the University of Konigsberg and expert in nocturnal wildlife who’s turned his hand to the great and holy mission of proving the existence of vampires, tracking them down, and exterminating them.

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Abronsius has been chased out of academia by colleagues who, as Ferdy Mayne’s inimitable opening narration tells us, blessed him with the nickname of “The Nut.” The opening scene evinces Polanski’s strange and ethereal mood blended with absurdism, envisioning a snow-caked Mittel Europa landscape through which a sled carves a laborious path. The sled carries Abronsius and Alfred, and Alfred realises they’re being chased by wolves, forced to fend off the animals alone because of the driver’s obliviousness and Abronsius is almost frozen stiff in the bitter cold. The film’s first shot signals Polanski’s technical mastery with a complex, multi-plane matte shot, zooming out from a model moon and pulling back to an eerily beautiful wide shot of the snowy landscape across which the sled progresses laboriously. Immediately we’re drawn out of any sense of the real world and into one that’s more like illustration, only for the mood to shift to one of dry slapstick in Alfred’s panicky fight with the wolves and attempts to alert his companions. Polanski continues such a dance of tones throughout, rarely going for big laughs or overt horror, but tracing the edges of a queasy zone where a sense of the ridiculous abuts a sense of the oneiric. Abronsius and Alfred are installed in the inn of Yoyneh Shagal (Alfie Bass), a place where the local yokels assemble in a haze of steam and goose down flecking the air, with garlic cloves hanging all around.

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Abronsius and Alfred are defrosted and installed in an overpriced room by Shagal, who has a rotund and watchful wife, Rebecca (Jessie Robins), a pretty daughter, Sarah (Tate) just returned from a girls’ school, and a maid he patently lusts after, Magda (Fiona Lewis). The coming of the crusading duo causes friction in the Shagal household, as Sarah admits to Alfred she became very fond of having a bath when at school, but the only tub in the inn, located in a room adjoining both hers and the new arrivals, is placed off-limits to her, after they catch sight of her naked in the bath when Shagal shows the new arrivals the amenity. Polanski and Brach have fun with their concept of Abronsius as a vampire killer whose general method is to obey genre cliché. Abronsius notes the garlic hanging all around and feels he’s getting close to his goal. “Is there by chance a castle in the area?” Abronsius enquires, only for the yokel who tries to answer in the affirmative (Ronald Lacey) to be quickly silenced by his fellows. Alfred meanwhile becomes smitten with Sarah, catching her eye by building a snowman in the yard.

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When a grotesquely misshapen hunchback, Koukul (Terry Downes), arrives at the Inn on a sled, Abronsius suspects he’s the vampire overlord’s traditional minion. He assigns Alfred to track Koukol to his base, but Alfred quickly abandons the task as it proves too hard to cling onto Koukol’s sled and after he’s been treated to a bloodcurdling sight, as Koukol, far from being harassed by the same wolves that chased Alfred and Abronsius earlier, stalks after one of the animals and returns with his massive buck teeth dripping gore. Man bites dog is news indeed. Shagal makes midnight excursions, first to nail shut the door to Sarah’s room and then to set about trying to get into bed with Magda, who coolly rebuffs his advances. He attracts the attention of both his wife, who stalks him with a huge salami to bash him on the head, and the would-be vampire slayers, out to learn what’s afoot. Shagal successfully eludes his wife by hiding behind Magda’s door and she instead the wallops Abronsius on the head, knocking him out cold. The next day Abronsius meets only stonewalling shrugs as he tries to alert the Shagals to his assault. Sarah gets around her father’s barricade by sneaking into the duo’s room and begging Alfred to let her use the tub, only her choice of words makes him think at first she’s talking about lusty needs provoked when she was at school: “I adore it…Besides, they say it’s good for your health…do you mind if I have a quick one?” But Sarah has fatefully attracted the attention of Koukol’s master, the Count von Krolock (Mayne), who lurks on the roof awaiting his chance to spring on her.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers nods occasionally to comic territory familiar from other movies of its time. Some bawdy gags would fit in with likes of the Carry On… films, as when Shagal becomes mesmerised by Magda’s rhythmic backside as she scrubs the floor, and his games of hide-and-seek as he tries to get into the maid’s bed. Other jokes have a basis in the broadening social compass of pop culture, ribbing the blind spots of the old, square, carefully constrained horror style. That old Jewish theatrical tradition, which also echoed through the work of some comic filmmakers emerging in the late ‘60s including Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, inspires the best-known gag in Polanski’s film. The vampirised Shagal waves his hands in delighted disdain at the crucifix brandished at him by Magda and declares, “Oy-yoi, ‘ave you got the wrong vampire!” Queerness was a common subtext in many a classic horror film, but Polanski made it plainer as Alfred encounters Von Krolock’s gay son Herbert (Ian Quarrier), “A gentle, sensitive youth,” as the Count put it, with Alfred threatened with a new form of the fate worse than death as Herbert’s undying toyboy.

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Polanski also weaves in a stream of visual puns. A shot of what seems to be Alfred staking Shagal at Abronsius’ instruction, filmed in silhouette as per genre visual convention, proves instead to be a practice run on a pillow where Alfred whacks his mentor’s fingers. An attempt to stake a presumably hidden vampire releases a gushing red torrent that proves to be wine. When Shagal sneaks into the duo’s room to close off the bathroom, he’s seen at first to have what looks like huge fangs jutting from his mouth but prove to be nails. Other comic sights have a more subtle, weird inflection, like Alfred placing heated cups on Abronsius’ skinny, pale blue back, or a shot of Abronsius sprawled asleep over a desk, his snoring gusts causing a piece of paper to flutter and unfurl, straight out of a Looney Tunes animated short. The silent comedy influence becomes clearer in Polanski’s lyrical sense of peculiar motion, watching Alfred and Abronsius trying to ski across the snowy landscape, or lope from block to block on a castle battlement, Abronsius’ long, stork-like limbs and Alfred’s rubbery physique providing a study in constantly linked yet distinct modes of ambulation. Late in the film comes a priceless piece of visual comedy based in the nearly Escher-like sense of the castle’s geography, as Alfred tries to flee Herbert, dashing at speed around the balcony over the castle courtyard only to arrive back face to face with his would-be lover-killer.

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Sarah’s assault by Von Krolock changes the film’s initial atmosphere, however, from one of general, oddly textured play to one charged with a rather darker undertone. A few flecks of fairytale snow falling onto Sarah’s bathwater alert her to something strange, and she glances up to see Von Krolock floating down towards her with red eyes and long teeth. As he would do more extensively on Chinatown (1974), Polanski switches to hand-held shots to evoke physical urgency and distress, as Von Krolock pinions Sarah and bites her neck as she thrashes in the water, soap and water flying, and when he departs he leaves only a red stain on her bath bubbles. There’s a charge of genuine disquiet that certainly feels consistent with Polanski’s more familiar, dire portrayals of intimate violence. The scene is further augmented by one of the film’s most remarkable elements, the music by Christopher (Krzysztof) Komeda. Komeda, a jazz musician and another of the people involved with the film who died tragically young, had scored Polanski’s three previous movies, and here he provided one of the greatest and weirdest film scores with stark, throbbing instrumentations interwoven with vocal ululations, remixing familiar aspects of many a horror score – organs, harpsichords, ominous choruses – into a truly weird melange, reaching an apogee during Von Krolock’s attack. And yet Polanski sneaks in a fillip of humour here too as Alfred, catching sight of Von Krolock through the keyhole and cringing in tongue-thrusting, ferret-eyed fear.

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The Shagals’ distraught reaction to Sarah’s vanishing treads a line between the two states, at once a depiction of parental grief and vaudeville shtick. Shagal heads out into the snowy night to try and bring back Sarah, girding himself for battle by chewing up garlic cloves. This proves an insufficient defence, however, as he’s found outside the next day frozen into a bizarre sculpture and riddled with vampire bites that Abronsius uncovers with justified satisfaction, although the rest of the villagers continue to obfuscate and call them animal bites. Abronsius tries to convince Rebecca her husband’s body needs to be staked, only for her to chase the vampire hunter off at the point of his own stake. So Abronsius and Alfred decide to do the job themselves, cueing one of Polanski’s best pieces of visual humour, as the two men pause to crouch down by the table Shagal’s corpse is laid out on, and take out vampire killing implements only to see Shagal revived and watching them in grinning bemusement. Shagal flees as eludes the hunters in the wine cellar, and attacks Magda in her room. The dynamic duo give chase on skis to Shagal as he dashes out into the countryside, leading them to Von Krolock’s castle. The ski pursuit becomes a lyrical moment of physical action upon vast spaces of snowy land stained blue in the moonlight, ski track cutting the frame with ribbons of blue and lines of action following contorted geometry.

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The familiar heroic figure of the Van Helsing-type vampire slayer, the iron-willed and well-versed enemy of evil, is perverted into an extended and acerbic joke about intellectual dilettantes, taking on monolithic evil with tunnel-visioned confidence and book learning. McGowran’s peerless comedic performance presents Abronsius as a man of no small mental muscle – witness how cleverly he extracts himself and Alfred from being imprisoned by Von Krolock by making use of an old cannon – but who’s also the epitome of the absent-minded professor, aging, distractable, and hardly a dynamic swashbuckler. Abronsius is too often more absorbed in and pleased by proving himself right than cognisant of entering a dangerous situation and provoking his quarries. He and Alfred evoke many a classic comedy team, transposing Laurel and Hardy into Hammer Horror, constantly getting themselves into another fine mess, or a subtler take on Abbott and Costello’s adventures in horror-comedy. Polanski had been acting in movies as long as he’d been directing them, having appeared in Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (1955) in the same year he made his first short, but he was still taking a chance on casting himself as Alfred, a role that would’ve certainly fit some British comic actors of the day like Michael Crawford or Norman Wisdom. But he might have been precisely hoping to avoid making the role too comedic in the familiar sense: Polanski’s gawkily handsome, rather boyish façade and light Slavonic whistle lend a faint abstraction, and he managed to balance his characterisation at the intersection of comic foil, romantic lead, and holy fool. Tate, for her part, gives a deft comic performance, bewitching Alfred with painted-on freckles and mane of red hair, although she’s not in the film for much of the runtime, inhabiting it more as an elusive dream.

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The funny – or unfunny, depending on your viewpoint – thing about The Fearless Vampire Killers is the way it mediates Polanski’s essential themes, more often articulated in bleak psychodramas, in a style usually considered beyond his purview, although he’d make periodic returns to black comedy for sharply diminishing returns on What? (1973) and Pirates (1986). The figuration of a monstrous and all-powerful overlord who lays claims to the young innocent would be taken up again in Chinatown. Polanski gained attention with his early films for his stark sense of setting matched to a fascination with psychology and power and the nexus of the two, couched in a ready lexicon of modernist literature and art. Knife in the Water, set mostly on a sailing boat in dead calm stretches off Poland’s Baltic coast, isolated his characters in a setting stringent in its lack of orientation, turning space claustrophobic; in Repulsion he did the opposite, as a tight London apartment became, through its heroine’s viewpoint, a plastic space remade by her own crumbling psyche. Cul-de-Sac’s setting mediated the two, private castle perched atop an islet separated from the mainland by vast reaches of sand and mud. Polanski’s feel for landscape echoed Salvador Dali’s hallucinatory plains, abstract spaces of time and memory, a fitting setting to deploy dramas laced with influences from culture heroes like Kafka, Ionesco, and Beckett, mixed in with pulp fiction tropes.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers revolves around a detected likeness between the icy satire and allusive yearning for meaning in Kafka’s The Castle and the traditional format of the vampire tale, as the vampire killers are caught between obfuscating villagers and the dominating castle which they try to penetrate and locked in an extended game of politesse covering mutual intent to destroy. Like Kafka, Polanski was a product of the Eastern European Jewish experience, although the terrible experience of World War II separated them. The little humiliations and descriptions of a perverse and purposefully illogical social structure Kafka depicted had given way long since to mass murder and destruction and then resumed a superficial placidity with imposed political order: Polanski knew intimately about both. The Fearless Vampire Killers, in its own mordant, frisky way, analyses the familiar vampire myth as codified by Bram Stoker in a manner attentive to its purpose as political parable, an aspect usually kept as a strong subtext in the vampire movies of Fisher and Don Sharp, whose Kiss of the Vampire (1963) seems to have been a particular touchstone for Polanski and Brach. In offering vampires as an inferred stand-in for the impacts of Nazism on the landscape of his homeland, Polanski both echoed and also repatriated the theme after Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943), which offered the same idea except as a warning over invasion and subterfuge. The devolved and desiccated remnants of aristocratic power still nonetheless rule the locale Abronsius and Alfred enter in blithe disinterest for the laboured efforts of academic do-gooders, the gnarled and desiccated ranks of the undead still wrapped in shabby robes of power and crawling out of their coffins to suck the life out of the few remaining specimens of beauty and potential left. Polanski uses vaudeville shtick to soften ever so slightly a tale of malignant power that starts out as a purely regional ill before gaining a chance to spread across the world.

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The comedy-horror film has always been a difficult tightrope to walk. Many a great horror film has made capital from characters’ natural habits of making quips amidst menacing surrounds, conspiring with the audience’s temptation to do the same thing in order to undercut it. But Polanski aimed for something distinct, and also different from a more straight-laced kind of spoof, which aims to disassemble familiar tropes and making sport of them, but tries to dig down to that niggling nerve where horror and humour converge, as different expressions of anxiety. A much later brand of gross-out movie, like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (1991), would adopt a quick path to stoking appalled laughter by deploying outrageous visions of gory depravity, whilst something like Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011) offered an essay analysing the function of genre essentials even whilst provoking laughs at their recognition. Polanski followed more a model employed by the old Bob Hope vehicles The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), and which would in turn also be taken up by An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Ghost Busters (1984), where funny characters are unleashed in a situation that obeys classical horror genre rules.

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Mayne’s terrific performance as Von Krolock works in part because he’s assigned to play the traditional vampire master totally straight except with dimensions of deep existential dread and mocking humour aimed at Abronsius and Alfred, who he knows are unworthy foils. A sight like Downes’ Koukol, with overgrown pageboy haircut and colossal buck teeth, crouched in a pose reminiscent of a Hanna-Barbera animated grotesque but with a huge axe in his hands, somehow manages to be bizarrely funny and genuinely menacing. Much like the yacht of Knife in the Water, the flat of Repulsion and the castle of Cul-de-Sac, the labyrinthine sprawl of Von Krolock’s castle becomes a stage where the human interlopers’ efforts to prove themselves in control founder amidst the ridiculous. Polanski offers homage to Laurence Olivier’s films as director, as his vampire homestead becomes, like Olivier’s Elsinore in Hamlet (1948), a twisting, mimetic trap for behavioural perversity, whilst late in the film he includes a dancing vampire who looks like Olivier’s Richard III. Polanski suggests a sense of Horror cinema history as the echoing singing of Sarah recalls the haunting melodies echoing in dark places in the Val Lewton-produced Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher (both 1945). Alfred and Abronsius spend their time lurching around the confines of the castle and yet find themselves ludicrously ill-equipped for some simple breaking and entering, unable to come to grips with their enemy even when prostrate before them, often locked up in small rooms by Koukol, and reduced finally to literally running around in circles.

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Von Krolock plays the indulgent, engrossed host for Abronsius and Alfred once they gain access to him, confessing a liking for the Professor’s book on bats and drawing him into an extended, increasingly silly attempt to sustain his cover story over chasing a bat flying well out of season. The heroic duo’s efforts to penetrate the family crypt see them fended off by an axe-wielding Koukol at the gate, so they stagger around the battlements to access it by a skylight. Alfred slips through but Abronsius gets stuck, so the Professor tries to coach Alfred through staking the Count, but Alfred lacks necessary killer instinct. Alfred’s attempts to circumnavigate back out of the crypt and around again to the roof to pull Abronsius free are delayed when he hears eerily melodic singing echoing around the castle, and encounters Sarah bathing, preparing happily for her role as guest of honour and unwitting main course at the Von Krolocks’ annual ball and hiding the bite wound on her neck with a lock of hair. The love-struck Alfred tries to convince her to leave with him immediately, but as he scratches a love heart on the frosted window sees Abronsius still jammed in the skylight and dashes out to free him.

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The recurring joke about people being frozen solid or near enough makes sport of the farceur tradition’s sense of elastic physicality by making actors at once exploit their muscular control but also deny it: they become an object. It also offsets one of the film’s most fervent concern, with human (and inhuman) connection, peculiar pacts and perversities rooted in mutual need. Alfred’s love for Sarah and desire to rescue the damsel in distress offers the most traditional frame but the same force binds Alfred to Abronsius and makes Herbert fall for him, makes Von Krolock play “pastor” to “my beloved flock,” and drives Shagal to madcap excursions in his efforts, both alive and undead, to claim Magda: even the dead can’t stand being alone. Von Krolock touches his son’s arm with a tender solicitude as Herbert gazes mournfully out upon another sunrise as they prepare for sleeping in their coffins. Malignant as they are, Polanski sees even his vampires as creatures beset by pains of solitude and need echoing on with strange intensity across aeons rather than the mere lifespan of humans. Such need is however also repeatedly seen to be consuming: to love is also to destroy, to consume.

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Understandably, then, high-flown romantic chestnuts come in for a ribbing as well as horror clichés, as Alfred digs a book out of Von Krolock’s library entitled “A Hundred Goodlie Ways Of Avowing One’s Sweet Love To A Comlie Damozel” for the purposes of wooing Sarah, only for Herbert to snatch it from his hands and start using it to guide his own advances: whereupon Alfred finds the book remarkably useful not as lubricant but as a prophylactic – shoving it into Herbert’s mouth to ward off his bite. When Alfred and Abronsius manage to infiltrate the ranks of dancing vampires Alfred announces himself to Sarah as her saviour: “It is I!…life has a meaning once more.” A late gag, which also signals the final veering into territory close to romantic tragedy, takes a swipe at La Boheme as Alfred grips Sarah’s frigid fingers and exclaims, “Your tiny hand is frozen!” When Alfred tries to track down Sarah again when he thinks he hears her singing, he finds the squeaking voice is actually a water pump Herbert’s pumping. Meanwhile Von Krolock tells the vampire slayers, with a blend of mordant irony and pride as they watch the vampirised Shagal snatching Magda from the Inn via telescope, that the innkeeper’s been blessed with the restoration of his youthful vigour and life-lust. But Shagal, tasked with helping Magda dress to be another guest of the ball, finally gets too greedy and accidentally kills her in drinking too much of her blood.

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The social element to Polanski’s satire resurges as Shagal finds to his chagrin that Koukol won’t let him share the Von Krolock family crypt with the Count and Herbert, even dragging the newcomer out in his coffin and kicking him down stairs into the adjoining cemetery. Yes, even the undead have their undesirables and their clubs that won’t let Shagal’s kind in. When Alfred later penetrates the crypt, he finds, in a moment at once hilarious and pathetic, that Shagal’s still managed to get back in and has curled up, like a faithful dog, on top of Herbert in his coffin. Von Krolock hints at the kind of existential angst Werner Herzog and Francis Coppola would later dig into with their variations on the Dracula tale, as he promises to Abronsius that once he’s a vampire they can talk it all over during “the long evenings,” Mayne wittily stretching out the enunciation with both threat and also aspects of pain he’s all too happy to share with his enemy. Von Krolock clearly fancies himself not merely as patriarch to his vampire clan but a kind of priest-king who ministers to his “flock” and considers it an exalted status, promising Abronsius that he’ll understand “when you attain my spiritual level.” And yet Polanski undercuts Von Krolock’s pretences as he keeps revealing the animal edge of his behaviour, his leering, toothy visage as he hovers over Sarah, and baring his fangs as he torments Alfred, only to quickly hide them again as he resumes a veneer of haughty dignity: Von Krolock’s quasi-Nietzschean faith is actually Hobbesian nightmare.

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When his undead cotillion begins arriving for the ball, they crawl out of their graves and assemble in his hall, a collection of rotting, mouldering visages wrapped in dusty clothes from an ancien regime still clinging to existence in its cordoned corner of the world. Although it’s hinted the vampires’ success in retaining overlordship of the district has been self-defeating as fewer travellers bother coming there. Von Krolock, after saluting his brethren with the devil’s horns gesture, rouses them with a speech promising a feast this year after the gloom of the previous ball: “There we were, gathered together gloomy and despondent, around that single, meagre woodcutter.” Von Krolock plays the triumphal impresario as he bids his guests come closer before unveiling Sarah as bauble that will sate unholy hungers. The pivotal moment of the climax, and perhaps the film’s most ingenious melding of the droll and the surreal, comes when Alfred, Abronsius, and Sarah try to disguise their efforts to escape the vampire ball as part of the dance, only to find themselves confronted by a huge, dirty but still effective mirror affixed to the ballroom wall. Of course, the hapless trio are the only ones reflected in the glass, prancing puppets in foolish exposure.

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Tellingly, this is again a joke based in social distinction, the ultimate act of being outed as an outsider. It’s reminiscent, in a distant but crucial manner, of the moment where Tom Cruise’s Dr Harford is unmasked by a similarly controlling, perverse, youth-and-beauty-consuming crowd in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The main difference is that in Polanski’s film the bloodsucking is entirely literal. Alfred and Abronsius’ know-how proves equal to the moment, however dumb they look, however, as they improvise a huge cross out of old knightly swords and place it on the floor to keep the vampires at bay. Von Krolock sends the unaffected Koukol after them, and Koukol uses one of the coffins he’s fashioned as an improvised sled to chase down the sleigh the humans escape in. Koukol miscalculates, however, and crashes over a precipice to become food for the vengeful wolves. It seems like a victory for good, an unlikely yet hard-fought end for such dopes. Except that Sarah, possessed by the vampiric taint left in her bloodstream by the Count’s bite, unveils massive fangs and sinks them into Alfred’s neck. The oblivious Abronsius cracks the reins and transports the infected duo out into the world, free to transmit evil unchecked. A perfect resolution for Polanski’s stringent ransacking of genre familiarities, and one in keeping with the filmmaker’s career-long habit of ending on a downbeat note of misanthropic assessment. Alfred’s naively charming ardour proves, far from ennobling him, to be the ripest target for evil to find a purchase in.

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1960s, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Peeping Tom (1960)

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Director: Michael Powell
Screenwriter: Leo Marks

By Roderick Heath

The tale of Peeping Tom’s rejection upon release, and the way it doomed Michael Powell’s directorial career, is today inseparable from its mystique. After twenty years spent as one of Britain’s most respected and high-profile filmmakers, Powell ended his “The Archers” production partnership with Emeric Pressburger following Ill Met By Moonlight (1958) and carried on alone, even the signature Archers logo sequence featuring an arrow hitting a bullseye now amended for a solo act. Tired of trying to subsist in the increasingly mundane mood of late ‘50s British film, Powell seems to have seen a way out as horror films and thrillers regained popularity: fierce thrills awaited. Powell had never really worked in Horror before, although his early quickie The Phantom Light (1936) had offered a playful lampoon of genre canards. Having worked early in his career as still photographer under Alfred Hitchcock, Powell went to the same well the Master of Suspense was about to have his biggest hit in drawing from, with Psycho. It’s generally forgotten now that as Psycho opened in cinemas many critics and cinema figures wondered if Hitchcock had gone too far. Hitchcock might have taken some warning from Peeping Tom’s fate, as he bypassed critics at first, letting the audience set the pace. The film’s colossal success essentially forced an entire culture to roll with it. No such restraint was offered Powell.

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Whereas Hitchcock was strictly associated with his niche genre and knew how to playfully mediate his persona so that even his darkest provocations could be made to seem mischievous rather than malign, and the gore and provocation of the Hammer Films product was veiled relatively in a relatively benign and stylised historical setting, Powell situated his in the immediate, full-colour present. Not that he was alone in that, either: the likes of Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) offered studies in tabloid cruelty not that dissimilar. But no one expected better of such movies. Powell however seen as a fallen angel of prestige film turning to a debased genre by the British press, which would maintain its punitive view of horror films through to the “Video Nasties” debate of the 1980s. Powell’s oeuvre was ransacked for evidence he’d always been a pervert. Plenty of evidence was available, from the hothouse eroticism and maniacal assaults of Black Narcissus (1946), the consuming down-home passions of Gone To Earth (1950), the erotically useful statue coming to murderous life in The Thief of Baghdad (1940), the glue-wielding small-town enforcer of A Canterbury Tale (1944), and the sadomasochistic view of artistry in The Red Shoes (1948).

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Such analysis was perfectly correct. Powell and Pressburger had made their names offering their unique cinema in an age of grim and intractable facts, ironically countering with narratives celebrating an almost obstinate perversity in individualism and applying a psychologically aware, layered texture taking inspiration from fairy tales and theatrical fantasias to otherwise grounded stories. Powell and Pressburger’s partnership, and the films they made in the 1940s, exemplified a strange variety of idealism fired by the war and its immediate aftermath, a desire to express the human urge at all extremes, even the irrational and disturbing. Powell noted later that The Red Shoes’ success seemed rooted in the way it gave permission for people, after years of being told to go out and die for democracy, to now go out and die for art, whilst The Archers’ written manifesto had the quality of a crusade in just that fashion. But the swooning cinematic fervour of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘40s heyday had been slowly corroded by forces without, as audience tastes changed, and also within. The very lightly satirical frothiness of Oh Rosalinda! (1955) felt forced, and the darkness crowding at the edges of The Red Shoes, Gone To Earth and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) betrayed a desire to dig deeper into the nightmarish and neurotic, held in check by a love of colourful style that threatened to become mere artifice. Powell and Pressburger’s last two works in official partnership, The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight, had seen their eccentric art turned upon the reminiscences of the war, fine works that were nonetheless products of creative wills entrapped by the rest of the culture’s inability to look forward.

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Peeping Tom saw the black beast suddenly bust out of its chrysalis, but it paid the price. Later Powell would note with acidic acuity that a film no-one wanted to see in 1960 became, thirty years later, the film everyone liked. The funny thing about Peeping Tom is that it’s a thriller without thrills. Psycho kept the mystery of Norman Bates in the shadow until the end, psychology offered at the end by way of explanation as also as source of sour, sceptical humour, betraying Hitchcock’s ultimate unwillingness to betray the mystery and insidious will of the killer to mere jargon, whilst also allowing him to sustain the basic precepts of a mystery, uncertain as to where threat will resolve and in what form. Peeping Tom is even more dubious about the science of psychology, but is also more straightforward on that level. It tells us in precise and insistent terms why its antiheroic killer Mark Lewis (Karlheinz ‘Carl’ Boehm) is what he is, and presents his situation more as a pathetic character study, anticipating later works like Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1987) in offering the killer not just as roving embodiment of the audience’s hunger for violent thrills but as active antihero, a perspective you’d rather not share but are forced to identify with. We’re left alone with a madman, and obliged to cringe when justice comes close and grit teeth as someone violates his private world. Powell doesn’t really try to create any traditional sense of suspense, but rather a queasy certainty, a grim patience.

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Peeping Tom inspires an almost desperate empathy for Mark, who’s working through a psychosis he has no control over and all but begs for someone to intervene, only to be foiled by good English traits like politeness and neighbourly respect for privacy, plus a more general incapacity to read the screeching eyes of the quiet, polite, good-looking young man. But Peeping Tom manages to grope its way to the far side of the bright light to find the shadows again, in the way it offers an active assault on the very drive to make and watch cinema. Peeping Tom offered a ripe fetish object for cineastes for the way it puts the act of seeing and filming front and centre as a pathological act. Peeping Tom’s time was in the future, when the desire to both experience and capture experience, to see and be seen all at once, became all-consuming and technologically enabled. The opening sequence inevitably offers a point-of-view shot through Mark’s movie camera, hidden under his trenchcoat, as he approaches a blasé prostitute, Dora (Brenda Bruce), follows her up to her room, and then assaults her. Her screaming, makeup-emblazoned face becomes a hallucinatory vision of femininity and fear.

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At the climax, the hidden facet of Mark’s modus operandi is revealed, a polished lighting parabola that reflects back the image of the victim’s own screaming face at them, turning the act of murder into an inescapable, infinite, yet depthless succession of seeing and being seen. But the reflection is distorted, a Picasso mask, a grotesque revision grafted onto the face of the killer. Mark seeks to document the perfect and absolute moment of terror that’s also transcendence, where object is image, the dying person with no future or past, only the terrible eternity of death/recording. The very first shot of the film, however, is a carefully aestheticized glimpse of a seedy London backstreet, the light of the streetlamps pooling red on the cobbles. As a shot it clearly refers back to a passage in the central ballet sequence of The Red Shoes, where the bewitched heroine finished up exiled in similarly nightmarish spaces, grazing against women of the night twisting like gargoyles. The darkest corner of that film’s conjured psychic landscape here has become the entire world, and the film stumbles into a hall of mirrors it can’t escape until the very end when Mark treads a gauntlet of cameras mimicking those mirrors, entrapping his image from every vantage.

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The credits sequence, unfurling after the preamble of Dora’s murder, essentially repeat the sequence, except now in black and white, without sound, projected upon a screen in Mark’s flat: the act of watching Powell’s movie is directly connected with the act of Mark watching his own. Powell’s regular composer, the great Brian Easdale, offers a single, relentlessly neurotic piano thrumming away in mimicry of a silent movie accompanist as Mark watches his personal cinema of cruelty with its little flourishes of artisanal signature, as when Mark shoots the discarded box of his film reel as he dumps it in a bin. Peeping Tom’s script was written by Leo Marks, a former cryptographer and son of a bookstore proprietor who packed the film with characters he recalled from his youth observing the types coming in and out of the store. The film is then deeply rooted in a sense of suburban London as a place of property and exchange. Mark has turned his father’s large and potentially lucrative building into a boarding house but his obsessions lead him to scarcely pay attention to it, not even the money he makes from it, in a manner opposed to the film studio boss (Michael Goodliffe) and the corner newsagent (Bartlett Mullins), both of whom employ Mark and are out to make money in part through retailing desirable imagery.

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Powell’s perspective amplifies all this in making Peeping Tom as an infinitely sarcastic panorama of British society from the specific viewpoint of a filmmaker. The commoditised sex of the streetwalker represents the lowest, and yet least falsified stratum. Next is Mark’s job shooting nudie pictures of a pair of models, Milly (Pamela Green) and Lorraine (Susan Travers), bound to be sold under the counter to respectable pervs like the elderly customer (Miles Malleson) who comes to the newsagent on recommendation, and walks away with a folio of them bundled with the label “Educational Books.” Quite. The highest level is the movie studio where Mark works during the day as a focus puller, engaged on a shoot of a bright and chintzy romantic comedy set in a department story, replete with consumerist pleasures. The shoot pits the increasingly infuriated director Arthur Baden (Carl Esmond) against his unpliable and amateurish starlet Diane Ashley (Shirley Anne Field), who just won’t faint the way he wants. Like Norman Bates, Mark is blessed with counterintuitive purity in his indifference to money or other material interests not relating to his specific mania, seeming rather a romantic ideal of a shy, unworldly yet good-looking young man.

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His tenant, the librarian and budding author Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who lives downstairs with her blind mother (Maxine Audley), is intrigued precisely by Mark’s fleeting, toey presence. Coming up to bring him a piece of her birthday cake, leaving behind her flat full of her birthday party guests, Helen talks Mark into showing her some of his films as a present. Mark obliges, in a gesture laced with urges towards both sadistically discomforting Helen and revealing his own pain to a confessor, shows her footage of a young boy filmed by his father: it becomes clear that the boy is Mark and the film was taken by his father, an experimental psychologist who used his son as a guinea pig for his experiments, particularly his obsession with recording fear. This is recorded all too vividly in shots of the elder Lewis waking his son in the night with torches shining in his eyes and a lizard tossed onto his bed, and even his grieving beside his mother’s body as she readied for burial. Helen is understandably disturbed by such a privilege, but it also deepens her fascination with Mark and his intense, seemingly self-sufficient private world and mode of mystic transport, to the point where she seems to transmute it for a children’s book she writes about a magic camera.

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It’s tempting to read this facet of Mark relationship with Helen’s as a metaphor for Powell’s with Pressburger, Powell noting his release from Pressburger’s magic-realist lilt and elegiac sensibility, stuck pondering how to isolate his own, more carnivorous instincts. The way Peeping Tom foregrounds the theme of scopophilia and the receptivity to it of cineastes perhaps invites a touch of scepticism in itself, lest it totally displace other aspects. Suffice to say Peeping Tom is also a cold lampoon of forms of childrearing that insists on imposing rational adult concerns upon the frail, fantastical, protean nature of childhood, and a dissection of repression in sexual terms and also cultural. The film offers a rare feel for a London caught between the immediate pall of exhaustion in victory that defined the post-war period and the glitter of the Swinging London age. Powell’s acidic caricature of the kind of anodyne, brightly-coloured moviemaking popular in the late ‘50s ties in with the general portrait of a grubby and rundown era, filled with people cut off from all sources of authentic passion save what simulacra they can by under the counter or glean from a movie screen. Mark inverts the proposition by trying to make movies out of the stuff of reality, manufacturing his scenes directly where Baden tries to bellow them into being. Life provides him with all the apparatus of a good movie. Life, death, danger, mystery, beauty, savagery.

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The ironies of image-mongering are highlighted early on as Mark photographs the two porn models, making Milly pose on a bogus set representing a fantasy of Parisian sleaze, and discovering to his mesmerised fascination that Lorraine has a scarred and twisted lip. “He said you needn’t photograph my face,” Lorraine snaps, only for Mark to take up his cinecamera and approach with almost loving coos as the attraction of broken beauty accords with his mania. Providing Helen with a blind mother, left out of the roundelay of image-making and smashing, was a borderline excessive idea in thematic underlining. But the film nonetheless employs her for enriching dramatic ends, as she becomes disturbed by her daughter’s interest in Mark and eventually gropes her way around Mark’s workspace, having entered it and lingered in the dark until he got a shock switching on a light to find her waiting. “The blind always live in the rooms they live under,” Mrs Stephens comments. Mrs Stephens is imbued with qualities close to the sagacious, not simply keener to sound and motion but able to sense, like her daughter, Mark’s glaring presence through her rooms’ ground floor window. When she feels his face to learn his features, Mark comments, “Taking my photograph?” She carries a cane that resembles Mark’s own weapon of choice, a metal spike on the end wielded as a device to ward off danger.

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“Instinct’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it Mark? A pity it can’t be photographed,” she tells Mark, sensing the obsessive and fetid nature of his experimentation, some code of the malignant transmitted through his footfalls, and then delivers the film’s watchword: “All this filming isn’t healthy.” Despite having her at bay, frightened and unsure, Mark can’t kill Mrs Stephens in his usual method, because of its futility for his ends: she can’t offer the endless mirror of self-seen death. Peeping Tom has a requisite dose of Freudian symbolism, particularly the inevitably phallic device of the key: Helen receiving a large cardboard card in the shape of one for her 21st signals her coming of age but Mark has no keys: he tells her his father never allowed him to have any and it’s become so habitual he leaves all his own rooms unlocked, his manhood stunted and impotent, and his lack of urgency in amending the fact suggests on some level he invites invasion and discovery. Late in the film it’s revealed Mark’s father rigged the entire house for sound, the reels containing all the shrieks and moans of Mark’s fear from years of being systematically terrorised still all available at the flick of a switch, a perverted family album: Mark has the rare privilege and nightmare of having his childhood available in instantaneous recall, without expurgation or pleasant vagary. Plus he has the talk of his tenants, chattering away in all their mundane states: even their transgressions and clandestine kinks retain the tinny ring of the predictable, the measly; Mark has a mission, however mad.

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Hitchcock had always kept his fascination for the act of looking as a form of voyeurism enclosed within the logic of his stories, allowing it to nudge the surface of Rear Window (1954), so Powell was going one better on the master by turning it into the essence of his psycho-thriller venture. Mark’s weapon, a leg of his clockwork camera’s tripod with a knife hidden within, brought to bear for murder, seems like a device an assassin might use in some vintage pulp novel. But Powell manages to make it an unnerving device, keeping the feature of real terror, the mirroring lamp, hidden until Mark confronts Helen with it, her face reflected back to her in a distorted travesty. Powell seems to obviously implicate himself in the study of cinema’s dark side by casting himself, in blurry cameo, as the late Dr A.N. Lewis, glimpsed in footage shot by his young second wife, stands with his son and gives him a fateful present – his first movie camera. Powell, whose messy private life saw him constantly falling in and out love of the women in front of his camera, knew well how enticing and diaphanous the object of obsession was: the protagonist of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) projects an elusive ideal onto successive performers. Mark’s desire to arrest the ideal image, to reduce it to the pure and unchanging state, gives sarcastic flesh to Powell’s self-accosting concept of the male movie director as perpetually frustrated fetishist.

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Peeping Tom seems on the surface of things antipathetic to The Red Shoes’ epic and free-flowing sense of creative passion, but both essentially chase after the event horizon where art and act, deed and performance, become unified, and the project of alchemising weak flesh and the pathos of life into a perfect totem can only end with the complete annihilation of self. Mark combines young romantic and twisted puppeteer as embodied separately by Craster and Lermontov in The Red Shoes; like Vicki Page, Mark ultimately destroys himself in perfect dedication to his art, or perhaps rather in ultimate obedience to a project imposed upon him. Powell twists the knife of likeness by featuring the star of The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer, as Mark’s second victim Vivian. Vivian works as a stand-in on the film Mark’s also working on, with its trenchant title The Walls Are Closing In. Vivian and Mark sneak back onto the sound stage, as Mark has asked Vivian to participate in a filming project he’s making. Vivian is easily seduced into Mark’s plot, through the hope of gratified yearning for stardom and glimmerings of romantic promise. Vivian limbers up by dancing to a jazz number on her tape recorder whilst Mark arranges the studio to facilitate the perfect visual record of his bloodthirsty art. Powell’s prowling camera and the loud colours of the set turn this sequence into a musical, more Stanley Donen than Powell’s usual look, however. Vivian’s cheerful, vibrantly physical presence couldn’t seem more alien to Mark’s boding purpose, spinning around the stage and leaping onto a camera, inverting the gaze, so Mark films her in return, “photographing you, photographing me.”

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The vignettes of Baden trying to make The Walls Are Closing In do more than show Mark at work and poke fun at bland cinema product, but offer a blackly comic echo of Mark’s real work, the snapping despotic male director and the blasé female star. Where Baden snaps in response to Ashley’s complaint that “I don’t feel it,” with “Just do it!” by way of sensitive direction, Mark’s more immersive method gets just the right performance out of his subject, but his technical execution proves off, provoking howls of anguish from Mark as he screens his footage of Vivian’s death. But he does get to make a covert record of the discovery of her body, hidden in a trunk to be used in an asinine gag sequence on the movie, Ashley screaming in shock as she discovers the body enclosed in the candy-coloured coffin, Mark’s (and Powell’s) incidental guerrilla assault on cutesy mainstream cinema, a turd on a wedding cake. Another nod to Hitchcock, the body hidden in plain sight in Rope (1948). “The silly bitch’s fainted in the wrong scene!” Baden bellows. Vivian’s murder brings the police to the studio, Chief Inspector Gregg (Jack Watson) and Det. Sgt. Miller (Nigel Davenport) taking the lead in a perplexed enquiry, neither dolts nor supermen but canny investigators faced with a pair of murders with no apparent connection, only a modus operandi as individual as a thumbprint. Mark hovers in the rafters, filming the investigators. The spillage of gleaming red pencils from his pocket seemingly dooms him, and yet he still eludes detection.

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Along with Psycho, Peeping Tom announced the arrival of a new, truly modern variety of horror film, refusing veils of the folkloric and psychologically symbolic, if in a way that draws mythological parallels into a hard and technocratic likeness – Mark’s camera becomes a version of the gorgon, the look that annihilates, his invention as torturous as Procrustes’ beds, his entrapped state of yearning labour echoing Tantalus and Sisyphus. But Powell’s model was harder to assimilate: Psycho’s narrative, dank and incestuous as its evocation are, nonetheless echoes outwards into the world, encompassing the collapse of an old system of morality in the glare of modernity, whereas Peeping Tom twists inwards into infinite self-reference, the camera, a signature device of modernity, allowing only a descent into death-dream, a place where hallucinations of people live on forever.

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Yet as Peeping Tom emerged from the dustbin of initial appraisal to become a cult object and then well-regarded classic, filmmakers latched onto it as a lodestone, a fittingly extreme portrait of their own obsession, a self-flagellating self-diagnosis. Brian De Palma would take the duel of watcher and watched as the basis for his entire career and deliver particular tribute with Raising Cain (1992). Martin Scorsese’s fascination with the film would permeate works like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) with their focus on monomaniacs in search of fellowship and glory. Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1987) would pay it heed in shifting attention onto its serial killer finding momentary rapport and potential rescue in a blind but otherwise entirely ordinary girl. David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) would offer a variation with a female protagonist with a similarly exploited childhood who becomes not a maker of images but a ruthless manipulator of them. And of course Peeping Tom’s vision found its revelation in the stage-managed triumphs and cruelties of reality television and the self-obsessed gazing of social media.

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The film’s second-last line of dialogue is a recording, the elder Lewis’ haughty declaration, “Don’t be a silly boy, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” despite dedicating his life to giving his son things to be afraid of, seems nonetheless only like a particularly hyperbolic brand of very familiar tough-love patriarchy, delivering wounds with the purpose of strengthening against taking more. Casting the German actor Boehm was an odd touch, with his accent muted but still apparent in playing a character who’s supposed to be entirely English, but his smooth-faced, golden-haired visage and his speech imbue Mark with an aspect of alien allure, distinct in his environment, even as he tries to edit himself out of that setting, to become a mere mediating eye. His casting stirs associations with Powell’s familiar obsessions, a fairytale prince out of a Grimm tale raised by an evil alchemist, a broken Coppelia trying to reassemble itself, a child of the fascist age imploding like the lad at the end of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1946). When Mark encounters the psychiatric advisor Gregg brings to the film set to study the denizens, Dr. Rosan (Martin Miller), Rosan recalls not just Mark’s father and his work but also notes that “He has his father’s eyes,” incidentally confirming the way Mark is entrapped by both genetics and inherited obsession, the killing gaze. “Goodnight Daddy, hold my hand,” is the actual last line from the recording, echoing off into the dark, a whispered prayer for safety and understanding never answered.

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The bleak comedy of the movie shoot, once it recommences, sees Ashley unable to make it through a recast version of the would-be funny scene she was filming when she beheld Vivian’s corpse, her lines dissolving in hysterical moans: before she couldn’t feel the scene where she had to faint, and now can feel nothing else. Waggish cops hanging about quote cartoons (“I tawt I thaw a puddy tat!”) whilst the murderer lurks in the shadows. The depth of sardonicism apparent in Peeping Tom feels close to shocking considering the warmly humanistic lilt of Powell’s work with Pressburger, and yet it’s just as keen to flashes of warmth, the proofs of community, the displays of human wit and feeling, inherent in Helen’s approaches to Mark, in Vivian’s dancing, in Gregg’s attentive and unstereotyped policing and his love of a beer whilst watching the football on TV, and Mrs Stephens’ keen and confrontational obedience to her ways of knowing that necessarily bypass appearances. Powell’s refusal to be entirely rational and realisitc, an aspect that always manifested in his work and informed its perpetual distinction from the fussier, more strictly earthbound, empirical tenor of British dramatic art, cuts through the texture of careful realism and precisely observed psychology, like the preternatural awareness Helen and her mother have for Mark’s presence at their window.

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Significantly, Dr Lewis’s attempts to create an entirely rational and thus fearless son are a terrible failure: facing his own blade, Mark comments “I’m afraid, and I’m glad I’m afraid.” The rejection of reality is a necessary gift for the artist, but one that can easily be maladapted to incapacity to actually share it. Mark’s failed attempt to understand himself by speaking to Rosan instead helps Gregg finally grasp the truth, who has Mark tailed. Mark however is indifferent to capture or punishment, having already written the script for his end, and he blithely ascends to the makeshift apartment where Milly waits for him for another photo session: Milly, prostrate on a bed, breasts bared (a first in a mainstream British film, although clipped out of many prints), is the pornographic priestess invading a thousand masturbatory dreams but Mark can only cut apart like a clumsy editor. Meanwhile Helen, delivering her manuscript to Mark’s rooms with pride, can’t resist switching on his projector to see what he’s been filming.

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The horror is abyssal, but not bottomless. Helen forces Mark to explain how he killed his victims to deliver her from eternal fear, which proves to be the one grace Mark can offer anyone. Mark’s march of death, recorded for posterity, finishes up with him skewered upon his own weapon, collapsing dead with Helen fainted on top of him. It’s a familiar motif of horror cinema, the tortured monster seeking release in death and the woman who loves him even in knowing his darkness, not that far from The Wolf Man (1941). But in staging, we’re far from any traditional ending of a horror film, at once inhabiting a place closer to grand opera as a spectacle of death and love, but also caged by a dank room and the cold regard of Mark’s camera array, rhapsodic exultation plucked from the click of shutters and the frigidity of the lens. Even as Gregg and his men arrive, the old recordings of Mark’s fear and longing still play, but at least he’s delivered from them. Powell, in making the film, might well have dynamited his familiar career, but he was also freed, in a fashion. Eventually he’d wash up on an Australian beach, dreaming of nymphets and suntanned barbarian-visionaries.

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