2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Music Film

Tár (2022)

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Director / Screenwriter: Todd Field

By Roderick Heath

Todd Field first caught eyes as a well-employed character actor in the 1990s when he appeared in such disparate movies as Twister (1996) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He made his directorial debut to general acclaim with In The Bedroom (2001), and followed it up with the more divisive but still Oscar-nominated Little Children (2006), only to then fall into a long, involuntary quiescence until Tár, his latest and one of the best-reviewed and received movies of 2022. That Field played a pivotal role in Stanley Kubrick’s last film and then immediately made his gambit as a serious-minded filmmaker led many commentators to characterise Field as a Kubrickian protégé, or at least an inheritor. But at the end of the day Field is much more of a traditional actor-turned-filmmaker, as despite the chicly controlled visual textures of his films, his primary interests manifest in deploying carefully wrought performance and conveying character drama. Field’s status as a maker of adult audience drama films, the kinds of movies that remain the linchpins of award seasons but also used to once be the stuff of great mainstream appeal, particularly in the mythologised days of the 1970s New Hollywood era, made him seem a little like a throwback figure when he released In The Bedroom.

His debut, about a middle-aged couple driven to commit a vigilante killing after their son is murdered by a lout, came dressed in a kind of fashionably unfashionable garb, with its autumnal settings and scenes of lingering marital strife building to crescendos of big acting from great thespians and self-conscious emulation of Ibsenesque drama and the north-eastern American literary tradition or writers like John Cheever and John Updike evoked, with a little Death Wish (1974) thrown in for cinematic narrative juice. Field went further down that road with Little Children, an adaptation of a novel by Tom Perrotta portraying the suburban humdrum and the dissatisfied and damaged people living in it. Field tried to push an edge of amplified stylisation in Little Children to move it beyond mere literary realism, particularly through the figure of a released paedophile, played by Jackie Earle Haley in a performance that revived his career, but the result as a whole had a studied, excessive quality. Nonetheless Field helped set the scene for the emergence of some more serious (or self-serious) film talents to emerge in the following decade or so, like Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, and Sean Durkin.

Tár, Field’s latest opus, shows at least that Field’s ambition has apparently grown during his hiatus from movie screens. It’s a nearly three-hour long drama revolving around a central character who inhabits an explicitly anti-popular sphere, and, at least on some levels, refuses to dumb down that sphere and its peculiar lingo, social dynamics, reference points, and fetish zones. Field’s subject is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who’s introduced being interviewed by real-life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, in a staged ritual of cultural anointing of a hero figure. Lydia’s slavishly loyal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) gives away that the raft of achievements Gopnik recites was compiled by her as she recites it along with the interviewer, whilst Lydia herself deploys an act of chagrined humility mixed with hyper-articulate commentary on her business, explaining amongst other things her approaching culmination of a lifelong project, recording all of Mahler’s symphonies, with an upcoming performance of the composer’s legendary Fifth. Lydia’s list of achievements seems indeed bordering on the absurd, including the holy quartet of Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony, and an upcoming book with the knowing title Tár On Tár. Field’s purpose here is to assiduously establish Lydia as an expert media performer and a fictional character who nonetheless occupies the centre of the modern cultural landscape as we know it.

Tár’s first-half hour or so comprises entirely of four extended dialogue exchanges, as Lydia is interviewed by Gopnik before an audience, speaks with a fawning guest at a function following, has lunch with fellow conductor and big money conduit Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), and teaches a class at Juilliard before returning to Germany, where she serves as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). These early scenes, far from being dull or extraneous, are indeed the most compelling in the film, as they’re driven by dances of dialogue that depend on Blanchett’s facility for describing the three aspects of Lydia on show. The polished celebrity oiling the machinery maintaining that celebrity gives way to a glimpse of a canny luncheon warrior who engages in a constant game with the world-class schmoozer and professional rival Kaplan whilst affecting to be two honest professionals talking shop – amongst the consequential things they discuss is a fellowship they run for promoting female composing and conducting talents – before finally offering a portrait of Lydia the teacher. The first two situations see Lydia in her element as a figure used to other people defining and measuring themselves against her, as when she deflects Kaplan’s entreaties to get a glance at her annotated scorings to learn how she achieves some of her most compelling effects.

The third vignette proves something rather different. Lydia looks on as one of her students, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), tries to conduct a performance of an atonal piece she describes wearily as “very…au courant.” Lydia calls time on the performance and, without quite explicitly saying so, makes clear she thinks Max is playing a fashionably heady but empty piece because it suits his intellectual postures rather than anyone else’s need for emotional engagement. When Lydia tries to use playing Bach as an example of extracting creative value from work that seems shop-worn and done to death, Max ripostes that he doesn’t feel like Bach as he defines himself as a BIPOC pangender person who disdains Bach’s “misogyny” for having lots of kids. Lydia, provoked to scarcely stifled disdain, begins trying to persuade Max of the wrong-headedness of this opinion and the importance to being open to the full panoply of musical art, but the session devolves into increasingly personal abuse of the young man’s proclivities and Max finally storms out angrily after calling her a “fucking bitch.”

Field here baits his audience in several ways. The number of people who will roll their eyes no small distance into their cranial cavities when Max describes his identity and attendant cultural loyalties will only be rivalled by the number who will want to immediately circle their tribal wagons around him for protection. Field’s not new to this kind of calculated provocation of a presumed liberal audience’s inclinations, having suggested at the end of In The Bedroom that violent revenge might well be as releasing and cathartic for one personality as much as it’s corrosive and self-defeating to another, and arguably leaned in the opposite direction when he tried to humanise a paedophile, so often the ideal boogeyman figure for reactionaries, in Little Children. Max is offered on one level as an earnest young man and on another as a veritable caricature of a modern very online lefty youth, who with his prissily judgemental comments on Bach incarnates a certain kind of touchy-feely posturing that often seems to have a kind of wilful ignorance and generational arrogance lurking behind it, the kind that proclaims Martin Scorsese a bad filmmaker for making gangster movies over and over. Indeed, Lydia’s frustration resembles that of a million teachers, confronted by a slightly more high-falutin’ version of the student who decries reading classic books and learning history because who cares about all that old stuff, man.

More soundly, Lydia herself, who describes herself as “a U-Haul lesbian,” points out to Max that if he’s so dismissive of the others for the quirks of their identity, then others are given implicit permission to do the same to him, and her. Something of Lydia’s journey to the top is evoked here in pushing through barriers as much by adapting herself to established hierarchies and cultural loadbearing as making such forms adapt to her. Lydia nonetheless relentlessly exposes herself more than Max in the course of her spiel. She’s aggravated by Max’s quasi-ideological choice of music rather than the grandiose late Romanticism-trending-Modernism she loves. She’s irked by the taste of youth leaning towards another, younger, marketable female composer of talent when she herself is creatively blocked and wondering what worlds she has left to conquer before she’s pickled in cultural formaldehyde. Lydia herself is perhaps a little conscious that at some point in her career her gender and sexuality stopped being stymies and perhaps became propellers that bore her aloft in a zeitgeist eager to anoint someone like her, but still has a lingering anxiety provoked by someone too easily parading their identity as a banner. Lydia’s free-flowing verbal force and unrestrained freedom to keep lashing at the barely articulate and plainly, intensely nervous Max, as she herself eagerly embodies a figure of authority not using that authority at all well.

Most of all, Lydia reveals a bullish temper which once roused can’t easily be reined in, even if it usually doesn’t so much erupt as burn away like a volcano under snow. It bubbles to the surface in a later scene when she threatens a school bully who’s been picking on Petra, going out of her way to scare the hell out of a small girl. Such a talent for charging at foes with a blend of street-fighter attitude and imperious verbal efficiency very likely helped her get where she is, but in such a position of exalted status now feels like a Formula One engine jammed in a VW Beetle. The Juilliard scene is a great one, rich with dynamics both overt and implied and powered by the nimbleness of Field and Blanchett moving in perfect lockstep. But it’s also one that points to the overall failure of what follows, not least in the carefully contrived ambivalence over the culture clash’s meaning as concern for character subsumes the discourse on artistic worth and ideals, but also its retreat from that culture clash. The exchange comes back to haunt Lydia, because some student has secretly filmed it despite a ban on that, and it later leaks online in a heavily edited version that makes Lydia look rather bonkers, but in a way that didn’t strike me as liable to be persuasive to anyone.

Tár has gained much of its talking point traction from being characterised as a drama about “cancel culture” in a totemic way like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was about anti-Semitism or The Deer Hunter (1978) was about the Vietnam War. We open with Lydia already on a long road that will lead to her being ejected from her spot atop the cultural pyramid for various mooted and actual transgressions. I’m not entirely sure it’s about that particular phenomenon at all, or more than incidentally. Much of what befalls Lydia could play out the more or less the same in any moment. What is more substantially present is a contemplation of the connection, and lack of it, between artist biography and creative achievement. Mahler’s ill-fated marriage is discussed as well as Bach’s prowess in begetting and Schopenhauer’s assault on a woman, weighed against the things they gifted to everyone else in a kind of moral barter. Such discussions are, in the modern zeitgeist, usually pitched on the level of, “Why am I, who have always acted well/morally/thoughtfully, less famous/acclaimed/rich than that person who did X/Y/Z?” One eternal explanation is that power corrupts, and the way the rot creeps depends on who has the power. That’s not a reassuring explanation for anyone, least of all to those who want to claim that power, but the even less pleasing one is that just about everyone’s done something they wouldn’t like magnified under the glaring glass of celebrity. For a long time modern western society needed the legend of artistic bohemia as a zone of society where those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform could escape official moral scruples and expected social roles and indulge desires regarded as perverse or excessive, and also keep such people at a safe distance, and not that long ago it was just about the only place where people like Lydia and Sharon would have been vaguely acceptable in expressing their love. Field’s purpose seems most intent on exploring the nature of temptation to a figure like Lydia, temptation that’s actually exactly the same as that working on everyone else, but manifesting more intensely when you actually have the leverage to indulge it.

Anyway, amongst Lydia’s formidable experiences listed at the outset was a field trip into the South American jungle to study tribal music, when she was accompanied by two of her protégés, one of them Francesca, the other a woman named Krista Taylor. Both were beneficiaries of Lydia and Kaplan’s fellowship and heavily implied to have both been Lydia’s lovers. Krista is glimpsed hovering around Lydia, filming her on her iPhone on a plane in a cryptic opening shot, and later mails her a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel Challenge – a novel signposting relevant themes – with a taunting inscription that infuriates Lydia, who jams the book into the garbage chute of an airplane toilet. Shortly after, Krista commits suicide, and Lydia sets out purposefully to expunge all her correspondence with and about Krista, including the many emails she wrote to orchestra bosses telling them Lydia was unstable and shouldn’t be hired. Lydia orders Francesca to delete any she has too. Meanwhile Lydia has told Kaplan she intends to replace her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), who was the pick of her mentor and predecessor as conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Davis (Julian Glover), but she finds a drag on her style, and Francesca is the obvious and expectant candidate. When Lydia chooses someone else, Francesca quits and vanishes. Meanwhile, Lydia becomes entranced by a young Russian cellist, Olga Metkina (real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), who’s campaigning for a slot in the orchestra: after watching a YouTube video of her playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Lydia uses her considerable guile to manipulate the orchestra into performing the Concerto with Olga soloing.

Lydia and her story were based broadly on the New York Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, whose career went down in flames after accusations of sexual assault from several people, a scandal referenced in the film. Field’s decision to make a queer woman the subject of a Levine-like story was a cunning one (maybe a little too cunning), immediately modifying audience attitude to her, where if the protagonist was a big, percussive male personality prejudgements would probably come a bit too easily and sympathy rather less so. It also couches the storyline in multiplying ironies. For Lydia and Sharon, who is also a violinist and the orchestra’s concertmaster, coming out as gay and a couple when they did was a move still laced with risk, as Sharon mentions in a heated moment, and now the young ‘uns are getting around gleefully proclaiming themselves “pangender,” and it could be there’s a special spiciness to the prurience that swirls around accusations that fall on Lydia that she tends to show favouritism and also sadistic tendencies towards young female talents who are her type precisely because of the lesbian angle. All interesting territory but also stuff Field only skirts.

Because Tár ultimately doesn’t quite make it as a character study, and proves really only a tease in exploring “cancellation,” and the reasons why Field stops short is so he can hover in a zone of pseudo-detachment, dramatically speaking, in terms of the cultural and personal issues he prods. He needs to keep just what transpired between Lydia and Krista as vague as possible to retain his glaze of official ambiguity, to keep the audience obliged to reserve judgement on some level about Lydia as a person, and also, I can’t help but feel, not to have to portray something like transgressive urges. Field’s so anxious to avoid being labelled exploitative he avoids being much of anything. It’s worth comparing Tár in this regard to Paul Verhoeven’s last few films, which dynamically venture into the heads of some heroines who own their perversity at the price of being violently misunderstood by the world at large. It could be argued Field is resisting the gravity of “cancel culture” and attitudes of vengeful outrage by not playing that game, but he in truth kowtows to it by avoiding making the audience complicit in or understanding of anything Lydia might have done wrong. Often in recent cinematic and theatrical drama I’ve observed a tendency that I’ve dubbed “unambiguously about ambiguity,” by which I mean they have gestures towards keeping specific aspects of their stories equivocal in a rather ostentatious way that achieves not subtlety and mystery but rather the opposite, and Tár is a particularly cogent example. Michelangelo Antonioni used to do ambiguity with supreme narrative and artistic power; many imitators do it badly. And a huge amount of Tár’s running time is devoted not into delving into Lydia’s head, but instead shallowly reproducing the immediate space about it. Certainly, Lydia is tunnel-visioned, not just by her creative self-involvement but the cocooning effect of celebrity, money, and the cultish closeness of an orchestra ensemble.

By way of compensation Field keeps introducing barometers of her mental space, like the constant, odd manifestations of a troubled mind, like finding a metronome set mysteriously ticking in her apartment, being distracted during a jog by some mysteriously sourced screams, and occasional dips into distorted, rather Bergmanesque dreams touched with hints of the erotic. She also keeps glimpsing a hexagonal design Krista drew on the inscription page of her barbed gift and trippy visions of her jungle adventure. As these keep adding up Field seems to be baiting the audience into thinking Lydia has some kind of crazed stalker sneaking into her house at night, or is cracking up, but what they’re really there for is to keep providing the illusion of something happening before Field properly drops the axe. Lydia keeps an apartment separate to her home with Sharon and Petra for rehearsing and composing, and whilst there hears odd noises that eventually prove to come from a neighbouring apartment, where a hapless German women is caring for her elderly, crippled mother: the woman gets Lydia to help her get her shit-covered mother back into her wheelchair at one point, after which Lydia near-hysterically washes the filth off herself. Later, she follows Olga into a seedy apartment block to return a possession (itself an intriguing and suggestive story segue that goes unpursued) and descends into a dark basement where a dog growls at her, freaking her out so much she flees pell-mell and trips on the stairs, breaking her nose. Such scenes seem intended to illustrate Lydia’s percolating fear of a mucky, scary destiny she’s managed to rise above but still constantly feels stalked by.

Such quasi-Expressionistic and symbolist touches indicate Field’s willing to take some more risks when it comes to the officially lifelike texture of current cinematic aesthetics, but I found them rather too contrived and, worse, a bit time-wasting. Field establishes a miasma of estrangement and anxiety descending on Lydia and then keeps doing so for more than an hour. At many points in its long, ambling midsection I found Field’s work rather too reminiscent of some of his contemporaries who are obsessed to inserting overtones of simmering menace and strangeness derived from Horror film stylistics into upmarket drama films, purveyed of late by the likes of Durkin, Julia Ducornau, and Pablo Larrain. Tár spends all its time warning us relentlessly that something bad is going to happen, and then it happens and, well, we know because of the type of movie we’re watching that Lydia’s not going to be attacked by a lurking fiend, and yet Field insists on purveying his story a little like an art-house version of a Final Destination film: fate’s coming for you, Lydia Tár. The scene with the carer and elderly woman is particularly artificial in regards to the film’s overall aesthetic, which emphasises the bright and shiny surrounds Lydia exists in and she reacts to being covered with filth with the phobic intensity of a vampire to sunlight: the intrusion of mess, dirt, and proof of human decay is served up as a carefully cordoned episode of disturbance of Field’s piss-elegant visual texture as well as Lydia’s hermetic world.

What keeps the film anchored is Blanchett. I’m not as endlessly fascinated by Blanchett as a performer as a lot of commentators are, but it’s hard to deny she renders Lydia palpable despite certain aspects of her never coming into focus. She makes even an aside like playfully mocking the overly-familiar lilt and messages of an NPR announcer into an aria of performative zeal and fleshing thematic depth: I sensed Field making fun just a little of his own high-toned penchants, and also flashes of frustration with the way “serious” art tends to find a kind of ritzy ghettoization in the modern media landscape when people reserve their most committed cultural battles for arguing over superhero movies. Field provides Blanchett with a more spectacular version of the same moment late in the film when, feeling abused and desperate, Lydia is visited by the family of the women in the neighbouring flat, now that the mother’s died and the desperate carer’s now being cared for herself, they’re selling the apartment. Rather than seeing Lydia’s presence and rehearsing as a plus for selling the apartment, they ask her to keep her playing to a minimum, whereupon Lydia trolls them mercilessly by walking around with an accordion and belting out an improvised, brutally accurate description of their actions: “Your mother’s buried deep and now you’re gonna keep her apartment for sale!” As the film shifts into its last act, it’s finally revealed that Lydia, real name Linda Tarr, comes from a working class family, and returns briefly to her family home in Staten Island to take refuge from the fallout of her actions.

Here Lydia unleashes all her brutal humour and disdain for the kind of ordinary people she constantly refers to as “robots” with untrammelled clarity and force (and also at last embraces the atonal), but also exposes her pathos: there’s nobody to restrain her now, even herself, and also nobody to restrain it for, no-one who cares what Lydia Tár thinks about something. That scene perks up the long, dour decline of Lydia, which commences in earnest when she’s faced not just with becoming the object of a baying mob at her book launch, once Krista’s wealthy parents finally catch public attention with their take on Lydia’s destruction of Krista and the edited video of her Juilliard class goes viral, but also learning Francesca has, in payback, saved all of Krista’s emails and makes them available for a civil suit Lydia’s giving a deposition in. Before the reckoning arrives, Field spends much time observing Lydia’s working practice with the orchestra, constantly trying to wring new sensations out of the familiar notes of the Mahler. These scenes are all good on a level of quasi-documentary depiction, but Field never finds any particular expressive intensity for communicating the music’s meaning for Lydia, settling instead for having Blanchett making dramatic conducting gestures reminiscent of her idol Leonard Bernstein. Field also avoids depicting any of Lydia’s own music, which felt like a blank spot in her portraiture: Lydia’s individual artistic persona and achievement, the gifts that presumably won her at least one of her EGOT tally, remain unillustrated.

Field’s own artistic touchstones are in evidence throughout Tár. The theme of a destructively domineering and fatefully love-struck impresario in a musical world recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), but a more immediate reference point is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), with its antiheroine recalling Fassbinder’s coolly controlling lesbian, making the connection more explicit in choosing a German setting, equipping her with a seemingly slavish but actually personally motivated aide, and naming Lydia’s daughter Petra. I couldn’t help if there was a nod somewhere in Field’s conception to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” echoed in Lydia’s real surname and in the general theme of the figures of authority revealed at the end to been imprisoned and literally tarred and feathered by the loonies who pretend to be the ones in charge. Lydia might enjoin her orchestra to “forget Visconti,” referring to Luchino Visconti’s famous use of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth in his film Death In Venice (1971), but Field himself plainly isn’t forgetting the association, with the clear hint that, rather than just a cheap predator, Lydia might be taken as an Aschenbach figure given to falling in love with youthful muses charged with talent. Field nicely captures a sense of elusive erotic frisson as Lydia is first intrigued entirely by the sight of Olga’s boots long before she sees the whole person, only to then turn this into his version of a giallo film’s black gloves: they later become visual clues that allow Lydia to foil a blind audition in Olga’s favour. Field engages with the orchestral music world whilst daring to presume at least a working receptivity to it in his audience, mimicking Lydia herself in this regard in refusing to let the slower members of the class catch up, with characters switching between languages at speed and dropping cultural reference points that aren’t necessary to follow the story but do much to give the feeling of a little world with its own special folklore, as well as please incessant dabblers like me with a pile of old classical LPs watching. If Field had found a way to merely make a movie about a few months in the life of a famous conductor Tár might actually have been a better film for it.

Tár lets you know it’s a very serious movie right off the bat by sporting really, really small font for its credits, and it wears its crispness of look and sound like a starlet in a designer dress. But if you want a film that finds ways to dynamically and vehemently dramatize the way creative passion and demons entangle in ugly and astonishing ways in creating art, watch The Red Shoes again, or any of Ken Russell’s composer films, like Mahler (1974). Field’s images by contrast are always pretty and composed with cut-glass precision, but are also almost entirely inert, depending on the actors within his frames to supply the energy and propulsion. Scarcely a single scene has incidental detail: everything’s been crafted with the diligence of a hobbyist piecing together a doll’s house, like the many luncheon scenes that sport Lydia yammering with the likes of Kaplan and Andris where nobody’s actually eating, the tables just stages for the actors to read across. Field is really big on mirrors with multiple reflections of Lydia to emphasise her duality. Even a minor but meaningful scene where Lydia gets Petra to connect with her by playfully reciting “Cock Robin,” a moment that’s meant to illustrate Lydia’s genuine parental sympathy with her daughter, has the quality of an acting exercise. Other touches, like Francesca reciting in time with Gopnik, have a cliché shorthand quality. The basic storyline has some similarity to Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (filmed by Robert Benton in 2003), which contended with the 1990s version of cancel culture and also had a hero who had reinvented himself from a less than ideal origin. Also, the number of films of late where a character is told their time’s up by a bunch of lawyers in a boardroom has been growing sizeable.

Meanwhile Glover’s Andris, a now-virtually forgotten conducting hero, muses on the swirl of career-ending scandals he’s been hearing about in the news and comments on the similarity with the de-Nazification era after World War II and accusations thrown at the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert Von Karajan, and the constant anxiety over being accused. Now that’s a provocative comparison to make, and Lydia expresses dubiety, only for Andris to comment, “Either way, you had to be ready.” Field makes something of a motif of Lydia being viewed through a cell phone camera and with text messages bobbing up over the image, reporting differing attitudes from the person wielding the camera: what is presumably Krista’s vantage on the sleeping Lydia opens the film, whilst someone else later films Lydia at her book launch whilst tapping out sarcastic remarks about her arsenal of high-flown ideas. Towards the start of the film it’s revealed that Lydia has purloined and has been using some of Sharon’s medication for heart arrhythmia, presumably to get to sleep and ease the pain from an injury she seems to have suffered from her physically convulsive conducting style. When she first returns home Sharon is suffering and has no medication, so Lydia pretends to find a pill and gives it to her, a vignette that does a nice job of showing Lydia’s cavalier attitude to Sharon’s needs and also her genuine care for her. The medication thing never comes up again in the movie that I noticed, nor does Sharon’s health, and the couple’s relationship is held at a wary distant throughout. There’s one nice moment when, during rehearsing the symphony, Sharon intervenes to demonstrate to the other musicians what needs to happen: it’s the closest we get to a substantive example of Lydia and Sharon’s creative partnership, with Sharon translating Lydia’s visionary gabble into precise technique.

By contrast, the inevitable scene where Lydia is confronted by Sharon as her career’s collapsing proves oddly truncated and clumsy. Field seems to be trying to consciously avoid the actorly fireworks of the husband-and-wife kitchen fight in In The Bedroom, but the dialogue proves stiff and theatrical rather than terse and cutting. “How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional,” Lydia moans at Sharon when Sharon recalls how their own relationship started, to which Sharon retorts, “You’ve only had one relationship in your life that isn’t transactional, and it’s asleep in the other room.” It’s like Field’s trying to write copy for critics watching the film. Sharon also hints at how their relationship started “on a couch” in Lydia’s flat, with the suggestion she sees a likeness between incidents in Lydia’s life. Which ought to commence a truly dynamic scene between the two women, but that’s all we get, and it’s basically the end of Lydia and Sharon’s marriage. Later Lydia tries to approach Sharon and Petra outside the school only to be pathetically cold-shouldered. It’s disappointing, in no small part because Hoss is always a fascinating, lucid actress whose realism and pathos here strongly contrast Blanchett’s bigness, and yet Sharon is in the end just another victim spouse character rather than an equally complex player in the game of love. For a movie as long as Tár is, there really ought to be more authentic meat on its bones.

The climactic moment of Lydia’s downfall comes when she turns up to the premiere of her orchestra’s performance of the Mahler, now being conducted by Kaplan: Lydia, clad in her sharpest suit, struts out at the start of the performance and physically assaults Kaplan before, wild-eyed and wild-haired, begins trying to conduct the mortified ensemble. It’s a great moment for Blanchett, as she gets to exhibit feral physical force and seems genuinely capable of killing Kaplan. But I winced as Field forced this moment of grievous humiliation of his protagonist, which is present mostly because he needs Lydia to commit a final auto-da-fe on her career when most of what’s befallen her thus far could conceivably be weathered with patience and PR. It is of course supposed to be a final confirmation of Lydia’s almost childish entitlement and possessiveness, but it still felt a bit absurd that Lydia, regardless of how many hard knocks she’s taken, has fallen to such a crazed and nihilistic level. Lydia’s return to her childhood home sees her tearfully taking refuge in watching old VHS recordings of Bernstein expressing the philosophy that drove her own career determination.

Lydia’s homecoming is punctuated by her brother (Lee Sellars) commenting, “You don’t seem to know where the hell you came from or where you’re going.” Ah, the gruff zing of a salt-of-the-earth working man delivering thesis lines. The theme of a pretentious escapee from a humble background forced to return through disgrace or failure is another one that’s become a wearying cliché of late (it’s close to the only plot Australian TV shows are allowed to have these days), and Field seems aware of it judging by his haste to leave it behind, even as he’s raised many questions about Lydia Tár and who she is that aren’t going to be enlarged upon. Also, who the hell would go to the effort of changing their name from Tarr to Tár? Finally, Field shifts to an extended coda that takes some time to play out as Lydia travels to Bangkok, where she seems to resuming her career in however fringe a fashion, with her old work ethic undimmed, meeting with the orchestra and hashing out the composer’s intentions. When she asks a hotel clerk to recommend a masseur, she goes to the place she mentioned, only to realise it’s a high-end brothel sporting young local women and more literal transactional relationships.

This moment is striking if also bordering on the arch, as it mirrors what we’ve seen early with visual allusion: the young women are arrayed as if in a vending machine and also reminiscent of the survey of the orchestra with the lovely Olga in its midst, with one girl giving Lydia a particularly charged pick-me look that reconfigures Lydia’s earlier behaviour in its most degrading possible likeness, Lydia even caught in a posture like her conducting, the sort of touch that will either strike you as concise or a bit much. The shock of this sends Lydia reeling out into the street to vomit, which might be a register of lingering moral standards, or a form of confession and purgation. The actual ending of the film is rather more curious and ambivalent. Lydia, finally fronting an orchestra again for a concert, begins conducting, and Field reveals with a tracking shot that she’s performing for an audience of gaming fans, most of them dressed in character costumes. It’s delivered as a mordant punchline for the story, of the kind Lydia herself is fond of, even as it also confirms Lydia, who despite all surely doesn’t need the money, is continuing to obey Bernstein’s credo of making music for all audiences, and has found refuge in art, however popular. As a final note it’s strong, even as it once again essentially baits the audience to judge this concluding twist with preordained prejudices: is this Lydia at an endzone of absurdity and delusion, rediscovering her best and truest self, or both? Keep your answer to no more than three paragraphs. Especially considering that whilst this might indeed strike some as a dark place to end up, gaming scores have been gaining cred for years now, and I know at least one classical music station that devotes a showcase to them. Tár is certainly a good, intriguing film and it might have been great, but the tragedy of both Lydia Tár and the film about her is they both conspire to stifle a surplus of interesting ideas to tell a story that’s a bit old-hat and plays too many games for too long.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, War

First Blood (1982) / Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984)

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Directors: Ted Kotcheff / George Pan Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone / James Cameron, Sylvester Stallone

By Roderick Heath

In the late 1960s David Morrell, working as an English professor at the University of Iowa, became interested in the Vietnam war veterans amongst his students and their often painful accounts of returning to civilian life in the United States. Morrell, an aspiring writer born in Ontario and whose father had died in combat during World War II, began a novel about a veteran who, trapped beyond the fringes of an oblivious or outright hostile society, erupts in a display of nihilistic murder and destruction, turned on the victimising civil authorities of a small Kentucky town. The character was known only by his last name, Rambo, which Morrell took from the breed of apple he was eating at the time, and based him on various real-life figures, including war hero and actor Audie Murphy, whose life was beset by traumatic fallout. Morrell also took inspiration from Geoffrey Household’s famous novel Rogue Male, filmed in 1943 by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt. Morrell published his book, First Blood, in 1972 to some acclaim, and quickly sold the film rights. The proposed adaptation kicked around Hollywood for nearly ten years with heavyweight directors including Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer, and Sydney Pollack taking an interest. Eventually the project was taken in hand by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, two film distributors itching to try producing.

Kassar and Vajna hired the Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, whose previous credits included helping the Australian film industry revive with 1971’s Wake In Fright (aka Outback), and a jewel of the similar Canadian revival of the 1970s, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974). Kotcheff in turn attracted Sylvester Stallone, who was hunting for a viable career alternative to his Rocky films after several coolly received attempts to expand his star persona. Stallone rewrote the best extant script, by William Sackheim and Michael Kozoll, with his canny eye for selling a story to a mass audience causing him to revise the story and make Rambo, now gifted a first name of John, more sympathetic and less heedlessly murderous, essentially refashioning him as an angrier, more damaged and antisocial version of the underdog hero Stallone played in Rocky (1976). First Blood the movie resituated the story to a town called Hope in Washington state, in part because this allowed the film to be filmed more cheaply in Canada. The movie, which still finished up costing some $15 million, became a major hit, cementing Stallone’s place as a major Hollywood star. But Rambo’s place as a byword in popular culture wouldn’t be sealed until a sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, was released in 1984.

That film would transform Rambo, conceived as an avatar for the wounded and thwarted products of a bitter zeitgeist, into a figure many took to be the guns-blazing representative of the Reagan era’s renewed militarist swagger and sense of purpose, avenging old defeats and swashbuckling through new wars, driven on by the delight of movie audiences. A third entry, Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III (1989), would become the most expensive film ever produced for a brief reign. As embodied by Stallone, with fast and bulbous physique, penchant for wearing headbands but not shirts, and clutching huge weapons, the character Rambo became eventually birthed a popular caricature, eagerly satirised in movies like UHF (1989) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1992). Quite the progression from the dark and sombre thriller Morrell wrote, which ended with the character being shot dead by his former Green Berets trainer, Colonel Samuel Trautman. For the adaptation, Kirk Douglas was hired to play Trautman, who was revised from a peripheral, resented figure in Rambo’s life to his former commanding officer, but Douglas dropped out early in filming when he disagreed with revising the story to let Rambo live. He was replaced, in another fortuitous accident, by Richard Crenna.

Douglas might have been artistically right, but Stallone knew his audience. First Blood works carefully to put the viewer entirely on Rambo’s side in its opening reels, as the soldier turned drifter seeking out the home of Delmore Barry, the last surviving other member of his old unit. Rambo soon learns from a neighbour that he’s died of cancer, which she believes was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The forlorn figure that is Rambo, Medal of Honor winner and relentlessly honed, preternaturally gifted warrior turned ragged drifter, follows a highway into the mountains of Washington until he’s picked up on the fringes of the town of Hope by the Sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who lets Rambo know he’s not going to be allowed to linger there, and deposits him on the far side of town. Rambo defiantly turns back towards the town and Teasle promptly arrests him. Rambo is placed in the police station lock-up where Teasle’s deputies, including the swaggering sadist Art Galt (Jack Starrett), beat him, forcibly strip him, and hose him down, experiences that remind Rambo of being tortured in a North Vietnamese POW camp.

Kotcheff makes use of flashbacks to reveal Rambo’s reawakened traumatic memory as he’s brutalised by Galt in a manner reminiscent of the stuttering, near-subliminal technique Sidney Lumet utilised in The Pawnbroker (1964). The likeness of his present situation to his time suffering in captivity is immediately and vividly illustrated and also the similarity of intent behind it, the pleasure of petty tyrants in humiliating and reducing people under their thumb. The sight of the scars that score Rambo’s naked torso, when he’s obliged to strip for a cleaning in the lockup, alarm the younger deputy on the Hope PD, Mitch Rogers (David Caruso), who suggests telling Teasle about it. But the sight only stirs Galt to more delighted viciousness, seeing the evidence of suffering and heroism only as a especially sweet spur to proving his own power. Finally, when the cops try to dry-shave the resisting Rambo, he unleashes his fighting prowess. In short order he decks the cops, flees the station, and steals a motorcycle. He rides the bike as far up a mountain trail as he can get before leaving it behind and fashioning himself rough clothing out of a bearskin rug he finds at a rubbish dump.

When Galt gleefully tries to shoot Rambo from a helicopter, Rambo retaliates by hurling a rock back, striking the chopper’s windscreen and causing Galt to fall to his death. Teasle immediately vows revenge for his old friend, but as he and his men venture deeper in the forest with tracker dogs, they soon find themselves completely thwarted by Rambo’s tactical smarts. He slays the dogs and lures the cops onto his ingenious and brutal traps. Teasle himself is finally ambushed, helpless under Rambo’s knife, only to be spared with the advice, “Let it go, or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” before vanishing into the underbrush Of course, Teasle can’t and won’t take that advice. He instead calls in the National Guard, who trap Rambo in a mine shaft he’s made his base, but Rambo, surviving an attempt to kill him with a rocket launcher, crawls through the mine until he breaks out to the surface at another locale. Stealing an National Guard truck and heavy machine gun, he returns to Hope, smashes through a blockade, and begins laying waste to the town with Teasle his ultimate target.

First Blood offered something like an upmarket version of ‘70s grindhouse thrillers that often thrust returned vets into bloody action, or a cheeralong extrapolation of the interior fantasies of Taxi Driver’s (1976) Travis Bickle. Rambo can also be seen as an extension of actor-turned-auteur Tom Laughlin’s hero Billy Jack, star of a series of popular movies in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Both characters were living lethal weapons who had served in ‘Nam, both part-Native American, both reluctant heroes who eventually cracked when confronted by thugs and redneck cops and start dealing out ass-kickings. Only Billy Jack had been a nominally countercultural hero, having thrown in his lot with young hippies, dropouts, and the oppressed, whilst Rambo doesn’t have that much community, and eventually became popularly associated with a revanchist right wing’s attitude to the peacenik crowd. First Blood is nonetheless entirely about an outsider battling representatives of authority. The cops are generally portrayed as smugly self-righteous, bullying, or weak, more concerned with the illusion of order rather than the reality of it, more obsessed with safeguarding its privilege as power than worried about justice, and in the case of Galt, essentially psychopathic.

Instead of developing more respect and solicitude the more Teasle and his people learn about Rambo, including eventually discovering his status as a war hero, they become all the more angrily determined to bring him down, because he taunts and undercuts their machismo. The essential, just about endlessly reloadable moment of crisis in every Rambo movie, awaited with eagerness by the viewer and built towards with varying levels of skill and intensity by its directors, is the scene where our hero’s blood finally boils over and he begins dealing out pain and calamity to tormentors and tyrants. The countdown to this inevitable eruption in First Blood begins in its earliest moments, as Rambo learns of Delmar’s passing and starts a lonely montage trek along the road to Hope, a place that describes itself via a sign over the road in as the “Gateway to Holidayland.” One powerfully lingering aspect of First Blood is Kotcheff’s use of British Columbian locations, which prove a perfect backdrop to communicate Rambo’s solitude and the pall of crisis that follows him like a raincloud from the bucolic setting that was Delmar’s home into the increasingly blue-soaked and dour atmosphere of the mountain forests.

The use of landscape maps out both essential dramatic venues, as Rambo escapes into the woods where he can turn the tables on the cops, and his mental landscape, leaving behind the last glimmer of hope for a familiar face and a toehold in society as represented by Delmar’s place, exchanged for the mockingly named town of Hope and finally a plunge into the primal landscape beyond where civilisation drops away and the best hunter and killer reclaims his place at the apex of existence. But the landscape also folds in upon Rambo until his empire is reduced to a hole in the ground with a flickering fire and a buzzing radio that announces the names of dead men. When he does break free and brings his wrath back to Hope, he has already lost, because he must again countenance civilisation to do so. Regardless of the specific cultural and political context the character was planted in, Rambo nonetheless became the essential modern movie depiction of a truly ancient cultural figure, the perfect warrior born purely for combat, an Achilles, a Hercules, or a modern day Viking berserker, a likeness that becomes inescapable in the maniacal last third of Rambo: First Blood Part II.

For Stallone, Rambo provided a second reliable and recognisable role as a star, a rare gift in the early days of cinematic franchising. Rambo was a counterpart to his lovably dim, gentle-‘til-roused Rocky Balboa, and the star continued this counterpoint when he revived both characters in the mid-2000s and again in the mid-2010s. Rocky was a hero deeply embedded in a sense of community and identity, pushed along by a hazily optimistic sensibility. Rambo, by contrast, is a perpetually clenched fist, his blazing, tragedy-telegraphing eyes perpetually seeing double in the world, the one that is and the one in his past, locked in a nihilistic place by his hard-won self-knowledge that the one thing he’s indisputably great at it is warfare. He comes equipped with his personal Excalibur, his ever-present hunting knife, with its wickedly curved point and serrated back edge, a weapon found on his person that the cops take to be a sign he’s a violent miscreant. The crucial similarity of Rocky and Rambo was that both had to be provoked to do what they do best, Rocky because of his general passivity, Rambo because of his grim knowledge that the kinds of situations that require his skills are already too nightmarish to contemplate. The role allowed Stallone to show off not just his musculature but his athleticism, always more convincing in that regard than the comparative ponderousness of his eventual rival and displacer in the pneumatic movie hero stakes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I’ve always believed the mind is the best weapon,” Rambo comments in the second, and Rambo’s cunning as a strategist is repeatedly emphasised as his real edge over variously arrogant and bullish foes.

Rambo is also inseparable from his enemies, the men who provoke his raging remonstrations. First Blood has the best and most dramatically intense of these, in the form of Teasle, who, in his way, is entirely justified in his attitude to Rambo. The film obliges the audience to identify with Rambo as the sad and simple man just trying and failing to get on with life finally pushed too far, with Teasle’s smiling but quietly assured and dictatorial attitude, followed soon by more bluntly thuggish treatment. Unlike most of his successors in the sequels, however, Teasle’s viewpoint is loaned a faint gleam of validity. The reek of danger and strangeness the sheriff gets from Rambo at first glance, and the sense of focused provocation when the drifter ignores his instructions and turns back towards Hope prove, ultimately, correct. Teasle has his own war medals on display in his office, and refuses to grant Rambo any special sympathy: “You think Rambo’s the only guy who had had a tough time in Vietnam?” Rambo nonetheless represents a revenge fantasy not just for disaffected servicemen, but for every wandering outcast bewildered and provoked by their lot in the American landscape, of which there were once many likenesses in Hollywood cinema. Rambo in his first outing belongs to a continuum linking Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad, William Wellman’s Wild Boys and Girls of the road, Raoul Walsh’s angry misfits, and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Riders. In a most specific likeness, Rambo, like Mad Dog Earle in Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), is driven into the mountains in a stand-off with authority, but where in the ironclad days of the studio system and Production Code such a figure had to eventually lose, Rambo was a product of a much more ornery time.

Kotcheff was a film and television jack-of-all-trades, gaining his career start in Canadian TV in the late 1950s before moving to the UK and making his feature film debut with 1962’s Tiara Tahiti, and his well-honed efficiency that made him an ideal figure to travel to Australia and then back to Canada to resuscitate their movie industries. It’s an odd career that encompasses the likes of First Blood, Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) alongside Wake In Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and North Dallas Forty (1979). What’s most interesting in this regard is that First Blood plays as Kotcheff’s thematic sequel to Wake In Fright, depicting as it does an outsider arriving in a boondock town and being driven near-insanity by the behaviour of the locals, whose delight in tormenting and degrading a stranger reflects back out at the larger world a sense of resentment and fringe detachment. Whilst Kotcheff swapped the desolate alienation of an Aussie town on the edge of a desert for the tangled and looming reach of pine-thatched mountains, and the naïve intellectual for the hard and ingenious superwarrior, the palpable sense of danger and entrapment and depiction of regressive bullying has evident likeness.

First Blood has been criticised for abandoning its potential as a believable and down-to-earth kind of action movie by having Rambo perform some incredibly lucky pieces of physical action, like jumping off a cliff and crashing down through the nettled pine branches until he’s deposited relatively unscathed on the ground, and causing Galt’s death with a rock when the cop can’t nail him with a high-powered rifle. Those criticisms are entirely legitimate, although to Kotcheff’s credit he manages to invest them with a veneer of sense in his staging and cutting. Such shows of prowess also accrue into it’s plain that Rambo is a unique individual with levels of physical ability beyond the normal, and a degree of reflexive intelligence in the midst of battle, that gives him a radical edge over the blowhards. These touches also clearly signal that, despite its nominal roots in social issue melodrama reminiscent of the films Wellman and Walsh made once upon a time for Warner Bros., already First Blood is bending Rambo’s trajectory off into the zone of the matinee serial-style adventurer, at a time when Superman and Indiana Jones had recently revived the unbreakable brand of old-school pulp hero in movies, and the 1980s style of action movie was gaining definition.

So when Crenna’s Trautman does turn up, his presence is supposed be that of the wise elder who knows all the secret history denied to civilians like Teasle and perhaps even to Rambo himself, the man who knows what Rambo is capable of (“God didn’t make Rambo. I did.”) and also why he is the way he is, and provides a last bulwark between two factions. But his real function is essentially to act as Rambo’s hype man, promising Teasle, and the audience, what Rambo delivers. This quality manifests most memorably when Trautman, upon hearing Teasle’s declaration that two hundred cops and National Guards are being sent in to handle Rambo, retorts, “You send that many don’t forget one thing – a good supply of body bags.” Like a bard at a campfire telling stories of great heroes of old to thrill and excite the next prospectives, Trautman announces Rambo’s skills and qualities until he’s transformed from a surprisingly good fighter for a shaggy loser to a demigod only limited by his remnant human scruples: “Technically he slipped up,” Trautman says in noting Rambo’s failure to actually kill the men hunting him.

Crenna’s role at Trautman, which immediately became his most famous and recognisable, presented an inversion of his portrayal of the disintegrating commander in The Sand Pebbles (1966): where that film, made in the early days of the American Vietnam experience and presenting a parable critiquing it, disassembled the mythos of noble military machismo, Trautman reconstructs it rhetorically whilst Rambo does so physically. Rambo presents a fantasy vision of an American soldier who learned to fight like a Viet Cong guerrilla, with nods to Native American fighting styles. Rambo’s incredible physical fitness and toughness as well as honed skill gives him an edge over his enemies, able to dodge and weave and hide, seeming to become part of the forest itself, like the title alien of Predator (1987). His campaign against Teasle and the pursuing cops becomes an ironic inversion where Rambo does to his foes what the Vietnamese are often perceived as doing to the Americans in the war. He utilises the landscape and cunning, nasty traps to draw in and disassemble them, using their reactive vengefulness against them. One cop ends up tied to a tree as bait to draw in and unnerve his comrades. Another is impaled at crotch height upon a row of wicked stakes. The cops and National Guard are reduced to firing blind and shows of impotent firepower, as when the National Guardsmen shoot a rocket launcher after Rambo as he hides in the mine shaft.

When Rambo is hiding in that mine, Trautman contacts him on a CB radio taken from one of the cops, awakening Rambo from his sleep with his old service call-sign and a rollcall of his dead comrades, provoking the warrior with the perverse feeling of his dreams and waking life blurring incoherently until he realises the call is real. “There are no friendly civilians,” he tells Trautman with new-found conviction, and claims the cops “drew first blood,” justifying his retaliation, whilst Trautman retorts that “you did some pushing of your own,” and Teasle tries to trace the transmission. Kotcheff contrasts the different environs of the two men, Trautman broadcasting in lamplight as a beacon in an endless night whilst Rambo is curled up in a bole in the earth where the wind echoes hollow and his paltry fire flickers in a sea of dark. A haunting and impressive scene that perfectly evokes the mental and moral drama in play and provides a meditative interlude that’s unusual in an action movie. It also somewhat outclasses the more officially dramatic climactic moment where Stallone does some capital-A acting, as Rambo, on the verge of killing Teasle, is confronted by Trautman and has a breakdown. He recounts semi-coherently his feelings of outrage at being abused by antiwar protestors and how one of his friends died in a terrorist bombing in Saigon and he was reduced to trying to stuff his guts back inside his body, a vignette that tries so hard to be terribly cathartic it borders on camp.

Nonetheless First Blood holds together with admirable grit for the most part, in part because it resists deviating from its basic concerns. It matches the ideal of Rambo’s purposeful intensity with its own, wielding a sense of gamy, gruelling, intensely corporeal vitality that’s all but disappeared from contemporary cinema. Arguably the film’s most thrilling scene depicts Rambo’s journey through the depths of the mine in his attempt to escape with the entrance blocked by the explosion. This involves a phobic odyssey through a space of pressing walls, dripping, sloshing water, and teeming rats, a gritty, visceral, vividly claustrophobic sequence that doesn’t look like it was much fun to shoot. When he does finally reach a shaft leading out, Rambo pauses to catch his breath and offer a solemn, silent moment of gratitude before climbing back out to the world. There he finds everyone thinks he’s dead, everyone except Trautman, who muses on the scene outside the mine and knows well Rambo might still emerge but doesn’t tell Trautman. Soon enough Rambo leaps aboard a National Guard truck, forces its driver to jump out, and commandeers the M60 machine gun in the back. He arrives in Hope, blows up a gas station, and begins knocking out the power to the town’s centre. Teasle takes up station on the police station roof, only to be shot in the legs by Rambo from below, and he crashes through the skylight to the floor a bloody mess.

Before he kill the sheriff, Trautman manages to disarm Rambo and penetrate his glaze of wrath to reveal the desperately haunted and anguished man beneath. Trautman then leads him away to whatever fate the law demands, a softening of the novel’s end that also opened the door for a sequel. That Rambo is reduced to sobbing violently, whilst clinging to Trautman who plays his father and confessor, confirms a peculiar status Stallone managed to stake out in his stardom, able to play inarguably tough men who are nonetheless governed by powerful emotions, and his shows of rage and destruction throughout the film are finally revealed to be, essentially, displacement of his urgent need to grieve for himself and his former comrades. First Blood was released after The Deer Hunter and Coming Home (both 1978) had begun a rehabilitation of Vietnam as a movie subject, but before Platoon (1986) offered what many felt was official catharsis. First Blood and its follow-up were nonetheless the more populist version of the same thing, selling to the audience a new image of the ‘Nam vet as a tormented underdog deserving rehabilitation even if the war, as Trautman puts it, “was a bad time for everybody.” “Somebody wouldn’t let us win,” Rambo howls, a note taken up again at the start of the sequel, where Rambo questions, when asked to return to Vietnam, “Do we get to win this time?” “That’s up to you,” Trautman replies.

Rambo: First Blood Part II cunningly extends this Janus-faced attitude, angry anti-authoritarian outlook and revanchist reactionary passion, by portraying Rambo as next plunged into a situation where the representatives of the American government are corrupt and craven, whilst their enemies are even worse, and only Rambo, Trautman, and others like them retain something like honour. As with its precursor, Stallone applied his own polish to a script this time penned by James Cameron, at the same time he was developing his own The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), and there’s a lot of overlap. Rambo is nearly as remorseless and irresistible as the cyborg in The Terminator once he gets going, and as with Ripley in Aliens he’s portrayed as a sorry survivor who welcomes a chance to go back to a scene of suffering to exorcise his traumatic demons and fully evolve into a hero, despite the connivance of suit-wearing creeps. Rambo: First Blood Part II opens with Trautman approaching Rambo where he’s stuck working in a prison quarry, a setting that cries out for Woody Allen singing “Gonna see Miss Liza!” The Colonel gives Rambo his apologies for failing to keep him out of jail, but then offers a chance for freedom, if he’ll volunteer for an extremely dangerous covert mission, to be airdropped into Vietnamese territory and determine whether rumours American POWs are still being held at a remote jungle base are correct. Rambo and Trautman fly to an black ops base near the border of Thailand with Vietnam, and Rambo is briefed by Roger Murdock (Charles Napier), the commander of the operation.

The unpleasant side of this plot keystone is that Stallone exploited another actual, lingering issue of the Vietnam War, the plight of missing American servicemen who were at the time believed to still be captives, to pump emotive adrenalin into his rah-rah action flick. On the other hand, the film is surprisingly direct and scathing about the US reneging on its peace pledges of reparations to Vietnam, a tussle in which the POWs are theoretical pawns: any diplomatic push to get any POWs back would certainly require paying up. The face of this deceit is Murdock, a man who may or may not have once been a soldier but now has certainly crossed over the dark side of bureaucracy, and will again readily and actively betray him and GIs still in Vietnamese hands for the sake of political equilibrium. Rambo catches him out in a lie over his alleged wartime service, which he tells Trautman about, before assuring his old Colonel, “You’re the only one I trust.” Rambo’s airdrop over the jungle from a Lear jet goes wrong when his copious equipment gets hung up on the plane, a thrilling action sequence that also contains symbolic meaning. Being forced to cut loose all the fancy gear he’s been encumbered with obliges Rambo to get back to basics, and keeps him from recommitting the assumed mistake of past American method.

Once he manages to free himself and successfully lands in the jungle, he encounters his local contact, Co Bao (Julia Nickson), after first sneaking up on her. Co Bao, the daughter of a former South Vietnamese officer, has elected to continue his fight, and she helps Rambo approach the camp by arranging passage with some smugglers who regularly traverse a nearby river. When he penetrates the camp, Rambo discovers a number of G.I. captives being kept in sadistically awful circumstances, and he frees one man POW (Don Collins, I think), who’s been left tied to a post. Rambo and Co Bao take him back to their rendezvous point as Trautman comes to the rescue in a chopper being flown by Murdock’s aides Ericson (Martin Kove) and Banks (Andy Wood), but when he’s told Rambo has a freed prisoner Murdock orders the chopper to return without him. Trautman is held at gunpoint whilst Rambo and the POW are taken by the Vietnamese, with Co Bao escaping as she split away from them. The trussed-up Rambo is immersed in a slop pit filled with leeches and then tortured with electricity by a Red Army envoy, Lt-Col Sergei Podovsky (Steven Berkoff), and his aide Sgt Yushin (Voyo Goric), who, along with a detachment of Soviet commandos, have come to the camp for shady reasons. Podovsky wants Rambo to hand him a propaganda victory by denouncing his government over the radio. But, unfortunately for him and all the other Commies, the countdown to Rambo’s next eruption has already begun.

Rambo has his one and only real encounter with a romantic interest in all his excursions to date, as he and Co Bao fall in love whilst adventuring in the wilds, and the girl convinces Rambo to take her with him back to the US. Of course, she’s necessarily doomed, and is gunned down by soldiers after helping him escape the camp. Rambo takes possession of her jade Buddha necklace and wears it at as a lucky totem and wears it through the rest of this film and on into Rambo III, finally giving it away at the end to a boy Afghan warrior he decides needs it more. Nickson’s performance doesn’t exactly help the credibility factor – she comes across exactly as what she is, a Canadian model trying very hard to look and sound like a halting-English-speaking guerrilla warrior – but Co Bao is nonetheless interesting and rather singular as a true human, romantic connection for Rambo. She has similar talents to him, accomplished with an AK-47 and skilled at war in her own way: she pretends to be one of the prostitutes who visit the camp in an attempt to extricate Rambo from their clutches, and saves his hide repeatedly in the ensuing battle. Co Bao’s presence also helped to dampen, at least to a degree, the otherwise blatantly sectarian world-view exhibited in the film holding the Communist Vietnamese as malignant scum who can be happily dispatched in all manner of creatively violent ways, as opposed to Rambo’s relatively soft touch with the police of Hope.

Even the smugglers prove to be treacherous dogs who sell Rambo and Co Bao out, forcing Rambo to slay them all and blow up a patrol boat with a Russian RPG the pirates keep around for such encounters. Of course, there’s also the Russians to add new ingredients to the vengeful mix, presenting the ultimate spectre of a renascent Domino Theory being driven by the masterminds of the Evil Empire, the real Cold War foe unmasked as puppet master. To a great extent all the historical and political issues raised and depicted here don’t matter – in practice Rambo: First Blood Part II is simply a slightly updated World War II movie, with the Vietnamese cast as proxy as Japanese and the Russians as Germans. Berkoff, who had cleverly walked a line between seriousness and absurdity as an Russian villain in the James Bond film Octopussy a year earlier, returned to play a different variation on the concept here – Podovsky is an ice-cold, iron-souled Cold Warrior who presents Rambo with the perfect incarnation of The Enemy, entirely antipathetic in values and methods but just as assured in his sense of patriotic mission as Rambo himself. Nonetheless Rambo’s truest foe is Murdock, who resembles Teasle as a smug-ugly representative of civilian authority but robbed of Teasle’s better qualities and comparable moral perspective, instead providing the incarnation of everything Rambo perceives as craven, manipulative, deceitful, and disdainful of actual fighting men in country’s official mindset.

Where First Blood had been handled in a relatively muted, textured fashion by Kotcheff, Rambo: First Blood Part II was helmed by George Pan Cosmatos. The Greek-Italian Cosmatos had been born in Florence, and worked his way up through the ranks of European film production including serving as an assistant director and bit player on Zorba The Greek (1964). Cosmatos began his directing career with serious films, like the 1973 wartime film Massacre In Rome, but, starting with the absurd but very entertaining blend of medical thriller and disaster movie The Cassandra Crossing (1977), he reinvented himself as a maker of hard-charging action flicks. After scoring another success with the Alistair MacLean-ish World II actioner Escape From Athena (1979). Cosmatos made the Canadian-produced, New York set Of Unknown Origin (1983), a peculiar blend of satire and monster movie depicting a corporate man battling a gigantic rat at loose in his apartment, before being offered Rambo: First Blood Part II. Later he would work again with Stallone on an even more hyperbolic star vehicle, Cobra (1986), the deep-sea Alien rip-off Leviathan (1989), and the popular Western Tombstone (1993). Cosmatos’ gift for pure, unadulterated, go-for-broke pulp cinema impact is rife in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Most particularly, in the pivotal scene of Rambo being tortured and forced by Podovsky to make his propaganda broadcast.

As so often in Stallone’s films the evocation of masculine physicality and suffering embraces what might be called martyr homoeroticism, not so much to invite a desiring gaze but to offer the perfected icon for the audience’s sadomasochistic identification, a mix of delight and distress in the sight of tormented masculine strength before it explodes in orgasmic carnage. What glee the film taps in the sight of the all-but-naked Stallone, covered in sewage, body infested with leeches, which Podovsky begins to methodically peel away with Rambo’s own knife. Rambo is electrocuted and threatened with having a glowing hot knife shoved into his eyes, until Podovsky realises it’s better to threaten the POW he tried to free. Finally Rambo seems to relent and settles down reluctantly before a radio microphone, calling up the American base over the border, and asking to speak to Murdock. Cosmatos moves through shots here in musical degrees of intensity – close-ups of Berkoff’s face with piercing blue eyes as he maintains ruthless pressure, of Stallone’s muscular arm as he grips the radio, of his sadly limpid gaze as he affects being driven to traitorousness – before delivering the killer blows, as Rambo growls out Murdock’s name, lightning flashing on his face, his grip on the microphone tightening with a click of knuckles. “I’m coming to get you,” he warns Murdock, whose aghast and terrified reaction on the other end is glimpsed in a near-subliminal but indelible cut, before Rambo lashes out, using the microphone as a weapon to wallop his torturers and make his break. He even gives Yushin a dose of his own medicine by thrusting him against his own electrical torture device and turning the dial to 11. Utterly ludicrous, of course, and the sort of action movie vignette that’s provided fodder for lampooners ever since. And also a kind of perfection for this kind of moviemaking, completely unabashed and unashamed in presenting the cinematic equivalent of an adrenalin hit.

Rambo: First Blood Part II can also be regarded as one of the many children of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western transcription A Fistful of Dollars (1964), films that pretty much made compulsory a scene depicting the hero’s capture and brutalisation, prefiguring his escape and rebirth as incarnate wrath. Rambo flees with Co Bao’s aid but her death provokes him to halt his flight and ready for apocalyptic battle, picking off Podovsky’s commandos one by one and decimating a unit of Vietnamese soldiers who hunt him through long reeds only to find he’s laid a trap. Rambo’s preparations for battle include strapping on a headband with a tug of pure manliness, and selecting a weapon of choice, explosive head-tipped arrows, the sort of touch that makes eight-year-old boys of all ages delight. During a gunfight with the Vietnamese commander who directed Co Bao’s death, he turns one of these on his foe and blows him to smithereens in one of those moments that breaks down what little barrier there is between violent melodrama and absurdist comedy. Meanwhile Yushin chases him down in a helicopter, only for Rambo to manage to scramble on board, kill Yushin, and commandeer the craft, which he then uses to annihilate the camp’s garrison and rescue the POWs. As they flee they’re chased down by Podovsky in a colossal Sikorsky helicopter gunship, but Rambo manages, by playing possum, to lure Podovsky in and blow him out of the sky with an RPG.

Here, again, Cosmatos’ gleeful lack of moderation or care for anything except the impression of hellfire fury blesses the film with a certain pathological perfection, as in the way he holds off Goldsmith’s pounding martial music until after Rambo screams in the deepest eye of his berserker rage, somehow finding a step beyond the zenith of bloodlust. Indeed, what distinguishes Rambo: First Blood Part II from its many forebears and imitators is precisely the way it enters entirely into the berserker mindset, and indulges it to the nth degree. The peculiar conviction of the Rambo films as a unit is their complete rejection of all modern moral sensibility, turning instead to the primeval conviction that sometimes the only solution is righteous bloodletting, and that once countenanced, after other avenues are exhausted that zone must be committed to, and can indeed be a place of virtually transcendental experience. Rambo has evolved into a holy warrior without a specific religion to espouse beyond aiding the weak against the strong, a note taken up in his three subsequent outings. In the meantime, Rambo: First Blood Part II concludes with Rambo only just manages to fly the damaged and failing chopper to the American base and land it safely. There he socks Ericson, shoots up the surveillance equipment in the American base, and terrorises Murdock, only sparing his life on pain of doing his best to bring home other POWs: “Find them, or I’ll find you.” What’s most notable here is that Rambo is essentially rendered impotent by his one great loyalty, his country, discharging his weapons and rage fruitlessly against inanimate objects.

The most invaluable connecting thread for the early Rambo films beyond Stallone himself was Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. His theme for First Blood precisely evoked the state of haunted but dignified persistence that was the initial key to Rambo’s character, and became the leitmotif for his wanderings in subsequent movies. The soaring lushness and booming martial intensity of his orchestrations are perhaps what chiefly distinguished the series from its lower-budgeted precursors and imitators (along with peculiarly good technical collaborators, including Jack Cardiff who worked as director of photography on Rambo: First Blood Part II, and who might well have remembered his own Dark of the Sun, 1968, when he signed on). The colossal success of Rambo: First Blood Part II birthed a string of imitations, like the Chuck Norris star vehicle Missing In Action and its sequels, and left a permanent mark on the style and assumptions of Hollywood action films. Predator likely wouldn’t exist without it to riff on. It was made the subject of jest and then validation in Die Hard (1988). On through just about every movie since where an omnicompetent hero decimates hordes of baddies, like John Wick (2014) and Extraction (2020). As for the character himself, Rambo III rounded off his initial trilogy, just managing to scrape over the line as the end of the Cold War loomed and Rambo’s days as a relevant pop culture hero suddenly seemed numbered. The film’s choice of taking up the Soviet war in Afghanistan became a sorely ironic point as the film indicted the conflict as the Russians’ equivalent of Vietnam, more than a decade before the US would go into the country itself (indeed an odd piece of fake lore would be coined on the internet that the film’s postscript title tribute to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” had been altered from an original version dedicated to the Mujahidin).

Rambo III’s first director Russell Mulcahy was fired and British editor Peter MacDonald hired. MacDonald stated his chief desire was to make Rambo a more human, humorous figure, and the film had a strong essential proposition: Rambo, after refusing to join Trautman on a mission in Afghanistan supplying Stinger missiles to the Mujahidin, goes in to rescue him when he’s captured, and the two battle their way out of the country side by side. Rambo III’s then-astronomical budget registers in the demolition of expensive infrastructure, the tactile immediacy and ruggedness of the action, and the lustre of the landscapes. But it’s too much a scrappy retread of its precursor despite trying to shift into buddy movie territory: the film climaxes again in a battle between Rambo and a Russian enemy in a giant helicopter – this time with Rambo pitted against him, hilariously, in a tank – and pithy exchanges over the radio (“Who are you?” “Your worst nightmare!”). Stallone resisted bringing the character back until 2008, well into the renewed warlike moment of the War on Terror. Finally he directed and starred in a film variably called simply Rambo or John Rambo, depending on the market. I didn’t like this entry when it first came out, but on recent revisit found it surprisingly good. Rambo, now living a peaceful life as a snake trapper and riverboat skipper, is called upon by some American Christian medical personnel to ferry them into Myanmar where they plan to administer aid to victims of the ruling military dictatorship’s brutal repression. Rambo, after warning them against going, is convinced by their leader’s open-hearted fiancé Sarah (Julie Benz) to take them. When he later hears they’ve been captured by the truly evil local military commander during a massacre of a village, Rambo elects to accompany a team of mercenaries hired by their pastor to go in and rescue them.

The storyline this time around was almost too straightforward and executes a much slower burn than its precursors, holding off the requisite, purgative explosion of payback until the climax, and lacking a strongly developed antagonist, only sporting a particularly vicious army commander Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin), who likes doing things like feeding the missionaries to pigs and slaughtering entire communities. But Rambo did develop some substantial ideas in its juxtapositions, leaning heavily on echoes of High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) in mooting tension between Rambo’s weary knowledge of humanity’s dark side and the humane, optimistic ideals of the missionaries, as well as probing the schism between Rambo and the cadre of mercenaries with their different generational and professional attitudes. When the action finally cuts loose in the climax, as Rambo unleashes a heavy machine gun on the Myanmar military, backed up by his newfound pals, with properly maniacal impact. By the film’s end the series circled back to where it nominally started, with Rambo returning to the US, but this time truly going home, to his father’s horse ranch in the Arizona heartland. Stallone has returned to the role once more, for 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood, which saw him battling a Mexican drug cartel. But it was a disappointingly generic coda that felt hurriedly repurposed to vaguely fit Rambo, with our hero acting in ways rather too naive for the character so familiar by this point, at least until the impressively bloodthirsty climax. Old soldiers never die, apparently – their box office takings simply fade away.

Standard
1950s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

It Came From Outer Space (1953) / Tarantula (1955)

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Director: Jack Arnold
Screenwriters: Harry Essex, Jack Arnold (uncredited), Ray Bradbury (uncredited) / Martin Berkeley, Robert M. Fresco

By Roderick Heath

Jack Arnold likely deserves the title of science fiction cinema’s first genuine auteur. Great and important directors had worked in the genre since the earliest days of the medium, but Arnold was the first filmmaker to demonstrate both a great love and knowledge of sci-fi, as he had consumed it voraciously when growing up, and to make most of his notable films in it. In this regard he beat out chief rival Ishirô Honda by a year, whilst Byron Haskin, who first tackled the genre in the same year Arnold did, was a less constant devotee. Arnold, whose full name was John Arnold Waks and was the son of Russian immigrants, was born in Connecticut in 1916. After studying acting and working as a vaudeville dancer, he started landing roles on Broadway, but as it did for so many, World War II proved a career hurdle. Arnold signed up to be a pilot, but a lack of planes meant he was placed with the Signal Corps, and after taking a crash course in cinematography became an assistant to the esteemed documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty in making military films, until he finally gained his shot as a pilot and served out the war in the air. When peace came filmmaking was still on Arnold’s mind, and he formed a production outfit to make commercial shorts and documentaries, whilst also resuming his acting career now in movies. Arnold’s 1950 documentary With These Hands, a pro-union documentary about early twentieth century working conditions, garnered Arnold attention and an Oscar nomination. Arnold was soon given a shot at making a feature film by Universal, debuting with Girls in the Night, one of three movies he finished up turning out in 1953. The second was It Came From Outer Space.

It Came From Outer Space was the first of a string of successful, now-iconic sci-fi films produced by former Orson Welles collaborator and actor William Alland, hired by Universal to turn out films in the genre which was big box office business in the early 1950s. Alland and Arnold quickly followed up their breakthrough with the even more famous and popular The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), and its sequel Revenge of the Creature (1955). A TV play Arnold co-wrote and directed for the series Science Fiction Theatre called ‘No Food For Thought’ was quickly adapted by him into the feature Tarantula (1955) – Arnold’s lone contribution to the giant monster strand of the day’s sci-fi boom. He followed it with the film often called his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956), and two less successful genre entries, The Space Children (1958) and Monster on the Campus (1958). In between these Arnold also made interesting, meaty noir and Western films like The Glass Web (1953), Man In The Shadow (1958), No Name On The Bullet (1959), the satirical comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), and the beloved teensploitation thriller High School Confidential (1958). Arnold’s incredible pace of work through the ‘50s helped make his name synonymous with the decade’s pop culture in hindsight, but whilst he remained a busy worker, his creativity seemed to burn out as the kinds of movies he liked to make faded in popularity. He spent most of the rest of his career churning out TV episodes and directing the odd, anonymous feature, whilst amidst his late career the only movie that leaps out now is the provocatively titled Blaxploitation Western Boss Nigger (1975).

It Came From Outer Space had its genesis in an original film treatment entitled ‘The Meteor,’ written by the rising star of sci-fi and fantasy writing Ray Bradbury, who also in 1953 has his short story ‘The Fog Horn’ adapted as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the movie that kicked off the ‘50s giant monster craze. Regular sci-fi screenwriter and Arnold collaborator Harry Essex was credited with the script for It Came From Outer Space, although Bradbury and Arnold reportedly had input. Bradbury’s imprint is patent in the sometimes wistfully poetic dialogue. It Came From Outer Space bears one of the most famous and evocative titles in the history of movies, encapsulating the forceful, lurid appeal the ‘50s sci-fi style with its simultaneous excitement and anxiety for the suddenly expanding limits of human existence in the burgeoning space and atomic ages, and the uneasy mood of the Cold War’s height. As if to give it an aesthetic to match its looming title, It Came From Outer Space was filmed in 3D. When David Cronenberg and his brand of gruesome, subversive body horror came along two decades later, his debut film Shivers (1975) was also called, by way inverting, They Came From Within. But It Came From Outer Space isn’t exactly the kind of movie it sounds like, and came out at a pivotal juncture for the ‘50s sci-fi movement.

The style had started off as inquisitive and yearning and fretful, evinced in early entries like Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). It Came From Outer Space continued this run of inquisitive fare, but The Thing From Another World (1951) enshrined the more common run of portrayals of malevolent alien incursion. It Came From Outer Space also, alongside William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (1953), established the subgenre of humans being replaced or suborned by alien entities, to be taken up and given variations like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958). It Came From Outer Space manages the tricky task of extracting strong dramatic tension from an ambiguous situation without clear villains or immediate world-threatening stakes, choosing rather a key of eerily poetic mystery woven around a smart parable for the fear of the unknown and its crazy-making influence on the human mind, collective and individual.

For a kid out of New Haven, Arnold evinced a genuine and powerful sense of the desert as a dramatic location, first demonstrated on It Came From Outer Space and carried over to Tarantula. In both movies Arnold manages to make the seemingly bright, open, sun-broiled spaces of desert locales – generally the environs of the Mojave Desert and the rock formations of Dead Man’s Point in Lucerne Valley, California – into places capable hiding sources of danger and wonder, where you could just well believe aliens and mammoth arachnids could be lurking. A sense of atmosphere was indeed one of Arnold’s singular talents, applied to his best films: he was equally good at capturing the teeming, enclosing world of the jungle for The Creature From The Black Lagoon and slowly transforming bland suburbia into a shadowland of adventure and threat with The Incredible Shrinking Man. The brief but effective pre-title sequence of Tarantula offers a slow pan across a desert landscape, accompanied only by the sound of wind washing through the cacti, until a misshapen human figure stumbles into view, disease entering a cruel but balanced system. Arnold would take up that idea more concertedly on The Incredible Shrinking Man. Another was taking his characters sufficiently seriously and preventing the human element of his movies taking a backseat. Arnold made minor genre stars of aging former ingénues like Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and John Agar, and interesting, undervalued starlets like Barbara Rush, Julie Adams, and Mara Corday. Some of It Came From Outer Space’s sly power stems from the intelligent way it links its romantically involved heroes’ adventures with the alien with their psychological and social travails.

At the outset of It Came From Outer Space, professional science journalist and amateur astronomer John Putnam (Carlson) is dining with girlfriend Ellen Fields (Rush) at his house in the Arizona desert, just outside the small town of Sand Rock, which Putnam’s opening narration describes as “a nice town – knowing its past and sure of its future, as it makes ready for the night and the predictable morning.” Immediately the setting is invested with qualities both specific but also microcosmic, as Arnold films the town in a hazy aerial shot as evening descends. Putnam and Ellen’s easy conversation is threaded with asides contending with their prospects, as Putnam worries he doesn’t make enough steady money to keep Ellen if they get married, something Ellen evidently isn’t particularly concerned about, as Putnam has the cast of a dreamer and thinker somewhat outside the normal run of men she knows, like the town’s sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake), who turns protective attentions her way and the disapproving kind on Putnam as the drama unfolds, suggesting he has foiled romantic ambitions in that direction. When the couple go out to take a look through his telescope (not a euphemism…I think), they see a huge, flaming meteorite streak through the sky and slam into the earth nearby. The duo rush to get a helicopter pilot, Pete Davis (Dave Willock) to fly them to the impact crater, and when he descends into the crater Putnam is astounded to behold a large, circular vessel, moments before it’s buried by a landslide.

It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula are connected by their use of landscape and the way the desert space is tethered to evocation of threat and the superfuturistic landscapes opened up by scientific development, even as the manifestation of those threats come from radically different angles. Arnold finds it’s precisely the primal, hallucinatory quality of the desert expanse and the quiet of the rural world that makes it perfect to host destabilising infestation, largely because it already hosts such things. Arnold delves in to notice a landscape crawling with animal life engaged in the cold business of survival through predation, and the illusion of peace to the human eye is also connected to its danger as a sparse place of heat and dryness. In a marvellous vignette in It Came From Outer Space, telephone line repairman Frank Daylon (Joe Sawyer) meditates on the shifting nature of the landscape he often works in: “After working out on the desert for fifteen year like I have you see a lot of things – hear a lot of things too. Sun in the sky and the heat – all that sand out there with the rivers, lakes that aren’t real at all – and sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hum and listens and talks…”

This lilt of the poetic runs through the veins of It Came From Outer Space. The meat of the drama, on the other hand, comes with overtones of Ibsen and Arthur Miller, about the clash between the unusual individual and the prosaic community, hinted at in Putnam’s opening narration, as Putnam finds himself laughingly disbelieved when he reports seeing the spaceship in the crater. Even his astronomer friend Dr Snell (George Eldredge) doesn’t believe his report, pointing out that the physical traces around the site are consistent with a meteorite’s impact. Warren is more provocative in his dismissal, trying to use Putnam’s report and the fact Ellen is momentarily neglecting her job as a teacher to back him up to imply Putnam is a bad influence. This motif was also employed in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – intelligent, educated men who represent the voice of observant awareness shading into prophecy, but cannot convince others of the validity of their observations if it disturbs their worldview. Sounds familiar. Arnold gives it a more interesting spin in making Putnam a natural outsider, regarded as a bit of a weirdo by others, even Snell describing him bitingly to an assistant as “more than odd – individual and lonely. A man who thinks for himself.” Only Ellen, who is initially dubious too, sticks with Putnam, largely because as they drive home from the crater they catch sight of one of the aliens as it looms before them on the road.

Like just about every sci-fi film of the ‘50s, It Came From Outer Space is usually viewed through the prism of the era’s anti-Communist hysteria, which makes this quintessentially Bradburyesque central figure particularly telling, as the story unfolds and the nature of the alien visitors resolves from pure enigma, and Arnold wrestles with the concept of potentially fateful culture clash where both sides come to be frightened and defensive and the possibility of mutual destruction looms. Putnam’s discovery of the alien ship coincides with one of the aliens emerging from the crashed ship. Arnold resorts to the first of many point-of-view shots from the alien perspective, with the alien’s unusual vision through its single, prominent eye suggested by filming through a circular, jelly-like lens – the plain progenitor of the many similar viewpoint evocations of the lurking menace ranging through Jaws (1975) to Predator (1987) and beyond. Putnam meanwhile gazes up in awe at the huge, spherical craft with its hull decorated with hexagonal portals, and open portway through which he can glimpse machines buzzing and glowing with mysterious purpose.

This diptych of bewildered fascination set up here eventually leads to a brilliant punch-line at the film’s end, when the alien leader is revealed to have taken on Putnam’s appearance, leading to a climax that’s essentially one version of the type Putnam represent arguing with another, separated not just by their true physiognomy but history, philosophy, and scientific achievement – and the fact that the alien’s Putnam is charge indicates their evolution. Soon the aliens, whose ship crashed on top of an old gold mine which some luckless prospectors are trying to work, are moving around, waylaying people and assuming their forms in order to get their hands on equipment required to repair their ship. They claim the prospectors, and also Frank and his fellow lineman George (Russell Johnson), after the two men talk with Putnam and Ellen and Frank answers Putnam’s question as to whether they’ve seen anything unusual, “No, I haven’t seen anything – but I’m sure hearing things.” Frank lets Putnam listen to the unusual sounds vibrating through the telephone wires, a sign of the alien presence. Later, Ellen and Putnam encounter what looks like Frank but is really one of the impersonating aliens. Putnam and Ellen are bemused and suspicious at George’s suddenly changed, vacant manner, and his new habit of looking at the sun without squinting or blinking. Putnam sees an arm lying oustreteched from behind a rock, and assuing it’s Frank’s and that he’s been killed, hurriedly slips away with Ellen. Frank isn’t dead, however, and he awakens to the reality-warping sight of George awakeneing from unconsciousness with his alien double standing over him: the double assures the two men that they won’t be harmed. By the time Putnam and Ellen bring Warren back to the site, all evidence of the strange event is gone.

Arnold is a difficult filmmaker to describe, largely because he was such a no-nonsense talent at his height, his images charged with an igneous solidity, and yet able to conjure a sense of the numinous at will. It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula are brisk, supremely efficient films, both running 80 minutes, but packing in tight, well-told narratives that nonetheless aren’t mere narrative machines, but convey a sense of atmosphere and off-hand human detail as humdrum worlds suddenly begin to come apart at the seams. Something of Arnold’s skill is best conveyed by the scene where Putnam and Ellen encounter the alien that’s replaced George: Arnold adopts the alien viewpoint as it lurks behind the couple as they search for the linemen, only to have the creature extend a nebulous tendril that becomes a hand and touches Ellen on the shoulder, a clever special effect flourish that also provides an example of Arnold’s inventive use of the still-very new 3D frame, the required dimensional effect looming into the depth of the frame rather than out. The dark fairytale atmosphere is amplified by the way the aliens loom around the desert environs and leave trails behind them, like snails, only their passing is marked by a glittering dust that fades away after a time, claiming their human hosts in a whirl of steam and gold.

When Putnam spots ‘Frank’ and ‘George’ walking the main street of Sand Rock, he follows them and confronts them: the two doubles, holding back within the shadows of a building, don’t bother trying to fool Putnam, and assure him they need to be left to go about their business. Whenever the alien doubles are heard to speak, Arnold has their voices dubbed with ADR recording and slightly treated, so they sound disembodied. The choice of focusing part of the narrative on the two linemen, who also represent Putnam’s only real friends in the locale and who are in their way something like the film’s poetic Greek chorus at first, was personal on Bradbury’s part, as his father had worked that job in Tucson. Their replacement signals an assault on the salt-of-the-earth portion of Sand Rock whilst authority, represented by Warren, is forced gradually to concede something funny’s going on, but then becomes increasingly paranoid and frantic. Warren calls in Putnam and Ellen after dismissing their entreaties repeatedly, when Frank’s wife (Virginia Mullen) and George’s girlfriend Jane (Kathleen Hughes) report the two men have vanished together after stopping at their homes, acting strangely, and heading off with all their clothes. Warren also tells Putnam about electrical equipment being stolen all around town, after Putnam suggests the linemen were targeted for their service truck with its equipment. Ellen is soon waylaid on the road by Frank’s double and then claimed by the aliens, and a double of her appears to Putnam to lead him to a rendezvous with the alien leader in the old mind shaft. Putnam demands to see the alien’s real form before he’ll agree to try and keep the town at bay, but when the alien emerges, looking something like a cross between a slug and a bent penis with one glowing eye. Even the open-minded and rational Putnam cringes in horror before something so radically different.

Something of the film’s power and originality for its time is still conveyed by this vividly staged moment, which has always stuck in my mind like a fishhook, as well a subsequent, subtler scene where Putnam, talking over the incident with Warren later and needs a reference point for dealing with the unfamiliar. Putnam points to a scuttling tarantula on the ground and asks the sheriff what he’d do if the spider came for him, whereupon Warren simply stands on the bug, illustrating Putnam’s concerns precisely. That Arnold had similar wartime experience to Gene Roddenberry, who would later dedicate so much of Star Trek to investigating the same preoccupations as It Came From Outer Space, particularly the problem of recognising the value of intelligent life that looks and acts very differently, doesn’t feel coincidental. Later, in his squirming, ratcheting anxiety, Warren comments that more murders are committed at 92˚ Fahrenheit than at any other temperature (a speech Bradbury also deployed in his short story ‘Touched With Fire’), prior to forming a posse to root out the infesting interlopers, in a wry sidelong swipe at Western film conventions here that connects with the film’s sceptical attitude about the rousing of the communal hive, a motif with telling meaning in the context of McCarthyism’s height. Putnam is a more thoughtful and pacifistic answer to High Noon’s (1952) Will Kane as the bulwark between community and chaos. As Warren goes on the warpath, the posse causes the death of Frank’s double by catching him a roadblock and shooting at his truck until he swerves and crashes.

Perhaps the most affecting aspect of It Came From Outer Space however is that whilst it’s sci-fi in basic plot and themes, in style and mood it moves closer to fable-like fantasy, pervaded with aspects of dream logic. The aliens take on and cast off human apparel at will and travel about by flying, almost like thought. Frank’s monologue about the desert sets up a drama where reality is unstable, changelings lurk as in ancient folklore. Ellen’s alien double appears to Putnam, having changed from her usual prim apparel into a billowing black gown. This is the sort of touch which can trip a camp alarm in a modern viewer, but there is a reasonably clever motive behind it – knowing that Putnam is both their potential best ally and also most aggravating foe, the aliens have absorbed enough about humans to play on Putnam’s desire for Ellen to make him react just a little off kilter, and later almost manage to kill him by playing on this exactly. It also of course works on other levels, invoking familiar fantastical metaphor for erotic transformation, alien double Ellen embodying witchy femininity tantalising and dangerous, skirting metaphors more usually the province of vampire movies. When Putnam tries to outrun Warren’s posse and approach the aliens through the mine, Ellen’s double appears to him again and tries to fool him to falling into a crevice, as the aliens are now in the defensive. She shoots at him with an energy weapon that resembles a wand, further smudging the line between genre imagery. The ‘wand’, in a strong, simple special effect, carves great ruts in the stone walls behind Putnam, who fires back with his pistol, striking the alien who transforms back into its true form before plunging into the crevice and seeming to dissolve in the water pooling there.

Finally Putnam manages to reach the alien ship and confronts their gang of doppelgangers, including the one that’s taken on his own appearance. The alien Putnam warns off his human counterpart as he turns on the repaired drive for the spaceship, a thrumming mechanism exuding obscure but dazzling cosmic power: “You know how long we’ve worked on this? A thousand years of reaching for the stars.” The alien explains they were travelling on to their true destination only to be forced to crash-land on Earth, and intend to travel on. Putnam convinces the aliens to release their human captives and in exchange they’ll hold off the posse long enough to let the spaceship blast off, which they do by dynamiting the entrance to the mine. Finally the spaceship blasts off out of the crater, watched in awe by the humans, whilst Putnam anticipates a time when the two species will meet again and humanity is evolved enough to countenance it. This notion of a first contact that doesn’t entirely take is still a relatively underserved one, although the film’s narrative shape was likely remembered by pielberg for E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

Tarantula is both a companion piece to It Came From Outer Space and also a counterpoint to it in key respects. Where the earlier film is humanistic and curious and close to unique, Tarantula involves the overtly monstrous and inimical, and exemplifies a more familiar genre template. The story is driven by the failure of the same kind of Promethean scientific project that the aliens have finally succeeded in. It also inverts the core romantic situation by making protagonist Dr Matt Hastings (John Agar) a man reasonably happy in the stolid role of a doctor in another small Arizona town, this one with the slightly amended name of Desert Rock, who quickly falls under the sway of a glamorous young biology doctoral student, Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton (Corday), who embodies the siren call of a changing world beyond and arrives on the bus. Steve comes to town to take up a job as a research assistant to renowned scientist Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll). Deemer has set up a laboratory in an isolated ranch house in the desert along with two doctoral students also as assistants, Eric Jacobs and Paul Lund (both played by Eddie Parker), to work on his new project of synthesising a food hormone that can make plants and animals grow faster and larger, to cure world hunger. The opening shot I mentioned earlier sees Jacobs, face disfigured, stumbling through the desert and collapsing dead, before the opening titles roll. Jacobs’ body is found and inspected by Matt, who is bewildered by what was clearly a case of acromegalia but couldn’t possibly have developed as fast as its seems to in the course of a few days, and he approaches Deemer to learn more. Deemer confirms Jacobs had acromegalia and won’t say more, or allow an autopsy.

When Deemer returns to his house he enters his laboratory, which is filled with test animals, many of which have grown vastly outsized thanks to an experimental growth serum he and his collaborators have been developing, with the aim of increasing food supplies for a growing, hungry world population. In a neat visual joke-cum-flash of exposition, Arnold shows Deemer injecting the serum into a normal tarantula, whilst, in the background, offering sight of a tarantula already dosed several times, grown to be the size of a Great Dane and kept in a glass case. Deemer is assaulted by Lund, who has also developed acromegalia: Lund swings a chair at Deemer and smashes the big tarantula’s case, and the monstrous animal crawls ponderously out the door and vanishes in the desert whilst the two men fight and the lab catches afire. Lund knocks Deemer out and injects his prone form with the serum, before dropping dead, whilst most of the test animals perish in the fire. Deemer buries Lund’s body and acts as if nothing happened when Steve comes to work for him, and with Matt constantly popping by with questions about Jacob as well as interest in Steve. As Deemer begins to rapidly succumb to both acromegalia and accompanying mental instability, his ever-growing pet project stalks the hills and dales around Desert Rock eating up horses, cattle ranchers, and other hapless locals with voracious appetite.

Tarantula is close in setting and story to Gordon Douglas’ mighty Them! (1954), swapping out many giant ants for one huge arachnid, and because its creation involves radiation it counts as one of the many atomic monsters that lumbered across screens. Tarantula doesn’t have the dramatic force or sweep of Them! or the iconic stature of Godzilla (1954), but in one respect it’s more cogent than either, in the way it connects the monster with its creation: the tarantula isn’t spawned by accident, but is conceived as an expression of a utopian project that ultimately proves ill-conceived, quite apart from thinking making a predatory spider huge a good idea. The cleverly structured story opens with the destructive fallout of the savants’ experimenting and over-enthusiastic attempts to prove their formula a success, but just what transpired is only slowly clarified, that Lund and Jacobs were so eager to prove the serum worked despite its instability they injected themselves and fell victim to the artificially induced acromegalia. Lund’s rampage in the laboratory reflects both the serum’s corrosive impact but also an expression of enraged frustration, resulting him in sentencing his colleague Deemer to a slow and awful death like his own. Much as the giant monster allowed filmmakers to tackle the subject of the atomic bomb without seeming to, the motif of bodily poisoning and degeneration here touches on the consequences of nuclear fallout, the signature of the age written in distorted and misshapen bodies.

Tarantula gains much from Carroll’s performance, his low-key air of calm ideal for playing a scientist compelled by intellectual curiosity rather than emotional display, an essentially decent but fatefully tunnel-visioned genius, and one who slowly starts to disintegrate in mind and body as Lund’s dose starts to take hold. The presence of a respected character actor like Carroll said something about the lifting horizons and respectability of ’50 sci-fi cinema, approaching the movement’s highpoints in production terms with This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956), and was paid tribute in turn via the mischievous wordplay of genre film lampoon-cum-lampoon The Rocky Horror Picture Show twenty years later. Agar, not an actor I’m fond of at the best of times, is nonetheless solid as Matt, who has an engaging character arc as the local lad of modest talent who, a little like Putnam, is faced with incredulity, in his case when he insists that Jacobs couldn’t have developed acromegalia so quickly, but finds it was certainly the cause of death when he performs an autopsy after at last gaining Deemers’ permission. Local sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva), Matt’s friend but also sceptical about his talent weighed against Deemer’s opinion, teases him mercilessly about the wrong call, but as Matt digs he begins to piece together the picture of what happened at the laboratory.

A chunk of Tarantula’s first half is given over to romantic business as Matt and Steve flirt up a storm, in the kinds of scenes genre fans likely groan over a bit then and now, even if it is solid character business that’s properly connected with the plot. Tarantula can’t entirely escape the usual awkwardness sci-fi movies of the period often wielded in trying to deal with the idea of a female scientist, with even Deemer taken aback by getting a research assistant who looks like a Playboy model (as Corday would become in 1958): “I didn’t expect someone who looked like you…I’m sorry my dear, that was supposed to be a compliment.” It benefits, however, from Arnold’s relative matter-of-factness on the issue – when Matt makes a quip about giving women the vote leading to “lady scientists,” he pitches it as an inside gag between them, and she quickly proves her abilities in helping Deemer rebuild the lab and prepare the serum. Nor does she collapse into a screaming damsel in the climactic scenes, as she recognises the spider has discovered the road will lead it to more food – that is, Desert Rock. Her masculine nickname nudges the spectacle in the ribs a little even as Steve is presented as all woman, down to her improbably chic wardrobe. Whilst all of the tarantula’s victims are male, the film builds to a phobic crescendo inhabiting a realm of fervent psychological symbolism when the by-now monumental tarantula crawls towards Deemer’s house on the search for morsel and sets its eyes on Steve within, the monstrous form without the ultimate depiction of the septic id envisioning itself, drooling literally over the female body within.

Corday, a model, dancer, singer and actress, was a minor starlet around Hollywood for a few years, was given her first starring role by Arnold for the Western The Man From Bitter Spring (1955), and with Tarantula was making the first of the three monster movies for which she’s mostly remembered today (along with The Giant Claw, 1957, and The Black Scorpion, 1957). Whilst her movie career waned soon after, she remains one of the more interesting starlets to feature in the era’s genre cinema, displaying a confident poise and edge of humour that largely remained untapped. She’s just about the only good thing about The Giant Claw, for instance, playing the sceptical, sarcastic love interest, and anyone who can look as keen as she does whilst being romanced by John Agar deserves an Oscar. Years later, after being out of movies for a couple of decades, she was given some small parts in movies by her friend Clint Eastwood, who appears at the end of Tarantula in a small but vital early part of his own, after having appeared in Revenge of the Creature for Arnold. There’s a hint of an in-joke to Arnold casting Paiva, who had been the boisterous and hardy Brazilian riverboat captain Lucas in The Creature From The Black Lagoon and usually played Latin caricatures, as an all-American sheriff. Brief but surprisingly good comic relief comes Hank Patterson as Josh, the bashful but stickybeaked desk clerk in the hotel where Matt also has his practice, who likes to listen in on Matt’s phone calls and tries flirting unsuccessfully with Steve.

The monster movie portion of Tarantula doesn’t really get going until the second half, apart from brief shots privileged to the audience of the growing spider stalking across the long, straight highway that links Desert Rock with Deemer’s house, and Arnold sets himself the challenge of abandoning the noirish lilt he gave to the desert scenes in It Came From Outer Space and instead evoking menace in the locale at its most glaringly sunlit. When Matt and Steve stop for a cigarette break by an awesome outcropping of stone (Dead Man’s Point again), they scan the horizon like their precursors in It Came From Outer Space and meditate on the desert’s strange power, as Matt comments, “Everything that ever walked or crawled on the face of the Earth – swum the depths of the ocean – soared through the skies left its imprint here.” Steve notes it was once a sea floor, and Matt comments they can still find seashells here, and looks from the air like “something from another life…serene, quiet, yet strangely evil, as if it were hiding its secret from man.” This proves literal, as something starts an avalanche of rock from the peak of the outcrop, and when Matt and Steve drive off the legs of the tarantula stir behind the formation. Of course any tarantula growing over a certain size would soon collapse for the weight of its own exoskeleton and suffocate for lack of lungs, but let’s not worry about that.

What is important is Arnold’s depicting of the tarantula on the loose – attacking a ranch, grabbing a cattle truck and hurling it off the road, and chasing down a pair of itinerant labourers camping out. Arnold conjures flickers of nightmarish dread with his images of the colossal spider stalking across landscapes, barging its way through power lines as the currents spark and arc, and falling on dwarfed and hapless human victims. Clifford Stine’s special effects rely on a photographically enlarged tarantula for the most part, and whilst it’s a pity the film didn’t have Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen on hand, and there are occasional superimposition problems, the effects are sufficient and effective in large part because of their simplicity. One particularly potent shot offers the two labourers drinking coffee around their campfire and sharing a joke, whilst the tarantula ponderously crawls over the ridge above them and down towards them with quiet, remorseless focus, until the two men notice it too late. Arnold uses high crane shots to mimic the viewpoint of the tarantula looming over and pouncing on its screaming prey. The tarantula leaves only the bones of its food and large pools of venom for the investigators to puzzle over: Matt, analysing and realising what the venom is, soon tries to bring in outside help, but events begin to outpace him, as Deemer in his deranged state tries to stop Steve talking to Matt on the phone.

Along the way Tarantula squeezes in some off-hand commentary on the responsibility of different forms of authority in crises in addition to the central theme of Deemer’s experiment-gone-wrong, and continuing on from It Came From Outer Space’s portrait of hysterical authority versus wise restraint, here finally more idealised as the threat is hostile and deadly. Surveying the perplexing and mysterious signs left by the tarantula’s attack on the cattle truck, Matt encourages local journalist Joe Burch (Ross Elliott) to simply describe it as a road accident, in case too many vague and alarming details spark a panic. Matt’s methodical approach is meanwhile valorised – he is after all the hero, but then that’s also why he’s the hero – as he refuses to be fobbed off with vague explanations and the intimidating impact of professional stature.

When Matt rushes to the ranch house, he finds the contrite Deemer ready to explain all that’s transpired, and mourning the marvellous results of his experiments lost in the fire. Steve thinks his story is the product of his unbalanced mind, but Matt begins to fit the pieces together. He flies to Phoenix to consult with biologist Prof. Townsend, who backs up his analysis of the venom. Here we get shoehorned in one of those informative little educational movies within a movie detailing the characteristics of a real tarantula: Townsend comments as they watch the film that the tarantula “doesn’t know the meaning of fear,” and foreshadows the climax of the film as he explains the tarantula’s great enemy is a species of wasp, a flying foe. Meanwhile back at the ranch (ha), as Deemer languishes in bed, increasingly disfigured by his advancing disease, and Steve prepares to sleep, the tarantula approaches and attacks the house, and begins crushing the building as it scrambles to get at the morsels within. Deemer is consumed by his own creation, whilst Matt turns up in time to whisk Steve off along the highway with the monster in pursuit.

The main problem with Tarantula as a monster movie is that can’t sustain its action as well as Arnold managed with The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which, one it dispensed with mystery and set-up, was sustained by the relentless attacks of its human-sized antagonist. Tarantula also suffers a little from a rather jerky pace, essentially compressing the inevitable battle to hold the spider at bay into the last ten minutes. Arnold still infuses the inevitable moment of confrontation with the primal horror stalking down the highway for the chieftains of Desert Rock with notes of deadpan humour as well as suspense – the Sheriff’s exclamation of “Jumpin’ Jupiter!” when he spots the tarantula, is one of many moments Arnold seems to be inviting the audience to fill in less censor-friendly comments. The town paltry ranks of official guardians snap into action with Matt helping, as they raid all the supplies of dynamite in Desert Rock and plant it on the highway, blowing it up when the tarantula marches over it, but barely singing a hair on his legs.

Finally, as the tarantula nears Desert Rock, a flight of air force jets ride in like the cavalry. This provides a reminder that all monster movies are made to some extent or other in the mould of King Kong (1933). The jets fire rockets at the spider, but fail to do much damage; it’s only when they hit it with napalm that the spider is consumed in a great writhing fireball, halted right at the fringe of the town. As a climax this is both spectacular, and represents a flourish of personal satisfaction for the former pilot Arnold, but also a rather terse and practical one, as the film immediately fades out on the sight of the tarantula burning. Notably, the young Eastwood plays the commander of the attacking planes, but his face is obscured by his flight mask; there is no real hero here, the actual job of bringing down the monster an impersonal business performed by professionals wielding hard military force. For that it feels peculiarly realistic and indeed anticlimactic compared to the many variations on the Aliens (1986) get-away-from-her-you-bitch ending where lone plucky protagonists have to face down monstrous adversaries in more recent monster movies. Still, it has dimensions that echo beyond its immediate purpose – the use of napalm as emblem of the American military’s prowess would take on a rather less heroic meaning a decade or so later.

A vast number of sci-fi and monster movie directors have painstakingly recreated Arnold’s juxtapositions of mood and setting – Steven Spielberg on Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), John Carpenter with Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1979), Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980), Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia (1990), Ron Underwood’s Tremors (1990), Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) and Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) – all owe a great deal to the Arnold aesthetic. Whilst the surrealism-tinged styles of David Lynch and David Cronenberg in part represented a critique of the imprint of Arnold and other ‘50s sci-fi and Horror cinema, nonetheless both ran with elements of his films – the subplot of Tarantula involving the rapid physical degeneration of characters brought about by scientific experimentation invokes an early variation on Cronenberg’s body horror, whilst The Incredible Shrinking Man’s portrait of everyday suburbia turning threatening and relentless emasculation anticipates elements of both directors. One of the sore lacks of many contemporary directors venturing into this tradition is an ability to establish baseline normality before introducing the unreal – something Arnold made look easy. Perhaps the audience was pushed out of the normal so many times we couldn’t find our way back.

Standard
1930s, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

The Old Dark House (1932)

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Director: James Whale
Screenwriters: Benn W. Levy, R. C. Sherriff (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

The Horror genre was given form and definition in the silent film era. A handful of great filmmakers, starting with the likes of F.W. Murnau, Paul Leni, and Tod Browning, did much of their best work in the style and plainly had an affinity for it, and their classic stand with a raft of powerful and important works by filmmakers who made brief visits to the genre, including Fritz Lang, Victor Sjöstrom, and Rex Ingram. Most of that vital Horror cinema was made in Europe, whereas in Hollywood, apart from Browning’s films and starring vehicles for Lon Chaney, Horror films tended to be tinged with comedy and lampooning, expressing a breezily dismissive contempt for spooky shenanigans in the optimistic mood of the Jazz Age: funny tales debunking supernatural menace, like the much-filmed theatrical hits The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers, were all the rage. But as the genre emerged into the sound era, coinciding with the dark pall of the descending Depression, Browning’s Dracula (1931) suddenly made it a big box office genre for Hollywood. With due speed Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures produced a follow-up in the form of an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s storied prototype for much fantastical literature and filmmaking, Frankenstein. The director hired for that film was the English stage maestro turned film director James Whale, and Whale, at least for the next thirty years or so, perhaps did more to codify Horror as a genre than any other director. The irony there was he wasn’t particularly fond of being associated with it, and much of his impact came in the way he tangled with its already enshrined clichés to create new ones.

Whale was a working class boy from Dudley, Worcestershire, deep in the “Black Country” of coal mining regional England. Forced to stop going to school because of his family’s lack of money and not strong enough to become a miner, Whale found work as a cobbler and also, with his emerging artistic talents, earned extra money painting signs and advertisements for local businesses, and used the cash he earned that way to pay for lessons at a local art school. Volunteering for service in World War I, Whale gained a commission as a second lieutenant and served in the trenches until he was captured by the Germans in 1917. Waiting out the war in a POW camp, Whale became heavily involved in staging theatre with his fellow prisoners, and found his great passion. After the war’s end he spent a brief stint as a cartoonist but soon found work in the theatre in multiple guises including as an actor, stage manager, and finally director. Like Murnau, Whale was homosexual and didn’t care much who knew it, and whilst he was briefly engaged to a woman in the early 1920s, Whale’s boldness in that regard is sometimes presumed to have ultimately foiled his career, although for the time being it seemed nothing could hold him back.

Whale’s big break came when he was hired to direct R.C. Sheriff’s play Journey’s End for a theatre group that specialised in staging new works for private audiences. Journey’s End explored the fatalistic mood of the men fighting in the trenches, in a drama that touched upon questions of the worth of hero worship as a potentially beneficial example but also one that could both lure people into a deadly situation. Whale’s personal investment in the material as a former soldier was plain enough, and the material proved to have the same appeal to a vast number of people. Whale initially talked an unknown young actor named Laurence Olivier into playing the lead role of Stanhope, but he was replaced by Colin Clive when, encouraged by the impact the lay had for its private audience, Whale took it to the West End. The play became an instant smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, at a time when the war, which people had been trying so vigorously to forget, suddenly became a matter of interest again. This gave Whale a shot at Hollywood, as the burgeoning age of Talkies saw the film industry desperate for directors who knew how to handle dialogue: as a “dialogue director” Whale made The Love Doctor (1929) and worked on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). He debuted as fully credited director when he helmed the movie adaptation of Journey’s End. After following that up with the popular romantic melodrama Waterloo Road (1931), Whale was assigned to Frankenstein.

With Frankenstein, Whale inadvertently made his name permanently associated with Horror movies. By some accounts Whale wasn’t terribly thrilled by that, but he did nonetheless become a singularly important influence on the way Horror evolved in the sound era and as a fully-fledged movie genre. Most obviously, the film’s depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster created a perpetual pop culture image, thanks to the confluence of makeup artist Jack Pierce’s iconic look for the monster, actor Boris Karloff’s performance, and Whale’s conceptual take on the creature’s existence and symbolic import for the audience. More subtle, but perhaps more important, was the way Whale helped Horror as an aesthetic adapt to the more intense gaze of the 24-frame-a-second era and the attendant vividness of sound. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) carefully negotiated frames of the dreamlike and the psychological, birthing the stylised, purposefully unrealistic approach of the endlessly influential Expressionist style, and that remained for a long time the predominant influence on the genre, although some of Browning’s works like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1926) tended more to posit morbid and perverse psychology in otherwise realistic settings.

One key to Whale’s vitality lay in his florid ease in moving between tones and artistic postures, the way he fused stylisation and realism, theatricality and cinema. He made Frankenstein’s looming, Expressionist-influenced but three-dimensional sets, coexist with location photography and knead them all into a peculiar kind of whole, just as he was later to become known for easily pivoting between humour and straight-faced thrills. The poetic-metaphorical airiness and pathos of Mary Shelley’s twisted but articulate creation was swapped out for something more concrete, more essential. The desperate, mute Monster came more fully and coherently the image of just about anything rendered Other in a social context. He embodied poles of attitude, at once childlike and brutish, victim and cold avenger, misshapen and powerful, and his eventual end in a burning windmill evoked at once righteous action by a community and the spectre of mob rule, the punishment of the transgressor blurring with the cleaning of the hive of deviance.

Whale’s four fantastical films, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), present perhaps the greatest directorial body of work in the genre, rivalled only by the likes of Terence Fisher and Mario Bava in the 1960s and George Romero in the 1970s. But they’re defined in part by the way Whale’s tension with the genre manifested. Whale’s dark, sometimes overtly strange and camp sense of humour, mostly held in check on Frankenstein, came seething out with the next three, all of which were big popular successes: Whale’s unease with being pigeonholed as a maker of scary movies again connected with the audience’s simultaneous ardour and scepticism for such fare. The Old Dark House, which was for a long time lost only to be rediscovered by Horror director and Whale acolyte Curtis Harrington, was based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley, whose second work it was. Priestley, who would later become extremely popular and regarded in Britain, commented sardonically after the book’s release that the American publishers retitled it The Old Dark House in a determined effort to turn a profit, and it worked. The title was kept for the film, and it served to felicitously announce Whale’s mordant blend of attitudes, summoning up both an essentialist evocation of a classic genre trope reaching back to the Gothic Romances of Hugh Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe, and also its puckish deflation, close in spirit to the debunking comedies of the ‘20s.

What Whale managed however was more sophisticated, and it laid down the blueprint he’d follow for The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, provoking with a gleeful humour and semi-satiric slant, whilst steadily invoking the absurdity its characters face and sometimes embody, setting the scene for when the truly strange and disturbing busts out. Priestley’s novel hinged on a similar conceit to his later, perhaps best-known work in its own right, the play An Inspector Calls, in conjuring the house filled with eccentrics loaded down with their own private and shared transgressions. Whale merrily grasps onto The Old Dark House’s edition, the family Femm, comprising most immediately the spindly Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their 103-year-old father Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), and the mysterious sibling who resides in a room on the top floor. The Femms are the perverse and degenerating end of an ancient line, their house a looming pile of stonework that contains the ages of English society. Into their strange little world stumbles a gaggle of visitors representing modernity, desperately seeking shelter from the storm. The bickering young married couple  Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margeret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), and their tagalong pal, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). The Manchester magnate Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his dancer date Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond).

The opening scenes present a classic story set-up as the Wavertons and Penderel travel in Philip’s chugging motor car through a buffeting rainstorm, banks of earth collapsing in their wake and tyres grinding desperately at the muddy ruts of the road. A classic Horror movie opening, reaching back to days of travelling coaches and forward to kids in Volkswagen vans in the genre, but contrasted with the rude liveliness of the characters who refuse to acknowledge they’re in a Horror tale. The Wavertons, plainly out on what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon, locked together instead Philip unleashes epic, vicious sarcasm: “I’ve never been in a better temper in my life. I love driving a hundred miles through the dark practically without headlights. I love the trickle of ice-cold water pouring down my neck. This is one of the happiest moments of my life!” Penderel’s cheeriness, project from the backseat, is counterpoint and further goad to Whale’s portrayal of marital bother raised to epic pitch by the situation. “Perhaps you’d like me to drive for a bit,” Margaret suggests: “Yes, I was expecting that!” Philip retorts before continuing to try to get traction , and Penderel roars out a version of “Singin’ In The Rain.”

The frayed-nerved comedy here is both funny and mortifying in portraying a familiar kind of hell. The Wavertons and their tagalong friend are trying to drive out of the Welsh hills down to Shrewsbury, but the ferocious storm that’s descended is causing landslides and flooding, and they look for the closest convenient shelter. Margaret spots lights and encourages Philip to make for them, but when he catches sight of the craggy, crooked, ancient manse of the Femms her husband comments, “It’s probably wisest to push on.” But the as the storm seems to have cut off the roads all around they’re left with no recourse. Whale interpolates an ingenious model shot recreating the driver’s viewpoint in pulling into the muddy and desolate yard of the old dark house. Out the hapless travellers jump from the car and bang on the front door, and Penderel for a moment takes excited refuge in the notion the people in the house are all dead, “all stretched out with the lights quietly burning about them,” writing his own draft Horror tale whilst waiting for a response within, and in a moment he seems to just about get his wish as a hatch in the door swing open, revealing the gnarled, hirsute face of Morgan (Karloff), the Femm’s servant/warden, who responds to Penderel’s request for shelter with an incomprehensible, guttural mutter. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” Penderel comments.

Granted entry by the grunting, damaged manservant, the trio are soon confronted by Horace, descending the wooden staircase like someone gene-spliced man, praying mantis, horse, and living skeleton. After sniffing his way through introductions and angular politeness, Horace escorts his guests over the blazing fireplace, and picks up a bundle of flowers, which, he tells them, his sister was about to arrange, before tossing the blooms on the fire. And Horace is the closest thing to a fully functioning human in the house, compared to the mute Morgan and his largely deaf sister, at least on the level of faculties, although he completely lacks a spine, in the metaphorical sense. Thesiger was destined to gain an odd kind of immortality specifically from his collaborations with Whale here and on Bride of Frankenstein, which might have surprised him, given he was a respected and experienced stage actor who had played roles for George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, and he kept acting in films into his eighties. A wounded veteran of the trenches, Thesiger was as blue-blooded as they come, related to the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and nephew of Lord Chelmsford, leader of the infamous military expedition against the Zulus – the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift went down a week after Ernest’s birth. Which sounds just like the kind of character he usually played. Looking much older than his 53 years, Thesiger presented Whale with his ideal interlocutor in portraying a simultaneously scornful and joyous caricature of the British aristocracy, devolved and waspish, wasted but invested with a deceptive strength, charged with disdain but at the mercy of its servile class, represented by Morgan, who meanwhile is sliding towards Morlock-like barbarity.

Another contrast is provided by Rebecca, whose piousness is chiefly a vehicle for expressing unvarnished contempt, and the way she offsets her brother’s atheistic and pagan mores. Moore’s performance anticipates Una O’Connor’s wild and flailing brand of absurdism for Whale, but with a different physical presence, as rotund and porcine as Horace is thin and equine, bearing a strong resemblance to the portrait of Queen Victoria she keeps on her bedroom wall. When Margaret asks Rebecca to show her a place where she can change from her wet clothes, Rebecca takes her to her own bedroom which, she explains, once belonged to her beautiful sister Rachel, who died after breaking her back in a riding accident aged 20: “A wicked one – handsome and wild as a hawk,” she cries, and eagerly looks over Margaret’s young, pretty form and anticipates its inevitable decay. Rebecca lustily regales her guest with Rachel’s agonised end and how she ignored Rebecca’s entreaties to turn to God. Rebecca’s bedroom is separated from the main hall by a gloriously decrepit corridor with a billowing white curtain at an open window and rain splashing on the stonework floor. Rachel’s old room proves a refuge of gentility save for the warped overlooking mirror.

Rebecca monologues about Rachel to the increasingly agitated Margaret whilst conjuring charged impressions of feminine beauty in her obsessive noting of red lips, long straight legs, and white bodies. Morgan’s knock at the door gives the lurking manservant a chance to ogle Margaret in her underwear, whilst Rebecca herself, for all her deploring, seems to be hiding a fascination for Margaret, thrusting her splayed hand upon Margaret’s chest. After Rebecca leaves Margaret can’t shake off her mocking words, as if she’s still in the room. Whale offers one of his most striking and peculiar cinematic phrases here, as he cuts jaggedly between shots from different angles of Rebecca’s face, reflected in the warped mirror and lit by guttering candles, all her savage perversity and mocking delight in mutability emerging as an array of perverted Gothic images. Margaret’s own face, as she tries to put on earrings, is also warped into strange and alien form by the mirror, as if she’s being claimed by Rebecca’s curse of the flesh. Margaret freaks out and, after opening to window but failing to push it close again for the powerful wind, she flees the bedroom and returns to the others in the hall. The punch-line for this is that she returns to the hall and looks every inch the resplendent lady about to dine in the finest restaurant.

This gaudy, layered, hysteria-laden scene is a perfect miniature representation of Whale’s jaggedly original approach to filmmaking and capacity to create a vivid, near-surreal context for his dark fantasies, turning what would have been a very minor episode in the movie into a vignette charged with undercurrents of sexuality and boding violence. The urge to transgression and its eternal partner, ironclad moralism, are in the mix, nodding to the distorted effects of what would soon be called “decadent art,” and winding up to a peak of delirium evinced by Margaret’s panic and despair. Whale’s camerawork is actually, generally more restrained in The Old Dark House than in his other films, like the long, devastating tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter in Frankenstein, and his shots passing carelessly through and over walls in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, as Whale readily showed off the roots of his visual imagination in the theatrical zone, but was able to leave behind any hint of the stagy, instead delighting in the way his camera could capture space and people within it. Instead, The Old Dark House shows more delight in his shot composition and cutting.

The dinner sequence that follows is another brilliant set-piece, albeit a more subtle one, where that delight is fully in evidence. The characters settle around the Femms’ dining table and try to enjoy a meal together, the flicker from the fire casting their shadows on the wall and the hulking, glowering Morgan playing waiter. Margaret, with a scowl, gets Philip to sit between her and Rebecca, who scoffs down pickled onions with righteous appetite. Meanwhile Horace brandishes carving utensils like small weapons of war, and when Rebecca chides him for not saying grace, retorts, “Oh, I had forgotten my sister’s strange tribal habits – the beef will seem less tough when she as invoked a blessing upon it,” and his initially playful sarcasm quickly spirals into a dark and spiteful meditation on the many blessings the family hasn’t received over the years. Rebecca’s hearty Christian appetite is balanced by Horace’s modest delight in gin – “I like gin.” He keeps trying to foist gnarled and soggy boiled potatoes on his dinner guests, each proffered with the inimitable Thesiger voice prompting, “Have a po-ta-to.” “Thank you, I should love a potato,” the practical Penderel answers, whilst Philip picks the eyes out of his. The electric light flickers and nearly dies, as Horace explains the house’s generator isn’t reliable. Finally, the agonised ritual of the dinner is interrupted by another knock at the door, which proves to be Sir William and Gladys, also seeking refuge.

Priestley’s design in the book emerges in the film as the characters represent different aspects of British society and history, and what’s particularly important here is the way Whale tweaks the material into offering the cast of characters as a succession of self-portraits – world war veteran, angry pleb on the rise, biting camp aesthete and wicked sceptic. The Old Dark House itself represents the closest Whale ever came to unifying the two artistic postures he was well-known for – the portrayer of Great War angst and the maker of Gothic fantasias, finding a dramatic landscape where those two things could coexist and feed each-other. They also converge on Penderel, a survivor of the trenches who readily acknowledges that he exemplifies a type, rattling off evocative self-descriptions that have become close to parodic clichés for him: “War Generation, slightly soiled – a study in the bittersweet – the man with the twisted smile – and this Mr Femm is exceedingly good gin.” Where the Wavertons are a sturdy middle-class couple, inheritors of the future, Penderel is a perpetual misfit and ironic party animal, seeing ridiculousness in everything. At least until he claps eyes on Gladys, who swiftly shifts the weights on the Eros-Thanatos scale in Penderel.

Sir William represents another corner of interwar British society, a self-made, nouveau riche businessman with a strong Yorkshire accent and a surface attitude of bonhomie. That barely conceals a seething motive in his working class roots and a telling lack of any sense of noblesse oblige. He’s easily drawn in the course of chatting with the other guests after dinner into recounting his tragic past, how his wife died, he believes, from heartache after being cold-shouldered by snooty society wives when Sir William first began to rise helped, convincing her she was holding them back. Sir William avenged her by breaking and bankrupting the husbands of those women, and yet remains a figure of pathos: now he’s got a fortune and a knighthood and no human connection, except for playing sexless sugar daddy to Gladys. Sir William’s narrative is coherent as both a depiction of Whale’s experience of class anger, and it can also be argued a coded metaphor for the agonies of coming out in Whale’s time, in registering a specifically intimate and human cost to social prejudice. Sir William and Penderel butt heads at first, with Sir William assuming the urbane Penderel looks down his nose at him for being such a go-get-‘em operator, and Penderel telling the magnate off for speaking disrespectfully to Glady when he outs her – that is, tells everyone her real last name, which is Perkins. “I envy you, I admire you,” Penderel tells Sir William, in comparison to his own unmoored and lethargic state, to the magnate’s retort, “Oh yes, you envy me, but you don’t admire me.”

Meanwhile the Femms represent a particularly eccentric and ingenious collective twist on an essential motif of Gothic fiction, the aristocratic clan cut off from the tides of modern life and subsisting on decaying pretensions and trapped within a house that once expressed their exceptionalism but now only exhibits their decay. Nonetheless, as Rebecca triumphantly tells her brother as he frets over the fear that the rains could bust a nearby dam and wash the house away, Femm Manor is built on solid rock – the roots of the Femms are planted so deep in the soil of the country they can’t be dug out even if they wish it. Rebecca and Horace have divergent expressions of their intense neurosis in embodying a disparity of godless sensualism and religiose intensity, but both are the same degree of crazy. The ancient Sir Roderick, when the Wavertons seek him out, is found ensconced in his bedroom which looks fit for Tudor monarch and barely altered since that epoch, whilst Rebecca’s bedroom is candlelit – “I’ll have none of this electric light!” she declares – and festooned with musty Victoriana. We never see Horace’s room, but the mind boggles. And at the top of the house, the locked door, hiding the last Femm, Saul, a brooding, superficially ingratiating pyromaniac. The flood below, madness and fire above, and points on the compass in between.

The great storm that falls upon the Shropshire Hills doesn’t just sever the Femms and their interlopers from the outside world but also cordons them within the subliminal space made solid. But the motif of the house as an encompassing expression of such ingrained neurosis and entrapping identity also feeds into the subtler dynamic that fees both humour and horror. Whale suggests there are few more disquieting and disturbing things than being obliged to have a meal with strangers, enabled by strained manners and a grotesque conventional politeness that ignores for a set period of time the strangeness that occurs off in the margins, like Margaret’s encounter with Rebecca. Indeed, this is essentially Whale’s entire thesis about social life, a constant game of facades and unveilings, and fusing a particular brand of comedy of manners with its darker doppelganger in Horror, which is a genre precisely preoccupied with the breakdown of civilised pretences and engagement with the primal. It keeps in mind the impression I’ve often had that something like Howard’s End or The Age of Innocence contains more real and discomforting violence than any number of slasher movies.

Karloff’s presence in the film sees Whale again with the actor he boosted from character actor to a peculiar brand of stardom, in a role that partly burlesques the characterisation of the Frankenstein’s Monster. Morgan is another shambling, towering, unspeaking creature, but one that’s been semi-domesticated: the Femms need him to keep food on their table and keep the electric light working. He’s an upper class idea of the lower class taken to an extreme, useful as a mass of obedient muscle until he gets liquored up and becomes insensately dangerous, casting a lascivious eye on Margaret. But Morgan has another function, as Saul’s warden, a bulwark of violence required to keep a less immediately intimidating but even more dangerous force in check. At one point, as Gladys follows Penderel out into the storm, she looks in through the barred kitchen window and sees Morgan, now thoroughly soused: the servant lurches to the window and punches his hand through the glass in a perfunctory attempt to grab one of the tempting morsels about him. It’s not a part that requires much of Karloff, in the first of his major post-Frankenstein genre roles when he’d soon be appearing in the likes of The Mummy (1932) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) which let him unleash his voice. But it does gain everything from his presence regardless, as Karloff wrings pathos from Morgan’s attempts to speak which inevitably fail and instead expression comes through physical chaos as he drinks.

After her squall of hysteria in Rebecca’s room Margaret quickly becomes the most sanguine person in the house, calmly and coolly shepherding the conversation as the various camps in the house try to communicate. Meanwhile Penderel and Gladys’ crackle of attraction combusts when the two venture out to the Wavertons’ car, stashed to wait out the storm in the barn, to fetch a bottle of whiskey Penderel left there. They quickly fall in love and taking refuge in the back seat of the car, with all that implies thoroughly implied. Priestley intended his novel as a tragic character study of Penderel masquerading as a thriller, although quite a few critics over the years have said the book didn’t really achieve that. Nonetheless Penderel emerges as the closest thing the film has to a central character and hero as he shifts from alcoholic gadabout to a man in love and has to quickly improvise in fending off danger. Douglas, honing his suave and worldly persona, is quite excellent in the role. Indeed, one arresting element of The Old Dark House is the quality of its cast, packed as it is with heavyweight actors on the cusp of major stardom, in Karloff, Douglas, Laughton, and Massey. Stuart on the other hand, after also appearing in The Invisible Man for Whale, never really gained star traction but, in one of those marvels of Hollywood fate, would record a commentary track for this film’s laserdisc release sixty years later which would bring her to James Cameron’s attention and help win her role in Titanic (1997).

And yet it’s Thesiger who owns the film, walking the finest line between creepiness and ridiculousness, seeming to most immediately embody the perversity of the Femms but also the most timorous in the face of it. When the necessity arises to fetch a large kerosene lamp from the top floor landing when the lights fail and Rebecca gloatingly prods him to help Philip bring it down, Horace keeps anxiously trying to avoid the errand, and when they hear peculiar laughter echoing down from above, Horace finally flees to his bedroom, leaving Philip to fetch the lamp alone. Philip takes up the lamp but notices the telling signs there, the padlocked door, the remains of a meal on a plate on the table with the lamp, whilst wind whistles in the crannies high in the roof. Meanwhile, down below, Margaret, in an interlude of playfulness, starts making shadow animals on the wall in the firelight, her silhouette and her gestures thrown against the wall of the dining room, only for Rebecca’s silhouette to lurch into view as she repeats the some gesture of touching Margaret’s chest, sending Margaret into a panicky flurry again. As she opens the front door and shouts into the night, begging Penderel to come back, a hand reaches behind and over her head to grasp the door and slam it shut. An iconic Horror image, this time arriving without a mocking codicil. The hand belongs to the soused and randy Morgan, who chases Margaret around the dining room, upturning the dining table in a gesture of pointed symbolism. Philip returns from aloft, and seeing what’s happening, does battle with Morgan, until he wallops him with the lamp, causing Morgan to plunge down the stairs, knocked unconscious. Later, when he awakens, Morgan gains his revenge by heading upstairs and releasing Saul.

These scenes illustrate Whale’s unique skill in mediating tone shifts, as menace emerges from the comic and absurd, and moments of playfulness segue into an eruption of actual danger. The fact that The Old Dark House was missing for a long time prevented it from becoming as much of an immediate influence as Whale’s other films, and the legendary schlock artiste William Castle was able to get away with directing a wayward remake in 1963. Whale likely had seen Paul Leni’s stylish film version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), replete as it with brilliant cinema, and some of Whale’s imagery echoes it. But Leni’s film has rather less sophisticated comedy than The Old Dark House, which is far more exactly aimed at the nexus of social anxiety and psychological angst in tapping both horror and humour. Whale would become bolder and stranger in his blendings with The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein – the catatonic-seeming Mr Plod policemen in the former and the shrieking, inflated melodrama cues in the latter. The Old Dark House therefore stands as an essential ancestor for just about all comedy-horror crossbreeds, and what most of the best of such films wisely follow Whale in doing was in infiltrating comedy via the characters and playing core genre elements essentially straight, a presumption that’s essential to the success of, say, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) or Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Indeed, Craven, with his penchant for inserting a brand of anarchic, cartoonish humour into his Horror films, in many ways came closest of subsequent Horror auteurs to building upon Whale’s sensibility. On the other hand, the film was also a direct influence on the far more indiscriminately lampooning attitude of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

Moreover, Whale picks out a thread here that was to prove important in terms of where Horror cinema was headed, in general. Whilst The Old Dark House makes sport of the trappings of gothic horror, the real source of horror then moves away from the supernatural, conveying metaphor and oneiric imagery, and emerges as human and immediate, and embodied by different forms – the hulking brutishness of Morgan and the impishly homicidal Saul. The essence of the drama becomes this imminent physical danger. Mad killers on the loose were already a well-lodged genre convention, but there’s something that feels particularly pertinent in the way Whale plays one genre frame against the other. In short, Whale grasped where the Horror movie was going, although it would take another few decades to get there. What Alfred Hitchcock would do to the genre with Psycho (1960), with its own old dark house and lurking, devolved murderer, is essentially a reiteration of this intelligible shift in focus and meaning. One can look on past that to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which is built of the same basic ideas as The Old Dark House – the searching, displaced travellers, the degenerated family, the crumbling old house, the hulking, monstrous force of threat, the preoccupation with perverse social ritual, only by that time monochrome gothic has been replaced by the spacy, sunstruck American brand.

The Wavertons, trying to understand the enigmatic threat lurking in the Femm house, venture upstairs together and enter Sir Roderick’s room, where the find the ancient knight lying in his bed. Whale has Sir Roderick played by the actress Elspeth Dudgeon (credited for the film as John), covered in aging makeup and a false beard. This conceit has a sly brilliance to it, recognising the quality of androgyny that very old age confers, and feeding Whale’s underground river of destabilisation, the one remnant of the Femms of old now happy in his prostrate, post-gender state, calmly awaiting mortality’s edge: “When you’re as old as I am, at any minute you might just die,” he comments, and gives a chuckle. “Madness came,” he says of his family, “We have all been touched with it a little you see, except for me – at least I – I don’t think I am.” Sir Roderick warns the Wavertons about Saul and the possibility of Morgan unleashing him, before falling asleep. Philip dashes out to see if Morgan is still unconscious, only to find he’s arisen, and Horace pokes his head out of his bedroom door to tell him he heard Morgan going upstairs, and instructs with punitive directness, “Wait for him downstairs and kill him,” before hiding again.

Whale’s peeling of this particular onion reaches sees inevitable combustion as a single hand appearing on the staircase railing announces Saul’s lurking presence, and Morgan lurches into sight with the sickly smile of a man with a trump, before trying to launch at Margaret again. It takes the combined efforts of Penderal, Philip, and Sir William to wrestle Morgan into the kitchen and lock him in there, and Penderal dashes back to Margaret and Gladys and gets them to hide in a closet whilst he sets about distracting Saul. Saul, when he finally shows his face, proves disarmingly innocent and scared-looking, like an anthropomorphic hamster. He descends to Penderel, begging him to prevent his relatives locking him away again. Saul claims to not be mad, but has instead been imprisoned to keep secret the fact Horace and Rebecca killed Rachel, and often beaten by Morgan. Penderel is initially credulous of Saul’s claims, but Saul quickly begins to reveal his madness, picking up the carving knife from dinner and insisting on recounting the biblical tale of Saul and David.

Penderel instead begins stringing him out by affecting interest in a story he wants to tell, and the two settle at the dinner table: the earlier, strained dinner conversation gives way to more of the same tense, dissembling playacting, but this time the game is immediate, desperate, the barrier between civility and lunacy only as thick as Penderel’s improvisation. Penderel then is a solider once more, albeit this time actually fighting for something – trying to keep the madman away from Margaret and Gladys. When finally Saul explodes it comes with astonishing ferocity, hurling the knife at Penderel and then bashing him with a chair, before dashing up the stairs and setting fire to a curtain in cackling delight. Penderel, despite having a broken arm, ascends to fight the loony again, and this time Saul tries to rip Penderel’s throat out with his teeth, only for them both to fall over the balcony to the floor below. The movie softened the novel’s ending slightly, as Penderel dies in the fall in the book: after test audience didn’t like this, the ending was reshot, it does feel more in keeping with the movie’s totality.

As if by compensation for the loss of one tragedy, Whale inserted another. Morgan breaks out into the dining room again, ready to resume chasing Margaret, only for her to get him to look to the fallen Penderel and Saul: Morgan, utterly heartbroken by the death of his charge, cradling Saul’s body, weeps over his fractured body and carries it back up to his room. This crowning vignette resonates on several levels, most obviously in anticipating the encounter of the Monster and the Blind Hermit in Bride of Frankenstein in its depiction of the symbiosis of the misshapen, as well as sneaking in a moment of undisguised love between men, and echoing the fraternal grief of the war veterans, which needed some echo, some acknowledgement, to pass before the night of the storm can end. Penderel’s proposal of marriage to Gladys, which she accepts by giving him a passionate kiss as she too cradles her injured lover, suggests a spiritual economy of love at work: something can’t die without something being born. The morning comes, finally, the sun shining and beginning to dry the ocean of mud without, Horace emerging to politely wave the Wavertons away as they head off to fetch help, whilst Gladys cradles her wounded gallant, and Rebecca scoffs at the lot of these bent, buckled, bruised, but still upright humans.

Standard
1990s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: Andrew Kevin Walker, Kevin Yagher

By Roderick Heath

Alongside his own ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ Washington Irving’s story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is probably the best-known work of American literature from before the time of Poe and James Fenimore Cooper. Born in New York in the early years of the republic, Irving, after struggling as a merchant, found success in his twenties as a writer, journalist, and editor, and later pursued a career as a diplomat, serving for a time as ambassador to Spain. Amongst Irving’s random, still-resonating achievements ranked coining the phrase “the almighty dollar” and the nickname “Gotham” for New York, publishing the Francis Scott Key poem that became ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ popularising the false notion medieval Europeans thought the world was flat before Columbus, and having one of his pen names inspire the name of the New York Knicks. The roots of Irving’s most famous labours went back to his teenaged years, when a yellow fever epidemic caused his parents to send him to live with a friend in upstate New York. During that sojourn Irving first encountered Sleepy Hollow, a small town founded by Dutch settlers. His two most famous stories were both first published in a collection entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving connected several elements of local lore for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ including the history of the locale during the Revolutionary War, as he created the story of the timorous schoolmaster Ichabod Crane. Crane moves to Sleepy Hollow and becomes involved with a local girl, only to encounter the ghost of a Hessian mercenary soldier decapitated in battle but still terrorising the local byways.

Tim Burton, born in Burbank, California in 1958, is another curious American artist of the fanciful and student of the arcane and eerie. Burton started making short films with an 18mm camera as a child, displayed aptitude as an artist, and studied animation after leaving school. For a time he worked at Disney Studios in various artistic capacities and making short films on the side. One of these was the six-minute stop-motion animation Vincent (1983), depicting a young boy who fantasizes about being his hero Vincent Price, winning Burton his first burst of attention. Shortly after, he made a live-action version of Hansel and Gretel with a Japonaise style, sporting a kung fu fight between the titular duo and the witch, an early example of Burton’s habit of mischievously remixing various genres: that work screened once on the Disney Channel and was barely sighted again. Then he made Frankenweenie (1984), another stop-motion work about a junior mad scientist who revives his dog, killed by being run over by a car. Disney fired Burton for wasting company resources on something too scary for kids, but screenings of the short attracted the attention of comedian Paul Rubens, who, looking to play his popular comedy character Pee-wee Herman in a movie, hired Burton to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). It was a hit, and Burton scarcely looked back.

Burton’s initial success was rooted in a projection of a singular identity. He was a director capable of balancing commercial imperatives with a strong personal inflection sourced in a passion for retro 1950s and ‘60s kitsch culture, old horror movies and other disreputable genres, eccentric and often mean humour, and stories sporting losers, freaks, and outsiders recast as heroes. He connected with a hip young audience somewhat starved for flavour in the oh-so-slick ‘80s mainstream movie culture and gained cultish fervour with the next three films he made – Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Burton was the most mainstream-acceptable, at least at first, of a generation of director sharing similar touchstones and a similarly unstable sense of genre, delighting in blending provocation with playfulness, also including Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, and Peter Jackson. The rest of his career has however proven patchy. His follow-up to the hugely successful, high-style take on Batman, Batman Returns (1992), despite some potent elements, was more divisive and less successful. His best film to date, the tragicomic biopic Ed Wood (1994), and its follow-up, the gleefully sick comic alien invasion movie Mars Attacks (1996), were both box office disappointments, and his career was hampered by being drawn into an ill-fated attempt to make a Superman movie starring Nicholas Cage. Later, as his career moved into the 2000s and 2010s, Burton became more assured as a box office hand with a string of reboots, remakes, and would-be franchise-starters given a light gloss of the patented Burton black nail-polish touch, but he paid a price for this, as his movies were now often met with blank critical and former fan hostility. Sometimes the dismissal has been deserved, sometimes not.

Whilst a great number of Burton’s films interpolate imagery and ideas harvested from Horror cinema – Batman applied lashings of Expressionist paint to the superhero film and did the same with Edward Scissorhands to a blend of romantic fairy-tale and John Waters-esque suburban satire – few of his movies have actually, properly belong to the genre. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) did, but with the conceit of being a musical too, whilst Beetlejuice and Dark Shadows (2012) crossbred Horror with roguish comedy. Sleepy Hollow, released in 1999, is the closest he’s come to date to make a straight-up Horror film, and even it’s as much camp parody and action film as Horror. It is nonetheless one of Burton’s best films – indeed the one I enjoy most purely of his work save Ed Wood – and a last hurrah in paying tribute to the old-fashioned gothic horror style. The film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker who had a major success writing David Fincher’s 1996 hit Se7en with its adolescent grunge moralism, was originally slated to be a low-budget potboiler to be directed by makeup effects artist Kevin Yagher, who finished up serving in that capacity as well as co-producing when Burton came on board, whilst Francis Ford Coppola was loosely involved in the same capacity. Burton set about transforming the inherited project into a wildly stylish tribute to old Hammer and Universal Horror movies and Mario Bava films, shooting it in England and mostly on sets.

Irving’s story had been filmed many times before, most memorably as a portion of the 1949 animated Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (where it was partnered with an episode taken from The Wind and the Willows). ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ chapter exemplified the old Disney’s brilliance at animation and willingness to conjure ghoulish imagery for a young audience. Burton inserts some visual references to the Disney take into his, including the famous climactic image of the headless horseman hurling a hollow jack o’lantern at Ichabod, blazing maw and eyes looming at the camera. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow nonetheless goes off on a tangent from straightforward adaptation, taking the basics of the Irving style whilst crossbreeding them with aspects of the nascent steampunk branch of fantastical fiction, fascinated by anachronistic but theoretically possible anticipations of modern technology and social attitudes in period settings, and detective story. Ichabod is portrayed as not a teacher but a policeman interested in sifting clues and deduction at a time when maintaining law and order was a very simple, brutal affair, and he’s flung into the mystery of headless horseman’s murderous maraudings.

The film’s pre-title sequences open on wealthy Sleepy Hollow landowner Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau), after busily preparing and sealing a legal document, setting out in a coach driven by his son Dirk (Robert Sella) from his house to town. As they pass through his fields filled with growing corn and overlooked by a creepy scarecrow with a jack o’lantern head, Peter overhears the neigh of a horse and the ring of a steel blade, and looks out to see his son has been decapitated. Leaping from the coach, Peter retreats into the corn, only to be chased down by an unseen assailant and likewise left headless. Meanwhile in Manhattan, Ichabod (Johnny Depp), a constable with the New York Police, fishes a corpse out of the Hudson River, but his desire to make a pathology examination to determine the cause of death is foiled by a dismissive High Constable (Alun Armstrong). When he protests to a presiding judge (Christopher Lee), the judge, irritated by Ichabod’s radicalism, challenges him to accept the assignment of travelling to Sleepy Hollow and investigate the murders of the two Van Garretts and another local, the Widow Winship. Ichabod accepts, and travels north, finding lodging with another major local landowner, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), with his comely new wife Mary (Miranda Richardson) and grown-up daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) from his previous marriage.

The core joke of Sleepy Hollow is that whilst its version of Ichabod Crane now occupies the role of man of action and incisive intellectual vision, equal prototype for Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing, and Dirty Harry and conflating two centuries of pulp fiction heroes, he’s actually, essentially the same timorous, incongruous figure Irving created. Burton wields the disparity to mock a familiar kind of genre hero whilst also presenting the story of how Ichabod grows into the role, at least as far as he can. Upon arrival in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod cringes before gruesome sights, gulps when people warn him about the horseman, is bullied by local jock Brom (Casper Van Dien), and leaps up on a chair when he spies a spider crawling across his room’s floor. He bears mysterious scars on his hands that bespeak a hidden trauma in his past motivating his determination, against all his physical and emotional reflexes, to take on evil and prove a force for rational good, and so attacks the problems before him with all the fortitude and purpose he can muster. His attempts to wield his hand-crafted medical tools in his investigations invariably result in aniety and revulsion from onlookers and a lot of mess. His methods, including play-acting the role of the killer’s giant horse as he inspects the ground around a victim’s corpse and notes the meaning of the hoof-prints, generally make him look rather barmy to the bewildered and frightened locals. The Sleepy Hollow denizens keep telling Ichabod about the horseman, but Ichabod as a rationalist refuses to believe this, until he’s presented with the terrifying sight the black-clad rider in full murderous charge.

In similar fashion, Sleepy Hollow enlarges upon aspects of the Irving story to weave an involved plot and make thematic capital out of the idea of the ghosts of the Revolutionary War and the colonial age not yet at rest. Baltus narrates the tale of the horseman to Ichabod, whereupon Burton interpolates a marvellous flashback that evokes the theatrical artificiality of early cinema, with jostling muskets and bayonets of clashing armies in the foreground and the mounted Hessian lurking beyond against an expressionistically stylised set full of sturm-und-drung. The Hessian is glimpsed, played by a wittily cast (and unbilled) Christopher Walken without dialogue, as a ferocious warrior who’s filed his teeth into monstrous fangs: even before he’s killed and resurrected, the Hessian’s desire is to become a perfect beast of war. Burton segues from this stylised hellishness to a scene of hallucinatory beauty infiltrated by a diseased presence: the Hessian is chased into snowy woods by Continental soldiers, where he encounters two children, blonde sisters, one of who gives away his position. The Hessian fights with all his ferocity and kills many foes, but is finally skewered, beheaded, and his corpse dumped in a grave.

Burton, through his streamlined flow of gorgeous imagery, reaches here through a recreation of a highly stylised silent film aesthetic which itself was drawn from stage performance and shadow puppet theatre, before conjuring the ironic fairy-tale setting as backdrop to the Hessian’s defeat. Later in the film Burton notes a young boy fascinated by the flitting images of witches and ghouls cast out by his magic lantern. This brief vignette nonetheless allows Burton to note the grand tradition of entertainment by frightful frisson and invocation of the uncanny that reaches back far beyond the age of cinema, and the film’s entire form manages to encapsulate an animated history of that tradition without sacrificing narrative flow and coherence. A bauble Ichabod inherited from his mother, which he shows to Katrina, creates an optical illusion of a bird alternating between being caged and freed: Katrina amusedly calls it magic whilst Ichabod insists it’s science, and of course it’s also the distant prototype for cinema itself, the combination of both.

Meanwhile the casting makes immediate connections with the movie tradition Burton’s having a ball recreating, first and foremost with Lee’s early cameo (commencing his late career revival extended by The Lord of the Rings films and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, as well as Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005, all of which would help to make Lee technically the top box office star of 2006) and his Dracula (1958) costar Michael Gough, who Burton brought into the blockbuster age by casting him as Alfred in Batman, playing Sleepy Hollow notary Hardenbrook. The rest of the coterie of noble gentlemen comprising Sleepy Hollow’s powers-that-be are filled out by a notable gang of character actors, including Gambon, Richard Griffiths as the town’s frightened and boozy Magistrate, Samuel Philipse, Ian McDiarmid as local doctor Thomas Lancaster, and Jeffrey Jones as Paster Steenwyck. This collective of familiar faces lets Burton nudge whodunit territory, as the question of who resurrected the Hessian and has now unleashed him on seemingly random residents of the town becomes Ichabod’s preoccupying quandary. And also in pure whodunit territory is the solution to that as the one notable person who seems to hover on the fringes.

Ichabod arrives at the Van Tassel manse as Baltus is throwing as Ichabod arrives, and strangeness is already lurking the shadows, as Ichabod glimpses a silhouetted couple snogging on the porch. Inside the house, Ichabod first encounters Katrina as she plays blind-man’s-bluff and catches Ichabod as he tries to pass by, giving him a kiss “on account” much to the chagrin of her suitor Brom. “Young man you are welcome,” Baltus says to Ichabod as he plays the happy host, “Even if you are selling something.” Ichabod reveals his purpose, casting a pall over proceedings, and the village gentlemen try to explain the situation to the policeman. When he’s installed in an attic room, serving girl Sarah (Jessica Oyelowo) tells Ichabod “Thank god you’ve come!”, to his swivel-eyed disquiet, and within a short time a former servant of Van Garrett, Jonathan Masbath (Mark Spalding), is killed by the horseman whilst on guard duty awaiting its appearance. On a tip from Philipse, Ichabod soon exhumes the other victims of the horseman and finds, to his revulsion, that the killer not only beheaded the Widow Winship but also her unborn child inside her womb with a deft sword thrust.

One night as he walks through the village, Ichabod is terrorised by what seems to be the horseman, carrying a jack o’lantern, only to be hit by it and knocked silly whilst the rider is revealed to be Brom, playing a prank with some hastily contrived disguise. This vignette, as well as sporting nods to the Disney version, refers back to the Irving story, which left events purposefully vague, so that Ichabod might well have been scared off by Brom in the horseman’s guise rather than killed by the ghoul. When Ichabod confronts Philipse as he’s trying to flee town, the horseman rides out of the fog and beheads the Magistrate, but leaves Ichabod alone to faint away in fright. After battling through his shock, Ichabod finds himself taking in Masbath’s son (Mark Pickering) as a servant, and the two venture into the reputedly haunted western woods where the Hessian was buried. Along the way, they spy someone following them, which proves to be Katrina, valiantly determined to stick with them. They also encounter a witch who keeps her face hidden by a veil, who summons a demonic entity to possess her and give Ichabod some pointers of where to seek out the Hessian’s grave, at what she calls “the Tree of the Dead.”

After departing hastily, Ichabod and his two companions soon locate the grave under its unmistakeable marker, a black, gnarled tree that sprang up and died since the Hessian’s burial and still has his sword wedged in its roots, which also conceal a portal stuffed with the severed heads of the horseman’s victims and concealing a portal to Hell. As Ichabod digs up the Hessian’s skeleton he finds its skull is missing. The supernatural entity itself bursts from the heart of the tree and pounds off through the forest in search of another victim, with Ichabod giving chase. The Hessian’s next target proves to be a midwife, Beth Killian (Claire Skinner) and her husband (Steven Waddington): the horseman bursts into their house and swiftly slays both. Burton, never averse to risking some real darkness even in his playful films, provides a brief, black-hearted send-up of the climax of Aliens (1986) as the Skinners’ young son Thomas (Sean Stephens) tries to elude the horseman by crawling about under the floorboards, only for the ghoul to smash through the floorboards and claim the lad’s head for his bag of trophies. Ichabod arrives just as Brom confronts the Hessian, and the two men try to bring him down, but the headless monster soon cuts Brom in half and leaves Ichabod with a sword wound, instantly cauterised by the blade’s devilish heat.

All of this unfolds in Burton’s updated version of the kinds of gnarled, fogbound, permanently autumnal rural landscapes seen in the old Universal Horror films like Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), and similarly creating the oppressive atmosphere by shooting on cleverly dressed sets. The attempt to recreate the old soundstage Horror style had been presaged by Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), but where those directors approached the aesthetic with a kind of art installation-like self-consciousness, Burton entirely enters into the logic of the world he conjures. Burton’s nods to classic Horror history are plentiful and mostly cleverly kneaded into the story. The windmill that provides the setting for part of the climax is based on the one seen at the end of The Brides of Dracula (1960). The scene in which young Ichabod discovers his mother locked in an iron maiden ticks off both Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), as the mother’s eyes stare out of the steel prison before her hole-ridden face is unleashed in a flood of gore. Burton and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki first considered making Sleepy Hollow in black-and-white, before adopting a compelling visual texture, largely desaturated and rendered in shades of grey, save for careful deployments of colour, where the black thatch of Ichabod’s hair swallows light whilst the blonde tresses of Katrina seem to exude it.

Sleepy Hollow came out at a time when CGI was making movie special effects increasingly sophisticated and the magic lantern show all the more seamless. Burton was able to portray the headless horseman (with stuntman Ray Park playing the headless Hessian) without the kind of awkward costuming effects used in something like The Mysterious Doctor (1943) with its headless ghost, or the infamous ‘Chopper’ episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker with its poorly realised variation on the horseman as a headless motorcyclist. He was also able to juice up the various beheadings with flourishes largely impossible prior to the CGI era, like one head getting hacked off and spinning about like a top on the severed neck. The felicity of this is debatable. The more cartoonish effects, particularly those used in Ichabod’s encounter with the witch feels like they came out of a different movie, giving the slight impression Burton was anxious about selling a neo-gothic horror movie to a mass audience without the crutch of absurd-flecked spectacle. But the special effects are also used to real effect at points too. When the Hessian comes to claim the elder Masbath, tendrils of drifting mist seem to reach out and extinguish burning torches. In the climax, the horseman, restoring his reclaimed skull, regrows all the flesh on his head.

Sleepy Hollow exhibits much of Burton’s imaginative genius, and also some of his niggling faults, if here kept in proportion. His tendency to take the edge off his gore effects by emphasising black comedy messiness to them, with Ichabod constantly getting spurting bodily fluids over himself, cuts against the grain of the fetishised majesty of the old-school genre trappings and the essential seriousness of the story: the character comedy based in Ichabod’s anxious heroism works far better. Burton seems here to have been trying to live up to the example of some of his generational fellows who came out of their own, hand-crafted cinema and wielded a harder edge to their deliriously funny, transgressive use of gore. On the other hand, Burton’s indulgence in this regard is arguably authentic in exemplifying the tradition of the Grand Guignol approach to Horror, specialising in both provoking and delighting an audience with spectacles of absurd bloodshed. Burton’s occasional problems with tone, a tendency that helped and harmed his Batman films with their sharp swerves from comic jauntiness to sleazy violence, also manifests at points.

The film never affects to be an authentic period piece, but rather a wry meditation on the emergence of modernity’s earliest glimmers from the pall of history, with both the wielders of religious authority and black magicians indicted as two sides of the same coin. The New York constabulary is seen showing off medieval torture machines even as Ichabod is trying to invent pathology and detective method at least seventy years early. “The millennium is almost upon us!” Ichabod declares to the judge early in the film, trying to inject future-shock promise into a moment still slithering out of medievalism. This connects with Burton’s recurring flourishes regarding the roots of cinema. This in turn feeds into Burton’s semi-sarcastic exploration of the familiar genre tension between rationalism and superstition, which he couches in terms of his established interest in damaged heroes. Burton’s emphasis on the formative backstory and resulting psychological dance of gallantry and derangement in the hero of Batman did much to define the obsession with such things in contemporary storytelling: heroes without backstories to overcomes in their character arcs are compulsory now where they were essentially pretexts in classic genre literature. Here, Ichabod experiences dreamily-styled flashbacks, all provoked by moments of shock and wounding as his travails in Sleepy Hollow forcing him to reckon with his past. It slowly emerges that his father, Lord Crane (Peter Guinness), had his mother (Lisa Marie) tortured and killed for practicing her own brand of white magic.

Burton saves particularly vivid stylisation for these fragmentary visions which contains hues of colour bled out of the rest of the film, portraying glimmering fairy-tale wonder giving way to awful nightmarish menace as the story unfolds, and childhood perspective gives way to adult, a state Burton essentially regards as less the achievement of maturity than the result of constant, scar-forming wounding. This idea is made literal as the scars on Ichabod’s hands came from gripping spiked torture implements in his shock at finding his mother locked in the iron maiden. Ichabod’s attempts to stand for reason and justice are rooted in his “bible-black tyrant” of a father’s killing of his “child of nature” mother, grievous patriarchy exterminating magical maternalism. A pattern Ichabod can’t help falling into again when his logic and the nature of appearances leads him to misunderstand Katrina’s attempts to protect him with her own white magic.

Katrina’s stoked memories of childhood are happier than Ichabod’s, recalling spending an idyllic time with her parents when they were poor tenants on Van Garrett land. Katrina takes Ichabod to the ruins of the cottage where they lived and points out to Ichabod an archer carved into the fireplace, an emblem that proves to have crucial meaning in the mystery of the horseman. Meanwhile Ichabod’s investigations uncover varying levels of greed, lust, cowardice, double-dealing, and manipulation convulsing through the Sleepy Hollow denizens, as when he follows Mary out into the woods when he sees her acting furtively, and beholds the spectacle of her screwing Steenwyck on a bed of clammy autumn leaves, slicing her hand open with a dagger and rubbing her blood on his back in a sex magick rite. Notary Hardenbrook quite literally hides in the closet to avoid being interviewed by Ichabod, and the detective finds him in possession of Van Garrett’s legal documents, which he claims and finds to be a will. During a brainstorming session in his room, Ichabod scribbles down random notes on paper without noticing they accrue to say, quite accurately, “the secret conspiracy point to Baltus,” as indeed all the horseman’s killings seem to have left Baltus as heir to the Van Garrett estate. Ichabod’s digging soon causes a rift between him and Katrina, who warns Ichabod her father isn’t that kind of man.

The unfolding mystery finally combusts when Baltus sees the horseman advancing on Mary as she collects ingredients for herbal medicine, and, assuming the ghoul kills her, flees to the town just as the denizens are collecting in the church. Chaos ensues in a brilliantly choreographed and filmed sequence, as the besieged villagers try to fend off the Hessian as he rides around the church, held out of consecrated ground but looking for some means to nab his prey Baltus. Meanwhile Steenwyck beats Lancaster to death when the doctor tries to warn Baltus he’s been the victim of a conspiracy, and Baltus shoots Steenwyck. Katrina urgently draws a talismanic symbol on the church floor with a piece of chalk. Finally the cunning Hessian makes a lance with a fencepost, ties a rope to it, and spears Baltus through the window, pulling him out of the church and across the grass to the fence line so the ghoul can claim his head. Katrina faints, and, in a glorious high tracking shot, Burton surveys the scene of sprawled bodies and the taunting emblem of Katrina’s magic, which seems to all to have been the invocation whipping up the horseman. Only later, as he prepares to depart Sleepy Hollow in sullen defeat and disillusion, determined to protect Katrina but also convinced she was his puppeteer, does Ichabod, twirling the bird bauble, realise he’s fallen prey to a game of illusions. Quickly enough he realises that the apparently killed Mary is the real puppeteer, having slain the servant Sarah and substituted her body for her own. Meanwhile Mary has appeared to Katrina, knocked her out, and spirited her to the windmill she uses as a base for her witchcraft.

Richardson’s fabulous performance, once properly unleashed, expertly juggles the diverging urges between camp melodrama and hard urgency manifest throughout the film, as Mary explains her plot with relish to Katrina, who is the last person standing between her and ownership of Sleepy Hollow. Her motive was vengeance for her family’s eviction from the cottage, which her father built, the archer symbol in the fireplace a reference to their family name of Archer. She and her twin sister were the two girls who encountered the Hessian, and Mary the one who brought about his death, and whilst the sister became the hermitic witch of the forest, Mary set about mastering black magic to resurrect the horseman and use him n her plot to kill off all potential alternative heirs to the Van Garrett and Van Tassel estates. Mary’s triumphal monologue succeeds in unifying the conventions of the whodunit, with the whys and hows of Mary’s campaign illustrated in a cascade of flashbacks and glimpsed vignettes, including of her murdering her sister and seducing Steenwyck, and a raft of bloody, bizarre business befitting a Horror movie. Mary’s revelations present her as a companion and counterpoint to Ichabod as another survivor of traumatic formative experiences driven to wage a private war with the world, but her informed by class rage and a psychopathic streak all her own – she’s established as already a bit of bitch when she betrays the Hessian – and evil, murderous rather than protective and empowering ends in mind. Burton would repeat the motif of the witchy avenger of social wrongs wielding sympathetic motives but ugly and egocentric method in Dark Shadows.

Depp has lost a lot of paint in the past few years after being accused of abusiveness in his personal life, legal wrangles, and too many goddamned Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Nonetheless it must be said that Sleepy Hollow was a fitting cap for the period he spent through most of the 1990s as the most interesting and adventurous leading man in Hollywood, and when his and Burton’s regular collaborations were still events. In Sleepy Hollow he gives one of the best lead performances in a Horror movie, dynamic in sustaining both the comic and serious aspects to his characterisation. His Ichabod, wielding a deft English accent, is reminiscent after a fashion of Christopher Reeve’s similarly good bipolar performance in Superman (1978), the would-be man of reason and boldness suffering as his whole body tenses up, nostrils thinning to tight slits and mouth twisting glumly, as he is faced with sights gruesome and fantastical. He strikes a Peter Sellers-esque figure as Ichabod constantly suggests his wits aren’t quite as keen as he fancies them. Nonetheless Ichabod fights through all his anxieties and limitations and evolves into a classical swashbuckling hero, even if he does still hide behind his girlfriend and faint dead away at the drama’s end. Ricci was just trying to break her way out of her child star mode with his first adult lead, and she’s a bit awkward in the role, particularly as Burton cast her as a complete inversion of her name-making role as the mordant Wednesday in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Burton-derivative The Addams Family films. That said, with her huge eyes contrasting her new blonde locks, Ricci undoubtedly seems perfectly at home in Burton’s world, and presents an interesting blend of innocent romanticism and nascent canniness reminiscent of Sarah Jessica Parker’s role as a swiftly evolving, era-conflating emblem in Ed Wood.

After his relatively lackadaisical action scenes in the Batman films, the action staging in Sleepy Horror represented a leap in craft and ingenuity for Burton – the mid-film fight with the Hessian and the climactic battles are some of the best-crafted scenes of their kind of the last few decades, kinetic whilst completely coherent. The climax commences with Ichabod and the horseman converging on the windmill, where Young Masbath manages to knock Mary out, and Ichabod, Katrina, and the boy try to elude by climbing up through the mill and returning to the ground by riding its sails, whilst Ichabod sets fire to the structure, which explodes as the wafting flour ignites. “Is he dead?” Young Masbath questions as the trio gaze back on the fiery ruin. “That’s the problem – he was dead to begin with,” Ichabod admits, and when the horseman emerges unharmed they flee in Ichabod’s carriage, chased through the haunted forest by the Hessian. This sequence, with its canted camera angles and looming, fearsome imagery, is a particularly triumph for Lubezki, and the highpoint of action staging in Burton’s career, working in elements of wild slapstick amidst the wild, careening struggle as Ichabod tries to keep the horseman at bay long enough to give Katrina and the boy a chance to escape, before the carriage crashes close to the Tree of the Dead.

The idea of blending horror and action is much more familiar now, and whilst Sleepy Hollow didn’t spark a new craze for gothic horror revivalism, it did, along with Jackson’s The Frighteners (1997) and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999), give directors licence to mate action and horror in interesting and often popular ways: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) and sequels, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2006), Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2005), and Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013) all arguably owe something to Burton’s example as they strove to render once fairly benign manifestations of horror tropes into newly fast, ferocious, and spectacle-friendly creations. The French director Christoph Gans was bolder in building on Burton’s example with his marvellous Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Beauty and the Beast (2014), likewise blending lush genre imagery with aspects of swashbuckling and even kung fu. It also kicked off a simmering penchant for movies reconfiguring familiar public domain stories into odd generic blends, manifest in fare like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010) and Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). A less than beneficial influence sometimes then perhaps, although I like both those movies.

The actual climactic confrontation is nonetheless close to perfect. After barely surviving the chase, the three heroes are confronted by Mary, who catches up on horseback, and the horseman by the Tree of the Dead. Before the Hessian can behead Katrina at Mary’s command, Ichabod tosses the Hessian his skull. Regaining his complete form and his hellish will, the Horseman picks up Mary and gives her a rather intense kiss – he eats her tongue out of her mouth, and rides with her bloody-mawed into the portal to hell under the tree. Magnificently ghoulish stuff, with a charge of perverse sexuality married to intimate nastiness, redolent of the kind of folkloric horror Burton and Irving reference. Mary’s hand is left protruding from the roots, beckoning in a last gesture of taunting humour, a sight that finally causes Ichabod to black out. Still, a little while later he with new bride Katrina and Young Masbath as servant travel back to New York, where Ichabod pre-writes Leonard Bernstein (“The Bronx is up, the Battery’s down, and home is this way!”) and escorts his new family through the newly cleansed, forward-looking Manhattan streets, all cosmic forces in new if only momentary harmony – man and woman, magic and science, past and future. Whilst it is uneven, it’s precisely for its bold and vigorous juggling act with both the imagery and the ideas of the genre that help Sleepy Hollow remain a rare achievement in modern Horror cinema.

Standard
1970s, Auteurs, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Shivers (1975) / The Brood (1979)

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Alternate titles for Shivers: They Came From Within ; The Parasite Murders ; Frissons

Director / Screenwriter: David Cronenberg

By Roderick Heath

Many directors have made great Horror movies. Some defined and redefined the genre. But few have become unshakeably associated with a specific wing of the genre that they largely invented, as David Cronenberg is with “body horror.” Cronenberg, born in Toronto in 1943, grew up a voracious consumer of EC Horror comic books, science fiction story magazines, and Western, pirate, and Disney animated movies, whilst his father tried to get him interested in art-house cinema, a seed that took a little longer to germinate. A writer from a young age, he started studying botany and biology at college but switched to English, and became interested in filmmaking after watching a short film made by a classmate. After making a pair of shorts of his own, he cofounded a filmmaking co-op with future collaborator and notable director in his own right, Ivan Reitman. Cronenberg made two more, increasingly ambitious short films after graduating, both of them hinging on common sci-fi concepts but given cruel and disturbing twists that took seriously the human meaning of their ideas. The first, 1969’s black-and-white Stereo, evinced an interest in the concept of telepathy Cronenberg would revisit for his breakout hit Scanners (1981). 1970’s colour film Crimes of the Future depicted a future where adult human women have died out, and men are increasingly driven to acts of paedophilia or else are to suicidal ends: Cronenberg would notably recycle the title for his most recent film of 2022.

Crimes of the Future established important elements of Cronenberg’s artistic vocabulary, particularly his fascination for modernist architecture and unease with its implied aesthetic and social meaning, and willingness to tackle themes few other directors would touch with a ten-foot pole. Both Cronenberg and Reitman would benefit from the increased Canadian government support for filmmaking and a resulting national cinema resurgence, exemplified at first by the likes of Donald Shebib’s soberly realistic buddy movie Goin’ Down The Road (1970) and Ted Kotcheff’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), but soon sparking a surge of Horror movies, including Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1973) and Black Christmas (1974) and Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (1973), a trend that would soon make Canadian cinema strongly associated with low-budget but cultishly beloved slasher movies. Cronenberg decided to get in on the act, but in a manner that would immediately establish his unique ability to play the exploitation movie game on his own terms. After several years directing TV episodes and telemovies, and some theatrical work, including writing a musical show for the popular magician Doug Henning (with music by Cronenberg’s future constant collaborator Howard Shore), Cronenberg wrote a script called Orgy of the Blood Parasites, which he then filmed in 15 days on a budget of $179,000, some of it sourced from the national film fund. Upon release the film did reasonable business, but it was soon also targeted by conservative politicians as a grotesque example of what taxpayer money was being spent on. A few decades later Cronenberg was awarded the highest Canadian honour. The wheel spins.

Cronenberg followed Shivers with a number of increasingly professional and heedlessly adventurous movies, mostly blending aspects of Horror and sci-fi – 1977’s Rabid, essentially a retread of Shivers if slicker and tighter, 1979’s The Brood, 1981’s Scanners, and 1983’s Videodrome, with a notable discursion for Fast Company (1979), a film about young racing freaks. Cronenberg’s steadily mounting reputation eventually saw him gain Hollywood backing (even as he remained a firmly Canada-based filmmaker) for the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1984), a remake of the ‘50s sci-fi film The Fly (1986), and the psychological horror-thriller Dead Ringers (1988), works that cemented his fame and for many represent his major achievements. Cronenberg then began stepping away from straight genre films, whilst not abandoning his signature aesthetics and provocations. As hot and cold as I tend to blow on much of Cronenberg’s later oeuvre, his early work remains uniquely potent. Not just for the authorial stamp he managed to apply on stringent budgets, coolly energetic and charged with unique personality whilst free of the mannered style he would later develop, but for the way he smartly blended the familiar structures and codes of standard genre storylines and used them, not unlike his perversely transforming characters, as vessels for his concerns, his preoccupation with the body, disease, transformation, and abnormality fuelled by his strictly atheistic artistic and philosophical viewpoints.

The American alternate title of Shivers, They Came From Within, is often noted by genre critics and historians as particularly cogent when it comes to analysing just what Cronenberg did with his work. Where the titles of the 1950s films like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Them! (1954) encapsulated the era’s anxieties, aimed towards the alien, the unknown, the pitiless other, Cronenberg explicitly recast the equation as the real source of threat and fear as sourced within ourselves, minds and bodies. Rather than seeing the post-World War II landscape of clean-lined modernist buildings and accompanying promises of physical and mental purity purveyed in modern consumerist culture and its wares, Cronenberg saw lurking neurosis blooming, alienation and divorcement, engendering a state of anxiety all the more insidious because it seems to have no cause. If classical Gothic horror as defined by artists like Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe provided a psychological landscape rooted in impressions of a decayed and diseased hangover of the past and bygone worldviews and powers, Cronenberg went to the opposite extreme, identifying the percolating fear that even in the most seemingly sterile and ahistorical of surrounds disease and decay still await, the illusion of stability just that. The body, increasingly the object of commoditised perfection in advertising, pop culture, and pornography in the mass media, post-Sexual Revolution age, visions of fit, trim, desirable beauty replete on television and in magazines, was still prey to the same forces as ever, but such forces had now taken on the aspect of a form of heresy to the modern religion. On the other hand, looking a little more deeply, one sees that Cronenberg’s key preoccupations are actually very old, indeed profoundly embedded in a medievalist worldview, where sex and death are perfectly linked, and their umbilicus is the welfare of body.

Cronenberg wasn’t the first to dabble with such themes, even if he was the first to definitively unify them. Cronenbergian ideas are apparent in ancestors like I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) with its specific take on fear of alien infiltration as invested with erotic and maternal anxiety. Roger Corman, with his 1963 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation The Haunted Palace, placed proto-Cronenbergian horror, manifest in imagery of alien impregnation and hordes of misshapen human by-products, wrapped within the more familiar, old-fashioned Gothic style. Shivers bore incidental but important resemblance to J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, published the same year as Shivers’ release, as Ballard’s novel took up the same idea of a shiny new residential building swiftly degenerating into lawless barbarism. The early scenes of Shivers display how well Cronenberg understood his assignment as a new player in the ‘70s exploitation movie game, but also clearly convey his ability to spike the brew with unique ingredients. The film opens with slide show advertising a swanky new apartment building development, Starliner Towers, built on an island in the St Lawrence River just outside Montreal. A smooth voice lists the building’s features and services over pictures of the building and its surrounds whilst the opening credits unfurl. Cronenberg’s targeting is immediately precise and deadly, lampooning the language of advertising and the illusions of aspiration it exploits – you too can be a superior human being if you live in our well-decorated sky-riding concrete boxes, with nature kept thoroughly in its place.

Cronenberg immediately and brutally attacks this as he cuts between benign scenes of residents shuffling in and out, like a pair of blonde newlyweds who settle down to sign their lease with the building manager, Merrick (Ronald Mlodzik, who had also appeared in Stereo and Crimes of the Future and is a key performer in Cronenberg’s early work), with a vicious crime: a teenage girl wearing a school uniform, Annabelle Brown (Cathy Graham), tries to hold out a man bashing his way through the door of her apartment. The man, Dr Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), manages to crash through and brutally assaults Annabelle despite her fierce resistance, finally throttling her to death. He lays her corpse on a table and cuts open her abdominal cavity with a scalpel after taping her mouth shut, and pours a bottle of acid into her guts. Hobbes then slices his own throat. This bewildering act of intimate violence seems to pass unnoticed by the rest of the building. Meanwhile, in another apartment, an insurance investigator, Nick Tudor (Allan Kolman, billed as Alan Migicovsky), is suffering from stomach pains, and acts coldly towards his concerned wife Janine (Susan Petrie). When he leaves for work, he first heads to Annabelle’s apartment, making it plain that he’s her lover. Tudor discovers the scene of horror there, and leaves without reporting it. The corpses are instead officially discovered by Dr Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), who runs a medical clinic catering to Skyliner residents, as he makes a house call. Roger is interviewed by a homicide detective, Heller (Barry Bolero), but both men are equally baffled by the crime.

Roger, who was taught by Hobbes at medical school, only begins to get an idea of what transpired when he talks to a friend, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), who worked with Hobbes. Linsky, looking through Hobbes’ papers, tells Roger the former professor was fired in disgrace after being caught fondling Annabelle during a visit to her girls’ school when she was 12, and then carried on having an affair with her and paying for her apartment at Skyliner. Linsky comments acerbically that, whilst being a pervert and a lousy teacher, Hobbes had unique genius for getting grants, and had a genuinely curious mind. One of his ideas was to breed a species of parasitic organism that could be implanted into human beings and take over the function of diseased organs. Roger and Linsky soon begin to realise that Hobbes had succeeded in creating such an organism and implanted it in Annabelle to test it, only for her to start showing signs of wanton instability, and his murder was an attempt to destroy the parasite before it could be spread. Trouble is, Annabelle has already slept with several men in the building, including Tudor and an older ladies’ man, Brad (actor unidentified), who has seen Roger for a check-up and reported similar abdominal pains to those Tudor is experiencing, and whilst Tudor himself refuses to see a doctor, Janine reports the issue to Roger.

Cronenberg spares time amidst this to note some of the denizens of Skyliner, like Brad chatting up women whilst also giving away his own anxieties as he talks about vitamin therapies in the clinic waiting room, and two old ladies ambling by the tower with unfortunate timing, as Tudor vomits a parasite over his balcony high above, and the bloody, wriggling creature lands on one woman’s plastic umbrella. The doorman (Wally Martin) sits about the lobby reading paperback potboilers and admits to having never drawn the gun he carries, and Merrick tries to deal with all problems with much sanguine salesmanship as he can muster. Roger himself is in a relationship with his nurse, Forsythe (Lynn Lowry). The parasite Tudor vomits up crawls into a sewer and gets back into the building, where some kids glimpse it squirming around, and it later springs upon a woman (Nora Johnson) in the laundry room, burning her face as squirms upon it before slipping into her mouth and taking up residence. This process is repeated in a daisy chain of rapes and flailing couplings, as everyone in the building becomes infected with the parasites, which renders them, after periods of disorientation and sometimes illness, powerfully and even violently aroused, some to the point of mindless compulsion.

The film’s most significant subplot involves Janine and her friend and confidant in the tower, Betts (Barbara Steele), a friendship that shades into a simmering lesbian flirtation. Betts is single and independent and self-possessed whilst Janine languishes in a mordant caricature of a standard heterosexual marriage. One that sees her husband becoming much fonder of the parasitic organism squirming inside his stomach and stimulating his most intensely onanistic desires, talking tenderly to the thing as it pokes at his belly, than he is of his increasingly distraught and frustrated wife. Only when the parasite’s influence grows strong does Tudor suddenly charge up with lust for Janine, who is understandably perturbed and flees their apartment for Betts’s. But Betts herself has already had a close encounter with one of the parasites, which crawls out of her bathtub drain as she’s bathing, and crawls inside her nether regions in a welter of blood and quasi-orgasmic squirming. Later she comes on to Janine in the same suddenly compulsive and urgent way and the two share a deep kiss: Cronenberg zeroes in to note a bulge in Betts’ throat passing on into Janine’s as she’s infected with a parasite, in a gleeful travesty of pornographic intensity.

The look and atmosphere of Shivers does indeed have something of a strong resemblance to ‘70s porn movies with its blatant fill lighting and filming in chintzy-neat environs, and sequences like the early depiction of Annabelle’s murder, where the actress looks obviously too old for her part, do resemble porn set-ups. Cronenberg turns this to his advantage. He manages to skewer both the niceties of genre movie exposition and the mercenary wont of erotica when he portrays Roger being tauntingly distracted by Forsyth as she strips off her nurse uniform as he’s trying to listen to Linsky’s explanation about what Hobbes was up to. The blank, bright look of the film gives it all a clinical severity. Cronenberg uses the building in a fashion reminiscent in a way of the apartments around James Stewart’s abode in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954): where in Hitchcock’s film the surrounding flats became cinematic projection surfaces for the hero’s various needs and anxieties, Cronenberg fills Skyliner with people whose secret fantasies and hungers soon take them over, spilling out of their little boxes and into public spaces to be enacted. The film was shot in a building designed by the famed modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, giving Cronenberg’s sense of both fetishism and suspicion for such locales a dose of specific grandeur. The cast is mostly made-for-TV anonymous save for Steele, the once-beloved English star of Italian Horror movies, and Lowry, who came to Cronenberg via George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) and Radley Metzger’s Score (1974), whilst Silver’s marvellously air no-nonsense intelligence and deep-voiced presence was carried over to Rabid.

Shivers’ narrative form has some strong resemblance to ‘70s disaster movies, like the Airport films, with their social cross-section characters and interest in evolving personal and sexual mores, forced into a tight space in a crisis situation, bringing out hidden dimensions of character from rank pathos to unexpected heroism. Moreover, the very end of the film strongly, and amusingly, resembles the ritual ending of the TV show The Love Boat, itself a derivation of the Airport template with disaster removed and concentrating instead on fulfilment-seeking Me Decade mores, everyone now installed in seemingly correct partnerings. A more experienced Cronenberg might have developed many of these character vignettes more to wield more concisely developed ironies and to pack more metaphorical and thematic punch, but on the other hand their randomness does befit his insistence on treating the inhabitants of Skyliner more as subjects in a sociological-scientific study. Hobbes’ name echoes back to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes with his famously pessimistic view of humanity and nature, and his design for his parasitical creation, Linksy says when reading Hobbes’ notes to Roger over the phone, provides what might as well be a mission statement for Cronenbergian cinema, “‘Man is an animal that thinks too much – an over-rational animal that’s lost touch with its body and its instincts’…In other words, too much brains and not enough guts.” Linsky again quotes Hobbes in his design for the parasite: “A combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that’ll hopefully turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy.”

But Shivers could also be, gross and disturbing as it is, the closest thing Cronenberg has made to an out-and-out comedy. The story set-up with all the buttoned-down neighbours becoming increasingly randy and wild is the stuff of farce. Visions like the parasite, after being vomited up, splatting against a biddy’s umbrella, and then leaping out of a washing machine to plant itself on a host’s face, evoke utter absurdity before swivelling hard to the grotesque. Other, sardonic touches like Linsky and Roger squabbling over the lunch they’re munching down in between discussing Hobbes’ gut-infesting creation, have a Hitchcockian flavour. Inherent in Shivers’ thesis is a darkly concerted satire on post-1960s mores, with Cronenberg providing a metaphor for the accruing costs of a rapidly mutating social survey in which everyone has become a kind of free-floating entity seeking out erotic and emotional fulfilment. This implicitly sceptical attitude helped earn Cronenberg the first of many attempts to critique him for a lurking reactionary streak, which would be amplified by elements of his films like the gross portrait of neurotic matriarch in The Brood. Cronenberg’s habitual disinterest in clarifying his thinking on such matters didn’t help. Crucially, Cronenberg’s approach keeps in mind the essential duty of the Horror genre artist, which is to provoke rather than try to mollify the audience’s anxiety, to enter deeply into profoundly uneasy fantasies and psychological zones – one reason why the genre still resist being entirely domesticated despite shifts that have seen a filmmaker like Cronenberg move from the very fringe of culture to its respectable centre. Whilst Cronenberg’s early work gained serious attention in some quarters in its time as well as unease and revulsion in others, it took the age of AIDS to make what he was getting at seem urgent, as sexual activity was suddenly seen as consequential again as it was before the invention of the contraceptive pill, and Cronenberg’s cinema was taken up with particular fervour by queer cineastes as the disease impacted their community, appalled by the strange spectacle of bodies rebelling and collapsing.

Shivers is a messy movie, one that Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have thought through too deeply, instead representing a madcap travelogue through the building blocks of his imaginative concerns, invested with an energy and abandon that sometimes seems more reminiscent of Romero or Ken Russell than his own, later, carefully modulated style. Much of Shivers unfolds in a state of flux without a clear narrative backbone, and an edge of the surreal to some of its vignettes in a story that’s supposed to be at least vaguely couched in rational motivations. Aspects of the story don’t make much sense, like why the parasites are so dangerously corrosive outside the body, and the differing behaviour of the infected, although the latter detail can, arguably, be the product of their different characters: the parasites don’t control them but provoke them to unleash their most deeply egocentric behaviours. That Cronenberg opens the movie bluntly with Hobbes’ crime and death means that the plot is left to be explained by Linsky rather than discovered and enacted. When he would return to a similar kind of maniacal savant figure for the likes of The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers, and Cosmopolis (2012), Cronenberg would find rich dramatic value in making them central antiheroes. And yet the messiness nonetheless is a large part of what makes Shivers interesting, particularly as the DNA just about the whole of Cronenberg’s future oeuvre is somewhere in the churn, and indeed its many body horror followers, including Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

The scenes focusing on the Tudors, with the husband becoming fixated and even charmed by his new, transforming, suddenly bilaterally inhabited body, much to his wife’s flailing despair, before monstrosity consumes him, presents all the essentials of The Fly in miniature. When Linsky comes to the building to see Tudor at Rogers request, he’s attacked by one of the parasites which burns his face, forcing Linsky to try and kill it, whereupon Tudor launches on Linsky and kills him to protect one of his spawn, in a scene of striking, agonised pathos. When Roger finds Linsky dead and Tudor standing over him, the doctor abandons his humanism and guns Tudor down. Roger, having saved Forsythe from being raped by the infected doorman by shooting him dead, finds she’s already been infected, a parasite bobbing gruesomely within her mouth as she experiences a spasm. Before the reveal, Forsythe raves on about a dream she had where a dirty old man explained to her that everything in life experience contains an erotic element – another thesis statement from the director. Cronenberg’s delight in fillips of esoteric detail and weird organisations is also in evidence, as when Linsky notes that Hobbes gained funding from an organisation calling itself the Northern Hemisphere Organ Transplant Society.

Shivers plainly takes a great deal of licence from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as it portrays a steady degeneration and collapse of the protagonists before the increasing hordes of the infected, and The Crazies, with its theme of spreading contagion causing aberrant behaviour: Lowry’s presence makes the connection more immediate. Some later scenes of the infected launching on the heroes in narrow corridors and crashing through barricades, as well as the setting and satirical purview, might have planted seeds in Romero’s mind for Dawn of the Dead (1978). Another evident influence is Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in the general portrait of a relentlessly subsumed populace being made into something other than entirely human, and the revelation of Forsyth’s infection strongly recalls the similar twist in the Siegel film. Steele’s presence meanwhile connects the film to a different tradition, her dark, tantalising features, so perfect for the sensuous witches of Italian Gothic Horror, here embodies a modernised version of the same kind of figure.

As the building’s populace is entirely consumed Roger, the last uninfected men, is forced to abandon Forsythe after initially trying to gag her and carry her out of the building. He scurries around the corridors witnessing increasingly depraved sights, like a man leading twin teenage girls acting like dogs on leashes, and a father who enthusiastically exhibits his daughter’s beauty before grasping her in a passionate embrace. Cronenberg’s perturbing interest in paedophilia as a kind of ultimate marker on the fringe of human behaviour, evinced in Crimes of the Future and likely informed by admiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, recurs here, as when a waiter attacks and infects and mother and prepubescent daughter in an elevator. Later they emerge to assault and infect the doorman, girl clinging close to her rapist-lover-infester who sniffs her hair whilst she consumes his suggestive gift of food, before placing blood-smeared mouth on the guard’s to pass on the parasite – another scene that nods heavily to Night of the Living Dead, when the daughter consumes her father. But Cronenberg’s event horizon of behaviour is a descent into completely wanton and amoral sexual behaviour rather than cannibalism. He defines Hobbes as a pervert for a reason, to make him seem less like a pied piper of sex and more like a pathological case who, unable to stand being written off as a weirdo by society, instead tries to remake society in his own image.

Nonetheless the film’s climax is invested with a sarcastic ring of orgiastic festivity and revolutionary explosion, as Roger is finally driven into the building’s swimming pool where Forsythe, Betts, and Janine bob like sirens given up to the new flesh and awaiting their Odysseus to bring under the spell. Roger is crushed by a mass of converging infected and brought into the fold by Forsythe’s consuming kiss. Cronenberg dissolves to the sight of the building’s denizens driving out in a convoy from the underground car-park, heading out into the world to continue spreading their gospel. Roger and Forsythe are glimpsed as a reborn pair of super-swingers, Roger with cigar jutting from his lips and the orchid-wearing Forsythe lighting it for him, followed out by Janine and Betts and other couples. Cronenberg ends the film with one of their cars cruising on the freeway at night whilst a radio announcer describes an outbreak of violent sexual assaults around the city.

The Brood, Cronenberg’s third feature made four years after Shivers, displays a great leap in control on all levels for the director, from narrative and conceptual emphasis to directorial technique. It marked his first collaboration with Shore, whose eerie, sophisticated scoring makes an immediate mark. The film’s opening is betrays the new, crisp sense of purpose, as Cronenberg opens cold on an intense and confronting depiction of psychiatrist Dr Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a psychiatrist who’s created a new field of therapy he dubs “psychoplasmics,” engaged in role-playing therapy with patient Mike Trellan (Gary McKeehan), whose deep neurosis is sourced in anger and shame for his father. Raglan deftly draws out Mike’s hang-ups in playing the part of the father, trying to draw Mike through to a cathartic rupture, climaxing when Mike shows off seething buboes manifesting on his torso, the physical expression of his mental anguish. The session is occurring before an audience of interested colleague, acolytes, and students, at Raglan’s Somafree Clinic. Amongst the onlookers is Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), an architect who looks on with grim fascination whilst others comment with awe that Raglan is a genius. Frank has come to Raglan’s therapeutic retreat to fetch his daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds), who’s been on a visit to her mother Nola (Samantha Eggar). Nola is currently being isolated for intense therapy with Raglan in a cottage separate to the main clinic. She and Frank are separated and estranged because of Nola’s intense, borderline maniacal neuroses. When he gets Candice home, Frank is appalled to find scratches and bruises all over her back, and, assuming Nola made them, looks into preventing Nola reclaiming her, getting Nola’s mother Juliana (Nuala Fitzgerald) to look after her as he goes on the warpath.

The blunt opening on a process of enquiry and revelation echoes on in Cronenberg’s films to the infamous panel demonstration at the start of Scanners that ends with a head exploding, and the lengthy early therapy scenes of A Dangerous Method (2011), a film which returned to Cronenberg’s interest in and scepticism for the world of psychiatry. McKeehan gives a fiendishly convincing performance as the emotionally crucified and desperately needy man-child whose jealousy at being displaced by Nola as the focus of Raglan’s attentions ultimately proves important to the story, whilst Reed instantly emblazons Raglan’s blend of cool professional authority mated to insidious rat cunning when it comes to getting into the heads of his patients. Cronenberg aims acid satire on the New Age therapy craze of the ‘70s as a new form of secular religion, portraying the arrogant Raglan as a kind of cult leader, provoking people in his care to the point of crisis in acts of theatre whilst also rendering himself a messianic figure of epiphany and redemption. “You sound hostile,” he remarks coolly to Frank as he confronts him with righteous wrath.

Cronenberg has been unusually forthcoming about the origins of The Brood, which he wrote in a frenzy of purgative activity, sourced in his bitter divorce and custody battle with his first wife. As this suggests, where Shivers was a communal portrait, The Brood is a tightly focused character and family drama with added elements of surreal grotesquery. The Brood also has a reputation for being perhaps the darkest and most disturbingly violent of his early films: certainly compared to the flashes of black comedy in Shivers or the interludes of action movie-tinged pyrotechnics of Scanners it’s a compressed and ruthless ride, one that enters into a zone of unmediated expression of personal angst that’s rather singular in Cronenberg’s career. As Frank delves deeper into Raglan’s method and plans a lawsuit, he’s thrust into the company of a disaffected former patient, Jan Hartog (Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman), who has a growth on his neck which he keeps hidden and a form of cancer both of which he says were caused by psychoplasmic therapy. Meanwhile, as Raglan works on her in their therapy sessions, Nola expresses vehement rage at her mother, who she accuses of beating and mistreating her, and her father who weakly refused to intervene and eventually left. Meanwhile Juliana explains to young Cindy that Nola was often in hospital as a child because she would suffer spontaneous physical injuries: when young Nola was already manifesting the psychoplasmic talent which Raglan prizes as the perfect test case to prove his theories.

Eggar, who had first gained attention in William Wyler’s The Collector (1966) as the victim of an obsessive and destructively controlling young man who kidnaps her, here was cast in something close to the opposite role. Eggar offers an unnervingly convincing performance as the kind of deeply egocentric and self-mesmerising mania who might well be conjuring crimes and abuses from her past to justify more nebulous discontent, and constantly whipping her emotions up with scant justifications, largely at Raglan’s enabling encouragement, as her spectacle of suffering is his bounty of data. What neither of them is entirely aware of is that the physical by-products of these sessions enact her poisonous emotions. Cronenberg doesn’t entirely reveal what’s going on until the climax, when Nora displays for Frank’s horrified edification that through the psychoplasmic process she’s grown a new, exterior womb, and gives birth to drone-like and deformed children who vaguely resemble Candice, and who live in the attic of Nora’s hut. The Brood, as Raglans calls them, are also possessed of malevolent and murderous intelligence, and set out to deliver Nora’s wrath. One of them sneaks into Juliana’s house and beats her to death with a kitchen mallet, Candice glimpsing sight of the bloodied body sprawled on the floor and the diminutive killer, glaring down at her from the staircase.

When Nora’s father Barton (Henry Beckman) comes to Toronto for the funeral, he approaches Raglan to get him to bring Nora out, but is appalled when Raglan refuses to interrupt Nora’s seclusion. Later Barton gets drunk and weepy in Juliana’s house, and Frank goes to pick him up, leaving Candice in the care of her teacher, Ruth Mayer (Susan Hogan), to whom Candice has turned to as a maternal substitute and represents a faint glimmer of romantic interest for Frank. Before Frank can reach him, however, Barton is attacked and killed by the small assassin, which beats him to death with some glass globes. Entering the house, Frank sees and pursues the dwarf, only to corner it in the bathroom where it suddenly curls up and dies. Meanwhile Nora tries to ring Frank at his house, and when Ruth answers the phone, Nora immediately assumes she’s Frank’s lover, and becomes consumed with the conviction she can have perfect family happiness again if only she can get Ruth out of her life.

The Brood could be described as the ultimate cinematic adaptation of Philip Larkin’s famous poem ‘This Be The Verse,’ with its sentiment, “They fuck you, your mum and dad,” as Cronenberg expresses an aching sense of the way cycles of damage repeat in families. Candice (and other children) is repeatedly exposed to the brutalising effects of the chaos enveloping her family, emotional damage made literal by the lurking, murderous homunculi. Nora denies to Raglan that she wants to fashion Candice into another version of her, but by the film’s end has achieved exactly that result. Frank, whilst far more practical and forceful than Barton, who’s reduced to weeping in despair over the failure of his life duties just before he’s murdered, has almost the opposite problem in trying to save his daughter: he has such a vehement, and largely justified, vein of anger that he has trouble keeping on a leash when he requires diplomatic cool. The climax revolves around this very issue, as Frank has to keep Nora mollified long enough to ensure Candice’s rescue from the Brood, but cannot keep his cool when she exposes her most perverse new habits to him, a lapse that has fatal consequences. Meanwhile, when a pathologist examines the corpse of the dead homunculus Frank brings in, he notes that it has no sexual organs, and with symbolic portent comments, “I should think his vision of the world is very distorted. I’m pretty certain he only sees in black-and-white, no colours.” A product of rage that is the embodiment of the lack of nuance.

Cronenberg himself noted that despite its highly original qualities, The Brood was actually the most classically structured of his horror films. That’s easy enough to make out. It sustains a familiar alternation of plot development and suspense sequences punctuated by slasher movie-like killings, and recalls old genre films like The Invisible Ray (1936) in dealing with a victim/villain, newly endowed with supernormal characteristics, using that weird talent to commit a series of killings in revenge for perceived wrongs. Raglan is an wittily updated version of a mad scientist, and his eventual comeuppance recalls the end of Island of Lost Souls (1932). A scene of him creeping tensely through the Brood’s room trying not to disturb them recalls the end of The Birds (1963), and the concept of a shadow school populated by alien children echoes Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1963), which also starred Reed. The gnarled, murderous “children” were plainly inspired by the ending of one of Cronenberg’s favourite films, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The connection between Nola and the Brood and the idea of psychoplasmics itself is reminiscent of Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956), with its driving concept of mind-projecting alien technology spawning monstrous actualisations of the id that attack and annihilate threats.

Cronenberg nonetheless fuses and compresses his influences and kneads them to serve his personal urges. The concept of people essentially becoming artists who work with a palette of their own flesh is one that bobs up repeatedly in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. This idea is embryonic in Shivers, with Hobbes’ efforts to create the parasite his own attempt to assert the transformative potential of creation over social convention, and is apparent in The Fly, Naked Lunch (1990), eXistenZ (1998) and the latter Crimes of the Future. The warping and transitioning of the flesh becomes another tool of, and also a tool working upon, human action and creation. It’s approached here on a most visceral and perturbing level, of course, with Nora constructing homunculi that paint in shades of red. Nora, as a fierce and vindictive exemplar of the very idea of the monstrous feminine, is contrasted with Ruth, an image of unthreatening femininity, with her pixie hairdo and job teaching young children (although not in any way childlike herself and canny enough to recognise getting involved with Frank at this point in his life isn’t a great idea). She teaches kids in one of those concrete-and-glass institutional structures that anyone who was a kid in the ‘70s or ‘80s will instantly recognise.

After the discovery and examination of the drone homunculus, Frank naturally assumes there’s no further danger, but whilst he chats with one of Candice’s classmates’ mothers outside the school, inside Ruth is confronted by two more of the homunculi, who gained entrance to the class because they dress in bright parkas like the other kids. The homunculi snatch up wooden mallets for the class’s woodblock games, launch on Ruth, and beat her to death before the horror-frozen kids, except for one lad who dashes out for help and fetches Frank. He arrives too late, the homunculi having snatched Candice away and left the empty-eyed Ruth in a pool of blood. This scene, one of the most infamous in his oeuvre and indeed of the genre, highlights Cronenberg’s most viciously unsentimental streak, eliminating all semblance of familiar story and emotional cushioning, and makes the dark unease about what the kids are witnessing all the more disturbingly immediate. He still has an eye for pathos, as Frank drapes a piece of crepe paper with a child’s scrawling upon it over Ruth’s staring eyes. The height of outré in 1979, Ruth’s killing now evokes the more frighteningly immediate spectre of violence in schools.

Cronenberg continues to follow the logic of a certain brand of New Age therapeutic advice, with Nora literalising the act of cutting everyone who interferes with her sense of personal mission (in current parlance they’d be dismissed as toxic). Whilst Nora doesn’t know what her homunculi have done, she experiences the emotional results, reporting to Raglan after Ruth’s death that “I just don’t feel threatened by her anymore.” By this time Frank has learned from Mike and Jan that Raglan has cleared out all the residents at the clinic save Nora, because, having seen the photo of the dead homunculus in the newspaper, Raglan has realised the Brood are dangerous but he still doesn’t want to give up on Nora. Frank, searching for Candice with the police, first checks out the apartment Nora was living in after they broke up, and eventually concludes the homunculi must be taking her all the way to the clinic: Cronenberg offers a glimpse of the three siblings ambling along the highway’s edge amidst the snowy, midwinter Ontario landscape. When Frank arrives and confronts Raglan, the doctor is shocked by the news of Ruth’s death and the probability Candice is now with the Brood, and he sends Frank to talk to Nora, to keep her calm and distracted long enough for him to bring Candice out. Frank confronts Nora and starts promising her the moon, and Nora, as if challenging him, decides to reveal her secret and lifts up her robes to display her growth and external womb, which disgorges one of her new children.

This revelation is Cronenberg’s piece de resistance of gruesome outrageousness, and perhaps the most successful dovetailing of metaphor, plot device, and sheer what-the-absolute-fuck visceral impact in Cronenberg’s cinema, delivered somehow utterly straight-faced but charged with just the faintest lilt of absurdist camp. Still it gets taken a step further, thanks to Eggar’s delighted ferocity in the role, as Nora begins licking the blood and afterbirth off the infant like a mother dog with a pup, a vision curtailed by censors at first. Much like Tudor in Shivers, Nora wields a strange and powerful pride in her body’s new expression. Frank’s disgusted reaction ruptures the illusion, and she becomes worked up, stirring the Brood from their cots and launching upon Raglan as and Candice near the door. Raglan shoots several of the Brood but the rest wrestle him to the floor and thrash, beat, and even bite him to death. The Brood then try to kill Candice, as Nora vows to Frank she’s rather seen their daughter dead than with him: Candice locks herself in the bathroom whilst the Brood claw at the door, ripping a hole through it. Frank finally, with a maniacal glaze, wraps his hands around Nora’s throat and, with her external womb and new homunculus squashed between them, he throttles her to death. The homunculi die with her, allowing Frank to leave with Candice.

Cronenberg’s concluding revelation that the weeping, near-catatonic Candice is displaying signs of having developed her mother’s psychoplasmic talent in compensation for a series of ruinous emotional shocks, presents a bleak signature for the director that’s similar to but also inverts the end of Shivers. Where that film found the blackest of black humour in the failure of the heroes and the prospect of the oncoming liberation and “beautiful, mindless orgy,” The Brood sups arsenic-dark irony as Frank’s efforts to rescue his daughter seem only to have helped perpetuate the cycle of abuse and maladaptation. And yet the ultimate end of this cannot be known: for a parent, every day is a new day of creation. Cronenberg dances close to the edge of the pathological with The Brood, and it earned suspicion from some quarters of expressing seething misogyny. And perhaps it does, but it also weaponises and analyses the impulse, the awe and repulsion inspired by the very idea of the birth process and the mystified realm of motherhood. Like most of Cronenberg’s best cinema, it finds a raw nerve, presses it, and keeps pressing.

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Halloween Horror Film Freedonia

Halloween Horror Kill List

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Hi there. Just a post where I’ll be placing links to all this year’s Halloween Horror pieces when they’re posted on my two sites, hopefully making them easier to keep track of, so you poor babies don’t strain your handsy-wandsies clicking too often.

1: Messiah of Evil at This Island Rod

2: Shivers and The Brood at Film Freedonia

3. Horrors of the Black Museum at This Island Rod

4. Sleepy Hollow at Film Freedonia

5. From Hell It Came at This Island Rod

6. The Old Dark House at Film Freedonia

7. Woman Who Came Back at This Island Rod

8. It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula at Film Freedonia

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1960s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, French cinema, Thriller

Les Biches (1968) / La Femme Infidèle (1969)

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Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenwriters: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff / Claude Chabrol

In memoriam: Jean-Louis Trintignant 1930-2022
In memoriam: Michel Bouquet 1925-2022

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years Claude Chabrol, as if slyly mimicking one of his apparently benign but quietly, roguishly purposeful protagonists, turned out deftly crafted movies with the taciturn relentlessness of a fine jeweller in a small, dimly-lit workshop. Amongst the ranks of the French Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol stood out for many reasons. A provincial lad rather than a Parisian, Chabrol was the son and grandson of small town pharmacists, but he became obsessed with movies from the age of 12 onwards. When he headed off to study pharmacology at the Sorbonne he also hung around Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française and other movie theatres, where he made a clutch of friends fellow young movie freaks with odd ideas, men with names like Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette. After a stint in military service, Chabrol joined his pals in working for a film commentary magazine called Cahiers du Cinema. Chabrol took up some of the ideas of their elder statesman Andre Bazin in advocating the use of deep focus photography in aiding a generally realistic kind of art that engaged the audience’s attention without compelling it. He became particularly obsessed with the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, the dark poets of genre cinema, although Chabrol would absorb their fascination for criminality and the abnormal impulses in seemingly ordinary people and wed it to a more particular palette.

Whilst his pals faced making the leap from critics to filmmakers by shooting short films and learning craft on film crews, Chabrol used a lucky windfall from an inheritance to finance his debut, 1958’s Le Beau Serge, often seen as the first true movie of the French New Wave (depending on how one feels about Agnes Varda’s La Pointe-Courte, 1954). Le Beau Serge, essentially a character study of two troubled young medical students, proved a success. Chabrol quickly followed it with Les Cousins, a film that more properly instituted Chabrol’s career as it became known, evincing his fascination with morally ambivalent characters belonging to the French bourgeoisie, punctuated by acts of murder. Chabrol wrote the film with his soon-to-be regular collaborator Paul Gégauff, who would eventually be stabbed to death by his second wife. Chabrol’s early financial successes allowed him to help several of his New Wave compatriots make their own debuts. But Chabrol had trouble maintaining his profile through much of the 1960s even as he evolved in a different, more commercial direction from his New Wave fellows. His few admired and successful films in this period, like Les Bonne Femmes (1960), a portrait of four young women working in the same store but on different paths in life, and a study of a notorious serial killer, Landru (1962), were interspersed with failures that betrayed an uncertainty about just what kinds of films he wanted to make.

The ones he did make included several comic spy movies, and a tilt at winning some international traction, with the bilingual-shot, Anthony Perkins-starring The Champagne Murders (1967), a film that pointed where Chabrol was heading, including in showcasing the talents of his actress wife Stéphane Audran. Chabrol wed Audran, with whom he first worked on Les Cousins, after his first marriage broke up, and she soon became the obsessive focal point and ingenious performing linchpin of his films. Beginning with Les Biches Chabrol began working with the producer André Génovès, and their collaboration churned out a string of icy-crisp psychological thrillers including La Femme Infidèle, This Man Must Die (1969), Le Boucher (1970), La Rupture (1970), and Just Before Nightfall (1971), all slow, unnerving tales punctuated with carefully observed and prepared acts of violence, and often sporting ambiguous resolutions. Pauline Kael would quip these films resembled sardines in a can even as they largely remain his most famous works. Eventually Chabrol resumed varying his output, interspersing the thrillers he was now famous for with political and personal dramas an even the odd dark comedy, right up until his death in 2010. Chabrol confessed at one point that he made lesbianism an aspect of the plot of Les Biches to try and juice up its commercial prospects, but it seems to have helped Chabrol nail down the texture of woozy, strange, displaced sensuality that would charge his movies in this phase.

Les Biches, a title which translates as “The Does” – as in deer, a female deer – wields elusive mesmerism as it counts down the moments to what one feels instinctively from the start will be a bad end. Les Biches also ends at more or less a point which La Femme Infidèle (which would receive a slick and Hollywoodised remake years later in the form of Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, 2002), uses as its pivot, tweaking narrative formula several degrees by displacing the inevitable moment of rupture to the middle of the film, and then studying the aftermath with much the same blandly dissembling style as it offered the prelude. Chabrol had famously identified the “transference of guilt” theme in Hitchcock’s films, and it proved a shared point of interest for the two directors as a zone of concern where psychological phenomena and Catholic theology overlap. This is the fascination for the way characters find themselves inheriting and contending with the wrongs of others, often manifesting as some sort of false accusation of a transgressive act, with a subtler underlying game of affinities, and the way this currency of moral debt underpins “civilised” existence on an explicit and subliminal level, as every urge to break a rule is matched by a desire to restore it. It’s a tendency Chabrol ultimately identifies as close to essential in close human relationships like a marriage, although he first began playing with it on Le Beau Serge’s study of two friends.

Les Biches seems to sidestep that kind of traditional moral prism nonetheless by focusing on what were at the time considered perverse relationships, only to find such reflexes can be especially strong in such cases. Les Biches concerns the triangular love affair that binds the imperious, idiosyncratic rich girl Frédérique (Audran), the reticent waif known as only as Why (Jacqueline Sassard), and listless ladykiller architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and tells it in five named parts – three central chapters named for the three characters, plus a prologue and epilogue. The prologue recounts how Frederique encounters Why one day whilst sauntering around the Seine, in a sequence that has a studied feeling of erotic portent, like a fantasy realised. Why attracts attention with the naïf chalk art of does she scratches into the paving, and with her scrappy beauty, swathed in faded blue denim, whilst Frederique looks like she could be auditioning for a Dietrich-and-Von-Sternberg-influenced Vogue photo shoot: she in turn gains Why’s attention by tossing her a 500 franc note. The pair adroitly cruise each-other, and Frederique takes Why back to her house, treating her to a hot bath as they flirt and skirt around the point until Why tries to dress. Frederique, after insisting on tying her shirt in a knot across her wet belly, that starts caressing and picking at the buckle of her jeans. One of the great sexy vignettes of cinema, and also a mere entrée to a film that carefully avoids giving sexploitation thrills whilst conveying a deep-flowing stream of erotic fervour.

Chabrol employs a quick, witty fade from Frederique opening Why’s pants to a title card announcing the first chapter proper, named for Frederique: the goodies are opened but the trove is going to prove troublesome. Frederique takes Why to stay at her villa at Saint Tropez, close to the Port de Cogolin, a yacht basin she owns and operates and inherited from her grandfather. Frederique is vague and evasive in explaining the site’s roots in some kind of wartime deal. Frederique and Why, strolling around the basin and lying in the sun on a yacht, as Why tells Frederique she’s a virgin, a fact she expects Frederique to be sceptical about (“I think it’s noble of you,” Frederique assures her with a listless yawn), and Frederique recounts her own listless affairs with local yobs during the boring winters (“Games of bowls and games of cards…and other games as well…and then there are the intellectual pleasures.”) but also says she feels Why needs exposure to her peculiar little world, and Why does indeed fit in well, proving an accomplished bowls player. As well as stalwart housekeeper Violetta (Nane Germon) Frederique is also keeping at the villa Robèque (Henri Attal) and Riais (Dominique Zardi), a pair of eccentric, prickly, possibly gay men, and she regularly hosts parties for the local bohemians. Frederique and Why’s affair seems to be fairly idyllic until, at one of those parties, Frederique plays cards with Robèque, Riais, and Paul, one her acquaintances around town. Let the games begin.

Chabrol took some inspiration for Les Biches from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (Gégauff had already written René Clement’s adaptation, Purple Noon, 1960), flipping genders but retaining the essential motif of a poor stray taken in by a wealthy host-friend-lover and finding they can’t stand being weaned off the teat when the time comes. The title evokes toe-dabbing sinuosity of deer, a deeply sarcastic evocation of the peculiarly feminine type of violence depicted, and the balletic strains of Debussy, infusing the dances of character and camera. Chabrol’s peculiar art soon evinces itself in the way he seems to be extremely plainspoken about most of what goes on in the movie, both dramatically and stylistically, and yet remains tantalisingly reticent about the most vital. At the outset Frederique seems to be the character with all the power, broadly conforming to a stereotype of a wealthy, decadent lesbian with her penchant for mannish if still chic clothing, doing what Why suggests is a man’s job, her roguish seduction, and playing the manipulative queen bee for all in her sphere. She has a collection of game trophies and relics obtained from safaris in Kenya and Mozambique, as “I love hunting.” She’s also the emblematic representative of a privileged class, drawing people into her orbit with money and then controlling them with it.

But as events unfold Frederique proves a more complex and rather less formed personality than she poses as. The card match that introduces Paul proves a subtle, visually and behaviourally charged set-piece, as Paul notices Why and constantly glances at her, whilst she hovers a distance behind Frederique, munching on a suggestive apple. Frederique, dominating the table in both deed and in Chabrol’s framing, becomes increasingly glazed with a heavy-lidded and tight-wound as veneer of stoic calm as she continues to fleece Robèque and Riais and starts bossing Why around. Later, when the party breaks up, Paul and Why go off for a drive together, and Frederique promises to le Robèque and Riais keep the money she won off them if they’ll follow the couple and tell her what happens between them. The proposition here seems initially obvious – Frederique, fearing her lover will be stolen from her by a man, manipulates her two hapless minions to keep an eye on them and see if her fears will come true. And yet as the story unfolds Frederique sets her own sights on Paul, initially perhaps for revenge, but possibly also having deliberately wanted Why and Paul to pair off, perhaps to get rid of Why, or to use her as a kind of test case in a scientific experiment, as if wanting to see if Why will lose her virginity and what will happen as a result. Why herself hesitates before letting Paul seduce her with a warning on her lips, whether to inform him she’s a virgin or she’s been sleeping with Frederique, only to decide whatever it was isn’t worth confessing. The innermost thoughts and experiences of Chabrol’s characters tend to remain opaque in this manner. But the detonations that punctuate their behaviour aren’t necessarily more explicable to them than to the onlooker.

This idea is most vividly illustrated in the pivotal killing in La Femme Infidèle, where the urge to commit the killing seems to come and go like a muscle tic. “Of course,” Chabrol told Time Out magazine in 1970, “I’m not interested in solving puzzles. I am interested in studying the behaviour of people involved in murders. If you don’t know who the murderer is, that would seem that he is not interesting enough to be known and studied.” And yet Les Biches holds its cards close to its chest until the very end about who will kill and will be killed, and the manoeuvrings of the three characters ultimately tells us who they are without revealing all of what they are. It’s conceivable Paul might catch Frederique and Why together and experience some spasm of chauvinist outrage, just as it’s credible Frederique could kill one of the other in a show of desperate power. Or that Why’s bouts of floating melancholia might be hiding a maniacal streak, sparked by a need to cling on to what little toehold she has in the world of wealth and human warmth she currently has as an eccentric exile, and offence at being ejected by not one but two lovers.

All of this exists nonetheless in a superficial state of flux in a movie that plays out for much of its length as a muted study of sexual and romantic disaffection and uneasy cohabitation. A seemingly casual joke early in the film in which Frederique can’t tell a first edition from a reprint encodes the lurking danger of smudging authentic and chosen affinities. Les Biches could be called, in the fashion of Chabrol’s friend Eric Rohmer, a winter’s tale (much as Rohmer’s films often play as Chabrol films without murders, carefully inscribed legends about small but life-changing epiphanies): Saint Tropez, playground of the rich and famous in summer, is in the off-season just another dull resort town, the local beds as much refuges as playpens. The situation could easily be played for Buñuelian black comedy, new-age Lubistch, sex romp teasing, or hardcore porn. Instead Chabrol pushes cinematographer Jean Rabier’s camera on in motion, refuses to let anything resolve, forcing the sense of flux, travelling without moving. The sense of inertia extends to the careful art direction and costuming, mostly brightly lit and carefully dressed in pastel shades, rather than colours redolent of consuming passion. Frederique is often glimpsed in arrays of black and white, her authority and security encoded in hard clean hues, and a habit sufficiently signature that Why making herself over in Frederique’s guise becomes a statement, a game with identity suggesting interchangeable personas: “Using other people’s things is like changing your skin,” Why notes to the bewildered Paul.

The cult of the idea of the actress, thing of at once specific beauty and chameleonic prerogative, one Chabrol played more overt games with on The Champagne Murders, bobs to the surface here again as Why tries repeatedly to become Frederique. Frederique herself, smouldering in uncertainty after Why’s tryst with Paul, seeks him out, and finds him fairly nonchalant about his experience with Why: he is instead much more intrigued by Frederique herself as she hovers, robbed of her characteristic hauteur around him, and in his distraction Frederique forgets he was supposed to meet her “protégé” for a date. The pair drink up the dregs of a bottle of cognac and Frederique tosses the bottle in the bay. “She’ll be hurt,” Frederique comments. “Not as much as she would be if I dropped here in two or three weeks,” Paul replies. Paul and Frederique’s affair turns out quickly to be a hot one, and Frederique calmly tells Why they’re going to leave her in the villa and head off to Paris together. Audran and Trintignant’s toey chemistry on screen together can be put down to the fact they briefly married when much younger: Chabrol was fond of such casting stunts. Left on her own, Why wanders around town in a state of anxious disaffection, and pestered by Robèque and Riais as they presume to entertain her, as when they try to draw her into a game of making animals noises with aggressive weirdness: when Why starts silently weeping they guess she’s a crocodile.

Frederique and Paul’s return is inauspicious for Why: the ever so slight flinch Frederique gives when she moves to give Why a greeting kiss when she and Paul return, moving from an on-the-mouth kiss to one on the cheek, is a signal with enormous ramifications. Soon Frederique comes to Why’s bedroom and lies down beside her to report with hints of perplexity her love for Paul, so smitten that even getting books on architecture from him seems a romantic act. Paul moves into the villa, which means room has to be made as Robèque and Riais get increasingly bitchy and Why starts acting increasingly strange, including dressing up as Frederique. Riais describes himself as a revolutionary and encourages Why to act like one, but Why declares she’s fine with the things the way they are. Nor are the revolutionaries up to much. Robèque and Riais are thrown out of paradise when Frederique thinks they’ve spiked their dinner with unpleasant flavouring. Chabrol notably repeats the key framing of Frederique from the card match here, as if to visually declare her power is resurgent, but the impression is undercut with droll comedy as the two men immediately start wheedling money out of her (“It’s not enough for second class…and taxi fare to the station…and dinner on the train.”), which she hands over irritably but obligingly, finally handing over one large note and snatching back the wad of smaller ones. Noblesse oblige.

Finally Chabrol delivers the film’s true climax, which depicts not a murder but a drunken party involving the three lovers in the now-private villa. Paul tries vainly to tell an obscure joke about a man searching for a source of wisdom and failing, whilst Why tries to coax the other two into bed and realise the ménage-a-trois that’s been potentially percolating between the three. Locked out of the holy sepulchre of the master bedchamber, Why crouches at the doors, listening as Frederique and Paul have sex, Why writhing in remote sympathy and gnawing on her fingers whilst envisioning their contortions. Talk about the trickle-down effect. The radical shift of style here delivers an ironically orgasmic switchback that forces Why’s fervent, cheated, distracted state of mind into view as well as the sexual spectacle, one that’s also a dark joke on cinema itself, offering transmissions to the audience basking in the spectacle of other experiences. When she awakens the next day Why finds the other two gone, fled again to Paris, leaving her with some cash and the now totally empty villa.

Why finally begins her rebellion, selecting a poison-coated dagger from amidst Frederique’s African reliquary, and travelling to Frederique’s Parisian house. There she confronts Frederique and confesses her equal love for her and for Paul, a form of passion Frederique, for all her supposed sophistication, can’t or won’t understand: “Your love disgusts me.” Why also describes constantly hearing shouts, as if from people quarrelling, and isn’t sure if they’re living in her head or not, but says they want to make the leap from her to Frederique. “I’d like to throw someone out,” Why retorts when Frederique tells her to leave, “I’m fed up too.” Why stabs Frederique in the back with the dagger as Frederique touches up her makeup, trying to maintain a fierce and fetishised veneer. Chabrol hacks the moment of death up into a succession of quick cuts, life not simply ending but identity fracturing, as Why claims the very being of Frederique: “Have I told you, Frederique, that we look like one-another?” Faced with the choice of being reduced to a psychosexual parasite or to obliterate and subsume objects of ardour, Why chooses the latter. She dresses up in Frederique’s evening gown and gets into her bed: When Paul telephones, Why mimics her voice, breathlessly expressing her desire for his return. Chabrol, with the dry cold of a liquid nitrogen spill, brings up the end title card over the sight of Paul letting himself into the house, leaving whatever comes next to the viewer’s undoubtedly vibrating imagination.

La Femme Infidèle wields a more bluntly declarative title than Les Biches. What happens in it does indeed entirely flow from the central transgressive person and act mentioned in the title, even as its focus and meaning slowly complicates. Said unfaithful woman isn’t the focal point of the tale. Chabrol’s customary terseness again manifests immediately, opening without fanfare in a scene that introduces that woman, Hélène Desvallées (Audran), and her seemingly idyllic state, talking with her mother-in-law whilst seated in the spacious yard of their large house outside Paris. The first shot, a tracking shot moving like an idle trespasser with trees drifting between camera and the seated duo, sets up a motif returned to in the last scene. The two are soon joined by Helene’s husband Charles (Michel Bouquet), a successful insurer, and their young son, Michel (Stephane Di Napoli). Helene and mother-in-law chuckle over a photo of the young Charles, whose middle-aged visage has gained an aspect of roly-poly joviality in his soft and unharried salad days. This very brief pre-credit sequence has a similar flavour to the opening of Les Biches, presenting an islet of fantasy perfection of a kind, before the digging commences. Charles has an ideal job and often gives his wife a lift into Paris so she can spend the day shopping and running errands. Signs of trouble in paradise surface nonetheless when the predictable patterns of life are disrupted, when Charles can’t get Helene on the phone where she said she would be.

Where Les Biches obliged the viewer to offer sympathy and patience to some peculiar people, La Femme Infidele purposefully retells one of the oldest stories around – the tale of a jealous husband who, faced with his wife’s infidelity, kills his rival and tries to get away with it. Chabrol doesn’t offer new twists or present unusual slants on the characters. On the contrary, he strips away as much distraction from the central matter as possible, focusing in on this essential drama and watching it unfold with his customarily cool gaze, almost to the point of offering elemental myth. A key early scene is executed with a stark, satirical directness in portraying a marriage gone to seed: Helene prepares for bed by painting her toenails and donning a brief negligee and laying herself beside Charles, who, saying good night, turns out the light in complete apparent obliviousness to his wife’s evident desire for some connubial attention. Chabrol’s deadpan gaze doesn’t however register it as comedy, presenting it rather as the anecdotal flipside of the opening portrait of an ideal French bourgeois family. The whole film, in a way, follows this pattern, like a farce with the jokes cut out. Charles’ disinterest isn’t however the result of not loving his wife, or loving someone else. He has opportunities to be unfaithful, including with the keen, ditzy, miniskirted Brigitte (Donatella Turri) who’s been hired as a secretary in his offices and who’s already slept with one of Charles’ colleagues. But that’s not what he wants. Perhaps he doesn’t want anything.

Charles is then the victim of a brand of tepid complacency that viewed by Chabrol as a law of nature as pervasive as gravity or thermodynamics, at least in the world of the comfortable upper-middle class. He and Helene are drawn out to a nightclub with a friend who’s recently broken up with his wife, perhaps for the same reasons, where Helene makes a passable show of getting down to the hip-twisting pop music, but Charles looks comically out of place in, and they take too long to get out on the dance floor together to make good use of a slow dance number. Once they’re home bed Charles lies awake whilst his wife sleeps, meditating on his wife’s flimsy excuses for not being where she says she is (she tells him after one such occasion she went and saw Doctor Zhivago again and liked it the second time; and of course that’s a film about infidelity too). When he’s again unable to reach her during one of her Parisian sojourns, Charles unease blooms into outright suspicion, and when meeting with a private investigator he uses to look into insurance claims, he also hires him to follow Helene. When they meet again by the Seine a few days later, the investigator tells Charles his wife has been meeting with a man named Victor Pegala, an author with some independent wealth, visiting his apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine for two hour stretches, three days a week. This marvellous little scene sees the two professionally bland, discreet, unemotional men discussing the blatant and undeniable truth of a deeply wounding breach in clipped and businesslike terms, the plainly gut-punched Charles nonetheless retaining his calm and handing over wads of cash to the investigator, amidst an iconic Paris-is-for-lovers locale caught with its humdrum pants down.

Charles continues to dissemble his way through apparently normal events of life, like celebrating his son coming first in his history class with some champagne. Domestic bourgeois life as kabuki art. But part of Chabrol’s droll implication here is that, rather than this being mere fake window dressing, this is also the texture of ordinary life, of the willed-into-existence state of pleasantry that constitutes civilisation, and from which any extracurricular escapes are merely that. Certainly this seems to be the attitude Charles wants to take, but he cannot resist the urge that comes to pay a visit to Pegala (Maurice Ronet), who (recalling the doubling of Frederique and Why) resembles Charles, if more fit and robust and recently divorced and so ready and able to indulge a casual affair with a bored housewife. The hell of it is Pegala seems like a perfectly good fellow, one who Charles could easily be friends with. He’s solicitous and welcoming when Charles turns up at his door and lulls the lover into being upfront, by telling him that he and Helene both regularly have affairs but he’s a little perturbed by how long this one’s been going on.

By this point Chabrol has already shown a brief scene showing Helene and Pegala together, Helene lounging post-coital in his bed as rain pours outside and pegala bringing tea and snacks in: Chabrol fades from them kissing each-other goodbye (a moment itself modelled of the long kiss in Notorious, 1946), to Helene walking through the rain afterwards, lending their parting a breath of ephemeral poetry and a suggestion of the way these trysts linger on in Helene in revivifying fashion back out in a cold and dreary world, as well as offering tragic foreshadowing: neither knows this is the last time they’ll ever meet. Charles premeditates his visit to Pegala, presenting himself as a smiling charmer at his apartment door: “I’m not a salesman or a beggar…” As the pair settle and sip cordially at whiskey, Charles manages to manoeuvre himself with the skill of a salesman into a position of authority in his exchanges with the pleasant but understandably tense Pegala, not by acting irate and tough but by acting the worldly indulger he becomes a kind of detective, gleaning the tale of a sordid affair. Charles nonetheless loses his control when he sees, in Pegala’s bedroom on a table near his rumpled bed, a large novelty lighter Charles gave her as an anniversary present, but now passed on to Pegala because she felt Charles had forgotten it. After seeing this, Charles starts to act woozy and rambling. Pegala is concerned, and comments, “You look awful.” “Yes, I know,” Charles responds with a sudden flash of sickly amusement. He grabs up a bust from a table, bashing Pegala on the head twice with awful, killing blows, leaving him dead on the floor with rivulets of blood spreading on the floor and flecks of it on Charles’ shuddering hands.

Charles, quickly getting hold of himself after this abrupt act of bloody violence, begins calmly and methodically cleaning up any trace of his presence in the apartment, washing off the bust and other items, before bundling up Pegala’s body in a rug. This he carries downstairs and out to his car, stowing the corpse in the boot, and starts driving out of Paris. One can argue La Femme Infidele comes close to uniting the distinct influences of Lang and Hitchcock on Chabrol, as well as illuminated Chabrol’s distinct personality. The inevitability of Pegala’s killing recalls the relentless march to Siegfried’s assassination in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), whilst Chabrol also recalls House By The River (1951) in depicting a murderer coping competently with his crime and even seeming to profit from it but facing being consumed by the reality-cracking implications of his act. The extended sequence of Charles tidying up the crime scene and disposing of Pegala’s body, also presents an extended variation on Norman Bates cleaning up Marian Crane’s murder in Psycho (1960). This is the centrepiece of the film in terms of technique and design: Charles, his face reset to its usual ice cream flatness, moves about the apartment with remorseless purpose, doing his best to erase every trace of his presence and even the appearance of a crime having been committed, all done with studious calm and boldness in broad daylight.

Chabrol taps this sequence not just for pokerfaced suspense but a level of carbolic humour. Charles has to contend with such petty difficulties as opening and closing a gate whilst manhandling a corpse like a bag of dirty laundry, and then gets tailgated by another driver (Zardi again) when he’s driving out of the city. The accident scene immediately becomes Charles’ worst nightmare as a crowd of gawkers gather to watch and yammer whilst the other driver insists on swapping insurance info and a gendarme comes to mediate and inspect the damage, feeling around the edges of the buckled rear hatch, whilst Charles becomes increasingly irate in his eagerness to escape. This scene is grimly hilarious in itself whilst also feeling like a Parisian in-joke that’s likely even better for anyone in on it. Finally Charles manages to continue on, reaching a bog somewhere in the countryside, into which he drops the body. Charles waits with tooth-grinding patience, peering down as the bundled body soaks up water and leaks out bubbles, sinking with agonising slowness until it finally vanishes under the soupy film of floating weeds.

Chabrol’s careful use of colour as a dramatic signifier provides associative psychological meaning and becomes important in the aftermath of this long central sequence. Pegala’s apartment is decorated in pale blue shades. Not long after his seemingly successful escapade, Charles joins his wife and son at a garden tea table: the shade overhead and a railing and tablecloth below, both blue and seeming to squeeze the image into a kind of cinemascope burlesque, framing the people between, including Helene who’s silently morose over her lover’s apparent vanishing and abandonment of her, and the upbeat, empowered Charles. Helene goes into the house and lies down in her bedroom where the drapes and sheets are also blue, contrasting the general greys and browns of the house’s décor: Helene lies back on the blue sheets and weeps. The tension ratcheting under the surface of the family soon begins manifesting as young Michel becomes distraught over losing a piece of a jigsaw puzzle he and his father are trying to assemble, whilst Helene stares dolorously into the television in the rear of the shoot, between arguing father and son. The visit of a pair of policemen, Inspector Duval (Michel Duchaussoy) and his partner Gobet (Guy Marley), is almost a relief. They’ve come to talk to Helene because they found her name and details in a notebook of Pegala’s. She claims to have only been a casual acquaintance who met him at a party. The cops are coolly professional and seem entirely accepting of all they hear, but their intense gazes speak another language. “We’re making progress,” Duval assures Helene, “In our hit-and-miss way.”

Despite the debts owed and paid to Lang and Hitchcock, Chabrol was really working within a common and popular tradition of French crime storytelling. Indeed, the greater sympathy French critics offered those directors than many did in other countries likely owed something to a crucial sense of recognition. That style was exemplified on the page by Georges Simenon and essayed by filmmakers Jean Renoir in films like La Chienne (1931) and La Bete Humaine (1937), and H.G. Clouzot in thrillers like Le Corbeau (1943) and Les Diaboliques (1956), as well as the poetic realist films of the 1930s. Chabrol’s aesthetic approach couldn’t be more different to the stylised effects of the poetic realists, even as he engaged with their fatalistic concerns, concerned much less with the mechanics of detection and action than with the processes that lead people to bad ends. This tradition arguably had some roots in the French novel tradition of Zola and Balzac, with their fascination in a quasi-zoological fashion with the presence of moral blight and corruption as it manifests in all sectors of society.

Chabrol is also notably good at deploying comic relief in both Les Biches and Le Femme Infidèle, in a way that helps intensify his theses as well as break up the tension. The wilful zaniness of Robèque and Riais in the former and the goofy appeal of Brigitte in the latter present characters strayed in from other worlds – the two men represent bohemia in all its perpetually improvising, smoke-blowing, opportunist skill, as well as a different, more absurd but also anxiety-free version of queerness to the strange kind the women enact. Brigitte impersonates the hip new generation oblivious to the niceties of the bourgeoisie as well as a possibly illusory promise of an age with different values coming on. Chabrol’s protagonists meanwhile are builders and maintainers as well as prisoners of their imploding universes. Just as Frederique ultimately invites her own destruction by refusing to countenance a fluid and multipolar kind of love, Charles and Helene are ultimately doomed not by the absence of love but by the processes of proving its survival. Helen eventually finds the photo of Pegala the private investigator gave Charles in his coat pocket, and burns it not just to dispose of evidence but as a votive to the proof of ardour it represents. She drifts back to Charles as he labours in their garden and the pair swap looks, locking them into the ultimate deed of mutual implication. The title then becomes perfectly ironic: in the last measure Helene is entirely, perfectly faithful, as is Charles. The very end returns to a stance of suggestive ambiguity, with the two cops returning and Helene and Michel looking on as Charles goes to talk with them, possibly to confess all. A mere aftershock, anyway, to Charles telling Helene what she already knows: “I love you like mad.”

Standard
2020s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Nope (2022)

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Director / Screenwriter: Jordan Peele

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated scenes. First we get a glimpse of a TV studio, filled with signs of bloodshed and rampage, a bashful-looking, bloody-pawed chimpanzee seated amidst the mess. Next comes a bucolic moment in the sun for father and son horse ranchers Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Jnr, or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as he’s found himself problematically stuck with being called: we see OJ going about his usual morning business of letting out the horses and exercising them, before chatting with his old man, who’s already mounted up. The two men are preparing for a TV show performance on star horse Lucky, which they hope will rescue their ranch from financial doldrums. The scene is shattered as a seemingly random shower of hard metal objects falls from the sky. A coin hits Otis in the eye, and he dies as OJ rushes him to the hospital. Cut to a few months later, as OJ uneasily tries to get on with his professional life by wrangling Lucky on the TV set, only for the horse to be irritated by a crewman and kick out dangerously. OJ is obliged to rely on his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose gregarious enthusiasm as a wannabe show biz player contrasts his sullen, taciturn, quietly grieving manner and fateful lack of assertive strength, but Emerald doesn’t want to be stuck with her brother in a failing business. OJ has been propping up the business by selling horses to a neighbouring ranch, the prosperous and popular Jupiter’s Claim, run by former child actor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt).

That night, one of the horses, Ghost, bolts into the dark, dusty, hilly landscape around the ranch. Chasing after Ghost, OJ hears Jupe’s voice on a loudspeaker in the distance whilst the horse gives an unearthly shriek, and glimpses a large, strange object moving fast through the sky above, whilst a rolling blackout afflicts the locale. Convinced he’s seen a UFO, OJ and Emerald buy a new surveillance system for the ranch, and the morose IT salesperson, Angel (Brandon Perea), who sells and installs the equipment becomes increasingly interested and involved as he’s a UFO freak. They also try to interest the acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who they met on the TV shoot, as they feel only he might be able to get photographic evidence of this scary phenomenon. As the enigmatic situation begins to resolve, the Haywoods are eventually faced with alarming proof that the UFO is actually some kind of living organism that eagerly eats just about anything placed in its path, and that Jupe not only knows about its presence, but even seems to be trying to make it part of his act, luring it down to his ranch with free lunches, being OJ’s horses.

New York-born Peele was best known for many years as a comic writer and actor. After dropping out of college to start a comedy act with future writing collaborator Rebecca Drysdale and spending some time with the famous Second City comedy troupe, Peele gained his big break as a performer on the sketch comedy show Mad TV in the early 2000s. Later he teamed up with another Black comedian, Keegan-Michael Key, for their cable TV show Key & Peele (2012–2015). The duo wrote, produced, and starred in the film Keanu (2016), and Peele made his standalone debut as director with the 2017 Horror film Get Out, a film that represented for the most part an apparently radical switch of vision for Peele, offering a woozy, unsettling blend of social and racial satire and straight-edged Horror and thriller stuff.


That film’s huge popular and critical success came in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, seemingly on the back of a new reactionary feeling swiftly met by a bold progressive backlash, and Get Out, along with the Ryan Coogler’s successes with Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), seemed to announce a new mainstream hunger for films made by African-American filmmakers with a presumed, concomitant authenticity in needling racial and social angst. Peele’s success with Get Out was cunning in that regard, with his narrative of young Black man whose white girlfriend proves to be luring him in for her family to use in their business of swapping brains between bodies: Peele expertly made the mass audience empathise with his hero’s terror of having his identity erased and subsumed by representatives of a larger assimilating culture because it’s all the rage at the moment to be Black. He also deftly skewered and, ironically and if in all likelihood semi-accidentally, appealed to the white liberal guilt, portraying the wicked family not as overt racists but rather smiling, virtue-signalling bourgeois progressives pretending to be all cool with the new multiculturalism.

Peele has since become, with startling swiftness, a pop culture brand, evinced with his follow-up film Us (2019), through producing a refurbished take on TV’s The Twilight Zone and a reboot-cum-sequel of the 1990s cult film Candyman (2021), and now Nope. Peele is with increasingly plainness trying to position himself as an inheritor to talents writers like Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, with their penchant for depicting disturbing intrusions of the outlandish and the mysterious into exceptionally ordinary locales in tales touched with a mystique of fable. He also joins the ranks of directors anointing themselves as inheritors of Steven Spielberg, with his gifts as an orchestrator of the fantastic and of cinematic space for maximum audience impact. The traps in trying to occupy such a cultural crossroads were well-charted by M. Night Shyamalan in the 2000s. Peele’s chief proposition as a new and improved successor to Shyamalan is that he brings a less veiled approach to the metaphors inherent in those fable-narratives, with his specific perspective, which can keep his stories from dissolving into bombast: the idea that Peele’s critiquing gestures really mean something, rather than simply offering the usual glossy wrap of pseudo-meaning over the usual Hollywood bombast, is a big part of his cachet.

At the same time, Peele has also shown savvy commercial instincts. Get Out resisted going anywhere near as dark and mean as it might have, and whilst Us embraced a more surreal and allegorical aesthetic, also only took it so far: in the end it was still, mostly, the story of a threatened nuclear family winning through against erupting boogeymen. Nor were they so sharp a pivot from his previous metier of comedy as they might seem superficially. Get Out had a simmering sense of satirical bite and drollery throughout, such as the famous liberal cliche utterances of the white family’s patriarch (Bradley Whitford), like how he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, and an encounter with one of their victims, the body of a young black man now inhabited by an old white bourgeois, that was pure sitcom shtick. Both Get Out and Us were preoccupied by imposters, absorption, and doppelgangers, concerns he took a few steps further in Us where the central family were confronted by chthonic lookalikes, representing a kind of shadow realm of the oppressed and excluded, with the ultimate twist proving that the mother is herself an escaped double, having forcibly swapped places with her overworld counterpart, who is now leading the buried horde in revenge.

Nope tries to move on a degree from the preoccupations of Peele’s first two films, which is both a good idea in theory but in practice one that doesn’t work so well for him. Nope strongly recalls Shyamalan’s Signs (2002): like that film it depicts an alien invasion, constantly teased in oblique and fleeting ways before finally resolving into a heroic tale of little people standing up to cosmic menace. Peele’s story and style are however better described as an oddball forced mating of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), borrowing many beats from each: the incredible, elusive visitor from the sky is also the territorial man-eating monster. Peele, despite his success thus far, occupies a potentially hazardous place in contemporary screen culture. He has been so eagerly embraced as a figure that many felt American film desperately needed that everything he does has to be met as either total greatness or risk sour disillusionment, rather than simply being a new and talented genre film voice. Well, the first third of Nope is quite strong – indeed, whilst watching it I felt the film was shaping up as Peele’s best yet. He expertly creates, as he did in the fairground prologue of Us, a mood of cryptic menace and simmering tension whilst playing patient games with perspective, as OJ and Emerald keep getting fleeting hints of the nature of their strange and malevolent new neighbour. Peele uses sound well, particularly in the suggestive gruesome shrieks of the horses echoing down from the sky after being swallowed. In one particularly effective and creepy sequence, OJ is menaced by what look like humanoid alien creatures stalking him around his darkened stables at night, only to realise they’re just Jupe and Amber’s teenage sons in costume, playing a prank as payback for Emerald stealing one of their horse statues to use as bait for the alien.

The title’s blunt, folksy quality is constantly uttered by characters throughout, mostly when confronted by sights that confound their sense of reality and set off a profound war of impulses on the basic level of fight or flight. It also signals the way the film seems constantly at odds with itself, toying with being a kind of send-up rooted in a particular tenor of Black scepticism, whilst also trying to reap the popular benefits of a good old Spielbergian ride. I’ve suspected that Peele might get into trouble when he tried more boldly to crossbreed his penchant for horror with his reflexes as a comedic writer. Not in the sense that he tries to apply too much humour to Nope – in fact it could do with more humour than it has, and might have been better pitched as a blend of laughs and suspense like, say, Tremors (1990) – but he applies a fondness for unexpected segues and bizarre pivots to his essentially straight-laced core story. The most significant subplot of Nope involves Jupe’s experience as a child actor, specifically the infamous incident on a sitcom called Gordy’s Home which he featured on in the ‘90s, opposite a trained chimpanzee who played the titular Gordy, and the two of them “invented” their signature gesture of an exploding fist-bump. But Gordy went berserk during filming one day thanks to some random fright, and brutally killed several of Jupe’s costars. Peele keeps teasing this event through snatched glimpses, including right at the start and then a brief vision of the terrified young Jupe (Jacob Kim) hiding under a table and trying not to attract the crazed animal’s attention. Peele effectively employs this vignette after Jupe has wriggled out of recounting the event to the Haywoods during a business meeting. Jupe instead takes refuge in talking up a Saturday Night Live skit that made dark sport of the incident.

This segue has some evident personal meaning and insider referential appeal for Peele as a wry glance into the world of TV he emerged from, bringing up once-famous, half-forgotten comedy stars like Chris Kattan. Jupe mythologises the greatness of the skit before the trauma he’s trying to suppress is then seen by the audience. Later, Peele gives a more sustained version of Jupe’s memory, his perspective on the event used to avoid showing gory detail whilst still putting across a grim sense of the event’s dreadful violence. Eventually the resolution is presented: Gordy approaches Jupe not to attack but to seek their signature gesture, the ape suddenly just a pathetic, frightened animal needing its costar’s assurance, only for the ape to be gunned down, his blood spraying across Jupe’s face. This portion of Nope is striking and the film’s highpoint in many ways: it’s a more effective moment of restrained horror than the more accidentally silly depiction of people being sucked into the interior of the alien. But Gordy’s rampage isn’t convincing or realistic in its details. Peele requires a CGI chimp to impersonate that kind of deadly ferocity, and we’re forced to wonder why there wasn’t an animal wrangler on the set. Also, the way the fake portions we see of Gordy’s Home lampoons a style of family sitcom that died with the ‘80s, although admittedly Peele does an uncanny job recreating that style. It made me wonder if this was a sketch Peele wrote out and, realising there was no way in hell he could get it made as a feature, decided to weave it into this script.

How this aspect of the story connects to the rest of Nope is tangential but, to be fair, also suggestive. Peele hints Jupe has a pathological need to get close to another monster and make it the star of another act of showbiz hoopla, as if to prove even the wildest, strangest, most inhuman thing can be made amenable to the pleasures of being a celebrity. Holst later makes this idea more literal when he notes the sad fate of tiger-taming performers Siegfried and Roy. When the Gordy element is connected with OJ’s unfortunate sobriquet, it seems Peele’s trying to make a mea culpa-tinged point about the industry of comedy making sport of all kinds of tragic stuff such as was rife in ‘90s American TV culture. This is interesting, but it quickly reaps multiplying problems. Firstly, it makes Jupe a more interesting and indeed more detailed character than the Haywoods, privileging his background and formative experiences with vivid and galvanising power, and yet Peele keeps Jupe a peripheral and blandly executed figure. He should be the focus, a beaming, televisually canny Ahab stirring up monsters. With Nope the lurking point of all this is at once obvious and feebly interrogated: it proposes to be about the nature of spectacle itself, of show business and performance and reality and authenticity in age where those things have become perhaps irreparably blurred. This is literalised by having the monster attracted by being looked at, whilst its presence causes electrical systems to fail, making filming it extremely difficult. Our heroes then must find a way of both looking and not looking at the alien: they most pointedly cannot gaze on in awe like Spielberg’s people.

To this end, after Angel’s security cameras fail, the Haywoods turn to Holst, a portentous being who sits around watching nature documentary footage of predators chasing and consuming prey – thematics are being underlined, dig. Wincott brings his long-neglected but still-persuasive gravel-voiced gravitas to a role that’s pitched as Werner Herzog playing the Quint role, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional part. His final act of self-annihilating consequence – “We don’t deserve the impossible,” he utters gnomically to Angel before venturing up to get the ultimate shot of being sucked up into the alien’s maw – aims for a note of crazy, nihilistic bravado but feels more like, once more, Peele taking an easy way out of resolving one of his story elements with some shallow portent. Angel himself, winningly played by Perea, is in many ways the film’s most vivid and believable presence, a shambolic character still processing a bad break-up and taking refuge in nerdy frippery. He attaches himself to the reluctant Haywoods to become an unshakeable if jumpy collaborator in their hunt. Both he and Emerald are driven frantic when a praying mantis insists on perching itself before one of their new surveillance cameras just as the UFO appears.

Nope essentially replays, in less funny and snappy fashion, the driving joke from a portion of The Simpsons’ episode “Treehouse of Horror VI”, which depicted an onslaught by advertising signs and mascots suddenly come to life, and could only be defeated by not being looked at, a weapon ironically facilitated with an advertising jingle warbled by Paul Anka. Rather than following such a mischievously satirical bent, Peele tries an each-way bet, wanting the respectability of inferred parable and the base rewards of crowd-pleasing. Peele also steals an idea from The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as it’s eventually revealed by Angel, scanning the ranch’s security footage, that the UFO hides behind a perpetually present, stationary cloud just about the valley. The alien  itself (which I’ll call it although Peele ultimately never defines what it is), once properly glimpsed proves to be saucer-shaped but when looked at beam-on looks like a gigantic eye in the sky – thematics still being underlined, folks. Towards the end it unfolds as a diaphanously swirling thing, like a mating of kite and jellyfish, and with a square eye – the most extreme possible variation on the old parental warning to kids that too much screen time will make their eyes go square? Anyway, it’s clearly an attempt by Peele to come up with something new and interesting in movie monsters, but it just looks, well, silly.

As these misjudged ideas accumulate whilst the threat and its underpinning metaphors emerge into view, Nope, after its promising early scenes, start to slide vertiginously downhill. Where in Us Peele’s spongily fable-like underpinnings gained a certain amount of power through his filmmaking, Nope fails for the same reason. But let me define what I mean by fable, which is a seemingly simple, naïve form of storytelling that privileges the illustration of emotion, ideas, and a certain kind of dream logic over rigorous narrative. In both Get Out and Us the mechanics of Peele’s plots bore no scrutiny, for the most part deliberately, I felt. The conceit of the underground tunnels and anti-people they housed were presented as nominally present in a kind of reality but were rather an illustration of a psychological zone. It was absurd that Allison Williams’ girlfriend character in Get Out had to role-play and prostitute herself for months on end just to nab one schmuck college student, when surely it could have been accomplished in an hour. But the object there was to chart the double goad to the hero’s aspiration and anxiety about the many barbs of interracial love. If one took Peele’s films on such a level, they worked. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. As for me, well, as I often do, I hovered somewhere between.

On a more prosaic level, Nope indicates that, good as he is at building mystery and tension, Peele is still quite clumsy at orchestrating large-scale action, in a manner already hinted at with aspects of the climactic scenes of Us. We get endless shots of OJ riding around on his horse without any particular sense of his objectives or tactics, when the alien can hoover him at will. There’s an old trope in monster movies that’s been sardonically recognised by fans where incredibly dangerous and threatening forces easily decimate hapless victims in early scenes but for some reason can’t quite get to grips with the heroes because, well, they’re the heroes, and this phenomenon is so pronounced here it could represent it from now on.  Also, the plotting is almost perversely clumsy. The finale hinges on the sudden intrusion of an unwelcome visitor as the Haywoods, Angel, and Holst are trying to lure in the monster so Holst can film it on a hand-cranked camera. The visitor proves to be some jerk online journalist riding a motorcycle. His kinship with the alien as an embodiment of the voracious eye is unsubtly suggested by having him wear a crash helmet that is, like the UFO, silver and sporting one large, dark orb for vision. He soon gets himself stupidly killed, which proves fortuitous as Emerald eventually commandeers his bike to lure the alien into a trap. Was this an aim all along? Or did it just occur to Emerald? Meanwhile OJ seems to be swallowed up by the monster only to emerge unharmed later, a la Hooper in Jaws.

Peele could get away with fuzziness on story details in his earlier films because of that aforementioned fable quality. But the kind of story Nope tells lives and dies on a precise sense of how elements interact. The alien is supposed to be attracted by things that look back, and can tell when it’s being looked at by some tiny animal from a long distance, but cannot distinguish between living creatures and inanimate objects. Its kryptonite, amongst all the non-organic material it tends to suck up, proves to be small plastic string flags, which it first swallows when sucking up the horse statue around which some are wrapped. Later Emerald weaponises these indigestible things against it. Which, frankly, is damn near as a stupid as the water-kills-aliens reveal at the climax of Signs. This frustratingly points up the awkwardness of Peele trying to subsume that sweeping, compulsive blockbuster appeal whilst also maintaining a slight tint of the arbitrarily ridiculous in the unfolding action.

Peele interpolates a few of his now-familiar flourishes of racial consciousness-provoking, particularly in making the Haywoods the imagined descendants of a black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering photographic studies, and also prominently featuring a poster for the relatively obscure but hardly suppressed Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). The object here is pretty patent, teasing the presence of a Black influence in cinema and its most stereotypically white American genre in particular. But part of me also wondered if Peele threw such flourishes in to make critics do the heavy lifting of inferring that he’s made some kind of profound parable, instead of a disjointed, half-digested one. Particularly in floating that dubious proposition that “everybody knows who Eadweard Muybridge is.” There’s also OJ’s name, which plays on evoking its bearer’s sense of exposure and connecting to that meditation on horror as exploited in the mass media, but also begs the question of who would keep insisting on calling their kid that when growing up in the last thirty years. There might have been some potential in the ironic portrait of Black and Asian-Americans applying their talents and identities to the cultural tradition of the Western, but again, it doesn’t progress much further than ultimately affirming OJ as a classical genre hero who looks good on a horse.

Kaluuya is a good actor – he was the visual and performative linchpin of Get Out as the bewildered, naïve, victimised protagonist, and was also great in the exact opposite kind of role as a vicious criminal in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). But he’s entirely miscast here playing a brooding cowboy, which makes OJ something of a nonentity. He’s supposed to be a strong, silent type who comes to life as his best gifts are provoked, but he remains out of focus. Palmer compensates with an energetic performance, even as I never quite bought Emerald as a character either. Peele presents the Haywoods as a mismatched pair of personalities, Emerald garrulous and slick, a creature geared to perform in a world of modern media, where OJ is shy and wounded and old-fashioned in his enclosed masculinity. Their chief bond is in their uneasy relationship with their father and his unpredictable, sometimes hurtful ways, ways which bound OJ closer to him and pushed Emerald on her own path but left both unfulfilled. Peele’s attempts to give them some personal totemic investment in the battle with the alien feel forced. At one point Emerald recalls how Otis Snr once proposed to give to her horse named Jean Jacket, but then took back to use on a film shoot, only for OJ to later dub the alien Jean Jacket as if to make it the embodiment of their angst.

The mixture here is of squelchy hipster humour – oh, Jean Jacket, that’s so retro and uncool – and unconvincing emotional ploys. Peele similarly has, in a visual pastiche-cum-lampoon of Quint’s monologue in Jaws, Holst sing the lyrics of “Flying Purple People Eater” in a gravely raspy way. All this is the sort of thing Peele ought sensibly have dumped on his second draft of the script, along with the plastic flags thing. Which really only points to the major lack of the film’s climactic scenes, which is any genuine sense of dramatic tension between the Haywoods in their aims in dealing with their quarry. Perhaps Emerald, in her need for validation, might have been made more and more maniacally determined to photograph the alien, whilst OJ becomes increasingly heated in his determination to simply kill the thing that eats his beloved animals and inadvertently killed his father. Instead, their relationship is by and large stated and then allowed to coast. There’s no particularly palpable sense of danger to either, which means there’s never any, genuine thrill to their eventual triumph. Much of the power of Get Out came, for me at any rate, not from the racial provocation but from the portrayal of romantic disillusionment, which culminated in the hero impotently trying to strangle his blankly treacherous lover: that was an idea, an image, a feeling, that communicated a sense of real danger.

The finale makes a big deal of Emerald finally trying to capture the alien’s photo on the old-timey tintype carousel camera that’s used a gimmicky tourist trap on Jupe’s ranch, whilst distracting and killing it by releasing a flag-bedecked balloon mascot. This touch tries to close a loop of meaning with Muybridge’s photography, and perhaps might intend to suggest the only the way to break through to true original vision is to wield a painstaking method with essential tools. Or is it just something as trite as old-timey stuff trumps modern junk? Either way, everything about this struck me as laboured. Nope holds not just the sight of the alien but most of its ideas and feelings in a kind of dip-eyed cringe, and it can’t even quite land the straightforward monster movie is essentially is. It made me long for the potency of something like Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988), which also feels like an influence in the mix here – the kind of old-school genre film that easily encompassed its revisionism and charged subtexts whilst sprinting onwards with crazy energy and careless gore. Never mind anything by Peele’s genre hero John Carpenter. Nope isn’t a bad film exactly. It’s well-made on all technical levels and for a while at least drags you along with its teases. And yet it never coheres, and by the end, rather than feeling Peele had broken through to new ground, I felt he’d made something closer to a car crash. Which might, in the end, be good for him. Peele can just be a filmmaker now.

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