1950s, Horror/Eerie, Japanese cinema

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

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Bōrei kaibyō yashiki / Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan

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

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1940s, Horror/Eerie

Son of Dracula (1943)

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Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenwriter: Eric Taylor

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
1960s, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Peeping Tom (1960)

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Director: Michael Powell
Screenwriter: Leo Marks

By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
1970s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Director: Nicolas Roeg

Screenwriters: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant

By Roderick Heath

Morning in the yard of an English country home. Christine (Sharon Williams), a young, blonde girl, clad in a plastic rain coat the colour of blood, plays in the drizzle with a ball, skirting the pocked surface of a reedy pond, whilst her brother rides amongst the trees. The scenery is shot in that indefinably specific manner of early ‘70s filmmaking, all soft watery light, grainy mists, and fecund hues of green and brown and grey, the few patches of primary colours alight with portentous power. The playing girl’s listless parents inside the house in the comfortable envelope of their lives, with a touch of youthful cool and countercultural edge still to their learned, bourgeois calm, scents of green tea and marijuana blending with the pot pourri in cool English domesticity. Wife researching the deceptive minutiae of natural phenomena, husband surveying slide stills of the medieval churches he restores as cultural artefacts without any spiritual belief, before he suddenly senses disaster. He jumps up, runs outside, and plucks his daughter’s angelic corpse from the water of the reedy pond. He surfaces in a slow motion shot that captures every stir of water, a depiction of raw, primal agony elongated into a fateful eternity, transmuted into art, a motion Pre-Raphaelite painting depicting transfiguring grief. Art dissolves into life just as future, present, and past splinter and speak to each other in Don’t Look Now.

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The reputation of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s third film as director, has steadily climbed to the point where some surveys have named it the greatest British film of all time. That kind of acclaim is particularly noteworthy given that Don’t Look Now is a horror film, a genre that rarely attracts such regard. But Roeg found a way to make the genre the vessel for stylistic ambition and cinematic invention it hadn’t been since the silent era, and Don’t Look Now straddles modes of filmmaking in singular fashion. Similarly, Roeg, who died recently at the age of 90, defied convention and cliché just as intrepidly. The son of a one-time diamond merchant with Dutch roots, Roeg entered the British film industry as a tea boy and worked his way up through studio ranks, becoming camera operator on a range of prestigious films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before gaining repute for his second unit photography work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Roeg soon served as cinematographer on the likes of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). Working with such filmmakers at a time of great cinematic energy and experimentation emboldened Roeg began developing a distinctive approach to filmmaking. He was soon courted for collaboration with Donald Cammell to make his directing debut with Performance (1970). Many talented cinematographers have tried to make the leap into directing before and since, but even greats from Karl Freund to Jack Cardiff to Janusz Kaminski have made it with often less than stellar results.

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Roeg, however, turned out to be something else entirely, a well-trained technician and product of studio cinema who nonetheless proved a unique and challenging film artist. The dazzling visual sensibility he demonstrated as a film shooter was unleashed, although he was lucky to emerge at a time when filmmakers of all stripes felt freer to improvise with the texture of cinema. Roeg took more advantage than most, and created in his early works bold fusions of narrative and experimental cinema, playing freely with cinematic time signatures and composing images in contrapuntal rhapsodies. Even as his style settled down in later films, they retained an element of jagged strangeness and sensual immersion that was utterly distinctive. The roots of Roeg’s style and status in the midst of a national cinema usually praised, or written off, for its penchant for classical calm and literacy, were evident in Petulia, and took that film’s experiments with structure and time to hallucinatory, hyperbolic places in his first two films. Performance offered a brain-twisting graph of blurring identity and the cacophony of Swinging London’s surreal collision of subcultures, whilst Walkabout (1971), his Australian outback odyssey, depicted a crisis in mutually uncomprehending ways of being which Roeg characteristically conveyed as fractured ways of seeing. Don’t Look Now was comparatively straightforward. Only comparatively, as Roeg stitched a dense fabric of image play and time distortion whilst telling an intelligible and deftly intriguing story. that managed to satisfy the generic requirements of a horror film but also, like some other, rare entries in the genre, moves into a realm of mystification and distortion of reality that lays bare a strange, extreme psychological landscape.

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The unfortunate parents glimpsed at the outset are John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). Sometime after their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) died in that pond, Roeg rediscovers the pair in Venice, having left their son Johnny (Nicholas Salter) in boarding school. John supervises the restoration of an historic church. The first shots of John in Venice see him and workmen drilling into the church’s fabric like a dentist hacking into a cavity about to release foul and nasty rot. When the couple have lunch in a Venetian café, they notice a woman who seems to be staring at them. Laura learns the staring woman is actually blind when they meet in the washroom. Her name is Heather (Hilary Mason), and the woman she’s travelling with she calls her sister, Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather claims to be clairvoyant, and she thrills and appeases Laura profoundly when she reports having seen a young girl sitting with them, meaning that Christine’s spirit is close and benevolently watching over them. Laura returns to John in the café but suddenly faints, knocking over the table. She’s rushed to hospital, but quickly recovers and indeed emerges in better spirits than any time since Christine’s death. This epiphany kicks of a subtle polarisation in the couple, as John’s regulation male rationalism seems beggared and suspicious of Laura’s equally regulation female mysticism, but also reunion, as the couple spend an episode of utterly carnal passion, seemingly their first in a long time, fuelled by a sense of liberation from disaster and guilt.

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The basis for Don’t Look Now was a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, who had also provided Alfred Hitchcock with material for Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), and it has certain similarities – the encounter with the travelling duo of English women recalls Rebecca and the preoccupation with marriage and mating under the pretext of an enigmatic and disquieting plot is clearly reminiscent of many of Hitchcock’s films, going back to the likes of Rich and Strange (1932). The marriage of the Baxters, united both by passion and sorrow, is the true engine of a storyline that covers the span between two deaths, for a film that analyses the ephemeral experiences and connections that constitutes life whilst also suggesting a tentative belief in things beyond. The opening scene sees Laura trying to solve a question her son asked her as to why, if the Earth is round, frozen water is flat, and finds that it isn’t, but the arc can be imperceptible. John’s book, Beyond The Fragile Geometry of Space, sits on the sofa. Perception is limited, existence is infinite. John studies slide photos he’s taken of the church he’s working on, spying a red-clad figure seated on a pew, and when a psychic intimation warns him of Christine’s danger, he springs up and dashes out, knocking over a glass of water that causes the red figure on the slide to dissolve and create an abstract swirl encircling the stain glass window of the church; Roeg cuts between this act of incidental art-making with the terrible sight of John rising from the water with Christine’s body, past and future, spirit and flesh, love and hate all blurring in an inscrutable melange.

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The Baxters in Venice are still a handsome couple, but weighed down by experience, as John testily oversees a project that involves digging into the past literally and finding what he describes as layer of faux-Byzantine fakery after another. Laura loses herself in memories of rain-sodden melancholy whilst sitting in a tony restaurant. The encounter with the milky, staring eyes of Heather and her happy pronouncements of lingering personality and beneficence draw Laura out of depression, even as her prompt collapse sets the world into chaos. Roeg zeroes in on the spilt wine, oil, and salad dressing on the motley flooring, a shot reminiscent of the puddle of commingled perfumes glimpsed in one of the stronger precursors to Roeg’s style, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), and with a similar import reflecting the director’s obsession with reality in flux. The film’s most celebrated sequence follows soon, as John and Laura reunite in a scene of sexual passion that pushed the envelope about as far as it would go in a mainstream film sporting two movie stars, intercut with shots of the couple dressing and preparing for dining out. Roeg’s careful structuring, including his deadpan sense of intimacy with the couple as they go through the motions of life together, showering and stripping and lazily eddying within the world-precluding walls of their room (save the hapless hotel maid who comes in to find John sitting naked), invites the viewer into John and Laura’s crucial moment of rediscovery of each-other in both the carnal sense and the subliminal.

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Roeg’s easy feel for the erotic was another facet that distinguished him amongst British filmmakers, and set him in both unity and contrast with the other major radical voice of English cinema of the early ‘70s, Ken Russell, fonder of outrageousness for its own sake. Roeg certainly didn’t spurn perversity as a subject, but he was more clean-cut in his way. Walkabout revolved around the sense of threat and disconnection when Jenny Agutter’s prim schoolgirl cannot comprehend the mating overtures of the young indigenous man, although they should be plain and natural enough, ironically identifying the incoherence of the erotic as the perversion; The Man Who Fell to Earth would invert the equation and contemplate intraspecies sexuality as a potentially valid form of communication. In a way, the pivotal sex scene of Don’t Look Now is fascinatingly square in celebrating connubial passion for a married couple, like Last Tango In Paris (1973) for high Anglicans, depending on Sutherland and Christie, at the height of their sinewy beauty as movie stars as well as actors, to fully inhabit the carnal display. It’s also a moment of cyclical meaning, the eruption of the life force that gives renewal between two losses: what is life but a chain of birth and death, and what are John and Laura Baxter but two momentary expressions of that cycle? The presence of the medium who gives hope of spiritual persistence gives hope of other layers of existence, but John and Laura are trapped, and liberated, by their continued existence on the one where the flesh has such exalted potency. Roeg’s crosscutting was aimed at helping get the scene past censors but also makes poetry out of sublime disparity the couple restoring their social visages, their worldly guises, after all the naked ape business: Roeg inverts moralistic assumption by noting the purity of sexuality and the puerile falsity of the restored worldly appearance and its peevish, isolated insecurities as John and Laura contemplate aspects of their bodies and appearance.

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Roeg’s evocation of Venice as a place spies flashes of tourist board-friendly glamour but more often regarding a place of festering, mouldering age, hovering like a semicoherent dream just above the water. It’s cold and out of season, not a summery abode of Italianate cheer but the same place of autumnal persistence of Death in Venice and Across the River and Into the Trees. Roeg drolly notes the workaday locals for whom the city is less a place of picturesque enchantment than a waterlogged, tourist-clogged mess. The staff in the hotel where John and Laura are staying waiting out the time until they can close down, still hovering in faintly desperate helpfulness for their single patrons. The cops roused to action over the most imprecise fears. Streets are as painful and confusing to navigate as memory; John’s attempt to rediscover the pension where Heather and Wendy were living sees him wandering in circles. Rats scuttle about with impunity. A killer is at loose in the town; John watches as the filthy and bedraggled corpse of a dead girl is fished out of a canal. He and Laura hear strange noises and cries for help echoing through the city night, and glimpse a diminutive figure wearing a red hooded coat dashing through the alleys. Roeg’s desaturated images give the city’s waterways a grey, crystalline quality, whilst the crumbling brickwork and paving seem near-organic, not entirely sapped of romanticism but charged with something more elusive and uneasy in its intimations.

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The city is as much as body as John or Laura’s or the corpse dragged from the water, a physical manifestation of an entire civilisation, arthritic in its bones and unmoored in its thoughts. John and Laura have trouble telling bridges and alleys apart. John is nagged by the feeling he’s visited certain places before, or denies having been places Laura swears he has been. The often withholding nature of the city architecture, which can harbour boles of chic modernism or ancient, pellucid beauty, also mediates the story’s invocation of psychological space, and the narrative hinging on characters who can no longer trust things lingering in their thoughts to remain obediently in place. A church John and Laura visit lulls them with its aura of hallowed calm and beatitude, encouraging Laura into ritual and John to lapse into prayer-like introspection. Venice offers elusive promise of communion with the past with all its bedraggled beauty and fetid richness. John’s job automatically invokes a sense of past and present commingling, digging into the matter of Venice itself, piecing together mosaics and restoring gargoyles. John interacts with the marrow of past and understands it’s in part an illusion to be sustained by keen eyes like his, the expressions of the long dead, the ghosts of their minds and eyes, needing faithful upkeep. John’s business is with the substance of human expression, where Heather speaks of the ethereal aspect, weaving unseen like mist around people.

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John has been hired by a bishop (Massimo Serato) from a rich and influential family, who takes solicitous interest in the Baxters’ spiritual welfare (“I’m kind to animals and children,” Laura tells him with fumbling humour and honesty when he asks her if she’s a Christian) and eventually proves to have a more ethereal connection with John, sensing when he’s in danger and witnessing his near-fatal accident on a hoist in the restored church. “Churches belong to God, but he doesn’t seem to care about them,” he notes with sad gravitas: “Does he have other priorities?” Meanwhile John and Laura play out a familiar tension, between her willingness to embrace Heather’s message and the possibility of the supernatural, versus John’s stiff-necked rationalism and simmering concern Laura might be slipping back into an irrational state she seems to have lingered in for a time after Christine’s death. And yet John ultimately proves vulnerable to irrational belief himself as he becomes convinced the red-cloaked figure he keeps seeing dashing through the Venetian alleys could be his daughter. Laura’s visit to speak with Heather and Wendy and gain deeper reassurance as to Christine’s benevolent presence sees John left to get drunk in a neighbouring café: he goes into the pension to find his wife only to get caught lurking by a resident and forced to run off in case he gets arrested as a peeping Tom. John later can’t find Heather and Wendy precisely because they moved out after reports of prowlers, a subtle fillip of humour that’s also a deftly reasoned consequence of plot.

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Roeg described Don’t Look Now as his exercise in film grammar, a concise if rather dry description that hardly encompasses all the flourishes encoded into the film’s tapestry-like form, one that recounts a simple story in the most enriching fashion. Adapting Du Maurier allowed Roeg the chance to offer his own, highly individualised tribute to Hitchcock. As many genre writers have also noted, Don’t Look Now also strongly resembles as an upmarket equivalent to the giallo style that was all the rage in Italian film at the time, a distinctive mode of artfully shot, narratively baroque thrillers also influenced by Hitchcock, instituted by Mario Bava and take up by a range of talented directors including Dario Argento. Roeg might well have taken ideas from Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966), with its similar use of a young female figure that proves deadly in the midst of a crumbling, deserted-feeling city, and the shock finale with its revelation of an unexpected killer certainly has a strong giallo flavour. Argento sometimes betrayed stylistic ambition similar to Roeg, as in the revisited, revised stabbing in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and the flash edits of Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), but Roeg’s specific, more overtly audacious method distinguishes his movie from both his model and his rivals, not just in his approach to editing and his fulsome sense of his characters as more vital than machinations of story and spectacle, but his rejection of the rectilinear succinctness of Hitchcock’s visions and the games of framing in giallo.

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Roeg’s visual lexicon is, rather, restless and troubled, sometimes settling into a careful observational rhythm, as in the build-up to John and Laura’s sex scene, or cranking up to outright jangling hysteria, as he zeroes in on the finale. Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond employ zoom shots and handheld camerawork throughout, and angles that could swoop up high or crouch down on floor level. Don’t Look Now composites a wealth of images that mimic both the psychological reactions of its characters, unmoored as they are from the moment by grief and blurred perceptions of reality, and also their physical straits, anxious attempts at control giving way to increasingly frantic and belaboured searching. Recurring visual touches – water, flashing light, mirrors, broken glass, the colour red – are keys to an associative symbology alongside moments of totemic import for the characters that accumulate meaning as the film goes on and are finally ticked off in the rapid succession right at the end. Immersion, with all its uterine import, is also a state between life and death. Venice sits above the water, defiant but frigid, a lot like John’s masculine being: intellectually hip, as his book indicates, he is nonetheless reflexively entrapped by his own conviction that he’s saner and straighter than anyone. In fact, as Heather realises, he’s rejected his own second sight, and so is at its mercy, inflicted with visions that foretell the future but give no context or sense of the illimitable. The warmth and vitality of John and Laura’s relationship is underscored by lingering shakiness, anxiety and discord finally defined as John berates his wife for being taken in by the two women he dismisses as charlatans.

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When the couple get a phone call from their son’s boarding school back in the drizzly English countryside, telling them Johnny has been mildly injured, Laura immediately flies out, leaving John to his work and anxiously await her return, alone in a cold, grey, decaying labyrinth of a city where every step he takes brings him closer to his end. He becomes distracted after he sees Laura on a passing boat accompanied by Heather and Wendy, and alerts the police, who ask him to locate the pension where the women were living, and have him followed by one of their men. There’s a strong suggestion that heather and Wendy are actually a lesbian couple. It doesn’t feel coincidental that female homosexuality was once sometimes euphemistically described as “Venetian tastes”, and both couples reflect Du Maurier’s divided life as a married mother who often had queer affairs, and John’s reaction to his wife gravitating to the women has an aspect of reactionary jealousy. Roeg finds pathos and humanity in both duos as John’s recourse to the police eventually results in him pathetically apologising to and guiding Heather back to her rooms after he gets a phone call from Laura, safe in England and secure in her restored sense of sanity and security. Everyone, according to Roeg, has Venetian tastes, at the mercy of forces encoded in the blood and the mind, hungrily seeking their fulfilment on the way to dusty death.

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Roeg’s faults as a filmmaker could be as pronounced as his strengths, as he often didn’t know when to quit or moderate his flow of images, and could sometimes lapse into atonal showmanship, as in some of the more sophomoric and drawn-out passages of Performance or The Man Who Fell to Earth. Don’t Look Now stands as his best film precisely because its storyline gave a coldly deterministic enclosure that allowed him to deploy his signature visual invention whilst also compressing it with clear purpose. The notion that fate is pressing down on John Baxter grows all the more omnipresent as Roeg’s camera picks out mysteriously significant sights as casual as a man crossing a bridge or as pointed as a double-exposure vision of Heather’s sightless eyes as John ascends to a rickety vantage to inspect a mosaic only for a piece of falling lumber to almost cause his death. Don’t Look Now has strong affinity with the same year’s The Wicker Man as a bleak game of sliding panels unveiling a man’s predestined fate, complete with a nasty twist involving the search for an elusive girl. Both films tried to define new ground for horror cinema whilst also honouring the genre in some essentials, including their gruesome finales and cunningly delayed revelations of the hovering blade over their protagonists. Don’t Look Now is particularly beguiling in the way it traverses arty pretence and character drama before arriving at a final twist that’s as bizarre and grotesque as anything in horror cinema.

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Along the way Roeg casually tosses off a superb sequence of physical suspense staging as John clings desperately to the collapsed hoist in the church, saved by a worker’s cool and clever efforts. This near-disaster seems to prove Heather’s warnings that John is in danger, but its happy ending also gives the illusion of restored safety. Don’t Look Now is built around evoking a sense of a thin and permeable membrane that constitutes reality, a membrane easy to mistake for solidity and security. The hoist accident sequence dramatizes the concept as John’s secure footing turns instantly to chaos, dangling high above the church floor, debris falling on his bishop sponsor and workers alike. The shock of the incident coming on the back of Johnny’s accident and Laura’s departure informs John’s quick segue into clammy panic after he catches the bewildering sight of Laura with the two women. Don’t Look Now verges on a fatalistic statement that fate claims its pounds of flesh sooner or later, but also strives to make a vital point that it’s precisely the vulnerable, all too perishable bonds of being that give life its beauty as well as pain.

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Despite the mounting sense of portent, the later scenes of Don’t Look Now have a quality reminiscent of screwball comedy in the sense of criss-crossing paths and missed meetings, using Venice’s torturous routes as a stage to enact an anxious sense of disconnection, as Laura dashes back to her husband but can’t quite catch up with him as he takes Heather home from the police station. The faintly comic element twists into panicky concern as Heather experiences a mediumistic fit as she’s possessed by Christine, and tries desperately to warn Laura that John’s headed off towards danger. The climax of Don’t Look Now, as vivid and delirious as its opening, sees John pursuing the small, red-clad figure, oblivious to the cries of warning and fear that often ring out whenever it appears, locking himself inside an abandoned building with it so he can corner it. Roeg offers some familiar horror movie hype here, as the Venetian canals and cavernous ruined interior swim with mist and shadow, whilst his handheld camerawork becomes frantic as Laura tries to chase them down, scuttling over bobbing boats and beating at the locked gate.

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John corners his quarry, who seems until the very last instant to be some lost and desperate child if not an actual ghostly manifestation of his daughter, but turns to him at last finally reveals a wizened and malevolent visage – an elderly, viciously psychotic dwarf who whips out a knife and cuts John’s throat. This is ridiculous touch on one level, of course, but also Don’t Look Now’s most inspired and gleefully cruel conceit. John’s paternal grief and misfiring second sight bring him to a brutal end, his life flashing before his eyes as his life blood gushes out of his neck in a great red spume: Roeg’s most symphonic editing arrives as he revisits sights and actions from the rest of the film and stitches them together in new context, the desperate striving for meaning in the last few moments of a man’s life. The killer has been waiting for John ever since glimpsing her in the church photo, mysteriously conjoined with his daughter’s loss. Could she be regarded as an agent of fate, the minion of some patiently boding evil, or just a random expression of chaos, of the things that maul and mutilate? The coda offers a mordant yet also grand, even triumphant sense of revelation and completion, as it’s revealed his sighting of Laura with Heather and Wendy was actually foresight of them accompanying his body to a funeral on a hearse boat. The salving aspect of this could be Laura’s firm and centred gaze and gentle smile as she buries another loved-one, alone but also bolstered by new faith that nothing is every truly lost.

Standard
1960s, Crime/Detective, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Psycho (1960)

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriter: Joseph Stefano

By Roderick Heath

In the late months of 1959 and through 1960, a battery of films hit movie screens that essentially initiated modern cinema. Amongst the films made the young lions of the French New Wave and the fanfare for the Italian ‘alienation’ mode, Psycho seems in odd company, as a work of commercial showmanship rather than radical aesthetic reinvention, and made by a filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, who had just turned sixty, a well-established celebrity rather than a fearsome young gun. But in other ways it’s inescapable. Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, it revolves around the unexpected hole left in both the lives of people and narrative film when a protagonist suddenly becomes absent from their own story. Like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it pensively regards a coming age of monstrosities lurking behind the seemingly tawdry, shiny business of post-war life. Like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it anxiously contemplates the bodies of entwined lovers doomed by forces far beyond their control. Like all these films it’s bewildered by the blank and artless affect of modernity and scratches at its shiny surface, seeing bleak and septic truths in places where the old darkness still crouches.
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Psycho, although not representing any great break for its director in style or subject, nonetheless offered a ruthlessly compressed and expressive ideogram of cinema form and function, so complete and effective that it forced a reorganisation of whole continents in pop culture. Psycho shocked. For a brief moment, Hitchcock had people wondering if he’d gone too far. And he had. He also dragged everyone over the line with him. More immediately, much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) had done four decades earlier, Psycho redefined the Horror film. Hitchcock had never ventured into the genre overtly before despite occasionally skirting it, in the old dark house melodramas of Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1948) with their elusively haunting presences and literal skeletons in the closet, in the duplicitous landscapes of mind and body in Spellbound (1944), and the many sequences of intimate violence he was so skilled at portraying, pocking his oeuvre. Hitchcock had tackled the theme of the serial killer early in his career with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), but there had concentrated not on the killer or victims but on the elusively attaching spectre of guilt. And yet Psycho and The Birds (1963) are surely the greatest one-two punch in the genre. They’re deeply entwined in their imagery, characters, and metaphors, their anxious sense of the nomadic meeting the intractability of parochial identity in the midst of life’s violent flux.
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Hitchcock would have seen the early classics of the Expressionist movement, as his tenure learning his craft in Munich in the early 1920s fully immersed him in that aesthetic and its underpinning ideas. Whilst Hitchcock brought aspects of the style to his films, he quickly learned to mediate it through a harder, more three-dimensional way of looking at the world, and at film. Hitchcock’s world pretends to be entirely stolid, until suddenly it isn’t. When he finally strayed properly into Horror, Hitchcock helped give it something it needed, a new blueprint, a sense of connection with a real and immediate sense of danger living in the world, in a way the genre had never quite known before. In return it gave him something he needed as imitators crowded him and cinematic tastes changed: a jolt of new ferocity and aesthetic danger. Hitchcock did not expel the lingering influence of the old Expressionist style from his film, but does something more interesting, having it loom as large and weird as the Bates house over the motel, which, with its straight, flat surfaces and forms, invites the clear-lit gaze of his TV-trained crew; two modes of cinema are placed in close and incongruous conflict. Caligari and his world illustrated the workings of a pathological mind, an idea Psycho demonstrates to the audience in a more complex dance of artifice and authenticity. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Psycho revolves around the revelation a seemingly average and likeable young man is in fact insane. But the projection of his lunacy here is a worn guise rather than incarnated in the drama. Symbols are cast aside. The killer is loose.
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The starting point, of course, was Robert Bloch’s clever if flimsy novel: Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano methodically stripped out the book’s prologue introducing Norman Bates and his strange little world. Hitchcock starts instead with fastidious declarations of date, time, place flashed on the screen, as the camera turns surveying the boxes and oblongs of the Phoenix, Arizona cityscape. The precision mimics true crime reportage, whilst the visuals reproduce the voyeuristic temptations of Rear Window (1954) in miniature, camera zeroing in on a hotel room where a treat waits, a couple just done screwing. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a sexy, young, yet also already distinctly rather world-weary couple, having a quickie on Marion’s lunchbreak. Hitchcock’s rueful idea of what the rest of the world’s doing when he’s busy drawing up a storyboard. Sam, chafing under the load of debts inherited from his father in addition to a hardware store, having a quickie with his lover on one of his business trips to Phoenix. Marion, a real estate agent’s secretary who’s reached the end of her tether in regards to their relationship, and once the carnal ecstatics are exhausted solicitude takes over. Watch Marion primly tucking in her shirt as she inveigles Sam to come to her house and have dinner with her and her sister, “respectably.” The last, waning days of the old propriety and the first salvoes of the sexual revolution in the mix. Soon the old propriety will have its revenge. Sam is filled with sour bawdiness (“We send sister to the movies, turn mother’s picture to the wall.”) but also acquiesces to Marion’s aspirations. Romantic failure is economic burden – Sam is also paying alimony to an ex-wife. Everything has a cost and profit value, a transaction on multiple but ever-linked indexes, of money and morality, social and emotional.
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New starts are possible. Sam sees the possibility of economic freedom soon. Just hold the line and grit your teeth. But Marion desperately wants to make something happen now; the coffers of hope and joy are totally empty. Cravings for respectability fire transgressive impulses. Marion returns to the office, lunch uneaten (noted acerbically on the bedside stand back in the hotel room, forgotten whilst other appetites are sated). Her fellow secretary Caroline (Pat Hitchcock) is the image of Marion’s anxiety, the type of woman who took tranquilisers to make it through her wedding night unscathed. In comes her boss Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), who seems the image of a solicitous prig who’s probably in big with the local Rotary club, with a big new client, the drawling, boastful, cowboy-hat-wearing Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). Cassidy flirts shamelessly with Marion, trying to excite her with his big wad. Cash, that is – $40,000 dollars, ponied up to buy his about-to-be-married pet daughter a house for her wedding day. No wonder Marion has a headache. Cassidy has the manner of a small boy caught drawing rude words on the school room blackboard, gleefully exposing Lowery’s promised horde of a hidden bottle. Everybody’s got their little secret. But Marion sees through Cassidy of course; a few more belts of bourbon and he’ll be trying to grab her ass, no fear. Marion’s patience snaps, along with her judgement. She resolves to flee town with the cash, head out to Sam in his home town of Fairvale, California, and get on with life.
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Hitchcock needs no dialogue to depict Marion’s choices, just the sight of her changing and packing with the cash on her bed. Just as loud is the declaration of how love and sex are entwined with finance. On the way out of town she gives a smile and nod to Lowery as he strays by, only to provoke his momentary bewilderment as to what his secretary’s doing out and about. Fear falls with the chugging, jarring strains of Bernard Herrmann’s music which mimic the panicky scuttling of her nervous system, and now Marion is citizen of a new world. Her journey across the Arizona landscape, out in the sun-baked hills and long, straight highways, becomes a big wide trap, where the oncoming headlights sting like lamps in a third degree routine and the eyes of a highway patrolman (Mort Mills) are big, black dishes of emptiness: Kafka on the range. The cop, who only stops to make sure the lady asleep in her car on the roadside is all right, gets too interested, so Marion resolves to sell her car and get one with California licence plates. Many Hitchcock characters had been wrongfully accused, victims of appearances and bad luck, sweating their way through survival situations where they must project the appearance of innocence in a state of irony. Or, if they were breaking the law, usually had a good reason for doing it – to help someone in a jam, to help a lover, to expose a hidden menace. Personal transgression in Hitchcock is a lynchpin theme, but so too is personal morality, the compass of private judgement that often points in the opposite direction to the blank regard of state authority.
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But Marion is one who’s actually committing a crime (anticipating her sister in weirdness, Marnie), and she’s not very good at it, although she has verbal wherewithal to get her through gruelling exchanges. Her attempts to fend off the intrigued cop and the friendly used car salesman (John Anderson) only drum up suspicious questions, concern and probation commingling. The toilet of the used car lot becomes a strange stage for a reckoning, Marion’s image reflected in a grimly rectangular mirror, counting through cash in a step that puts her further outside the wall. In Cocteau she might step through the mirror into a dream veldt. In Psycho the walls have eyes, but no portals. Hitchcock invites the viewer into Marion’s head to listen to her sorting through unseen scenarios as she imagines the processes of discovery and retribution set in motion in her wake. Hitchcock wasn’t usually one to use such a method, but he needs the audience identification with Marion to be deep and abiding, as well as to trick the audience into thinking such machinations might be important. Marion gets a definite kick out of imagining Cassidy’s aggrieved and hypocritical protestations (“and even flirtin’ with me!”) as she plays through such scenes in her head; she pegs California Charlie as a bag of clichés (one of Stefano’s subtler, wittier touches in how she imagines the salesman repeating his “customer high-pressure a salesman” line like a proud parent).
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Rainfall pounds down upon Marion in her car, and in the dark she accidentally leaves the highway, finishing up on a detour. Here only one light beckons, the sign of the Bates Motel, a few small rooms under a looming house. The infrastructure of modernity, the low, rectilinear, interchangeable motel rooms, underneath an outpost of Gilded Age pretence, jagged gables and ovular frames all in a Freudian muddle. Shadows passing behind the windows describe the outline of an old woman, just the sort of inhabitant you might expect to see haunting such an abode. Marion’s westward jaunt from Arizona into the California hinterland feels odd in movie lore, like someone’s finally made that last leap from heartland to west coast many a Western film’s heroes never get around to. The Bates Motel is the place where the Old West trail ran out, lost in a septic trap of time and mind, where lost souls find their rest. The improbably agreeable and handsome young owner-manager dashes down and introduces himself as Norman Bates. Norman’s apparent, cheery forthrightness counters Marion’s caginess in writing a false name in the register. Soon Norman’s inviting her come eat with him, but hesitates on the threshold of her room, before suggesting they repair instead to the parlour behind his office. This little abode sports the unnerving products of his favourite pastimes, stuffed birds peering down from vantages, the creatures Norman readily compares Marion to, if only quoting cliché, as he watches he eat.
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Marion and Norman’s conversation is the epicentre of Psycho, an epic sequence of suggestion and revelation that slowly pivots the storyline’s focus from one character to another. Most directors would slink through a scene like this in a succession of shots merely servicing the dialogue exchange, but Hitchcock turns it into one of his most symphonic displays of constant, cumulatively unsettling reframings matched to the rhythms of Perkins’ performance. The stuffed birds and dark corners of the room plucked out of obscurity and soon appear in mysterious psychic dialogue with Norman, who sits like a witness in the dock, only as the camera drops lower and moves in closer to vote him visual power. At the end of it, there’s no dissonance when Hitchcock remains with Norman rather than continues to follow Marion, whose viewpoint has dominated the film completely until now. Hitchcock forces the viewer into complicity with Norman whilst inserting a level of irony: now Norman is the one peering at Marion, through the safe glaze of a peephole that mimics the movie camera lens, the earlier invitation to gawk at Leigh in her bra turns into a needling accusation. Marion’s encounter with Norman, who seems to charm her sufficiently at first she has no qualms about inviting him into her room, if only silently, shades more into a woman’s startled and fascinated witnessing of a kind of living cautionary tale. By the end of their talk Marion is resolved on stepping out of what Norman calls a private trap, the sort of situation people voluntarily persist in for the sake of some obligation despite resenting it. Norman’s concept of the trap is sheltering as well as limiting.
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Today the specific twists of Psycho aren’t just well-known but so deeply enshrined in pop cultural lore it’s just about impossible to reckon with how sharply they landed in 1960. Hitchcock would later tell François Truffaut that it was the shower murder that made him want to film Bloch’s novel, but the narrative’s innate ambiguity must have had some appeal too, especially once the prologue was cast aside. Psycho represents a perfect and logical extreme for Hitchcock as a filmmaker who liked to tease and confound and audience as well as please it. Vertigo (1958) had allowed a similar level of opacity over genre as well as story before, but Psycho allowed Hitchcock to extend the game right until the end, as well as proving more functional in his chief business of attracting and exciting an audience. The film is a merry dance through genres and all attendant expectations, starting off in a key of everyday frustration. Sexy melodrama, before Marion’s thievery kicks off a seemingly low-key thriller with the constant, jangling threat of becoming something more. And then, the silhouetted, knife-wielding killer walks in, coming up to Marion as she has a shower, and brutally knifes her to death. One movie has collided with another, one pathology with another. The dizziness is stylistic as well as narrative. The real estate office, the sunstruck car yard, the interior of the motel are all harsh, ahistorical, antiseptic. Norman’s parlour is touched with hints of Expressionist fervour in the pools of light and dark. The house above, a Gothic emblem, derived from an image by that poet of American solitude, Edward Hopper.
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Then, of course, the shower scene. Marion fights for life but never stands a chance. The brilliant cruelty lies in the way Marion is enjoying her shower, seemingly not just cleaning her body but also a symbolic act of purifying herself following her resolution to go back and face the consequences of her crime; confession delivers salvation, an amniotic state of grace. But the spectre of punitive morality is quite literally standing behind her, Norman wearing the guise of his mother, incarnation of pious hypocrisy and stunting puritanism. Not that this is made clear yet; all that’s seen of the assailant is a black spot where the face should be and a thatch of stringy hair. The killer is the dark thing that lay in the highway cop’s glasses. Hitchcock continues to fascinate artists well beyond the parameters of his own form as well as critics because he had one, near-unique talent: performing little ballets of visualisation that creates epiphanies in the midst of more serviceable narrative cinema, without seeming to create a tension between the two forms. Precisely this ability taunted some viewers; it’s why some like Graham Greene dismissed him as a purveyor of gimmicks, exactly the same reason why the New Wave critics and others heralded him as someone who grasped the raw nerve of cinema. Psycho is filled with such touches, and of course the shower scene is the ultimate example. Hitchcock doesn’t just invent the slasher film in the course of a few seconds or bring a new edge of pyrotechnic pizzazz to editing a straightforward moment, but hacks up the very idea of the movie actor and the female body into a succession of images that are also lodestones. A huge close up of Marion’s screaming mouth, a lunging close-up of the knife grazing her navel.
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Even greater, perhaps, is the immediate aftermath of the murder, when the film stops dead in a kind of stunned and meditative regard. A colossal eye, glimpsed in a slowly gyring camera movement, a universe unto itself, an experimental photograph, a Japanese ink sketch. A long, slow, mysteriously dreamy retreat that suggests a recapitulation of the spirographs in the iris credits of Vertigo, the death plunge but played in reverse, leaving behind the secretive space of the dead eye until pausing the regard the blank, voided face of the dead woman. Marion Crane, whose fate we were utterly compelled by just a few seconds before, has vanished, leaving a hunk of carrion. Hitchcock rhymes the shot with the blood gushing down the plughole. Marion’s lifeblood is descending into an abyss. Did Marion go there too? This protean moment feels like the basis of Brian De Palma’s whole career. David Lynch’s too. Camera lifts away and slides over to regard the newspaper that contains the bundled money that brought her to this end, before moving to the the window to gaze at the Bates house as Norman’s cry rings out aghast: “Mother! Oh god Mother! Blood! Blood!” The chain of association seems blatant, and that’s also what Hitchcock uses to screen his most malicious secret. Just as the audience was invited in to experience Marion’s crime, now it’s drafted into empathising with Norman in his.
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Just as Marion was forgivable in the way she wanted to deliver herself and Sam from fate, Norman compels with the diligence of his act of seemingly selfless protection and concealment for the sake of his deranged and murderous mother. His cool, his logic, his care, all demand admiration, empathy. Marion and her car pushes into the neighbouring swamp, where it lingers with taunting buoyancy for a few moments before sinking into the murk with a satisfying plop. As original and radically reorientating as Psycho is, it nonetheless employs some hallowed genre rudiments, particularly the motif of the lonely traveller washing up in a backwater and the old, dark house that stands on the hill, clasping its secrets and surely and tidily as the musty Victoriana bric-a-brac that litters its rooms. The figure of the traveller who’s stumbled past a point of no return is an essential starting point in so many Horror tales. What is Marion but a very modern version of the Gothic Horror character abandoned at a creepy destination by the nervous coachman? Terence Fisher worked the same motif in the more traditional mould with his near-simultaneous The Brides of Dracula. It’s not hard to see why this is such a familiar aspect of the genre, and how precisely Hitchcock grasps it. Everyone’s gone for a long drive in the country or a road trip to locate some obscure place in their past or to plant down a future and felt the odd sensation of straying beyond the pale, discovering signs of a way of life you thought had vanished subsisting in stray corners of a roadside grove or fluttering field.
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Since fairly early in his American sojourn, from the time of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock had found energy and purpose in escaping Hollywood’s climes for contemplations of Americana, contemplations half-charmed and half-perturbed. Such forcibly affected normality had to hide as much strangeness just as surely as the waistcoat-wearing rose gardeners and tea-sippers of London. Norman is on the face of things an exemplar of mid-century American values, a good-looking young man who loves his mother and diligently runs his private enterprise, standing outside of but not disdaining the great national business. Norman’s strangest crime from the viewpoint of the society Hitchcock depicts is to be ignorant of money as a motive; he scarcely seems bothered by being tethered to a bare living running a tacky little motel, and never thinks to check Marion’s belongings for dough. The purloined wad of cash, that spur to offence and flight, goes in the swamp with everything else that was Marion Crane. It’s this aspect of Norman that allowed him to become a sort of antihero in a later string of sequels in the 1980s; mad and dangerous as he is, he’s also uniquely incorruptible, an eternal innocent. The force that compels him is no less universal than the desire to outdo fate. But it is in his case a far more intense and destructive struggle, an agonised wrestling match with the fact that the enveloping certainty and sense of belonging that is childhood can never be regained.
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Hitchcock certainly laid foundations for the future of Horror cinema, but also might have helped initiate a new interest in the contemporary American landscape, one the oncoming American New Wave would exalt. Psycho could count Easy Rider (1969) or Five Easy Pieces (1970) amongst its progeny as much as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978), through its fixation with the tension between the ensnared and the astray, the expanse of the land and the inward-turning gyre of social setting. Psycho is intensely aware of the landscape as stage, from the opening that surveys Phoenix in seeking out the right portal into a story, to the glimpses of the sunstruck countryside and the starkness of downtown Bakersfield where black eyes peer across hot asphalt. The motel and the Bates house stand in intimate theatrical relationship where spiteful conversations echo down and illusions play in the window frames, actualisations of a schizoid mind, one zone arguing with another, the grafted antiseptic well-lit boxes forced to overhear the rants of the creaking house with its memory of ancient neurosis. Hitchcock’s gamesmanship isn’t subtle, his caressing camera movements sneaking about like a rubbernecker but retreating to vantages that make a show of concealing the reality of Norman and his mother. The showmanship stops being method and becomes instead subtext, watching worlds, people, personalities collide and graze and threaten to merge.
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Meanwhile Sam Loomis sits in the office of his hardware store penning a missive to his absent lover he’ll never see again, asking her to join him, whilst an old woman in the store buys insecticide and worries whether it’s painless. Instead of Marion, Sam gets Lila Crane (Vera Miles), looking for her vanished sister, followed quickly by Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Lila, as tense and questing as her sister with an extra bolt of vehemence to her character, has to force action, to push through just as her Laurie harangued her beau in Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and for not dissimilar reasons, having to put a torch to the cause of masculine obsession. “Patience doesn’t run in my family,” she tells Sam, to nobody’s surprise. Psycho moves restlessly through a range of protagonists, most of whom are in turn also potential villains, distressing, stealing, exposing, tormenting, killing. Identities blur, opposites always hinting unity. Sam and Norman are near-doppelgangers, lanky, dark-haired American lover boys, both chafing under the lingering rule of failed and deceased parents, both defined by their different propensities in penetrating Marion’s body. Lila steps into her sister’s shoes and enacts a parody of marriage with Sam so they can investigate Norman (another prediction of Marnie). Arbogast’s face, shot in pugnacious close-up by Hitchcock as he first enters the film, echoes the looming visage of the highway cop and brings the same aura of authority incarnate in all its faintly bullying self-importance, although Arbogast has freedom of discretion that sets him apart from the lawman. Ironically, it’s only because of Marion’s transgression that Norman suffers his downfall, the reason why people are just a little too determined to pick up her trail.
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Arbogast interviews Norman, recognising Marion’s flimsy pseudonym in the register and slowly draws out Norman’s admission she was there, teasing at the discrepancies in his accounts but not suspecting him of anything except for very ordinary indiscretions like possibly sleeping with his guest, a notion that of course shocks and annoys Norman. But only Arbogast’s request to talk to his mother in case she talked to Marion ends the conversation. Arbogast reports back to Lila; the stern private eye is now empathetic, offering consolations and salves before deciding to return and try to satisfy the nagging ambiguity. He enters the Bates house and climbs the stairs to interview Mother Bates. But someone waits for him above, someone who comes out and stabs him at the top of the stairs. Arbogast slides back down the stairs and crashes to the floor, his assailant upon him in a moment with startling speed, delivering the coup-de-grace with brutal speed. A briefer, less eruptive episode of violence than the shower scene, but just as spectacular in its way, with Hitchcock’s camera chasing Arbogast down the stairs as he stumbles backwards, blood spattered on his face, arms flailing. A weird effect, one you can’t imagine any other director trying even today unless performing rank imitation, one that makes perfect sense in a mechanical sense and yet delivers an unreal effect, pushing Hitchcock’s desire for inspiring a physical effect upon the audience to the edge of surrealism. Where Marion falls to pieces in the editing room, Hitchcock’s camera pins Arbogast centre-screen, inescapable in his gruelling panic and literal plunge to earth.
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One significant disparity between Psycho and much of the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre lies in the speed with which its violent set-pieces whip by, by comparison with such displays as the concert sequence of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) or the finale of North by Northwest (1959). Psycho’s spurts of carnage are abrupt, jagged, still discomforting nearly sixty years later precisely because they arrive and depart with such speed. There’s little of the usual sense of luxury in Hitchcock’s fascination for the raw textures of cinema, no sense of delving into a dreamy netherworld as in Vertigo, although its portrait of reality is just as stylised in its way and its plunge just as deep; nor anything of the drawn-out rituals of stalking and slaying that its many progeny would soon evolve. Every shot in the film is cut to the bone in terms of declarative function. Part of this was doubtless due to Hitchcock’s determination to make the film as quickly and efficiently as possible one a lean budget, but it’s also demanded by the subject matter. Death comes on hard and fast in Psycho, and when it’s done there’s nothing left but the empty, staring eye. Psycho made the knife-wielding killer the new axis of the Horror film. The moment was ripe for this, as a new sociological awareness began to put the concept of the psychopath and the thrill killer into the popular consciousness; behind Psycho lies the well-known inspiration of Ed Gein and also his tabloid kin like Charles Starkweather.
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Serial killers had appeared in Horror movies before, but usually signposted as something bizarre and alien, played by the likes of Tod Slaughter and Rondo Hatton, presented as misshapen fiends bursting out of some usually safely locked psychic bole. Even the attempts to render more authentic portrayals usually wound up a bit absurd. Watching John Drew Barrymore just a few years earlier playing his mother-fixated whacko killer in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) with bug eyes and fever sweats that would get him arrested by a cop on general principle gives some real appreciation for just how completely Hitchcock and Perkins reconstituted the portrayal of such a character. Perkins’ intricate performance is marked out not just by for his skill in encouraging audience compassion for Norman but in also laying bare his psychopathology without either giving away the game whilst also completely avoiding any sense of winking at the audience. The closest he comes is the ever-so-slight glint of steely humour when he tells Arbogast, “She might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother.” Whilst Psycho certainly gave birth to the giallo and slasher modes in the next twenty years, the films that followed in its wake would often avoid Psycho’s distinctive strategy in making its monster also its most human figure.
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Most such progeny would labour to put back on the mask of detached symbolism Bloch, Hitchcock, Stefano, and Perkins all worked hard in their ways to strip off, resulting in black-faced murderers like Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees, and the incidental, interchangeable slayers of Mario Bava’s founding giallo films. Only Dario Argento would take up the notes of gender chaos Hitchcock breached, but rarely with much interest in psychological depth, instead offering it as a specific device to assault his heroes and audience. Psycho’s approach is ironically, for all its modernity, more reminiscent of the classic Universal Horror films like Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941), where the central tragedy lies precisely in the fact that the tantalisingly vulnerable lies cheek by jowl with reflexive savagery, all in the same frame; men turn inside out under the pressure of the contradictions inherent in their being. Psycho aches with a sense of the state of humanity being, as Norman’s famous speech to Marion codifies, one of flailing isolation and permanent internal war. It’s a war that also afflicts societies, one that beliefs in official moralities and systems can both pacify and enrage. The film makes sport of just about every social piety in the book – the earnestness of the young man who loves his mother, the loyalty of the girl Friday secretary, the probity of the Midwestern businessman, the assurance of the psychiatrist.
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Psycho is often faulted for a segue into plummy hype that would seem more at home in an episode of Hitchcock’s popular TV show, when Lila and Sam, concerned for Arbogast after he fails to get back to them, visit the Fairvale sheriff Al Chambers (John McIntire). Chambers drops the jarring revelation that Mother Bates has been dead for years, and questions just who might be buried in her place if she’s still in her house with Norman. Certainly this moment sets up the last phase of the film with the lingering ambiguity stoked to a new high, and Hitchcock sneaks in a sideways swipe at the lore of gossip as Chambers’ wife (Lurene Tuttle) informs Lila that Norman’s mother and her lover were found dead together “in bed.” The eternal partner to transgressive behaviour is the obsessive interest in it by social guardians. There might also be a hint of satirical intent in the scene overall, just as there is more tangibly in the final summation of the psychiatrist Richman (Simon Oakland) called upon to explain Norman’s particular pathology. Such moments graze awkwardly against the terse energy of the dialogue scenes between Perkins and Leigh, Balsam, and Gavin. The infrastructure of the thriller itself is being tested throughout Psycho, Hitchcock mocking his own formula and the need for neat demarcations an increasingly TV-dominated mindset was encouraging, a mindset he had seen the potential in earlier but also knew was often at war with the spectacle of cinema that was his faith. You can almost hear the director clucking in amusement at the audience feeling like the TV commercial break should come after the sheriff’s hanging question.
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Emphatically, for The Birds Hitchcock would abandon any need to explain his invocations of chaos, and whilst he’d return to the Freudian fold for Marnie, it would be as fuel to an overtly artificial creation of a modernist-tinged, full-colour Expressionist melodrama. Psycho on the other hand turns its own black-and-white palette, harsh as any bleach or carbolic mixture used to scrub those bathroom tiles so bright, into part of its purely efficient structuring. Hitchcock makes a show of his concealments, but only to reinforce how nothing can hide. Mind and soul are slowly baking in a hot glare, the glare of the California sun, the neon light, the peering eye of state and authority, the shock of the atom bomb’s glare, exposed and helpless as naked flesh under a hard silver knife. Nothing to do but turn inwards, to seek refuge in backdated certainties, musty creeds, incestuous securities, a closed loop of experience. Post-war America has found the end of its frontier, the end of its logic, and there’s nothing left to do but spin into the drain where the monsters dwell. Horatio Alger’s nightmare. Lila and Sam’s venture out to the Bates Motel sees the duo declaring readiness for anything they might find, but no-one can ever really expect mummified corpses and knife-wielding cross-dressing psychotics amongst the bric-a-brac and dried turnips.
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Lila’s adventure around the Motel and the house make for some of my favourite moments in Psycho, for the sense not just of rising suspense as she tries to delve into Norman’s secrets whilst Sam keeps him talking, but the way the film’s sense physical and psychic landscape collide with pungent flavour. The Bates house is Hitchcock’s remembrance of the old Expressionist credo of film setting as explanation of film theme, as much as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s backdrops or Metropolis’ (1926) mimetic cityscape. Lila skirts the rear of the cabins where old car and piled detritus lie, and penetrates the house where the old-world charm is suffocating and the zones of adulthood and childhood are still rigidly demarcated. Mother’s room with its plush, rococo intimations of decadence and sensual delights, Norman’s still-occupied childhood bedroom where beloved toys sit cheek-by-jowl with purloined Victorian pornography books for useful education. The imprint of Mother’s body in her bed describes the immediacy of her influence and the literal hole left by her absence. Cross-cutting to Sam grilling Norman, until Norman realises he’s being distracted and knocks Sam out during a tussle. Lila’s use of the cellar stairs to hide from Norman leads her to Mother, as the door to the cellar beckons as the last, unpenetrated space of mystery, the deep pit of the mind-as-architecture where Mother is seemingly set up in a chair to keep her away from prying eyes.
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For good cause, Lila finds as she turns her chair and is confronted by an eyeless stare and the withered, toothy grin of death, the preserved but desiccated form of the body – the perfect one according to puritan ideal, removed of all blood, thought, passion, temptation, captive and ever true. With the twist that far from being the mother who enforces the regime of nightmarish repression, it’s the son over himself. Has a film ever encoded a spoiler so brazenly upfront as the very title Psycho? A sudden gust of revelation and action: the sight of the corpse’s face, Lila’s answering screaming, her flung hand striking a bare, scourging light bulb and knocking it into a jangling dance, and Norman’s entrance clad in floral nightgown and wig, grinning with relish with colossal knife in hand. His appearance holds a charge of bizarre comedy, but it’s submerged in the disorientating rush, perhaps one reason why Hitchcock seems determined not to linger on it. In a blink, Sam appears, grabbing Norman and forcing him to his knees with superior strength, as Herrmann’s screaming strings begin to wind down like a phonograph reaching its limit, in time with the slowing pendulum of the light, reality recomposing itself with nauseous uncertainty.
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Clinical deconstruction of the saga takes place in Fairvale’s police station, where reporters and gawkers wait outside and Richman boils down the mystery for easy consumption for Sam, Lila, the local law enforcers, and the viewer, in a broad parody of psychotherapeutic jive and the expected thriller winding-down explanations. A spare yet endlessly resonant epilogue sabotages it all. Norman, now entirely subsumed by the personality of Mother, sits alone against a blank white institutional wall with blanket drawn over his head, drawing into him/herself with the aspect of a yogi scissoring himself out of reality. Mother planning to still win a victory over the watching eyes, the delving smart-alecks, the coolly abiding cops, by appearing completely passive and peaceful. She wouldn’t even harm a fly. The psychiatrist might explain why, but can never really touch that infinitely strange and churning space that is the mind; Mother is exultant, unbound, a world-spirit projecting herself out from a cage of flesh and brick to find new psychic accords in a mad age. Hitchcock projects the ghostly image of the real corpse’s face upon Norman’s, and then dissolves to the sight of Marion’s car being dragged out of the swamp, looking a little like a decayed skull itself, covered in filth. Foul deeds will rise and all that jazz, but with the light falling upon the submerged and the repressed, out comes the stink.

 

Standard
1910s, Crime/Detective, German cinema, Horror/Eerie, Silent

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

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Director: Robert Wiene
Screenwriters: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer

By Roderick Heath

Imagine what it must have been like, to be someone who just bought a ticket to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari way back in 1919. Perhaps some ex-soldier just back from the abandoned trenches, curious to see that crazy new film someone told him about, or perhaps just in need of some cheap seat to rest a tired backside on. What reached out on a shaft of projected light and touched the cinema screen might well have seemed perverted gibberish to some or an internal landscape finally given shape to others. Maybe some later commentators were right, that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari represented a strange new psychic frontier not just in cinema but in social and political life, particularly for the battered and seething nation in which it was made, and also that nation’s challenge to the rest of the world in winning the peace with fearsome works of creation before a more sinister project took hold. More securely, the film gave birth to the movement today labelled as German Expressionism in film, and every genre and mode of cinema that mode inflected, from French Poetic Realism to Film Noir and the myriad children of Citizen Kane (1941).
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If films like Cabiria (1914) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) represented one great stage in the development of cinema, a stage defined by tethering visual technique to basic storytelling precepts, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seems to have inaugurated another in exploring how the technique of film structuring and elements placed before the camera could be manipulated not simply to feign a coherent flow of association in cause and effect, but to imply other levels to drama, to throw off the former raison d’etre for cinema, its illusory realism, and instead pursue its potential as an expressive instrument to depict more ethereal realms. States of mind. Hallucinations. Dreams. Nightmares. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also, of course, arguably the first masterpiece of horror cinema, albeit one with an unusual and contested genesis and a much-pondered legacy. Horror certainly existed on screen before The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Georges Méliès had teased its outskirts with some of his fantastical works. D.W. Griffith likewise, with his Poe variation The Avenging Conscience (1914). Paul Wegener had already tried once to film the Golem legend he’d heard about in Prague, as he would again more famously in 1922. J. Searle Dawley’s Frankenstein (1910) had brought Mary Shelley’s novel to life over 16 thrilling minutes; Joseph W. Smiley’s Life Without Soul updated it with epic pretences.
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But The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gave the genre a new and certain form and a special cinematic status, as a place where many familiar rules of movies could be suspended. It wasn’t the first film to try and transpose a set artistic style into a filmic context, either. Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Thaïs (1917) had done the same thing with Futurism, with a similarly implied fragmentation of ways of being and seeing. Futurism’s rigid, rectilinear elements however asserted form over becoming, suggesting method and pattern under surface chaos, whereas the liquid flow of Expressionism and its associated dramatization of emotional states proved far more potent as a tool for filmmakers. Some of the value of Expressionism was purely mercenary, as shadow-drenched and highly stylised sets that required far less effort to build and dress and light were cheaper. Indeed, the makers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari adopted the style in part for just such a reason, working as they were in the anxiously straitened months after the Great War’s end. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari began its genesis when Czech poet and author Hans Janowitz and writer met screenwriter Carl Mayer, when both men were broke and flailing. Both had become committed pacifists during the war: Janowitz had served in the army, whilst Mayer had avoided service by feigning insanity and going through a gruelling examination by a psychiatrist.
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Janowitz and Mayer were left angry and disdainful of authority by their experiences, and channelled their feelings and circumstances as Janowitz provided the concept and Mayer developed it into a screenplay. Enterprising producer Erich Pommer, impressed with their work and enthused at the prospect of an interesting and provocative film that could be shot cheaply, initially hired one of the brightest young talents on the German film scene to film the script, a young Austrian screenwriter turned director named Fritz Lang. Lang did preparatory work on the project and was probably the one who invested it with a key idea that was to prove at once inspired and influential, and, eventually, controversial, in regards to the film’s accepted meaning, by coming up with a different version of Janowitz and Mayer’s proposed flashback structure, and devising a new sting-in-the-tale ending. Lang had to leave the project as he was working on his The Spiders (1919-20) at the same time, so Robert Wiene, a slightly more established director, stepped into his place. Set designer Hermann Warm enthusiastically proposed not merely stylising the film’s visuals but embracing an approach close to what was already being done on the stage, and aiming for dreamlike abstraction. Expressionism was actually something of a dated movement by the time The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made, having been founded in the 1890s and practiced by artists like Gustav Munch, whose famous painting “The Scream” gave the movement its most emblematic work in 1893, defined by attempts to describe mental and subliminal states through visualisation. Modern painting was to continue a drive towards abstraction, but Expressionism could have an outsized and more permanent effect on cinema, because it offered a clear conceptual basis for manipulating the unavoidably concrete persons and objects the young art form required to pass before its lens in order to exist.
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The actual plot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is exceedingly simple, but its suggestions and evocations run like artesian water. For Janowitz and Mayer it was an experiment in storytelling that was also a disgusted shout of anger at the collapsed social order in Germany and the many annexes of authority. For Wiene and Warm it was to be a perfect exercise in dramatic style, allowing them to do something new on screen. The opening credits promise a film in six acts, each act announced and departed with a title card with ceremonious exactitude. The opening sees two men seated on a bench in a garden-fringed courtyard, tangled and denuded tendrils of bushes casting shadows on the flagstones and brickwork, as the older of the two men (Hans Lanser-Ludolff) begins to narrate with wide and frazzled eyes: “There are spirits – they are all around us. They have driven me from Hearth and Home, from Wife and Child—” Immediately the audience is encouraged to enter into a zone of credulity as to the possibility of the numinous as well as immersed in a mood of devastation, a place where weary and shattered survivors of mysterious conflicts are swapping accounts. The immediate horizon is entirely personal, the general outlook invoking the entire post-war mood. The other man on the bench, Franzis (Friedrich Feher), sees a young woman draped in white (Lil Dagover) strolling towards them, and fixes on her with hopeful adoration even as she passes by in glaze-eyed distraction. “That is my fiancé,” he tells the older man, and begins to narrate a tale he promises is even stranger than his companion’s experiences.
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Franzis’ narrative recalls the “little town where I was born,” the town of Holstenwall, strongly inspired by Janowitz’s native Prague and transposed into a fantastical landscape of painted buildings on a hillside in a manner reminiscent of medieval art. A carnival rolls into town, bringing with it a peculiar plague infection, in the shape of a rotund old man wearing a top hat and black coat, round glasses balanced upon his nose, an expression of grim humour usually on his lips and fanatical intent in his eyes. Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) himself. The carnival’s arrival stirs the hopes of Franzis, then a student, and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) for a bit of jollity and distraction. As they head out to check out the fair, they move through pathways that are violently stylised simulacra of real streets yet evoking the tight, twisted, somehow paranoid alleys of an old Germanic town. They pass by Caligari, who’s out seeking a permit from the town clerk to stage his peculiar entertainment as part of the carnival, exhibiting a somnambulist, or sleepwalker. He enters the clerk’s office and finds him seated high above the hoipolloi in a stall, barking commands and dismissive comments at those who deign to require his aid, and Caligari is passed on to one of his juniors to get the required permit. That night, Caligari unveils his unusual attraction to the crowd, before Wiene fades out to end the first act.
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Act II dawns upon the sight of investigators hovering over the bed of the town clerk, where he lies murdered by an unknown intruder. Meanwhile Franzis and Alan decide to attend Caligari’s exhibition, and gaze on with tantalised regard as Caligari unveils his attraction, the somnambulist himself Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a man the doctor claims has been asleep for all of his 23 years, but his sleeping existence allows him to tune into levels of existence unknown to others, allowing him to know the past and foresee the future. “Awaken for a moment from your dark night!” Caligari intones, whereupon the somnambulist’s eyes slowly flicker open, and Cesare gazes out on the audience without really seeming to see them, his gaze instead fixed upon a source of cosmic dread only he can perceive. At Caligari’s promise Cesare can answer any question, Alan enthusiastically asks how long he will live. Cesare answers him with sad assurance that he will die at sunrise. Alan and Franzis leave the fair in disquiet, and the glum mood is reinforced as they come across a poster offering a reward for aid in capturing the clerk’s killer. Their spirits are lifted as Franzis meets a woman he knows, young Jane, recognisable as the woman glimpsed in the opening, and the daughter of a prominent local physician, Dr Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger). Alan is instantly smitten as badly as Franzis already is, and the two men make a pact to stay friends no matter who she prefers as a suitor. That night, however, Alan is awakened by the sight of a stranger invading his room, and cowers in terror before the fiend, unable to fight him off as he’s stabbed to death.
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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped define many of its cast members, including Veidt, Dagover, Krauss, and Klein-Rogge, as definitive faces of Weimar cinema. The film incidentally invented the mystique of Veidt, who would go on to gain a level of stardom outside Germany, starring in films in Britain and America. Veidt would meet an early death just after appearing in Casablanca (1942), but remains most potently identified as Expressionist film’s weird yet charismatic muse. When he helped bring the Expressionist aesthetic to Hollywood through starring in Paul Leni’s iconic The Man Who Laughs (1926), his leering visage, charged with inherent perversity and tragic stature, gave the movement one of its most indelible mascots. Veidt’s Cesare is a pale face with black rings around his eyes, a visage of phthisic, spiritually and physically famished humanity, attached to a body clad in black hose. When he goes out on his forays under Caligari’s command he’s an inky squiggle writhing upon the painted sets, hints of a mime’s precision of movement and gesture as Cesare moulds his body for a world of windows and alleys as tight as his coffin home, a shock of black hair swept over into paltry obedience. Most male horror movie villains still aren’t allowed the same charge of bizarre erotic appeal the young, rubber-limbed, intense-looking Veidt wields, as part of the films texture demands identifying Cesare as not merely the animated minion of Caligari but as the dream-self of Franzis, the lean and rapacious projection of his id out to kill his friend-rival and snatch Jane away for nefarious ends.
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Veidt and the other actors move through the sets that seem at times to twist and swim like seaweed in deep water or form to ruthless angles, the liquid state of dreaming constantly stricken with the sharp edge of the murderous will, which finds expression in the triangular edge of Cesare’s knife. The filmmakers put their set design to satirical as well as psychologically significant use. The town clerk and the policemen are all seen perched at absurd heights, looking like hunched and patient vultures waiting for a meal as emblems of tin-pot authority. Caligari targets the clerk as punishment for his brusqueness and mockery, an anarchic gesture that has an irony as one source of jumped-up egotism attacks another through the personified apparatus of the subconscious. Wiene and his creative team might have been borrowing some ideas in turn from Louis Feuillade, the French serial maker and proto-surrealist, after the war’s end allowed cultural traffic again. Feuillade delighted in his own visions of black-clad marauders scuttling across rooftops and assaulting the bourgeois order. That Cesare in his bodystocking and heavy eye makeup is similar to Musidora’s look in Feuillade’s Les Vampires, 1915-6, has suggested an intriguing edge of sexual ambiguity to Cesare, another realm of breakdown this time in terms of gender. Cesare certainly bears an odd resemblance to Jane herself, Dagover’s face a plain of pure white and black pits where her eyes live: the virgin and the monster are mirrors.
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Feuillide’s narratives were still nominally contained by the borders of the crime and thriller genres where the forces of law and order are plain heroes and the wrongdoers eventually punished. Despite of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s famous twist, and indeed because of it, the impression of order in Wiene’s film is infinitely more tenuous, threatening collapse. Amidst the stylised settings, which aim for a sense of having stepped out of an immediate liminal zone, the costuming and absence of electrical lighting and other signifiers of modernity suggests the film is set about a quarter-century before it was made. This could be for the same reason a lot of filmmakers today set movies in the ’70s and ‘80s, to escape omnipresent technology for a better sense of narrative integrity and mood. A dark-tinted mode of nostalgia is often a fascinatingly pertinent aspect of the Horror genre, a longing for the past mixed out with attempts to relive and remaster the outsized anxieties of childhood. But it also has strong implications for the type of story being told here, looking back to a time certainly pre-war and regarding the start of a subtle fracturing in society, a sense of intense anxiety in the face of an oncoming century and its threating modernity. There’s a whiff of Victorian sentimentality in the white-clad maiden and the friendly romantic rivalry of the two students, sentimentality brutally erased as the real story becomes clear. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the story of the death of illusion, of the petty comforts and assurances as well as everyday oppressions and pomposities of the pre-war life.
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Wiene’s work on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is often downplayed in commentaries by comparison to its writers and designers, and the director often regarded as a one-hit-wonder. To be sure, Wiene did not become a figure of great subsequent renown like Lang and some other Expressionist directors, but he continued to try and augment his conception of Expressionism’s possibilities with Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1919), an admired take on Dostoyevsky, Raskolnikow (1923), and The Hands of Orlac (1924), also featuring Veidt. Here Wiene’s camera often seems happy enough observing his actors moving around the weird sets from a perched perspective. The immobility of the camera seems dictated by the carefully composed sets that can only deliver the intended effect when viewed from a certain, rigorous viewpoint. But Wiene’s calm and poise, his minimalist sense of how to generate a sense of dislocation and hallucinatory transience, certainly helps knit the eerie mood, attentive to the way the design presses upon the actors and warps them to a new behavioural bent. Perhaps the film’s most striking moment in directorial terms comes in a little scherzo of cuts that comes when Alan is murdered: quick close-ups of his thrusting hands trying to ward off his killer give way to the sight of the murder glimpsed in silhouette on the wall. Surely Alfred Hitchcock remembered this moment when, forty-one years later, he would shoot the shower murder for Psycho (1960), as his technique is nearly identical, only more sophisticated in delivery.
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Many more essential clichés of the horror movie, particularly those that would follow in the next twenty-five years, are sketched out here. The lurking, sepulchral killer. The murders in silhouette. The flight across rooftops. The assault on the silk-draped lady in her boudoir. The mad scientist. The twist ending. James Whale would model many scenes in his Frankenstein (1931) upon Wiene’s, although Whale’s monster is childlike and exposed in trying to synthesise a reason for existence rather than insinuatingly erotic and directed by malign will. The twisted, bizarrely canted rooftop landscapes of Holstenwall and alternately cavernous and onerous interiors would return throughout a legion of imitators in subsequent years in the likes of Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), mostly with the Expressionist mimicry offered as vaguely psychosomatic decoration. More crucially, Wiene’s oneiric setting offered up a new possibility for filmmakers, the hope of finding new expressive methods to encompass individuals and communities in dialogue. Lang would unleash an infinitely greater scale of production concept on this ambition with Metropolis (1926), in presenting a city as a living organism and product of the mind. Obtaining such a conceptual scale and breadth was to become a major ambition for filmmakers in the ‘20s including Lang, Sergei Eisenstein (although he and the other Soviet filmmakers would be obliged to swap the psychological for the sociological), and King Vidor, just as others like Paul Leni, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Luis Buñuel, and others would pursue its ideas deep into the inner world.
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The medieval landscape of the town mimics and transforms the physical architecture and social landscape of Central Europe, often regarded as quaint and attractively old-fashioned, into a threatening realm, charged with disquiet and danger as new forces sift the town’s hierarchy with the intention of attacking it. The buildings on the horizon become serrated teeth in a shapeless maw, the strasses and platzes pinched and oppressive, as if anyone walking them is a mouse in some laboratory experiment. Which is what they are, as Caligari seeks the perfect instrument to realise a cherished ambition of enacting a sick fantasy out in the world, with Cesare his tool and the citizenry the specimens. Caligari comes to town with the carnival, that vehicle of transformative wonder and alien anxiety reaching back into the Middle Ages (seed here for a bunch of Ingmar Bergman’s films as well as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes), Trojan horse for his malign project. Of course, the circus is also cinema itself, the moveable feast with its panoply of enriching and disturbing exhibits, offering the perverse thrill of encounters with monstrosities. Caligari is actually a warden of the insane, abusing authority to attempt casting a spell on a mass crowd, to infect the world with madness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its own monster, its own act of mass mesmerism and huckster bravura.
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After Robert’s death, the sick and depressed Franzis tells Jane what happened to him, to her dismay, and then sets out with her father to Dr. Olsen (Rudolf Lettinger), to investigate Caligari and his sleeping imp. Eventually Franzis discovers, by pursuing Caligari until he enters a stark, lonely, high-walled building beyond the town’s fringes, that he is the director of an insane asylum. The Director had become obsessed with a story he found in an old book in which a fairground mesmerist named Caligari conducted a reign of terror with a somnambulist, and awaited the time when he would be charged with an inmate with the same disorder so he might reproduce those events. The Director’s fixation with this perverse anecdote urges him to try and turn a dubious, possibly spurious event (note that it supposedly happened in Italy, long in folklore and pulp literature the land where outlandish and perverted practices always seemed to be possible to their rubbernecking European neighbours) into reality. Caligari cunningly puts Franzis and Olsen off the scent by replacing Cesare in his coffin with a dummy, so that the somnambulist seems to be secure when someone is out marauding in the town. A man (Klein-Rogge) is arrested when he breaks into a house with a knife in hand and seems to be intent on murder. Pounced on by police, the man is imprisoned and presumed to be the killer at large, but when he’s interviewed by Olsen and Franzis, he confesses to hoping to use the other killings as an alibi to commit his own crime. Still the police hold him a cell, chained up like some troll at bay.
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The Great War had cruelly torn apart minds as well as bodies through the manifold terrors of the trenches and the new and alarming phenomenon called shellshock. Such phenomena stoked angry disbelief in some quarters, including amongst leaders who could well be likened to Caligari as those hell-bent on animating the mindless, somnolent body of the pathetic citizen and shoving it to do battle on its behest. Ruined people were returning from the war, and the evolving arts of dealing with mental illness and psychological distress were gaining a new currency, implacably tests the fabric of everything about it. But just exactly what psychiatry was in 1919 was still a vaguely mythical and frightening realm for many at the time. Mayer’s brush with a headshrinker in staying out the army had provided ammunition for the script, in the suspicious sense that the new profession presented a method for the powers that be to manipulate the mind as well as the body. Like many another puppet master to follow in horror cinema, Caligari is undone by one, singular, vastly powerful force: lust. Jane, searching for her father, comes to the circus, and encounters the rotund exhibitor and his imp. Caligari plays the charming helper even as his eyes shine lasciviously behind his round glasses, but Cesare unnerves Jane. Soon Caligari sends Cesare out to steal Jane away from her house. Cesare manages to snatch Jane away and carries her away across the Hollstenwall rooftops and reaches the fringe of town, but pursuers force him to drop her, and he’s later found dead in the countryside, having burst his weak heart trying to make it back to his master.
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Cesare’s kidnapping foray proves a relative anticlimax, despite the feast of iconic images it provided to define the film ever since, and subverts a cliché even as it invents it. Other fiends snatching away maidens in the night would be made of sterner stuff in subsequent horror films, needing to be chased down by torch-wielding lynch mobs and muscular heroes. Cesare, a being without mind or will, proves pathetic by comparison, used until he breaks down by Caligari, obliged to leave Jane behind as he desperately scrambles away. Focus shifts then on Franzis tracking Caligari back to the asylum, discovering his identity, and learning about his motives. The Director is the true monster, of course. As Franzis and the other medical men working under the Director read through his diary, Wiene illustrates the fit of electrifying obsession gripping the Director as he dances about the laneway outside the asylum, Caligari’s name and cosmically dictated demands he step into the fakir’s place and obtain mastery over men flashing on screen: “Du Must Caligari Werden”, or You Must Become Caligari. This might be another touch from Lang, or one he took away with him, as it powerfully anticipates the driving notion of his Dr. Mabuse films, in which temptations to omnipotence ultimately consume individuals but also bless them with a form of immortality, transforming them into a world-spirit of mad ambition that likely candidates can wear like a cloak. When Cesare’s body is found, Franzis contrives to have the Director confronted with the corpse: the sight sends the Director off in paroxysms of mad grief. Soon the mastermind is wrapped in a straightjacket and hurled into a cell by some big strong orderlies. Tyrant is toppled, order restored.
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Except, of course, for the sting in the tale. Franzis ends his narration to the old man, and they rise from their bench, moving across the asylum courtyard where “Cesare” and “Jane” are clearly inmates, lost in their own private psychoses, just as Franzis is, his tale of Caligari and Cesare confirmed as the fantasy of a disturbed man. Franzis’s insistence that Jane is his fiancée is met by her haughty insistence that she cannot love anyone as she’s a duty-bound queen. Cesare drifts with a bunch of flowers clasped preciously to his face, floating in dreamy melancholy. Another inmate raves on in what looks a hell of a lot like a proto-Hitlerian manner, suggesting the urges of demagoguery were already plainly nascent and alarming the filmmakers. The Director appears, now a well-dressed, calm and commanding man: Franzis begins to stir up the inmates, declaring that the Director is Caligari, and then attacks him. This gets Franzis tied up and tossed into a cell in the same manner Caligari was just moments before. The Director manages to placate him, before turning away and declaring meditatively as he removes his glasses that now he finally understands the nature of Franzis’ delusion, he now sees a way to cure him. One of the first and surely the greatest of movie twists, a total upending of what movie narrative is supposed to be and a radical reorientation of all that’s been seen. But what does it mean in the face of the film before it?
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The critic Siegfried Krakauer famously penned a thesis in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, suggesting that Wiene’s film as it stands offered up a disturbing forecast of the oncoming fascist wave, demonstrating that post-war anti-authoritarian impulse was a sign of madness begging for a strong-minded leader to take it all in hand. Janowitz echoed the theory as he complained his and Mayer’s intentions had been distorted by the imposed framing, turning what should have been a clear-cut anti-authoritarian tale into something more familiar. Krakauer’s thesis was very attractive for some obvious reasons in providing a grand and sinister narrative for art divulging life, but commits its own crime of oversimplifying. More likely that Lang proposed his twist with a common form of distrust imposed upon fantastical material; there was a fantasist in Lang but also an ironic realist, elements that would always war in his movies, and his gift to the Expressionist credo was just such a tension. Lang probably wanted something better attuned to his instinct for moral complexity as well as sheer believability. The same touch is evinced here that would surface again in works like Fury (1936) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a sense of ordinary people undone in the face of both social evil and personal frailty.
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Part of the potency of the final revelation lies precisely in how it makes perfect sense: the story as recounted comes across much more like the ravings of a paranoid man than a likely set of events, creating doppelgangers and projecting evil intentions upon physicians. The form of the fairy tale here crashes against a cold reality, a hard and unforgiving sobriety where dream logic is at the mercy of technocrats and the new breed of psychic cartographers. Wiene hardly offers a reassuring ending, despite Caligari’s announcement that he might have Franzis’s cure in his grasp. Rather the film leaves off with the sinister suggestion we might all be as detached from reality as Franzis, writing appropriate characters to fit the faces we know and constructing narratives more soothing to our minds than reality. For a 1919 audience this ending surely would hardly have been soothing, but rather deeply disturbing, implying that the substance of knowing goes no farther than our own limited senses and awareness. Caligari’s own project of transmuting obsession into reality both resembles an act of demagoguery but also a piece of anarchic performance art, just as Franzis reorders reality to suit his own perspective. Far from cutting off the arsenal of the subconscious as a tool for attacking authority, the film ultimately confirms that possibility. Soon the anarchists of the subconscious would run amok in the cultural zone and twisting the nose of rousing beast. Just how effective a weapon was in their grasp was and remains one of the great questions of modernity.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Western

The White Buffalo (1977)

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Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Richard Sale

By Roderick Heath

Horror films and Westerns long seemed utterly irreconcilable genres. The Western engages official mythologies of nation, history, and society, where the Horror film tends to set them in happy disarray. Horror films court anarchic impulses and dwell in zones of psychological figuration, where Westerns roam large in the world and usually operate by rigid moral parameters. And yet the two genres wield some definite affinities. Both depend upon generating atmosphere as a tangible force, a sense of being at extremes beyond the reign of normality, at the mercy of a random and hostile universe, and often involve clashes of firmly demarcated good and evil enacted by supernormal characters. Horror elements creep through some apparently upright Westerns, including John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Richard Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969), particularly when dealing with the anxious threat of the Native American as the menacing Other surging out of the great western night. The rise of the Spaghetti Western injected Gothic imagery and a spirit sometimes verging on death worship, and entries like Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) have strong doses of savage violence and semi-surreal weirdness very close to Horror in nature. In the late 1950s a proper fusion of the two genres was born, dictated by commercial inspirations in combining two ever-popular styles for patrons of drive-ins and grindhouses.
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The results of this fusion were usually pretty lame if not outright ridiculous: Edward Dehn’s interesting but hesitant Curse of the Undead (1959) kicked off a run of gunfighter-versus-monster films, like William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1965) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). It wasn’t until the 1970s that some sort of fruitful union of the two began to appear, usually with Western imagery providing a kind of septic spiritual backdrop to Horror, on the likes of The Velvet Vampire (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Race with the Devil (1975). The ‘80s and ‘90s saw some vigorous attempts to fuse the forms, with the likes of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) all calling back to the classic stand-offs of the old school Western with their own wilful tweaks. Most of these films were set in contemporary times, placing them in deliberate tension with the aura of historical remoteness that once again links the Western and the Gothic Horror mould. Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) tried more concertedly to find middle ground for the classic genre moulds. In recent years Horror Westerns have become relatively plentiful as trashy home viewing fodder, but Craig S. Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) gained real admiration as a rich and gruelling entry that truly understood where the overlap between the genres lies.
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But The White Buffalo is perhaps the strangest entry in this rarefied mode, and my favourite. Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis was trying to carve out a place for himself in Hollywood in the mid-1970s, and after his interesting if garishly misjudged remake of King Kong (1976) looked to gain commercial traction with tactics well-thumbed in the Italian film industry in particular, by making some oddball cash-ins on recent successes, in this case Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1975). De Laurentiis produced two ambitious, eccentric derivations, The White Buffalo and Orca, the Killer Whale (1977). Orca was the rather more stridently trashy and weird of the two, marrying King Kong’s sympathy-for-the-beast trip to a sub-Herman Melville plotline and going far over the top in its man-versus-beast action. The White Buffalo, on the other hand, was based on a 1974 book by experienced screenwriter and novelist Richard Sale. Both films feature not just battles with marauding animals, but notably strong themes derived from fashionable concerns for ecology and pro-Native American sympathies. Both feature the Muscogee actor Will Sampson, who had gained a measure of stardom thanks to his part as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
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De Laurentiis hired Sale to adapt his own novel which was published before Benchley’s, and drew more meditatively on their common inspiration, Melville’s Moby-Dick. Sale was an arch professional, but he had evinced an interest in bizarrely spiritual adventure tales with his early novel Not Too Narrow…Not Too Deep, which was filmed under the title Strange Cargo (1940), depicting escaped convicts battling their evil impulses under the watchful eye of a Christlike stranger. The White Buffalo transferred Melville’s scenario to the Old West, and converted it into a metaphor for the clash of civilisations enacted on the western plains as well as the looming death worship underscoring much Old West mythology. Rather than going for any of the young tyros lighting up Hollywood at the time like Spielberg, De Laurentiis preferred hardy professionals to helm his Hollywood forays, often nabbing seasoned British directors, having employed John Guillermin to make King Kong and Michael Anderson on Orca. For The White Buffalo he hired J. Lee Thompson. That Thompson had just worked with the film’s star Charles Bronson on the nifty LA noir flick St. Ives (1976) probably helped. Thompson, like Sale and Bronson, was a weathered old salt of the sound stage. Orson Welles famously dissed him for that once, but Thompson probably took it in his stride, as he was one of those rigorous, skilful, no-bullshit talents who used to make film industries go ‘round.
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Thompson, who came from a theatrical family and made his start as a playwright, had served as a tail gunner during World War 2. He decamped from Britain to Hollywood after gaining international attention with exactingly crafted, vividly composed movies like Ice Cold In Alex (1958), Tiger Bay, and North West Frontier (both 1959), and soon gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination with The Guns of Navarone (1961). Thompson had a real knack for action-adventure films, often with stories involving small groups overloaded with bristling personalities travelling through dangerous and remote zones, expertly diagramming both group dynamics and faultlines of social perspective as well as his action sequences. But he took on just about every genre in his time, and revealed surprising ability at horror on Eye of the Devil (1967), a film that transmuted Thompson’s feel for colliding worldviews into a different zone, as did the cruel but memorable post-Holocaust melodrama Return From The Ashes (1965). Commercial stumbles in the late ‘60s with Mackenna’s Gold (1968) and The Chairman (1969) saw Thompson sink down the Hollywood totem pole. Thompson nonetheless continued to prove himself invaluable in bringing energetic camerawork and expert storytelling to an odd raft of films, including the last two Planet of the Apes films. Thompson fell into regular collaboration with Bronson until the late ‘80s when Thompson wrapped up his career ingloriously with films like Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).
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The White Buffalo itself was a little too weird for critics and audiences in 1977 and not quite weird enough to gain a cult following. Nonetheless it represents an apotheosis for the ‘70s style of “mud and blood” Western, taking the genre’s new grittiness and outsider empathies up to the threshold of a hallucinatory terminus. It might be one of the offbeat Westerns ever made, but it’s also one of the last not afflicted with any hint of self-conscious nostalgia for the genre’s rapidly fading heyday, whilst also tackling some of the issues causing that wane head-on. Sale’s concept had some felicity, as the notion of a white, monstrous beast representing death is a common one in folklore: Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (1953) had tackled a version found in Sami legend. Here Sale offers it unabashedly as cosmic invocation of the annihilating force unleashed by colonialism and race war, as well as the eternal, personal frontier of reckoning with fate. In a manner reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), the narrative yokes together great figures of Western lore, in this case the gunfighter James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (Bronson) and the great Sioux war chief Crazy Horse (Sampson), who both are predestined in their own way to chase down the eponymous animal.
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Hickok’s spur is a recurring dream in which he sees a snowy clearing in the woods, the monstrous animal stalking him in the moonlight with terrible purpose. So terrifying is the dream that Hickok often awakens firing off the pistols he sleeps with: he’s lucky not to kill anyone on the train taking him west when he does this, as the bunk above his is unoccupied. Hickok travels under the pseudonym of James Otis, as he’s not keen to advertise his identity on the frontier after a sojourn to New York, considering that so many people want to claim his scalp for the sake of specific grievance or the desire to make a name. The train conductor, Amos Bixby (Douglas Fowley), recognises him easily and reassures him that the last known albino buffalo was recently shot dead by hunters: such creatures, exceptionally rare, were a prized and valuable prey for hunters. But a white buffalo is certainly at large in the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Hunter and prospector Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) barely escapes a small avalanche the powerful beast sets off, and then it charges pell-mell into an Oglala Sioux camp, leaving gored warriors scattered and killing the small child of Crazy Horse and his wife Black Shawl (Linda Moon Redfearn). Stricken with grief, Crazy Horse is renamed Worm by his father, and told to placate his daughter’s spirit and regain his true name he must kill the buffalo and bring back its hide to wrap the child’s body in.
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When he arrives in Cheyenne by train, Hickok is soon forced to fight for his life when a local Cavalry commander, Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), brother to the better known Colonel, arranges with some of his loutish underlings to ambush Hickok and kill him as payback for an old altercation that saw Hickok kill two of his men. A barman, Paddy Welsh (Bert Williams), who upbraids Custer for his self-serving memory and unsporting purpose, tosses guns to Hickok, allowing him to blow away the soldiers and forcing Custer to flee. Hickok quickly moves on towards the frontier, catching a stagecoach on to Fetterman along the Bozeman Trail, driven by Abel Pickney (the inevitable Slim Pickens) and also carrying Winifred Coxy (Stuart Whitman) and Cassie Ollinger (Cara Williams). Hickok threatens Coxy over using bad language before the lady, but when she releases a string of cuss words Hickok gives up and tries to sleep. The white buffalo itself is hardly the only threatening thing on the loose in the stormy night. When Hickok catches Coxy about to kill and rob him, he forces the cad out of the coach despite the man’s desperate appeals for mercy, and he’s quickly shot dead by Crazy Horse, who tracks the stage’s passage. Crazy Horse later tries to snipe at Hickok when Pickney pulls up beside a pair of dead gold miners left on the roadside. The war chief’s bullet misses Hickok and the gunman drives him off with a fusillade from his pistols.
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Thompson stages this sequence, the familiar Western situation of a stagecoach journey with some disreputable characters, with a nightmarish lilt, as the conveyance trundles laboriously along muddy roads in pouring rain with lightning flashing, half-seen menaces dashing through the shadows. Mortality is so discounted out in these leagues neither Hickok nor Pickney are terribly bothered when they have to load frozen corpses onto the stagecoach roof. Thompson picks out vivid images of cruel death, in the astounding sequence of the buffalo’s charge through the Sioux camp as the beast’s horns gouge out eyes and rip open bodies in gory flash cuts, and when Coxy lolls in the mud and rain, hands smeared in his own blood. Snowfall turns nightmare to fairy tale but death is just as arbitrary, as Hickok learns when he realises the unfortunate Cassie has been killed by Crazy Horse’s bullet meant for him. Arrival at Fetterman in the bleary, mud-strewn morning finds old coot Amos Briggs (John Carradine) burying two men who killed each-other in a fight, inspired seemingly by one swearing he’d seen the white buffalo. Hickok visits local madam and former flame “Poker” Jenny Schermerhorn (Kim Novak), who’s following the frontier with her special services. But Hickok takes his leave of her after another nightmare of the buffalo sees him blast away the fake white buffalo head she hangs on her bedroom wall.
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The White Buffalo carefully builds up mirroring aspects to Hickok and Crazy Horse, noting that both men are using pseudonyms in trying to avoid their worldly status whilst pursuing their private missions. Each deals out annihilation with casual ease although neither sees himself as an aggressor – Hickok blows away Custer’s soldiers trying to kill him just as Crazy Horse shoots men intruding on his land and fights off a rival tribe’s braves. Both are dogged by enemies from their own nominal nations as well as the foes they’ve unstintingly earned in the frontier wars between Europeans and natives, and the two finally move into wary mutual respect and friendliness when Hickok decides to help Crazy Horse fend out some of his Indian enemies. But they’re also propelled by very different urges. Hickok is pushed towards his confrontation with the beast by the call of his own dream-world communion with death, whilst Crazy Horse has a far more personal motivation, driven to avenge his daughter in the same way he’s obliged to protect his ancestral homelands from the invading whites. Hickok has a dose of syphilis slowly corroding away his body and mind and can’t take bright light, and the pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears are reminiscent of those worn by Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Hickock is unsure at first whether the prophecy he seeks to fulfil is real or just a product of his decaying wits. He fends off Jenny’s amorous advances although, as she comments, “I probably dosed you myself.”
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Thompson and Bronson’s collaboration seemed to be fuelled by a strong suggestion of mutual recognition, a sense transmuted into the film and Hickok and Crazy Horse’s screen amity. Bronson praised Thompson’s to-the-point style and economy on set, something a coal miner’s son made good like the former Charles Buchinsky appreciated. Beyond that, both men seemed to share an understanding as talented guys who nonetheless found themselves increasingly reconciled to servicing an ever-narrowing notion of what they were good for, and continuing to work for the sake of sheer professional cussedness. Bronson had become a big star in the 1970s playing variations on the terse-talking, stone-faced, death-dealing persona he’d perfected in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), including in huge hits like Death Wish (1974), but sometimes he tried to stretch his persona and occasionally reminded moviegoers he had a latent romantic streak and a talent for dry comedy on movies like St. Ives and the wonderful From Noon ‘Til Three (1976). Bronson’s Hickok probes Bronson’s screen persona as a dealer of death and picks up the same notion of the Western hero who finds he’s live long enough to become a victim of his own legend as in From Noon ‘Til Three. Hickok has just returned from performing on the New York stage with Buffalo Bill Cody, serving up that mythology to audiences. Now Hickok tries to outrun his one real talent, as a killer, returning to a territory where the myth is still being played out and the costs on the intimate, human level still flagrant.
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Identity is a performance in The White Buffalo, but the typecasting also runs deep. Novak’s Poker Jenny affectionately calls Hickok “Cat-Eyes” for the mesmerising beauty she once saw in his killer gaze, most ironically, when he was in the heat of battle rather than love. Sale seems to have taken some licence from the encrusting of folklore that built up around Hickok in particular, like the fact that he supposedly had odd premonitions, like fearing Deadwood would be the last town he would visit – the new settlement is mentioned fleetingly by Zane – and of course the totemic meaning of his legendary last hand of aces and eights Hickok would hold before being shot in the back. So, here Hickok is a protagonist drawn on to his great duel by prophetic dreams and blessed with an intimate relationship with the great beyond. Aspects of The White Buffalo anticipate Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) in conjuring a spiritual western, where adventure out into the wilderness becomes an allegory for confronting mortality. Both films regard with horrified fascination the great mountains of bones built up by buffalo hunters, engaged in wiping out the food source for the unpliable plains nations, and consider the American West as a vast amphitheatre of annihilation. Charlie Zane reports to Hickok seeing the white buffalo standing off the other Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers at a river crossing, bringing the touch of imminent demise to them too.
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“You know what I hate more than anything else in this world?” Hickok asks Zane as he contemplates the inevitable journey out into the mountains to court his destiny: “Even more than dying? Being afraid.” Mastery of death, the honed talent for dealing it out, is in Western mythology necessary for life, for civilisation and order to take hold; that’s the essence of the genre. But it’s also, equally, a fact that must be put to bed as soon as its end is accomplished, the corollary to the myth enacted in many a movie like Shane (1953) and The Searchers. “It was like you were fighting Armageddon with Satan himself,” Jenny declares after Hickok’s riddled her bedroom walls with bullets following one of his dreams, and though the fight with the real buffalo appears to only be a confrontation with a wild animal, its seems to have just such a spiritual import. The demonic bull awaiting Hickok and Crazy Horse becomes a mystical task only two great death-dealers can take on, the task of putting down the rampaging incarnation of death, in order to give some sort of peace to the anguished spirit of the place and allow the possibility of eventual peace. Hickok seems to unconsciously sense this as he ruefully considers the chance of developing a real rapport with Crazy Horse, although a ticking time bomb threatens to wreck their amity: Hickok is considered a callous and committed enemy for shooting dead one of their chiefs, a man who was called The Peacemaker. Before he properly encounters Crazy Horse, Hickok survives another attempt to shut his eyes, this time at the hands of the hulking “Whistling Jack” Kileen (Clint Walker), out for vengeance because one of the soldiers Hickok shot down in Cheyenne was his son.
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Hickok meets up with Zane, an old comrade, in a memorably bustling, grimy tavern for miners called the Frozen Dog, a place where men line up to sleep with the couple of frazzled prostitutes on hand and otherwise get drunk and gamble; it’s the standard frontier dive as rendered by Breughel or Bosch, one even Peckinpah and Altman might have turned their noses up at. Zane helps Hickok blow away several of Kileen’s gun-toting friends, and the two head out into the mountains, trying to keep a step ahead of further reprisals as well as track their quarry. Hickok falls in with the ornery Zane, who has a glass eye and a general contempt for Indians, one that Hickok protests he shares, and yet he soon proves to be surprisingly proficient in the courtesies of Native American negotiations as he deals with Crazy Horse. The war chief pays back Hickok for his help by saving him from Kileen when he ambushes Hickok and keeps him pinned down, riddling Kileen and his confederate with arrows after sneaking up on them by pretending to be a wolf. Knowing the white buffalo is close after it gores one of their tethered horses, the hunters settle down to wait out a snowstorm and hammer out their fractious philosophies around the campfire.
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The White Buffalo has an odd rhythm at first, almost tripping over its own feet in rushing through early scenes and utilising some patched-on narration by Fowley to fill in the gaps, probably the result of studio tampering to get the film down to its current runtime of just over an hour and a half (Thompson and Bronson’s follow-up Caboblanco, 1980, would be more seriously wrecked by this). But rather than being gutted, this only seems to have compressed the film’s essence, managing to evoke a sense of the Wild West that is, in its way, as epic and disorientating as something like Apocalypse Now (1979), with which it bears kinship as a trek towards the edge of human experience enacted as a physical journey, a succession of vignettes illustrating a zone of life where history and morality are in a state of flux. Thompson’s highly mobile, often lunging camera, mediated by DP Paul Lohmann, heightens the feeling of being constantly dragged on by a current through a flooded cave. Sale’s brand of frontier lingo with its blend of archaic grammar and salty directness is constantly in evidence (one favourite line, from Carradine, in explaining the cause of death for two corpses he’s burying: “This one with the moccasins allowed as how this one was a fork-tonged lying asshole.”)
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One aspect that ties The White Buffalo together with great authority is John Barry’s superb score, evoking in the opening dream sequence a sense of foreboding, a mood that pervades the entire film; indeed, it’s one of the great Horror movie scores. Discordant strings hint at the presence of numinous influences and lurking fear, whilst deep, sonorous brass signifies the force of the buffalo and what it represents. One of the film’s greatest moments comes when Thompson stages a breathtaking long-range zoom shot that pulls back as Hickok dashes down a snow-clad slope in pursuit of his foe, revealing the small and hapless human amidst a vast mountain landscape under roiling storm clouds, Barry’s music surging with grand, sepulchral menace. The cathedral of nature is a place where Crazy Horse’s mode of spiritual understanding reigns, and communing with the wind and sky and the stone bulwarks means negotiating the dreams dark and light of the universe, and the path of the white buffalo leads Hickok into Kileen’s trap. There was some irony in Thompson finding his niche in action films given that his wartime experiences had left him a considered pacifist. But that tension surely informed the particular strength of much of his work in the adventure film mould, as he thrived on depicting microcosms where characters come into conflict because of violent schisms in their most stubborn faiths.
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Situations like the cross-country train trip in the midst of a religious war in North West Frontier and the problems of using expedience against great evil versus personal feeling in The Guns of Navarone were ideal for Thompson, although he could also wield it in a setting like Eye of the Devil, where adherence to a pagan faith clashes with traditional religion and modernity but unsettles both with fervent promise. Here this manifests in the uneasy endeavour by Hickok and Crazy Horse to understand each-other’s perspectives is one of the most interesting and meaty attempts in any Western to depict such a negotiation. Hickok ripostes to the Sioux chief’s claims that they were given their territory by divine providence that his people won in conquest over neighbouring tribes, and that the white man is only doing the same thing. Crazy Horse counters in turn that at least they did it honourably. “That’s a thing called progress.” Hickok states, to Crazy Horse’s sharp retort: “It’s a thing called greed.” Finally Hickok tries to tell Crazy Horse, to Charlie’s delight and Hickok’s rueful warning, that no matter what kind of stand he makes, sooner or later the whites will swamp his nation with sheer numbers and terrible weaponry. Crazy Horse declares his intention to die trying, but he and Hickok nonetheless make a pact of brotherhood and not to fight each-other in the future, much to Charlie’s disgust. Nonetheless Crazy Horse has no intention of leaving the white buffalo to them, and he sneaks out in pursuit of the beast. But all three men are destined to converge on a landscape Hickok recognises in shock from his dream, and declares, “If this is the night I was born for then so be it.”
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The buffalo itself is seen fairly early in the film as it rampages through the Sioux camp, but lurks for much of the time glimpsed in fragmented close-ups of a balefully glaring eye and curling maw. The animal was cleverly realised in animatronic form by Carlo Rambaldi, who would gain repute a few years later for creating the title character of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); it’s a little marvel of pre-CGI monster making. Thompson offers astonishing images of the buffalo charging through underbrush, barrelling out of the night and careening by the hunters: Hickok seems to have a perfect shot at the beast but realises too late his trigger’s become caked with ice, and almost finishes up skewered on its horns. The hunt builds to the grand moment reminiscent of John Huston’s film of Melville, when Crazy Horse manages to spring onto its back and stabs its hump furiously with a handful of arrows, red blood caking white fur, until it throws him and bounds away. The hunt proves a real battle but also one invested with a ritual quality, hinted at through Hickok’s premonitions and the way the buffalo behaves, sneaking up on its foes as if just as determined to wipe them out as they are it. Finally a few quick-draw shots from Hickok manage to bring the buffalo down just before it crashes into him and Crazy Horse.
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The White Buffalo was widely criticised upon release for not spelling out what the symbolic thesis is here, but to me, that’s precisely what makes it so intriguing, as the underlying drama is constantly suggested and delineated without needing to be overtly stated. D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death dream at the heart of the frontier warrior legend finds a suggested purpose as great gunfighter and war chief perform their allotted metaphysical task, enacting blood rite and spiritual cleansing. Hickok defends Crazy Horse’s right to take the hide nonetheless to an outraged Zane. The coot stomps off after accidentally letting slip Hickok’s real name to Crazy Horse, who declares with sad solemnity to the gunfighter that although they’re now brothers in spirit they can’t ever meet again without being obliged to enact their roles as avatars of their societies, “and we will both solve the great mystery.” The film fades out to fake tintype images of the two men, noting the similarity of their ages and the fact both would soon be murdered. As the film would have it, they succeeded in reining in the dominion of the death dream, but at the cost of offering themselves up as sacrifices to the violent gods they were committed to worshipping without understanding why. The White Buffalo stands as a unique achievement for both the Western and the Horror film in the way it manages to outdo the likes of Sergio Leone and Mario Bava on one crucial level, by leading both back genres to the same inception point in primal mythology, the battles of culture heroes with the monstrosities born of perverted natural order, given a new and coherent shape in terms of history.

The White Buffalo can be viewed here.

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