Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated scenes. First we get a glimpse of a TV studio, filled with signs of bloodshed and rampage, a bashful-looking, bloody-pawed chimpanzee seated amidst the mess. Next comes a bucolic moment in the sun for father and son horse ranchers Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Jnr, or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as he’s found himself problematically stuck with being called: we see OJ going about his usual morning business of letting out the horses and exercising them, before chatting with his old man, who’s already mounted up. The two men are preparing for a TV show performance on star horse Lucky, which they hope will rescue their ranch from financial doldrums. The scene is shattered as a seemingly random shower of hard metal objects falls from the sky. A coin hits Otis in the eye, and he dies as OJ rushes him to the hospital. Cut to a few months later, as OJ uneasily tries to get on with his professional life by wrangling Lucky on the TV set, only for the horse to be irritated by a crewman and kick out dangerously. OJ is obliged to rely on his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose gregarious enthusiasm as a wannabe show biz player contrasts his sullen, taciturn, quietly grieving manner and fateful lack of assertive strength, but Emerald doesn’t want to be stuck with her brother in a failing business. OJ has been propping up the business by selling horses to a neighbouring ranch, the prosperous and popular Jupiter’s Claim, run by former child actor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt).
That night, one of the horses, Ghost, bolts into the dark, dusty, hilly landscape around the ranch. Chasing after Ghost, OJ hears Jupe’s voice on a loudspeaker in the distance whilst the horse gives an unearthly shriek, and glimpses a large, strange object moving fast through the sky above, whilst a rolling blackout afflicts the locale. Convinced he’s seen a UFO, OJ and Emerald buy a new surveillance system for the ranch, and the morose IT salesperson, Angel (Brandon Perea), who sells and installs the equipment becomes increasingly interested and involved as he’s a UFO freak. They also try to interest the acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who they met on the TV shoot, as they feel only he might be able to get photographic evidence of this scary phenomenon. As the enigmatic situation begins to resolve, the Haywoods are eventually faced with alarming proof that the UFO is actually some kind of living organism that eagerly eats just about anything placed in its path, and that Jupe not only knows about its presence, but even seems to be trying to make it part of his act, luring it down to his ranch with free lunches, being OJ’s horses.
New York-born Peele was best known for many years as a comic writer and actor. After dropping out of college to start a comedy act with future writing collaborator Rebecca Drysdale and spending some time with the famous Second City comedy troupe, Peele gained his big break as a performer on the sketch comedy show Mad TV in the early 2000s. Later he teamed up with another Black comedian, Keegan-Michael Key, for their cable TV show Key & Peele (2012–2015). The duo wrote, produced, and starred in the film Keanu (2016), and Peele made his standalone debut as director with the 2017 Horror film Get Out, a film that represented for the most part an apparently radical switch of vision for Peele, offering a woozy, unsettling blend of social and racial satire and straight-edged Horror and thriller stuff.
That film’s huge popular and critical success came in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, seemingly on the back of a new reactionary feeling swiftly met by a bold progressive backlash, and Get Out, along with the Ryan Coogler’s successes with Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), seemed to announce a new mainstream hunger for films made by African-American filmmakers with a presumed, concomitant authenticity in needling racial and social angst. Peele’s success with Get Out was cunning in that regard, with his narrative of young Black man whose white girlfriend proves to be luring him in for her family to use in their business of swapping brains between bodies: Peele expertly made the mass audience empathise with his hero’s terror of having his identity erased and subsumed by representatives of a larger assimilating culture because it’s all the rage at the moment to be Black. He also deftly skewered and, ironically and if in all likelihood semi-accidentally, appealed to the white liberal guilt, portraying the wicked family not as overt racists but rather smiling, virtue-signalling bourgeois progressives pretending to be all cool with the new multiculturalism.
Peele has since become, with startling swiftness, a pop culture brand, evinced with his follow-up film Us (2019), through producing a refurbished take on TV’s The Twilight Zone and a reboot-cum-sequel of the 1990s cult film Candyman (2021), and now Nope. Peele is with increasingly plainness trying to position himself as an inheritor to talents writers like Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, with their penchant for depicting disturbing intrusions of the outlandish and the mysterious into exceptionally ordinary locales in tales touched with a mystique of fable. He also joins the ranks of directors anointing themselves as inheritors of Steven Spielberg, with his gifts as an orchestrator of the fantastic and of cinematic space for maximum audience impact. The traps in trying to occupy such a cultural crossroads were well-charted by M. Night Shyamalan in the 2000s. Peele’s chief proposition as a new and improved successor to Shyamalan is that he brings a less veiled approach to the metaphors inherent in those fable-narratives, with his specific perspective, which can keep his stories from dissolving into bombast: the idea that Peele’s critiquing gestures really mean something, rather than simply offering the usual glossy wrap of pseudo-meaning over the usual Hollywood bombast, is a big part of his cachet.
At the same time, Peele has also shown savvy commercial instincts. Get Out resisted going anywhere near as dark and mean as it might have, and whilst Us embraced a more surreal and allegorical aesthetic, also only took it so far: in the end it was still, mostly, the story of a threatened nuclear family winning through against erupting boogeymen. Nor were they so sharp a pivot from his previous metier of comedy as they might seem superficially. Get Out had a simmering sense of satirical bite and drollery throughout, such as the famous liberal cliche utterances of the white family’s patriarch (Bradley Whitford), like how he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, and an encounter with one of their victims, the body of a young black man now inhabited by an old white bourgeois, that was pure sitcom shtick. Both Get Out and Us were preoccupied by imposters, absorption, and doppelgangers, concerns he took a few steps further in Us where the central family were confronted by chthonic lookalikes, representing a kind of shadow realm of the oppressed and excluded, with the ultimate twist proving that the mother is herself an escaped double, having forcibly swapped places with her overworld counterpart, who is now leading the buried horde in revenge.
Nope tries to move on a degree from the preoccupations of Peele’s first two films, which is both a good idea in theory but in practice one that doesn’t work so well for him. Nope strongly recalls Shyamalan’s Signs (2002): like that film it depicts an alien invasion, constantly teased in oblique and fleeting ways before finally resolving into a heroic tale of little people standing up to cosmic menace. Peele’s story and style are however better described as an oddball forced mating of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), borrowing many beats from each: the incredible, elusive visitor from the sky is also the territorial man-eating monster. Peele, despite his success thus far, occupies a potentially hazardous place in contemporary screen culture. He has been so eagerly embraced as a figure that many felt American film desperately needed that everything he does has to be met as either total greatness or risk sour disillusionment, rather than simply being a new and talented genre film voice. Well, the first third of Nope is quite strong – indeed, whilst watching it I felt the film was shaping up as Peele’s best yet. He expertly creates, as he did in the fairground prologue of Us, a mood of cryptic menace and simmering tension whilst playing patient games with perspective, as OJ and Emerald keep getting fleeting hints of the nature of their strange and malevolent new neighbour. Peele uses sound well, particularly in the suggestive gruesome shrieks of the horses echoing down from the sky after being swallowed. In one particularly effective and creepy sequence, OJ is menaced by what look like humanoid alien creatures stalking him around his darkened stables at night, only to realise they’re just Jupe and Amber’s teenage sons in costume, playing a prank as payback for Emerald stealing one of their horse statues to use as bait for the alien.
The title’s blunt, folksy quality is constantly uttered by characters throughout, mostly when confronted by sights that confound their sense of reality and set off a profound war of impulses on the basic level of fight or flight. It also signals the way the film seems constantly at odds with itself, toying with being a kind of send-up rooted in a particular tenor of Black scepticism, whilst also trying to reap the popular benefits of a good old Spielbergian ride. I’ve suspected that Peele might get into trouble when he tried more boldly to crossbreed his penchant for horror with his reflexes as a comedic writer. Not in the sense that he tries to apply too much humour to Nope – in fact it could do with more humour than it has, and might have been better pitched as a blend of laughs and suspense like, say, Tremors (1990) – but he applies a fondness for unexpected segues and bizarre pivots to his essentially straight-laced core story. The most significant subplot of Nope involves Jupe’s experience as a child actor, specifically the infamous incident on a sitcom called Gordy’s Home which he featured on in the ‘90s, opposite a trained chimpanzee who played the titular Gordy, and the two of them “invented” their signature gesture of an exploding fist-bump. But Gordy went berserk during filming one day thanks to some random fright, and brutally killed several of Jupe’s costars. Peele keeps teasing this event through snatched glimpses, including right at the start and then a brief vision of the terrified young Jupe (Jacob Kim) hiding under a table and trying not to attract the crazed animal’s attention. Peele effectively employs this vignette after Jupe has wriggled out of recounting the event to the Haywoods during a business meeting. Jupe instead takes refuge in talking up a Saturday Night Live skit that made dark sport of the incident.
This segue has some evident personal meaning and insider referential appeal for Peele as a wry glance into the world of TV he emerged from, bringing up once-famous, half-forgotten comedy stars like Chris Kattan. Jupe mythologises the greatness of the skit before the trauma he’s trying to suppress is then seen by the audience. Later, Peele gives a more sustained version of Jupe’s memory, his perspective on the event used to avoid showing gory detail whilst still putting across a grim sense of the event’s dreadful violence. Eventually the resolution is presented: Gordy approaches Jupe not to attack but to seek their signature gesture, the ape suddenly just a pathetic, frightened animal needing its costar’s assurance, only for the ape to be gunned down, his blood spraying across Jupe’s face. This portion of Nope is striking and the film’s highpoint in many ways: it’s a more effective moment of restrained horror than the more accidentally silly depiction of people being sucked into the interior of the alien. But Gordy’s rampage isn’t convincing or realistic in its details. Peele requires a CGI chimp to impersonate that kind of deadly ferocity, and we’re forced to wonder why there wasn’t an animal wrangler on the set. Also, the way the fake portions we see of Gordy’s Home lampoons a style of family sitcom that died with the ‘80s, although admittedly Peele does an uncanny job recreating that style. It made me wonder if this was a sketch Peele wrote out and, realising there was no way in hell he could get it made as a feature, decided to weave it into this script.
How this aspect of the story connects to the rest of Nope is tangential but, to be fair, also suggestive. Peele hints Jupe has a pathological need to get close to another monster and make it the star of another act of showbiz hoopla, as if to prove even the wildest, strangest, most inhuman thing can be made amenable to the pleasures of being a celebrity. Holst later makes this idea more literal when he notes the sad fate of tiger-taming performers Siegfried and Roy. When the Gordy element is connected with OJ’s unfortunate sobriquet, it seems Peele’s trying to make a mea culpa-tinged point about the industry of comedy making sport of all kinds of tragic stuff such as was rife in ‘90s American TV culture. This is interesting, but it quickly reaps multiplying problems. Firstly, it makes Jupe a more interesting and indeed more detailed character than the Haywoods, privileging his background and formative experiences with vivid and galvanising power, and yet Peele keeps Jupe a peripheral and blandly executed figure. He should be the focus, a beaming, televisually canny Ahab stirring up monsters. With Nope the lurking point of all this is at once obvious and feebly interrogated: it proposes to be about the nature of spectacle itself, of show business and performance and reality and authenticity in age where those things have become perhaps irreparably blurred. This is literalised by having the monster attracted by being looked at, whilst its presence causes electrical systems to fail, making filming it extremely difficult. Our heroes then must find a way of both looking and not looking at the alien: they most pointedly cannot gaze on in awe like Spielberg’s people.
To this end, after Angel’s security cameras fail, the Haywoods turn to Holst, a portentous being who sits around watching nature documentary footage of predators chasing and consuming prey – thematics are being underlined, dig. Wincott brings his long-neglected but still-persuasive gravel-voiced gravitas to a role that’s pitched as Werner Herzog playing the Quint role, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional part. His final act of self-annihilating consequence – “We don’t deserve the impossible,” he utters gnomically to Angel before venturing up to get the ultimate shot of being sucked up into the alien’s maw – aims for a note of crazy, nihilistic bravado but feels more like, once more, Peele taking an easy way out of resolving one of his story elements with some shallow portent. Angel himself, winningly played by Perea, is in many ways the film’s most vivid and believable presence, a shambolic character still processing a bad break-up and taking refuge in nerdy frippery. He attaches himself to the reluctant Haywoods to become an unshakeable if jumpy collaborator in their hunt. Both he and Emerald are driven frantic when a praying mantis insists on perching itself before one of their new surveillance cameras just as the UFO appears.
Nope essentially replays, in less funny and snappy fashion, the driving joke from a portion of The Simpsons’ episode “Treehouse of Horror VI”, which depicted an onslaught by advertising signs and mascots suddenly come to life, and could only be defeated by not being looked at, a weapon ironically facilitated with an advertising jingle warbled by Paul Anka. Rather than following such a mischievously satirical bent, Peele tries an each-way bet, wanting the respectability of inferred parable and the base rewards of crowd-pleasing. Peele also steals an idea from The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as it’s eventually revealed by Angel, scanning the ranch’s security footage, that the UFO hides behind a perpetually present, stationary cloud just about the valley. The alien itself (which I’ll call it although Peele ultimately never defines what it is), once properly glimpsed proves to be saucer-shaped but when looked at beam-on looks like a gigantic eye in the sky – thematics still being underlined, folks. Towards the end it unfolds as a diaphanously swirling thing, like a mating of kite and jellyfish, and with a square eye – the most extreme possible variation on the old parental warning to kids that too much screen time will make their eyes go square? Anyway, it’s clearly an attempt by Peele to come up with something new and interesting in movie monsters, but it just looks, well, silly.
As these misjudged ideas accumulate whilst the threat and its underpinning metaphors emerge into view, Nope, after its promising early scenes, start to slide vertiginously downhill. Where in Us Peele’s spongily fable-like underpinnings gained a certain amount of power through his filmmaking, Nope fails for the same reason. But let me define what I mean by fable, which is a seemingly simple, naïve form of storytelling that privileges the illustration of emotion, ideas, and a certain kind of dream logic over rigorous narrative. In both Get Out and Us the mechanics of Peele’s plots bore no scrutiny, for the most part deliberately, I felt. The conceit of the underground tunnels and anti-people they housed were presented as nominally present in a kind of reality but were rather an illustration of a psychological zone. It was absurd that Allison Williams’ girlfriend character in Get Out had to role-play and prostitute herself for months on end just to nab one schmuck college student, when surely it could have been accomplished in an hour. But the object there was to chart the double goad to the hero’s aspiration and anxiety about the many barbs of interracial love. If one took Peele’s films on such a level, they worked. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. As for me, well, as I often do, I hovered somewhere between.
On a more prosaic level, Nope indicates that, good as he is at building mystery and tension, Peele is still quite clumsy at orchestrating large-scale action, in a manner already hinted at with aspects of the climactic scenes of Us. We get endless shots of OJ riding around on his horse without any particular sense of his objectives or tactics, when the alien can hoover him at will. There’s an old trope in monster movies that’s been sardonically recognised by fans where incredibly dangerous and threatening forces easily decimate hapless victims in early scenes but for some reason can’t quite get to grips with the heroes because, well, they’re the heroes, and this phenomenon is so pronounced here it could represent it from now on. Also, the plotting is almost perversely clumsy. The finale hinges on the sudden intrusion of an unwelcome visitor as the Haywoods, Angel, and Holst are trying to lure in the monster so Holst can film it on a hand-cranked camera. The visitor proves to be some jerk online journalist riding a motorcycle. His kinship with the alien as an embodiment of the voracious eye is unsubtly suggested by having him wear a crash helmet that is, like the UFO, silver and sporting one large, dark orb for vision. He soon gets himself stupidly killed, which proves fortuitous as Emerald eventually commandeers his bike to lure the alien into a trap. Was this an aim all along? Or did it just occur to Emerald? Meanwhile OJ seems to be swallowed up by the monster only to emerge unharmed later, a la Hooper in Jaws.
Peele could get away with fuzziness on story details in his earlier films because of that aforementioned fable quality. But the kind of story Nope tells lives and dies on a precise sense of how elements interact. The alien is supposed to be attracted by things that look back, and can tell when it’s being looked at by some tiny animal from a long distance, but cannot distinguish between living creatures and inanimate objects. Its kryptonite, amongst all the non-organic material it tends to suck up, proves to be small plastic string flags, which it first swallows when sucking up the horse statue around which some are wrapped. Later Emerald weaponises these indigestible things against it. Which, frankly, is damn near as a stupid as the water-kills-aliens reveal at the climax of Signs. This frustratingly points up the awkwardness of Peele trying to subsume that sweeping, compulsive blockbuster appeal whilst also maintaining a slight tint of the arbitrarily ridiculous in the unfolding action.
Peele interpolates a few of his now-familiar flourishes of racial consciousness-provoking, particularly in making the Haywoods the imagined descendants of a black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering photographic studies, and also prominently featuring a poster for the relatively obscure but hardly suppressed Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). The object here is pretty patent, teasing the presence of a Black influence in cinema and its most stereotypically white American genre in particular. But part of me also wondered if Peele threw such flourishes in to make critics do the heavy lifting of inferring that he’s made some kind of profound parable, instead of a disjointed, half-digested one. Particularly in floating that dubious proposition that “everybody knows who Eadweard Muybridge is.” There’s also OJ’s name, which plays on evoking its bearer’s sense of exposure and connecting to that meditation on horror as exploited in the mass media, but also begs the question of who would keep insisting on calling their kid that when growing up in the last thirty years. There might have been some potential in the ironic portrait of Black and Asian-Americans applying their talents and identities to the cultural tradition of the Western, but again, it doesn’t progress much further than ultimately affirming OJ as a classical genre hero who looks good on a horse.
Kaluuya is a good actor – he was the visual and performative linchpin of Get Out as the bewildered, naïve, victimised protagonist, and was also great in the exact opposite kind of role as a vicious criminal in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). But he’s entirely miscast here playing a brooding cowboy, which makes OJ something of a nonentity. He’s supposed to be a strong, silent type who comes to life as his best gifts are provoked, but he remains out of focus. Palmer compensates with an energetic performance, even as I never quite bought Emerald as a character either. Peele presents the Haywoods as a mismatched pair of personalities, Emerald garrulous and slick, a creature geared to perform in a world of modern media, where OJ is shy and wounded and old-fashioned in his enclosed masculinity. Their chief bond is in their uneasy relationship with their father and his unpredictable, sometimes hurtful ways, ways which bound OJ closer to him and pushed Emerald on her own path but left both unfulfilled. Peele’s attempts to give them some personal totemic investment in the battle with the alien feel forced. At one point Emerald recalls how Otis Snr once proposed to give to her horse named Jean Jacket, but then took back to use on a film shoot, only for OJ to later dub the alien Jean Jacket as if to make it the embodiment of their angst.
The mixture here is of squelchy hipster humour – oh, Jean Jacket, that’s so retro and uncool – and unconvincing emotional ploys. Peele similarly has, in a visual pastiche-cum-lampoon of Quint’s monologue in Jaws, Holst sing the lyrics of “Flying Purple People Eater” in a gravely raspy way. All this is the sort of thing Peele ought sensibly have dumped on his second draft of the script, along with the plastic flags thing. Which really only points to the major lack of the film’s climactic scenes, which is any genuine sense of dramatic tension between the Haywoods in their aims in dealing with their quarry. Perhaps Emerald, in her need for validation, might have been made more and more maniacally determined to photograph the alien, whilst OJ becomes increasingly heated in his determination to simply kill the thing that eats his beloved animals and inadvertently killed his father. Instead, their relationship is by and large stated and then allowed to coast. There’s no particularly palpable sense of danger to either, which means there’s never any, genuine thrill to their eventual triumph. Much of the power of Get Out came, for me at any rate, not from the racial provocation but from the portrayal of romantic disillusionment, which culminated in the hero impotently trying to strangle his blankly treacherous lover: that was an idea, an image, a feeling, that communicated a sense of real danger.
The finale makes a big deal of Emerald finally trying to capture the alien’s photo on the old-timey tintype carousel camera that’s used a gimmicky tourist trap on Jupe’s ranch, whilst distracting and killing it by releasing a flag-bedecked balloon mascot. This touch tries to close a loop of meaning with Muybridge’s photography, and perhaps might intend to suggest the only the way to break through to true original vision is to wield a painstaking method with essential tools. Or is it just something as trite as old-timey stuff trumps modern junk? Either way, everything about this struck me as laboured. Nope holds not just the sight of the alien but most of its ideas and feelings in a kind of dip-eyed cringe, and it can’t even quite land the straightforward monster movie is essentially is. It made me long for the potency of something like Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988), which also feels like an influence in the mix here – the kind of old-school genre film that easily encompassed its revisionism and charged subtexts whilst sprinting onwards with crazy energy and careless gore. Never mind anything by Peele’s genre hero John Carpenter. Nope isn’t a bad film exactly. It’s well-made on all technical levels and for a while at least drags you along with its teases. And yet it never coheres, and by the end, rather than feeling Peele had broken through to new ground, I felt he’d made something closer to a car crash. Which might, in the end, be good for him. Peele can just be a filmmaker now.
Death Proof has been the problem child in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography since it was released, when it proved the director’s only real box office failure after the zeitgeist-inflecting success of his early work. Even Tarantino himself more or less wrote it off as a miscalculation. But Death Proof stands as a pivotal moment in his oeuvre, literally and figuratively, if not for all the right reasons. Counting the two halves of Kill Bill (2003-4) as one movie, and diplomatically ignoring the portion of Four Rooms (1995) he made, Death Proof emerged exactly half-way through his directing career to date, the median point for Tarantino’s first four films and his subsequent four. The film’s initial failure was largely due to the intriguing but ultimately cockamamie conceit that birthed it. Tarantino and fellow independent film zero-to-hero Robert Rodriguez, who had previously collaborated on the Rodriguez-directed, Tarantino-written From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), wanted to revive and celebrate a lapsed tradition: the double bill they and many another movie freak once blissed out on in seamy movie theatres dubbed “grindhouses,” in the days before the age of VHS and the multiplex changed how movies were consumed. The two directors hatched the concept of Grindhouse, under the banner of which they would each offer a movie riffing on a classic brand of trashy genre fare. In the grindhouse manner, when retitling of movies was common, Death Proof itself is revealed to be the hastily inserted new title of a film called Thunder Bolt.
Rodriguez, for his part, made Planet Terror, a sci-fi horror crossbreed and freeform blend of George Romero, early James Cameron, and the kinds of movies turned out under the auspices of Roger Corman and Charles Band. Tarantino elected to make Death Proof, a characteristically eccentric twist on the hallowed tropes of the slasher movie. The two movies would be served up in a manner resembling the often scratched, shortened, scrambled prints that screened in those theatres, and connected by a number of trailers for other, imaginary horror and action movies. Grindhouse was gleefully defined by innate ironies, as a tribute to the fly-by-night world and rough-and-ready aesthetics of another age of moviemaking and viewing, and a supersized hipster-cineaste burlesque-cum-fetish object, executed with a big budget and classy collaborators. Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth contributed unnervingly convincing fake trailers. But when Grindhouse proved a flop, largely for its unwieldy length and confusing marketing, Death Proof and its companion piece were rereleased separately, as was always the intention for the films’ European release (where the double bill tradition was much less common) and for home viewing, with scenes left out of the initial versions for the sake of running time and humour value restored.
Of the two films, Rodriguez’s fun, silly, gruesome semi-spoof seemed the more appropriate considering the project it was part of (and it is indeed probably Rodriguez’s best film). Whereas Death Proof was criticised and rejected by many as rather too eccentric and particular. When Tarantino moved on, he kicked off a string of absurdist-revisionist period movies with Inglourious Basterds (2009), leaving behind the most noticeable thread of his films up until Death Proof, their fascination with contrasting the heightened-to-epic-proportions effects of genre film with the petty weirdness of modern life. But I’ve regarded as Death Proof as one of Tarantino’s finest achievements since my first viewing, and have even ventured to call it my personal favourite, although an oeuvre as generally strong as his that can change from viewing to viewing. Certainly Death Proof is a movie that pushes certain tendencies of Tarantino’s style to an extreme perhaps just beyond its popular understanding, which is doubly ironic considering the film’s nominal function as a celebration of the trashier delights of moviegoing, as both as a work about the cinephilia Tarantino is so strongly associated with, and a self-reflexive, self-satirising work that today carries echoes very likely beyond what was intended.
Death Proof is a movie purposefully constructed in two halves, each defined by a sinuously detailed and conversation-driven slow-burn capped by eruptions of floridly filmed violent action, Tarantino the archly theatrical composer of dialogues and Tarantino the high cinema maven in extended argument. Of all his films it’s the least baroquely plot-driven, but is also actually perhaps his cleverly layered labour of narrative dexterity, functioning as straightforward thriller, a laidback and counterintuitive deconstruction of such a thriller, and a work of self-reflexive critique all at once. Tarantino tried to mate the radically disparate sectors of cinema that regularly preoccupy his movies in a particularly delicate balancing act of form and function – the very different brands of interpersonal filmmaking of the Howard Hawks-esque “hangout” movie and the dryly observational method of post-Jim Jarmusch indie film, crashing against the down-and-dirty pleasures of 1970s genre film and French New Wave-inspired self-consciously postmodern showmanship.
Time has also provided more discomforting subtexts: Death Proof, which deals explicitly with a predatory man who works in the film industry setting out to violate and destroy women he can’t have, was produced by the movie mogul and serial sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein, and prominently features at least one of his victims, Rose McGowan. There’s also some fascinating echoes of the car crash Uma Thurman suffered in making Kill Bill, on which Death Proof’s heroine, the stunt performer Zoë Bell, had served as Thurman’s stunt double. Heavy stuff indeed to attach to a film by and large defined by a generally vibrant, collegial tone. Except that tenor was always superficial: Death Proof always contained a sardonic commentary on the misogyny too often inherent in the slasher movie and the problems of converting an inner fantasy landscape into the actuality of a film production, and a work that digs into the relationship between cinema and sexuality with covert bite. The basic plot presents what could be described as twinned variations on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), as it charts two disparate groups of young women, both of whom become objects of obsession for a nefarious serial killer, ‘Stuntman’ Mike McCay (Kurt Russell). The entirety of the film depicts each group’s encounters with Mike and the small, almost logarithmic variances that see one group fall victim to him and the other prove capable of fighting back. One of which is, of course, familiarity with old movies.
The first group is a gang of friends recently reunited in Austin, Texas: radio DJ ‘Jungle’ Julia Lucai (Sydney Poitier), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) go out for a night of sowing wild oats. The second group are all friends who know each-other from working on film crews – makeup artist Abernathy ‘Abbie’ Ross (Rosario Dawson), actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and stunt performers Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë (Bell, playing a version of herself), who converge to work on a movie shoot in Lebanon, Tennessee, and encounter Mike during a harebrained escapade rooted in Zoe and Kim’s shared ardour for daredevilry and cinephilia, as Zoe obliges her friends to help her in her quest to borrow a 1970 Dodge Challenger from a farmer who’s selling it so she can execute her fantasy of riding on the exterior – a stunt she calls “Ship’s Mast” – of the car from Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). The algorithmic structure of the film, with its twinned gangs of female friends, nods to the wash-rinse-repeat narrative replication of, for instance, the Friday the 13th series, whilst also performing revisionism. The lengthy yammering sessions between the two girl gangs explicates subtle differences in character and outlook as well as positing plot points, and in the second half the traits and characters of the female friends are purposefully laid out to make the audience aware of the various factors that will lead them to be triumphant over Mike rather than just be more victims.
One obvious and distinctive quality of Death Proof in Tarantino’s oeuvre is that it’s a movie mostly populated by and entirely concerned with women characters, if also following Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill with their female protagonists. This is partly a by-product of shifting ground to Horror cinema referencing as opposed to Tarantino’s usual stoping ground of crime thrillers and action movies, and also one accomplished with the director’s typical eccentricity as Tarantino blesses its performers with dialogue comprised of typically stylised Tarantino argot. Much of the film simply seems to consist, superficially at least, of the two gangs talking about jobs and relationships and hunting for a good time, unfolding in quasi-naturalistic manner that perhaps comes the closest of all Tarantino’s films to one of his acknowledged cinematic models, Howard Hawks. A lengthy conversation between the second gang whilst eating lunch in a diner sees Tarantino shooting it in the same manner as he did the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs (1992), turning into a conscious walk-through of his own stylistic reflexes, an algorithmic variation on his own cinema as well as of a certain genre.
Part of the design of Death Proof as a unit in the Grindhouse project was to recreate the exploitative and sexed-up aesthetic of ‘70s genre film with an edge of self-conscious irony. This intent is nodded to in a series of visuals in the opening credits laced with sarcastic commentary on the gazing – the long-legged Julia, strutting about her apartment in panties with butt impudently twitching, lies down underneath a poster of a starlet in the same pose; the camera zeroes in on Arlene’s crotch as she dashes up to Julia’s apartment but with urinating rather than horniness the spur. Later there’s a sequence in which Arlene performs a lap dance for Mike. But where your classical grindhouse movie was making its connections between sexuality and horror on a purely mercenary level, Death Proof is playing multiple games, the cheery recreation of a gauche aesthetic constantly underpinned by a narrative built around sexual display and frustration, one in which Tarantino repeatedly emphasises masculine attempts to defeat the essential and ultimate control of sex by women. This is depicted in the course of fairly normal sexual gamesmanship when out on the town but also on the ultimate, pathological level Mike espouses. In Arlene, Julia, and Shanna’s first conversation together as they drive through the streets of Austin, power dynamics underlying sex are a constant refrain, as Arlene explains her policy of trying to keep her boyfriends a little sex-starved to maintain firm control of her relationships, and Shanna comments wryly on Julia’s habits of flirting with Shanna’s father, to Julia calm retort, “I have my own relationship with Ben – you’re just jealous because it don’t include you.”
The interpersonal dynamics of the gang sketched in the scene point to the recurring notes struck in the film’s first half, particularly Julia’s too-cool-for-school persona and habit of playing queen bee and impresario. These stretch to setting up Arlene as butt of a slow-burn prank , having announced on her radio show that her friend from out of town is looking for a mate and will give a lap dance to any man who can successfully recite a certain poem to her. Julia’s habits of bullying are later resentfully recounted by Pam, and despite the good-humoured and sexy package Julia tries to wrap it in, her prank on Arlene has much the same flavour. Shanna herself wryly calls her “mean girl in a high school movie,” although Julia’s more positive traits are also apparent, as when she solicitously and apologetically nurses Arlene through disappointment. The arts of social discourse and sexual gamesmanship are themselves the subject of dramaturgical precision, as Julia insists on illustrating the scenario she’s dreamed up for Arlene by roping in her actress friend Marcy (Marcy Harriell) to role-play with Arlene, and the two do such a good job of recreating the flirtatious art that Shanna comments, “Y’all are making me hot!,” whilst Arlene gets revenge by provoking Julia with racially tinted scorn for her physique. Soon after, Arlene glimpses an old, souped-up, black-painted and menacingly detailed car cruising by the place where they eat lunch. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s had her first encounter with Mike, the man stalking her and her friends across town.
The first group encounter Mike in the flesh at the Texas Chili Parlour, a tavern belonging by Warren (Tarantino), where they drink with random boys whilst awaiting a pot-dealing friend, Lanna Frank (Monica Staggs), before they head on to a girls-only retreat at Shanna’s father’s lake house. Mike sits at the bar, despite being a proclaimed teetotaller, and offers to give a ride home to Pam (Rose McGowan), a former classmate of Julia’s but not a friend, left stranded by a date who didn’t show. Mike’s affectation of placid congeniality makes him seem like a rock of gentlemanly rectitude around which the river of nocturnal boozing flows, compared to the spivs who set out to seduce the girls, Dov (Roth), Nate (Omar Doom), and Omar (Michael Bacall), although, with his prominent facial scar, he’s also a strikingly odd presence. The younger men launch sniggering, whispered jibes his way when they take in both his disfigurement and his generally antiquated veneer of cool, in between plotting with aggressive intent to get the girls drunk and wheedle their way into joining them at the lake house. “If a guy’s buying the drinks, a fucking bitch’ll drink anything,” Dov declares as if expounding the Talmud of scoring. Mike’s arsenal for picking up is deployed throughout the night, including name-dropping the once-famous TV personalities he used to double for, drawing blank looks from the twenty-somethings he’s out to impress. He does better when carefully targeting anyone slightly split off the pack: most immediately Pam, and also Arlene, who has, despite her displeasure at Julia’s prank, been disappointed it hasn’t paid off in gaining her masses of male attention: Mike cleverly goads her into performing the much-anticipated lap-dance for his benefit.
As usual for Tarantino, familiar genre tropes and the presence of the fantastical are posited in an otherwise studiously mundane, if not exactly realistic, world, where style and substance have peculiar, be-bop-like interactions. The other major dialogue in the drama is one of age. This is couched in both human terms, with Mike the angry, damaged relic amidst a youth culture that, like all youth cultures, firmly believes it invented the pleasures of getting wasted and laid on a Saturday night and heedlessly pursues its wont, and in cultural and cinematic terms. The dance through the familiar landmarks of the classical slasher movie is eccentric, the beats all askew, the points of concentration distorted but recognisable. The long, ambling scenes in the Texas Chili Parlour are actually ingeniously choreographed in the outlay of characterisation and seemingly happenstance yet ultimately purposeful detail, under the guise of depicting messy, formless fun. Vignettes flow like the rain pouring outside, from Shanna telling off Dov for mispronouncing her name “Shauna” to Arlene succumbing to the requests of Nate to go make out in his car for a while, heroically brandishing an umbrella for her courtly protection (“You have two jobs – kiss good, and make sure my hair don’t wet.”). Complicating notes are struck: Julia’s stature in her gang and as a minor celebrity is juxtaposed with her increasing romantic frustration with her sometime filmmaker boyfriend, Christian Simonson, with whom she swaps text messages through the night only to get increasingly irritated when he doesn’t turn up.
Death Proof then seems to less to the vicissitudes of seamy genre film than to the particular accent of American indie film as mapped out by John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch, and Tarantino found his toehold in whilst not so subtly perverting it – mundanely preoccupied, dialogue-driven, concerned with mapping behaviour and charting the semi-underground life of bohemians and outsiders in American life and the dreamy textures of its pop cultural inheritance. When Tarantino does have to do some plain plot progression, he manages to approach it with a simultaneous mixture of showmanship and affected blasé disinterest, most wittily purveyed when Warren tells one of his employees (Marta Mendoza) to turn on a light in the parking lot, so she listlessly flips the switch. Cut to without, as Arlene, relaxing by herself and smoking a cigarette, suddenly beholding the sight of Mike’s car revealed by the sudden illumination, the lurking presence of menace and the patterns in the algorithm wheeling about her suddenly beginning to come into focus. Later Arlene tells Mike his car makes her uncomfortable, but he’s able to disarm her instinctive worry by readily and happily posing as a good old-fashioned horndog on the prowl essentially after the same thing she is. Mike’s scar carries a host of associations, linking him to the disfigured murderers of films like Friday the 13th (1980) and The Burning (1981) but also to Scar of The Searchers (1956) and through him to Ahab, captain of another marauding, doom-purveying craft in combat with nature itself.
Mike’s pathology however must wreak its vengeance not on a mindless symbol but on the taunting, wilful, immediate presence of young women. Mike tolerates slights and humiliations all night with a patient, foreboding expectation of payback, with his preselected gallery of lovelies. He keeps photos of the gang he’s targeting pinned to the sunshade of his car, all taken with a telephoto lens, describing them as his “girlfriends.” Russell’s ingenious performance depends on the easy masculine charm that always defined him as a star and helps put across a sense of roguish, conspiratorial energy for the audience to share, down to smiling directly at the camera just before commencing his project of murder. As a role, Mike demands that kind of innate audience liking, before he’s eventually revealed to be less the familiar kind of forbidding and determined Horror movie villain, invulnerable a la Michael Myers to pain and unswerving in purpose, than a Looney Tunes-like character, alternating puffed-up delusions of potency and absurdist displays of pain and frustration, able to violate the fourth wall but still imprisoned by the whims of his creator, a la Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953). Mike has pretences to being the director in his little drama as well as the stuntman, casting his bevies of beauties and forcing them to performers.
When the evening at the Parlour finally runs its course and everyone starts heading off their disparate destinations, Mike successfully lures Pam into his car, which he explains is “death proof,” carefully reinforced to protect the driver from injury during stunts. But the unfortunate passenger is not so protected, and is indeed caged and unprotected, and Mike veers about wildly to knock Pam to a bloody pulp even as she begs him to stop and tries, with a note of pathos as she tries to use a note desperate humour to disarm him (“I get it’s a joke and its really funny…”) before Mike performs his coup-de-grace with awful, mocking relish, slamming on the brakes and bashing her head in on the dashboard. This scene is singular in Tarantino’s oeuvre as a pivot to genuine, intimate cruelty, resisting the cartoonish safety-valve quality of much of his depictions of violence, instead properly discomforting in confronting the awful intimacy of misogynistic torment and victim plight. McGowan’s unnervingly convincing playing of the scene enforces this, whilst Russell expertly conveys the slipping of the mask he has worn through the previous scenes, the smouldering anger and relish for annihilating what he can’t have.
Alongside his dialogue, Tarantino’s most famous trait is his penchant for slow-burning suspense in long, nerve-wracking sequences that build and pay off in unpredictable ways. This is famously evinced in sequences like the cop’s torture in Reservoir Dogs, the tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds, and the dinner at Candyland in Django Unchained (2012). Death Proof marked an attempt to push that tendency as far as it would go by Tarantino, anticipating Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood (2019) in essentially offering a film that almost entirely devoted to that slow burn, building through the course of its twinned halves to eruptions of violent action. In this case, because he’s riffing on the slasher movie with its subtextual connection between a violent act and a sexual one, the evocation of desire and its eradication in terms of the filmic image, as well as the more obvious and literal conception of Mike as an aging lothario with a sexual problem who can only “shoot his goo” by killing his objects of desire, the structuring of Death Proof is inherently sexual, punctuated by two orgasmic moments of carnage. After killing Pam, Mike subsequently chases down of the other girls – Julia, Arlene, Shanna, and Lanna racing down the highway rocking out to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch and Titch’s “Hold Tight” – and rams their car head on, shattering and mangling their bodies and destroying their car whilst his flips crazily down the road.
This scene is a highpoint of 21st century cinema as a piece of set-piece filmmaking that announces its own construction with hues of sarcasm – the elaborate means Julia has to go to get just the right song to score thrilling highway action (she calls up a fellow DJ at her radio station to make the request) and Mike’s vicious showmanship (calculatedly turning out his headlights a split-second before ramming their car to dazzle them). The thunder of the crash pays off the slow burn in a pure spectacle of terrible physical damage examined in forensic, instant-replay detail: a squall of shattered glass through which sails Julia’s pathetically severed leg, whilst Arlene’s face is torn off by a tyre and Shanna is launched like a bottle rocket through the windscreen and crashes against the tarmac. The peculiar quality of all this, over and above the intricate brilliance of the filmmaking which far excels just about any movie it’s riffing on on a technique level, is that Tarantino has actually succeeded in making a Horror movie that critiques the Horror movie and also fulfils it to the letter, having set up victims in reasonable depth and sympathy and sacrificing them all to the dark gods anyway.
Tarantino’s fadeout from the scene of carnage leads to a subsequent scene in a hospital where Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) and his son and deputy Edgar (James Parks) discussing Mike’s seemingly miraculous survival and minor injuries, as Earl analyses the crash and immediately picks it as a calculated murder that will be impossible to prove as such thanks to Mike’s carefully contrived stage management of the event. This scene mediates the film and provides several strands of meta meaning: McGraw, a character created for From Dusk Till Dawn and subsequently featured in Kill Bill alongside Edgar, is the quintessential crusty, canny old Texas lawman, and in the Tarantino universe graced with dimension-hopping and death-defying abilities, appearing along with his son and his daughter Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) who had also appeared with her father in Planet Terror, acting here as Mike’s physician who explains the painful but essentially superficial injuries he took in the crash. Earl’s keenness as a lawman immediately sees through Mike’s smokescreen, and he suggests and then rejects a possible course of action in relentlessly hounding Mike to catch him up but elects against it, declaring he can at least make “goddamn sure he don’t do it again in Texas.” Whilst the meta-narrative trappings are superfluous in a film that’s otherwise highly sophisticated in such things, this scene finds a witty way of plodding through a necessary point of exposition, with Earl tantalisingly raising the notion of becoming a dogged nemesis to Mike as in some Horror movies only to decide the remainder of his life would be better spent “following the Nascar circuit.”
The second half, announced with dry humour in white-on-black titles declaring a shift to “Lebanon” before amending that to “Lebanon, Tennessee,” varies the algorithm whilst returning to particular images and actions, such as a more attentive member of the girl gang noticing Mike’s hovering presence as he loops back in his car for another gawk at his prey. Movie jokes proliferate with viral rapidity, befitting the half of the movie that’s looking back on itself, trapping the story told in the first half within the cage of revision. Lee, the designated hot young starlet, is delighted by any media coverage of herself and gets Abbie to buy a magazine she’s featured in. She also wears a cheerleader outfit throughout, for the role she’s playing in the movie she’s filming and likely to look cute, a character joke that’s also a nod to the hallowed traditions of the teen Horror movie. Noticing this, the cashier in a 7/11 sells the women a copy of the Italian edition of Vogue like an illicit drag stash. The area that’s supposed to be rural Tennessee is actually a stretch of California that also looks a lot like the kinds of Australian outback locale many an Ozploitation action film was shot in. Tarantino kicks off the second half in employing black-and-white as the viewpoint is temporarily that of Mike, as he hovers around the women he’s spying on, insinuating himself into their zone of existence. He pushes his daring fetishism and sense of secret possession to the limit, sneaking up on the snoozing Abbie with her feet jutting from a parked car’s window and caressing them until she snaps awake.
Whilst it’s tempting to push a little too far and claim Death Proof is a kind of secret parable for Weinstein’s behaviour and Thurman’s crash, it’s also difficult to deny from today’s vantage that both inform it to a degree. But ultimately it’s Tarantino’s ultimate, ironic commentary on the vicissitudes of being a filmmaker. Tarantino posits himself in the film in multiple guises, turning the nominal drama into a labyrinth leading back to himself as impresario of sex and violence. He’s Warren, the garrulous, party-mongering bar owner just trying to make everyone happy. He’s Julia, trying to arrange playlets of character and frisson-inducing encounters with friends as performers, and digging up classic songs to pervade life with a perfectly curated life soundtrack. He’s Mike himself, the guy who knows all the details to forgotten pop culture and feels frustrated nobody speaks his language these days, as well as the aging wolf frustrated he’s losing his youth culture cachet. He’s the much-mentioned director “Cecil” who’s directing the movies the second gang are working on, who has maintained his sexual status through being the locus of authority in his little world. And he is himself, in the director’s chair offscreen, heard calling “Got it!” at the end of a brief scene, mimicking the opening shots in Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), where the move camera becomes a spying still camera, focusing on and taking unknowing possession of women about to fall prey to a killer.
This multivalent presence of Tarantino is both an ultimate statement of auteurist ownership and ego domain and a dissection of it. However playfully, Tarantino both celebrates and indicts himself as the particular gateway for a work of cinema where sexuality is both constantly evoked and portrayed but also necessarily sublimated into the flow of images, in the context of genre and mainstream cinema niceties where the orgasmic is registered through displaced destruction. This directly engages with and animates a familiar idea of criticism of the slasher movie, that with its deliberately blank-slate killers and common use of first-person camerawork, the style of the slasher was designed to allow the audience to experience the pleasure and frustration of the stalking killer trying to possess/annihilate the object it pursues. Tarantino links this quirk of style to the act of directing itself, at once constructing and destroying fetish objects and doppelgangers. And the inverse of that, the creation of heroic and empowering figures whose vitality can sometimes slip the bonds a creator can put on them. Much as the crazy proliferation of women-in-peril movies in the 1970s and ‘80s Horror films eventually forged the figure of the Final Girl – a female protagonist obliged to fight for survival without any rescue at hand – and then the James Cameron brand of action heroine, and Death Proof, humorously but also earnestly, encapsulates that evolution in its narrative whilst also linking it back to other traditions in the oft-dismissed but often quietly dissident traditions of the trash movie, with gestures to the rampaging Amazons of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966), the tough ladies of ‘70s Blaxploitation, and the reforged avengers of rape-and-revenge thrillers.
And so, the second half of Death Proof creates a trio of heroines whose capacities and outlooks give them advantages lacked by their tragic counterparts from the first half. Kim discusses the handgun hidden in her purse as a safeguard against being raped. Zoë’s extraordinary physical agility and durability is expounded on at length. Abbie fills a similar place in their gang to Arlene as the butt of the gang’s idiosyncratic hierarchy but stands up for herself more effectively than Arlene, and the gang lacks a figure like Julia who controls it. The women haven’t abandoned their femininity, but laying claim to “masculine” pursuits like stunt work and car loving becomes a virtue, an idea summarised when Kim and Zoë acknowledge having grown up on the regulation diet of “that John Hughes shit” like Pretty In Pink (1986) but also a roster of classic drive-in hotrod and action films that both serviced and instilled a love for thrill-seeking, and so, in oblique fashion, trained them to deal with real evil when it comes at them. All of this is explored in the flow of seemingly formless conversation, Tarantino setting himself the challenge of showing Chekhov’s Gun (or Kim’s, in this instance) without anyone noticing, but then not being surprised when it’s fired.
Lee is the weak link in the gang as a girly girl who’s not too bright to boot, the embodiment of a more vacuous modern Hollywood, so she’s left behind when the trio head off for a fateful joyride. More intertextuality: the Dodge Challenger’s owner Jasper (Jonathan Loughran) is the same redneck creep who gets his tough bitten off molesting the Bride in Kill Bill, and Lee’s understandable reaction to being left in his company is to mutter, like Bug Bunny in a fix, “Gulp.” As usual with Tarantino, the onscreen action is accompanied by music scoring consisting of myriad harvested music cues and needle-drop oldies that drape the drama in a referential and bygone form of cool. But here this familiar artistic conceit comes on with a more layered and intricate sense of meta humour, often playing games with diegetic sourcing within the drama. The scenes in the Chili Parlour unfold under a near-constant flow of vintage Stax singles – approved hipster retro culture, of course, but as many of the songs belong to the classic “love advice” genre that comment sarcastically on the vignettes of modern romance played out in the tavern.
Tarantino’s snippet of Pino Donaggio’s score for Brian De Palm’s Blow Out (1981), as two-faced in its romanticism as ever in that composer’s work for the old master ironist, accompanies Julia texting Christian as a vignette of very modern romance – the directness of expressions of ardour and anger in this medium are far more clear and direct than what goes on between the young folk in actual physical proximity. This gives way to more a more overt joke riffing on the idea of matching thematically appropriate music to images as Julia accidentally provides Mike with the perfect soundtrack for high-speed murder. Mike’s constructed image as an old-school tough guy is illustrated as he shows off for the second gang of girls by gunning his car to make smoke with the wheels whilst Willy DeVille’s “It’s So Easy” blares from his tape deck, only to wring a mocking comment from Lee – “Little dick!” – that casually indicts his overcompensation and datedness (as well as the inference of association with William Friedkin’s Cruising, 1981, another film about the ambiguities of sex haunted by the presence of a serial killer).
The film wraps up with end credits set to April March’s careening translated cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Laisse tomber les filles,” concerning an infamous womaniser heading for deadly punishment from his many lovers. Those end credits also intersperse the familiar scrolling names with flash-edits of leads from old film reels, sporting female models whose names are forgotten by history and whose faces were included on those old reels to aid with colour and lighting collection by cinematographers. This peculiar touch again carries multiple associations. It is at once Tarantino’s signal of pure delight in the expressive tool of a medium, one immediately under threat by digital photography, and a random, peculiar piece of ephemera associated with it. It’s also a flourish of cultural commentary, reminiscent of the dummies that mimic and mock the cast in the opening credits of Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (1963), evoking a bygone ideal of femininity rendered glossy and artificial and thoroughly trashed by the film’s end.
Death Proof is also unusual as the only film Tarantino has shot himself, achieving a fleshy, colourful texture overlaid with a scratchy and washed-out veneer to capture the rough grindhouse print look, and use of wide-angle lensing to emphasise space and give objects a looming, surging impact. This becomes particularly vital in the climactic scenes, in which Zoe successfully engineers her fantasy of playing Ship’s Mast – riding on the hood of the Dodge Challenger, dangling from belts – on the legendary vehicle of Vanishing Point, a car that is, in homage to the original’s eerie symbolism but also befitting into Death Proof’s own dichotomy, snow white, whilst Mike’s muscle car is black with a skull-and-crossbones painted on the hood. But Mike, having followed the women into the boondocks and seeing the ideal opportunity to raise hell with them, begins chasing the Challenger, ramming into it to make Zoe fall from the car, but she manages nonetheless to ride like a gecko upon the sleek hood of the charging vehicle as the vehicles hurtle down country lanes. Finally Kim loses control and crashes to a halt on the roadside with Zoe hurled into the bushes on the shoulder. Kim shoots at the gloating and unwary Mike, wounding him and sending him fleeing, whilst Zoe pops up again, saved from injury by her astounding reflexes. Once sure everyone’s okay and hot for revenge, the trio race off in pursuit of Mike.
This makes for of the great movie finales, a dedicated statement decrying the increasingly artificial and smoothed-over tenor of millennial Hollywood cinema, a tendency that’s only grown far worse since 2007. Mike’s rueful awareness that CGI is stealing away both his livelihood and the peculiarly intense glamour his profession used to lend to cinema in general presages Tarantino’s employment of Bell to demonstrate just what a great stunt performer can do and how much spectacle it injects into a movie, over and above the formidable filmmaking technique which emphasises the essential veracity of what’s being shown. Tarantino’s deployment of Bell as the film’s can-do wonder woman betrays inherent respect for stuntpeople as well as for Bell’s effusive personality, anticipating Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood’s vision of the stunt performer as a being who most clearly and potently links the fantasy world of film to the real world, the figure required to perform acts of real daring and danger to make the cinematic illusion work. Moreover, in the context of the film Bell is presented as the light to Mike’s dark, the true practitioner of the risk-taking art that is stunt work, compared to Mike, who has fallen from grace. Her game of Ship’s Mast, which involves great danger and testing of all her physical and mental skills, pointedly contrast’s Mike’s “death-proof” car, his attempt to deliver himself from real danger even whilst indulging the orgasmic pleasure of dealing out death and carnage.
This dovetails in turn with the swivel in theme from misogynistic rampaging to nascent feminist revenge fantasy. Mike proves to have chosen exactly the wrong bunch of women to piss off this time, and he’s chased across the countryside by the ferociously determined Kim, who delightedly mimics sexist flirtation lines whilst tormenting the killer, and Zoe, who wields a length of pipe like a medieval knight’s lance. Mike himself, upon being shot, immediately degenerates from swaggering demon to howling coward, and doesn’t take too well to having the tables turned, desperately trying to outpace the Challenger. Their careening chase bursts out onto the highway, where, naturally, modern cars are humiliated by the power and steely integrity of the older vehicles, the instant metaphor for the film’s entire presumption and aesthetic. When Kim finally manages to ram Mike and flip his car over, the three women pluck him out and beat the shit out of him, their relentless punches causing a breakdown in the texture of the movie itself. When he collapses, Tarantino officially ends the film immediately, bringing up “The End” title over the triumph a la the end of many of a wu xia epic, only to then offer a kind of epilogue as he comes back to the scene to show Abbie breaking Mike’s neck with a well-place kick. Again, a very Tarantino motif – the defeat of one monster might well birth others – but one he carefully brackets to soften as more a fantasy addendum, a little like the curtain call spanking in The Bad Seed (1956). Fitting nonetheless for a movie that dismantles and then reconstructs a fundamental idea of cinema, that space where fantasies, ranging from the most depraved to the most heroic, are allowed free rein.
Director: Brian De Palma Screenwriter: Lawrence D. Cohen
By Roderick Heath
The novel Carrie, published in 1974, vaulted a struggling young English teacher with a few short stories to his credit named Stephen King to sudden fortune and fame. Director Brian De Palma, looking for a project after his would-be breakout project Phantom of the Paradise (1974) had proved only a minor cult success, was recommended the novel by a friend who also knew King. After reading the book De Palma found the rights were unsold and snapped them up. Something of the material’s weird magic rubbed off. De Palma’s film of Carrie became his first big hit and marked his emergence as a fully mature filmmaker in his major phase, and boosted several members of its cast, including star Sissy Spacek and supporting actors Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, and John Travolta, to it-kid status. The film’s success also sparked a swiftly metastasizing industry adapting King’s work for the movies, which only helped reinforce his position as one of the preeminent genre wordsmiths of the last fifty years. King himself had only reluctantly committed to writing the novel after the first scene came to him a squall of phobic thinking when, working part-time as a janitor in a school with his brother and cleaning some girls’ locker room showers, was fixated by the image of some poor girl terrified by her period suddenly arriving whilst showering and being ferociously mocked by her classmates, a scene of a kind King had witnessed often in high school.
The taboo-grazing blood rite King had psychically conjured upon proved to be the ticket to directly tapping into the modern audience’s new hunger for a kind of direct engagement with things once kept off in the margins of metaphor in artistic report, in both the intimate engagement with a young woman’s body as an unstable and sometimes alien thing to herself, and the direct portrayal of the raw pack animal behaviour young people often inflict on each-other in the process of growing up, and the occasions where such behaviour gains a dreadful retaliation. The cementing of suburban youth culture in the 1950s made the dramas of adolescence increasingly profound as part of the average person’s life. Carrie’s appeal is, then, plainly emblazoned in its core imagery and concept, a tale recognisable from just about everyone’s youth in the games of social status amongst teenagers and fantasies of revenge stoked in the face of rejection. King’s ambivalence about his subject and characters was mediated to a degree by his choice of writing it as a modern version of an epistolary novel, that is, one that affects to relate a story through second-hand sources like letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles, holding the key personalities at a certain distance. Once boiled down by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen to something more immediate and reconstructed by De Palma into a succession of potent images, King’s story clearly had the directness and velocity of a modern myth.
For De Palma, the former no-budget semi-experimental ironist springing out of the Greenwich Village hipster scene, Carrie was a dynamic embrace of commercial populism, and yet still charged with a transgressive energy in style and story. After scoring cult successes with his early works like Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1972) on the counterculture-informed midnight movie circuit, De Palma cobbled together the money to make Sisters (1972), a blend of new age Alfred Hitchcock revisionism, Italian giallo movie riff, and New Yorker’s inside joke that put him on the path to mainstream attention, only be foiled by Phantom of the Paradise’s failure with its wilfully odd attempt to blend Grand Guignol pathos and ink-black satirical comedy. The ironic thing there is that Carrie basically presents the same mixture, complete with another tormented victim-monster at the centre like Phantom’s Winslow Leach, broken on the world’s wheel but also transformed into a force that starts laying waste to the iniquitous. This time however De Palma swapped giddy absurdum for tight-wound drama. De Palma’s infamous tendency to twist the knife deep and hard with his pitiable antiheroes found an ideal stage to play out on in King’s story. De Palma’s cultural and political cynicism likewise found a more personal realm to play out in, latching onto King’s reportage of a country in painfully dynamic social flux where medieval religiosity can sit cheek-by-jowl with the kind of blunt modern sensibility both King and De Palma personified in their individual ways.
As well as the worm-turns essence of the storyline De Palma was likely also attracted to a central character who plays as a distaff take on Psycho’s (1960) Norman Bates, with Margaret a still-living Mrs Bates, and her house as an islet of American Gothic: the homage is made more explicit in naming both the high school and the nearby slaughterhouse after Bates. And yet Carrie also sees De Palma defining himself askew from mere emulation of Hitchcock, indulging visual techniques antipathetic to the master. Carrie also had good fortune to be released after the enormous success of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist and its 1973 film, a zeitgeist-defining that identified the corporeal form of an adolescent girl as the ideal vessel for satanic hellraising in a fragmented and faithless modern world. As a story Carrie both rode that wave and also dismantled it, accusing repressive and neurotically obsessive religiosity as part of the conspiracy of torment that results in calamity, counterpointed by a new variety of milquetoast, disinterested, hands-off attitude by the representatives of adult authority in the hothouse environment of the average contemporary American high school which offers no harsh chastisement but no solace either. The first glimpse of Carrie White (Spacek) is on the volleyball court of Bates High School, failing to smack back a ball when it sails her way, earning the disdain and abuse of her classmates. De Palma follows with a long, languorous credit sequence, with his slow-motion camera and Vaseline-glazed misty imagery, glides across a school playing field and slides through changing rooms for female high schoolers as they wash and get dressed.
De Palma immediately pokes fun at multiple targets, playing out the voyeuristic teenage boy fantasy of getting an eyeful in a girls’ locker room and the kind of movies that had exploded around the same time built making bank with such fantasies. At the same time he plays at sentimentalising it, Pino Donaggio’s lush strings scoring rendering the scene like some lyrical depiction of the blooming glory of young womanhood. Cross-reference the more idealised, clean, arty version found in the early scenes of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The caressing slow-motion tracking shot zeroes in on Carrie showering alone, lost in the warmth of the shower and the sensual pleasure of touching herself, the image of the protean adolescent ripe for plucking, until she experiences the raw terror of suddenly finding her nethers leaking blood, an inevitable and completely natural moment of burgeoning that is nonetheless a profound shock to Carrie as she’s never been told about it by her fanatically religious and abusive mother Margaret (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s terrified pleas for help reap only ruthless joy from her fellows who pelt her with sanitary products to the malicious chorus of chant, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”, which evokes the “One of us!” chant from Freaks (1932) but with inverted meaning: the exalted state of conformist normality can only be so exalted by finding a sacrificial lamb. Or perhaps the better Biblical reference point is the Gadarene swine, to contain the concentrated essence of wickedness to be released at some appropriate juncture.
This rite of blood and shunning is interrupted by gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) intervenes with vehement anger, promising to punish the girls for their behaviour and helping Carrie out of her cowering humiliation and shame. But, as Collins herself confesses to the school principal Morton (Stefan Gierasch), she experienced a similar kind of exasperation to the girls at the spectacle of Carrie’s absurdity. Morton, confirming complete cluelessness and timidity when faced with such female trouble, lets Collins handle the girls, and Collins forces the class to exercise to the point of exhaustion on pain of being banned from attending the upcoming prom. When one of the girls, the wilful and entitled Chris Hargensen (Allen), refuses to play along, Collins smacks her and bans her, scaring the rest back in line. Chris plots revenge aimed not at Collins but at Carrie, and Chris’s former friend Sue Snell (Irving) accidentally hands her the perfect way to achieve it when she decides to try and cheer Carrie up by asking her own, popular jock boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom instead of her. Tommy is initially dismayed by the prospect, but is eventually convinced, in part because he and Carrie recently shared a moment in English class, under the auspices of the patronising and disdainful teacher Mr Fromm (Sydney Lassick), where she pronounced one of his writing projects Fromm reads aloud with an acerbic lilt as “beautiful” and he quietly insulted Fromm for mocking Carrie’s moment of self-expression.
Carrie herself can only wander homewards after her excruciating ushering into adulthood. But another new trait has arrived along with her period, first manifesting in a moment of confusion during her panic when she screams as Collins tries to bring her out of her hysteria and a light globe overhead abruptly busts, and becoming more defined as she glares at a younger boy who calls her the teasing name “Creepy Carrie!” and seems to make him fall from his bike by force of will. Later Carrie investigates in the school library and realises she has telekinetic abilities. But returning to her home Carrie finds herself still entirely at the moment of her zealous, domineering, cape-swanning mother, who spends her days soliciting donations for some vague denominational cause and ranting about the influence of Satan, an imprint she sees now as fatefully taken hold of her daughter after long repressing it. “Why didn’t you tell me momma?” Carrie questions in tearful agonistes whilst her mother wallops her with a religious pamphlet and exiles her to a closet specially kept as a place of imprisonment and musing under the baleful glaze of a glowing-eyed crucified Jesus. Eventually, after the frantic, gruelling spectacle of parental abuse and Carrie’s anguish is expended she’s released and allowed to go to bed.
Carrie feels curiously distinct from the pack of 1970s American Horror cinema despite sharing key concerns with so much of it – a supernaturally-gifted child destroyer a la The Exorcist and The Omen (1976), and a setting befitting a genre becoming obsessed with both depicting and sating teenagers, which could still deliver movies as diverse as Massacre at Central High (1976), Communion (1976), and Halloween (1978), and a tendency Carrie’s success likely quickened. Carrie’s distinction stems from the opportune convergence of De Palma, his cast, and King’s story. De Palma made the $1.8 million budget, solid for a ‘70s genre film but still very modest, stretch a hell of a long way, and applies operatic reaches style that’s the complete opposite to the low-budget, DIY atmosphere of many films of the time. That stringency was exemplified by the so-real-you-can-smell-it intensity of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), although both films become fixated by a spectacle of witnessing horror, communicated through flash edits zeroing in on the eyes of a young woman’s – the arrested cosmic terror of Sally Hardesty gives way to the arresting cosmic wrath of Carrie White. Both movies also connect the griminess of working-class life as represented by industrialised farming, a zone where bloodshed is at once carefully controlled and rendered on a vast scale, and human degradation, tethered in the singular, queasy connection of Carrie’s menstruation and a fateful bucket of pig’s blood. The narrative’s slow burn towards a singular, orgiastic eruption of violence and character-driven drama in the meantime are also distinctive at a moment when the genre was becoming increasingly geared towards serving up shock machines populated by living mannequins. This informed the film’s embracing as a mainstream success, with Oscar nominations for Spacek and Laurie, a rare achievement for a Horror film.
Spacek herself, genuinely remarkable in the role, lobbied intensely for it after having worked under De Palma as a costumer on Phantom of the Paradise. Spacek had already established a unique ability on Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1974) to seem at once earthy and alien, open and recessive, and this talent is key to Carrie’s success, particular in the climax where her blood-caked, glaze-eyed visage shifts from human to demonic in the blink of an eye. De Palma depicts the multiple forms of abuse and misuse Carrie receives with a blatant verve that manages to walk a very fine line between savage intensity and campy extremity. Margaret White’s religious paraphernalia and fire-and-brimstone speechifying, brilliantly expostulated through Laurie’s well-pitched performance, is imbued with a faint touch of black humour (like flashes of lightning accompanying some of her grimmer pronouncements, almost like we’ve segued into a Mel Brooks film) that keeps the experience from being too nasty and convincing, but still evoking pain. Carrie herself, unlike the gawky, sullen character in King’s book, is allowed a sympathetic pathos reminiscent of a Dickens heroine, vulnerable and damaged but retaining of dignity and grit that begins to assert itself as her secret power grows, even if soon enough Little Dorrit goes Godzilla on their asses.
De Palma’s tendency to be mean to his protagonists in his 1970s and ‘80s heyday, a tendency that many onlookers found off-putting, wasn’t an incidental perversity but core to his essential worldview, beholding everyone as engaged in a battle to the death, whether they know it or not, with powers reigning over them and/or within them. Carrie gave him the perfect focal point for this recurring drama as she fights on both fronts and loses on both. Carrie’s stab at liberation is potent, as she begins to wield her telekinetic ability to hold her mother at bay and takes up Tommy’s invitation, met at first with incredulity, as a vessel that, no matter what motives are behind it, she can ride to some new shore. But there’s a weak point in that armour of emancipation which, when breached, has consequences beyond reckoning. One irony in De Palma’s treatment of King’s story, one the writer himself noted, was in seeing it as an account of a matriarchy, a world of women controlled by women existing semi-separately to the one shared by the genders, where the ferocity aimed at eccentricity can make the peevishness of boys look limp by comparison, and where feminine power exists in multiple forms, good and bad and smudged.
Collins’ embodiment of a positive force is complicated by her also being an avatar of an everyday world that can’t help but be exasperated by Carrie as an emissary from a slightly different one. Carrie’s need for her mother to show her something resembling unconditional love simmers right up until she’s obliged to kill her. De Palma raises the curtain on two different kinds of female manipulation, one essentially positive, as Sue talks Tommy into taking Carrie to the prom, and one negative, as Chris wields a mixture of unease-inducing derision and sexual appeal to push her boyfriend Billy (Travolta) into helping her plan to destroy Carrie. And Billy signs on with giggly-dumb charm, readily exchanging hanging out and driving around for bashing a pig to death, much to Chris’s flagrant erotic excitement, conveyed as De Palma cuts repeatedly from Billy’s hammer swings to Chris’s chanting delight. The linkage of cruelty to sexuality isn’t just the usual edge of sadism attributed to villains either: this is a portrayal of social order enforcement at a basic level, the core breeding class ensuring their perpetuation by guarding privilege and punishing outliers. Whatever gloss the ‘70s youth culture bestows on them doesn’t disguise their part in an ancient order. Collins’ collective punishment of the girls only has the effect of stirring more determined action from the hive.
Margaret White on the other hand tries to subsist within a bubble preserving another atavistic order, playing at detachment from all fashion, a bubble of faux-renaissance paintings of the Last Supper on the walls, candlelit dinners, and terrible wrath. Margaret of course comes to believe her daughter’s manifesting gift comes like her monthly from Satan, despite Carrie’s insistence that it comes only from herself, much in the same way as she retorts to her mother decrying her “dirty pillows” on display in her prom dress, “They’re called breasts, momma, and every woman has them.” Margaret’s raving climactic soliloquy to Carrie recounts her relationship with her long-since absconded husband, who respected her demand for chastity in their union until one night he came home drunk and molested her, to her eventual enjoyment, a lapse into humanity Margaret becomes convinced she’s being punished for through her cursed child. The example of mania her mother provides is one Carrie tries to move past but ultimately entraps her: the moment she’s presented with a source of rage and the power to do something with it she reacts in exactly the same way. Meanwhile Carrie’s timorous reaction to Tommy’s invitation gets to Collins who angrily confronts him and Sue, assuming they’re up to more mischief, but eventually, warily accepts their reasoning. Tommy goes to see Carrie at her home to repeat his invitation, and finally gets her to accept, and Carrie begins embracing her chance to bloom with determination.
Carrie’s story advances with the rigour and inevitability of Greek tragedy, a likeness that only becomes stronger as it encompasses an offended heroine whose story counts down in distorted gradations of unified time and setting, and a stage that becomes an amphitheatre of carnage and breakdown, and where the mechanics of what’s happening unfold with predestined smoothness. Intrigues simultaneously reach out to Carrie to rescue her and destroy her, charted with mischievous detail and coming together in the prom. Hitchcock, never of course far out of range of De Palma’s points of reference, is nodded to in the suburban gothic of the White house and in the name of the High School. De Palma’s aesthetic for the film is as hot as Stanley Kubrick’s for The Shining (1981) would be cold, via Mario Tosi’s cinematography. De Palma’s deeply sarcastic romanticism continues with Carrie’s walk home early in the film along sun-dappled streets replete with shady trees and red roses that mimic and mock her menstrual blood, and mirrors this imagery towards the end as a sanctified and white-clad Sue makes the same walk towards the White house, or where it used to be. Strong anticipation here for the aesthetic David Lynch would apply to Blue Velvet (1986) of a stylised, utopian, too-good-to-be-true suburban life.
Collins’ forced exercise regimen for the girls’ punishment becomes a little aria of camera wit, tracking along at thigh-height with the teacher as the girls are put through their strenuous paces, rendered ridiculous as they bob in and out of the frame with increasingly frayed expressions. This is in itself a more deadpan and playful riposte to the precursor scene where Margaret lords over Carrie where De Palma conveys the application of authority more ominously from on high, as Margaret slaps her daughter’s face with a booklet with a chapter title, ‘The Sins of Woman’ and, with a similar rhythmic intensity to the exercising girls, tries to make Carrie repeat her chant of “The first sin was intercourse,” which also echoes the girls’ chant of “Plug it up!” By contrast, De Palma sees Tommy and his pals hitting the town to be fitted for prom tuxedos, vaguely recalling the lads about town in Greetings, except that De Palma starts fast-forwarding through their yammering, a good joke in its own right that engages in a playful way with De Palma’s delight in the texture of film itself, and also a curt thematic underlining: the boys aren’t the show in this movie. The detention exercise scene also provides a definitive character moment with Chris’s attempted rebellion turning distraught after Collins slaps her, and her appeal to her friends – “She can’t get away with this if we all stick together!” – gains only timorous shakes of the head from most and, from a revolted Sue, one “Shut up Chris, just shut up.”
Irving, who would be promoted to the role of gifted-accursed psychic in The Fury (1978), De Palma’s thematic sequel, has an interesting role as Sue, whose journey is in a way the actual core of Carrie although she’s not the focal point, as Sue represents a kind of assailed middle ground in the story, someone who grows up a little faster than her schoolmates but remains dangerously naïve in aspects. Glimpsed at first eagerly joining the pack attacking Carrie, she’s pulled aside by Collins when she first comes on the scene and angrily berated for her behaviour, and looks bewildered, as if pulled out of sleepwalking. Sue’s desire to do Carrie a good turn – “We don’t care how we look,” she tells Collins when the teacher confronts her and Tommy – is a noble gesture with troubling caveats, in obliging her boyfriend to make that gesture on her behalf, but not imagining there’s personal risk in it, and in accidentally handing Chris the perfect venue for her own cruelty. Sue’s working on Tommy resolves when he finally says he’ll do it whilst she’s doing homework and he’s watching a James Garner Western on TV, a deft little joke that suggests Tommy enjoys playing the white knight. Irving’s on-screen mother Eleanor was played by her real one, Priscilla Pointer. Eleanor’s early encounter with Margaret, who comes to her house soliciting donations, sees the way adult transaction counterpoint those of teenagers, Eleanor trying her best to fend off Margaret’s proselytising with awkward courtesy before flatly bribing her to go away, a gesture Margaret accepts but not without making sure the offender feels the frost her righteous gaze.
De Palma also taps the paraphernalia of Margaret’s religiosity for exceedingly dark humour and even darker psychology, setting up a motif that has its brilliantly sick pay-off by film’s end. Margaret’s exiling of Carrie into the prayer cupboard sees her share space with a statue of St Sebastian, riddled with arrows, upturned eyes painted with phosphorescent paint to better depict ecstatic agony. Good education for a life of martyrdom. Carrie already has Tommy in her sights as a fair idol, a newspaper clipping of his footballing exploits stuck to the side of her bedroom mirror, a mirror whose gaze she cracks in a moment of anxiety but manages to reforge mentally in time to avoid her mother’s attention. Katt is also tremendous as the genuinely good-natured Tommy, who eventually finds not just pride but real affection in playing Carrie’s beau for the night as he comes to comprehend there’s an interesting, potentially lovely person on his arm. He deftly knocks aside her not-at-all-illusioned stabs at releasing him from duty by assuring her he asked her out “because you liked my poem,” although he admits later he didn’t write it. Meanwhile Chris draws in other friends into her conspiracy, including Freddy (Michael Talbott), who left school before graduation and works now in the local slaughterhouse, and her friend Norma (P.J. Soles), who volunteer to be on the committee overseeing the election of the Prom King and Queen, intending to stuff the ballot for Carrie. Chris gets Freddy to help her and Billy kill a pig and collect its blood in a bucket, which they rig up in the rafters of the high school gym, where the prom will be take place, to pour the contents down on Carrie as a sadistic coup-de-theatre.
Carrie works beautifully as a metaphor for the sheer goddamn pain of growing up as a human animal. Where in the book Carrie had her powers from childhood here it’s explicitly connected with her new maturation, connecting them as devices of creation and destruction. For Margaret the ‘Sin of Woman” is not just to experience lust but to propagate at all. Spacek herself defined her understanding of Carrie as a “secret poet” who has no gift at expression and assertion until some strange kink of fate gifts her this powerful talent, as if her stifled will has forced some latent part of herself to grow like muscle. Or perhaps it’s a test provided from on high, or on low, connected to rather than breaking from her upbringing, and what Carrie then does with it can be seen a radical extrapolation of the Christian concept of free will. The more immediately troubling facet of Carrie’s prognosis lies in its understanding the pressure cooker nature of modern teenage life and the age of the school massacre, the school a social zone designed to force young people to become independent entities but instead all too often producing both dronish cliques and outcasts and rebels, experiences that most make part of their permanent identity for good or ill. King noted in his book On Writing that both of the girls he based Carrie on from his experience died young, one by suicide, their pain turned inward and septic, but Carrie the book and film sees a time when that kind of sickness will be turned outward and become the stuff of mass media causes celebre.
Notably, in The Fury when De Palma picked up the same basic plot motif of psychic powers as a metaphor for adolescent genesis and the fine line between creative and destructive potential, he turned the tables in making the popular, sporty kids stricken with the same power, with Robin Sandza the ultimate coddled man-child jock, and Gillian Bellaver a more focused and virtuous version of Carrie, finally blowing the false parent/authority figure to smithereens. Carrie certainly cemented precepts Horror cinema would extend for years afterwards, but also seems from today’s perspective to have left a deeper influence on popular storytelling to come, many of which would invert the film’s tragic apocalypse into heroic narratives. Works like the Harry Potter series and a vast swathe of superhero movies take up its wish-fulfilment thread whilst avoiding its bleak contemplation of social and psychological determinism. The wave of high school movies, whilst having more realistic narratives, like Pretty In Pink (1985) and Mean Girls (2003) might also be counted as its children. The film’s underpinning similarities to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) as an adolescent fantasy about control and annihilation, despite the very different tonal and genre frames, is given extra piquancy by how many members of Carrie’s cast also tried to get in on the Lucas film.
In any event, Carrie’s climactic prom sequence is one of those cinematic set-pieces it’s hard not to relish in anticipation even as in involves terrible things, simply for the sheer verve of the filmmaking and storytelling force. The sequence divides in three miniature chapters, each keyed to a different emotional experience and a different style, beginning with a depiction of rising exultation, a midsection of simultaneous anointing and portent, and a climax that erupts in anarchy. These chapters also have metaphysical overtones connected with Carrie’s experience: heaven, purgatory, hell. Heaven, because Carrie’s entrance to the prom and her experiences seem like her deepest wishes coming true, as she connects with people for the first time, finding actual friends in Tommy, Collins and some other girls, with Sue watching on like a fairy godmother who’s made this particular pumpkin into a princess. Purgatory where the slow motion photography stretches time into a dream zone where triumph – Tommy and Carrie delighted to find they’ve been elected and ascend to claim their dues – and calamity – Sue and Billy hiding behind the scenery with their fingers on the rope – coexist, and finally the inferno released along with the torrent of blood.
De Palma had already established himself as a powerful visual stylist, but the techniques and structural elements he would bring into play here formed his arsenal henceforth and defined him as a mature talent, winnowed down a series of suite-like moves. One constant De Palma stylistic motif provides the crux of the movie, spinning his camera with increasingly speed whilst also zoomed in, delivering a resultant feeling of dizzied rhapsody around Carrie and Tommy as they dance, a swooning islet of pure teenage romanticism that’s sufficient in itself. The central slow-motion passage performs a similar feat of immersive style but to quite different effect, swooning headiness giving way to dreamlike ponderousness that exacerbates with malicious humour and charts coinciding actions with precision – Sue, having agreed to keep away from the prom to avoid any hint of unpleasantness for Carrie, sneaks in to revel in the scene she cares about like a good director, only to notice the trembling rope linked to the bucket above, and, following it, almost breaks in upon Chris and Billy in their hidey-hole. Only for her intervention to be forestalled by Collins, who thinks she’s going to make trouble, grabbing Sue and showing her out of the gym without listening to her explanation. De Palma dives in for a close-up of Chris licking her lips in sensual relish of her triumph, her face a gleaming mask of almost sexual satisfaction in her moment of revenge. And down comes the rain of red, red blood, splattering on Carrie, and with the bucket dangling and falling, hitting Tommy on the head and killing him.
The precise diagramming of the various story and character threads here and accompanying, interlaced ironies makes for a just about perfect unit of filmmaking, and that’s before Carrie avenges herself by wielding her powers in blind madness, psychically controlling doors and firehoses to herd and pummel the crowd, unleashing fire and flood. Here, De Palma’s virulent showmanship is also Carrie’s, apparent as she forces all the doors of the gym shut and then turns on a red fill light, all the better to perform devilish work. De Palma presents Carrie’s delirious perspective with wheeling kaleidoscopic images as her mother’s enjoining, “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” repeats in her head whilst she imagines the entire crowd, rather than the handful of creeps the more neutral camera reveals, laughing and jeering at her perfect humiliation. De Palma then turns to split-screen shots, which he had played with on Sisters but here found a more aggressive use for, to present the violent action in a flux of cause and effect, picking out both diverse events and different angles on the same moment. Carrie herself becomes cinematically bifurcated as she is mentally. At the centre of all this is Spacek-as-Carrie sweeping all before her, mouth twisted in an awful deathly grin when the blood first falls on her, reminiscent of silent film Horror images like The Man Who Laughs’ (1928) carved grin or The Phantom of the Opera (1926) wearing his Red Death mask, caught somewhere between lunatic hilarity and plain lunacy, before her face turns impassive and her eyes wide and aglow with berserker wrath as she rains down death.
There’s another sting in the little detail that the two people most responsible for her downfall, Chris and Billy, sneak out before she unleashes the mayhem. Instead Carrie’s indiscriminate hate falls on both creeps like Freddy and Norma but also on many absolutely innocent people, even Collins, who, realising what’s happening, cries at Carrie to stop it only to be crushed by a piece of stage scenery. Fromm is fried by whipping electrical wires and the backcloth catches fire, a rippling wave of fire rising behind Carrie’s red-smeared silhouette, become a creature akin to the awesome Chernibog in Fantasia (1940) commanding an army of imps dancing in the flames. Steven Spielberg might have kept it in mind just a little for the climax Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Quentin Tarantino certainly did for Inglourious Basterds (2009). De Palma pulls off a most difficult feat in forcing the audience to identify with Carrie, even love her, and then behold the spectacle of her maniacal anger, about as a pure an episode of Grand Guignol there is in cinema. Carrie, still lurching in wraithlike detachment, exists the blazing gym and wanders down the road, where Chris and Billy spot her as Chris drives Billy’s car with a glint of her own maniacal delight in her eyes, whilst Billy drools and giggles. De Palma’s editing here, taking the inward-stepping jump cuts to the dead man’s eyes in The Birds (1963) to a hyperbolic zone, skips in towards Spacek’s glowing eyes in lightning-fast jump-cuts that explicitly connect the glaze-gazed power of Carrie’s looking as she turns at almost the last second and casually swats the car aside with her power, then makes it explode.
Carrie’s return home nonetheless sees the avenging angel becoming a pathetic child again, washing off the blood that cakes her and searching for her mother, who has set up guttering candles throughout the house but seems to be hiding herself, eventually proving to be hovering behind the door to Carrie’s bedroom. Margaret recounts Carrie’s conception and then stabs her daughter with a kitchen knife, and stalks her through the house with a blissful grin on her face. Carrie defends herself by launching kitchen implements at Margaret until she’s been turned into a simulacrum of the St Sebastain statute, the lolling moans and grins of Margaret condensing martyred rapture and Sadean penetration into a singular new state. Carrie beholds the perverse pieta she’s sculpted – offered by De Palma and Motti in a slowly unveiling pullback that exactly hits the equator between black comedy coup and character pathos. Carrie’s subconscious takes over, consuming the house in fire and disintegration whilst she makes one last, desperate attempt to retreat with her mother’s corpse into the prayer closet. De Palma moves into assure she’s at least granted the mercy of dying from her mother’s wound rather than being crushed and burned to death.
All this is the kind of tragic narrative that can really only be served up in the Horror genre as entertainment rather than some as solemn cultural chore, Carrie sharing DNA with Lon Chaney Jnr’s afflicted Wolf Man or Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster, born into a cruel world and departing from it in relief. The very end proves a deliciously merciless De Palma fake-out of a kind he would return to repeatedly in variations. After a brief vignette of Eleanor looking after a traumatised and tranquilised Sue, we see Sue walking down the pavement and entering the yard of the decimated White house, a neat rectangle of ground where the building was filled with grey stones, a suggestively cruciform For Sale sign planted amidst with “Carrie White Burns In Hell” crudely scrawled across it. Sue is envisioned in angelic white, a mourner paying tribute to a failed friend and kind of suppliant offering obeisance to a vengeful goddess, only for a bloodied hand to reach out of the ground and grip her arm. De Palma’s stylisation for this scene carefully announces it’s a dream, with Donaggio’s scoring presenting a lilting, Ennio Morricone-esque lyricism that suggests a fantasy of peacemaking, only for it to turn starkly and suddenly into a nightmare where the grip of such wounding horror never really lets go. De Palma cuts to black on the image of a distraught Sue being calmed by her mother, a vision which does, at least, finally restore the classical mother-child relationship to something like what it’s usually supposed to be.
Director: Peter Bogdanovich Screenwriters: Peter Bogdanovich, Samuel Fuller (uncredited)
By Roderick Heath
In memoriam: Peter Bogdanovich 1939-2022
From vantages in later life Peter Bogdanovich may well have looked back at Targets, his official emergence as a director, and given a grim smile. As well as looking directly into the darker fantasies hatching out of the American body politic in ways that have become all too familiar in the decades since its release, Targets is also a movie casting a caustic eye on the collapsing ground between fantasy and reality, celebrity and infamy. It’s both a young man’s spree and a promise of reckoning to everyone who enters a zone where subjects of cool artistic regard, personal meditation, sociological scrutiny, and raw tabloid frenzy all converge: Bogdanovich already saw and understood the forces that would define his life and career. Bogdanovich’s journey in the first 35 years of his life seemed uniquely blessed and lucky, whilst so much of the rest of it, though he at least never seemed to succumb to temptations of self-pity and self-exile, might have felt like being trapped within the hall-of-mirrors angst of Targets. Bogdanovich, the son of Serbian and Austrian-Jewish parents, was born in New York just after they immigrated to the US, and was conscious until the end of his life of his peculiar status as product of two continental sensibilities.
Bogdanovich trained as an actor, but his adoration for cinema manifested early as he started keeping indexed reviews of every movie he saw from the age of twelve, and he emerged in his early twenties as a leading critic and scholar. He became a film programmer for the Museum of Modern Art, doing much to transform the reputation of directors like Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford amongst the American cognoscenti, whilst also befriending many such storied directors and writing about their careers and experiences. Along the way Bogdanovich began thinking of getting into movies himself like his French New Wave critics, and like other, young, budding filmmakers before and after, he soon found himself employed by the emperor of quickie cinema Roger Corman. Bogdanovich and his wife Poly Platt, a theatrical set designer and all-round imaginative talent, fled New York and unpaid rent for Hollywood, and within a few weeks Bogdanovich was deeply immersed in cobbling together a film for Corman, as Francis Ford Coppola had done before him utilising footage from a Soviet science fiction film Corman had bought and combining it with newly shots scenes to create a movie called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), for which Bogdanovich was credited under the name Derek Thomas.
Oscars were mysteriously not forthcoming for that odd, silly, yet hazily poetic chimera, but Bogdanovich had proven he had the stuff of a filmmaker. For his second and proper debut as a director, Bogdanovich and Platt came up with a storyline that was as much a rumination on their own obsession with cinema and its meaning as it was a tale describing modern dread. Bogdanovich also credited Samuel Fuller with helping him write the script, and Fuller’s fingerprints are discernible throughout, in the lean and cunning dovetailing of journalistic forthrightness and aesthetic force. Not that many people saw Targets when it was first released, but it won Bogdanovich industry attention, allowing him to move on and make The Last Picture Show (1971), the movie that announced him as a major force in the emerging New Hollywood era. Targets is atypical for Bogdanovich in many respects, as a lean, patiently paced tale of death and dread, where the director would later devote the bulk of his career to screwball and romantic comedies, albeit laced with strange textures and lodes of anxiety, and tender human dramas. Bogdanovich found a way of sating the B-movie world’s needs whilst aiming far beyond it. At the same time many of Bogdanovich’s defining traits are already in evidence – an indulgent sense of character and humour, replete film buff flourishes, and a way with offering neglected stars a career-redefining part.
Targets takes as a jumping-off point a truism about the nature of horror, contrasting the almost comforting, moodily historical and psychological imagery of classic, Gothic-style Horror, and the films that had thrived on it, with the nature of horror as experienced as part of the everyday world of the late 1960s, drawing generally on the Vietnam War zeitgeist and in particular on the murderous rampage of former soldier Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966. Bogdanovich articulates the contrast by using footage from Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963) to represent the latest movie by beloved Horror movie star Byron Orlok, played, in one of the greatest strokes of self-referential casting in the history of movies, by Boris Karloff in one of his last performances. The film commences with a long portion of The Terror playing out, with the aging, limping, bedraggled Karloff/Orlok playing out a semi-improvised fantasia in a waning subgenre on screen, until, in a manner that feels inspired by the opening newsreel and conference of Citizen Kane (1941), the movie ends and the lights come up in a screening room.
The use of The Terror in particular to represent the decaying Gothic style is particularly apt in the associations it trails. Corman and a cadre of young assistants, including Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, and costar Jack Nicholson, flung together portions of the movie to take advantage of some sets and remaining contracted days with Karloff, and later assembled it into something like a coherent film. It’s the kind of movie that represents low-budget and mercenary genre cinema of its time as at once absurd and endearing, touched with happenstance art and beauty. Targets presents it as a factotum labour by Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich himself), a young TV director who’s anxiously trying to make a movie career happen, made at the behest of pushy producer Marshall Smith (Monte Landis). But watching the movie proves to have left Orlok depressed and suddenly determined to retire, much to Smith’s chagrin, as he wants to next produce Sammy’s next, more ambitious script, one he describes as “a work of art,” with a part specially written for Orlok. Orlok is happy to aggravate and ignore Smith, but Sammy is left despondent at suddenly losing what he saw a great opportunity for the both, and fears it’s a commentary on his work, which Orlok denies. Orlok also decides to avoid a personal appearance he’s supposed to make at a preview of the movie, to be held at the Reseda Drive-In Theatre. He quarrels with his personal assistant, Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), who is also Sammy’s girlfriend, when she criticises his behaviour, and she leaves in a huff. Sammy turns up shortly after, drunk and insisting on telling Orlok off for turning down his great role, and the two men get hammered together whilst arguing out their different fears.
As Orlok departed Smith’s offices on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip earlier in the day, the completely unaware actor was viewed through the crosshairs of a sniper scope from across the street: young Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) buying a new hunting rifle, scopes out prey on the boulevards. Bogdanovich privileges the viewer with a glimpse inside Bobby’s car trunk as he places the rifle within, already containing as it does dozens of guns. Bobby returns home to his father (James Brown), mother (Charlotte Thompson), and wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan), who all seem to lead an ideal American suburban lifestyle as far from the saturated Technicolor mystique and morbidity of Orlok’s movies as it’s possible to get. Bobby family relate like they’ve been cast in a commercial, with son calling father “sir” with perfect reflexive deference, as the two bond over shooting cans, and they all sit around watching banal television: they’re likely the kind of people who wouldn’t watch one of Orlok’s films for being too silly and unhealthy. Bogdanovich’s camera, moving with Bobby, surveys Platt’s sets, moving between equally banal spaces, where the blue pastel interior walls and near-clinical sparseness of the furnishings make the house seem more like a dentist’s waiting room than a home. Nobody seems troubled or uptight, but there are subtle tensions in Leave It To Beaver-ville. The camera notes a photo of Bobby in military uniform, signalling he’s likely been in Vietnam. Ilene is a telephone operator currently working night shift, whilst Bobby works days in an insurance company, but there are hints he might have been sacked; both are stuck in the family house whilst it’s mentioned Bobby has a brother who’s started a family. Bogdanovich strains however to avoid psychologising Bobby. His oncoming actions are more the result of a vacuum of identity rather than pressure, his obsession with guns the product of a life lived in constant training for some event that may never come, so he must make it.
The film weaves parallel patterns for hero and villain. Orlok retires whilst Bobby is fired. Bogdanovich cuts from the Thompson family having dinner in a fishbowl shot to Orlok, Jenny, and Smith’s press agent Ed Loughlin (Arthur Peterson) occupy a booth in a restaurant. Later, Bobby sits alone drinking up TV, whilst Orlok withers after watching his movie but then becomes rapt along with Sammy by the good work in The Criminal Code, before of course, the two men’s paths converge. The visual language emphasises this – jump cuts that lock the two characters in similar gesture, camera pans that begin in one scene and end in another. What makes the obvious duologue at the narrative’s heart interesting is the way Bogdanovich engages with it, both cinematically, and in the levels of irony he packs into his thesis. Orlok’s sense of crisis at the twilight of his career is reflected in a crisis of aesthetics: what was once scary is now fun, if not comical, artistic experience that once had a pleasant zing of risk now pleasant. Even Orlok comments to Sammy that “You know what they call my films today – camp – high camp…My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore.” But what is horror now? Orlok shows Sammy a newspaper with the headline, “Youth Kills Six In Supermarket” as an example, and Bobby soon provides another. Horror now comes out of the antiseptic, ahistorical dream of the modern suburb, a place that is supposed to be the great pinnacle and dream of human history, borne not out of ancient evils and septic, animate psyches but the very opposite, spaces that seem to appease all need for fear, anger, lust, allowing everyone to lead the good clean wholesome lives they always wanted to. Bobby confesses to his wife that I don’t know what’s happening to me…I get funny ideas…you don’t think I can do anything do you,” statements that are so fuzzily expressed Ilene gives bromides in response: “I think you do anything you put your mind to, at least that’s what your mother says.” Which is of course one of the great existential curses: what, exactly, should one put one’s mind to?
Meanwhile Bogdanovich finds a way of dramatizing his own cineaste obsessiveness. Sammy’s relationship with Orlok, his old, withered muse and nemesis in taking movies seriously, channels Bogdanovich’s encounters with the grand old men of Hollywood, and even anticipates what would become Bogdanovich’s famous friendship with Orson Welles. That Bogdanovich himself plays the role exacerbates the metanarrative trickery still further. Bogdanovich’s reverence for the past is signalled when Sammy finds Orlok watching one of his old movies, represented by Howard Hawks’ prison flick The Criminal Code (1930) featuring the pre-Frankenstein (1931) Karloff as a murderer. Sammy notes the director and comments, “He really knows how to tell a story,” which Orlok affirms, remnant professional pride still lodged somewhere in his weary, self-doubting frame. Bogdanovich’s sympathy for actors as one himself, challenged as he inserts himself front and centre in his movie, is also vital here. Sammy and Orlok’s drinking-and-moping session culminates with the two men falling asleep on Orlok’s hotel room bed. Waking in the morning Sammy gave a frightened start on seeing his bed-mate, waking Orlok: “I was having a nightmare and the first thing I see as I open my eyes in Byron Orlok!” Bogdanovich makes these touches, which stray near to self-indulgent, matter in terms of the larger narrative. That’s in part because they present Orlok as a man of an industry with a history, and one who in many ways embodying the Gothic horror style, not just in that it’s his living and metier, but in that he represents memory, tradition, experience, and craft, things of value left by the tidal roll of the past, things Sammy tries to value whilst also embodying youth and potential.
“Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream,” the star comments in recalling his glory days with a lilt of the old sinister persona easily called forth. “It’s not that the films are bad, I’ve gone bad.” The patent sarcasm of this is Karloff was always a terrific actor, able to deliver brilliantly layered performances like those in Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher (both 1945) alongside his gallery of grotesques, and Bogdanovich’s gift to him a year before he died was a role that ingeniously exploited both his talent and his persona. Adding to the game is the fact that Sammy’s script, the one he wants to get Orlok to act in, is very plainly Targets itself. The hall of mirrors gets a little longer. Orlok’s name, as well as presenting a readily legible echo of Karloff’s nom-de-theatre (Boris Karloff himself being a kind of character played by William Pratt, an Englishman with Indian heritage), refers to the name of the Dracula substitute in Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). “You don’t play some phoney Victorian heavy,” Sammy tells Orlok regarding his proposed role in his script, “You play a human being.” Bobby for his part could be said to embrace the role of poet of murder, supplanting Orlok’s make-believe with real flesh targets, but his is a dry, cold, alien poetry, associated with pale blue prefab walls and high white industrial structures, the eye of the camera becoming the lens of the sniper scope, seeking out targets to challenge his aim.
Bobby’s emerging homicidal impulses are signalled from his first appearance, scoping Orlok across the street. And again when he points a shotgun at his father when he’s setting up cans for them to plug, a gesture that his father is infuriated by, violating everything he taught his son about using guns. Bobby hastily explains his faux pas – “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” and tellingly he remains unable to kill his father, avoiding unleashing his poetry until he’s away from the family home. There’s nothing identifiably bad about his father, who seems like a decent, solicitous, old-fashioned patriarch who insists on fastidious safety when handling guns, but it’s precisely that igneous aspect of strength he exudes that might fester in the mind. Ilene comes home from a night at work to find Bobby sitting on their bed smoking and asking her not to turn on the light: in the dark Bobby can dream dark dreams whilst still awake, and the stubbing out of a cigarette is the seal set on a private resolve.
The next morning, Bobby types out a letter, as much suicide note as statement of murderous intent, in which he says he knows he will go down eventually but others will die first. He shoots Ilene as she comes up to him for a morning kiss, and then his mother when she races in to see what happened. Realising she was just about to pay a delivery boy bringing groceries, he dashes into the kitchen and guns down the lad too. Bobby calmly and caringly picks up his wife and mother’s bodies and lays them on beds, as if hoping to lock them in permanent stasis, eternally and perfectly inhabiting the house and the roles they were in, in part because in his mania he feels this will release them from consequences of what comes next. He lays down handtowels over blood stains as if ashamed to have had to spoil the carpeting, and extends the solicitude to placing a jacket over the delivery boy’s head. Here Bogdanovich employs touches that betray careful study of Hitchcock, in the image of Ilene leaning into the camera for her kiss as Bobby shoots her and is then flung back, and repurposing Psycho’s (1960) post-murder clean-up, with the camera performing delicate Hitchcockian tracking shots that zero in on tell-tale totems. Psycho’s imprint is also plain on the conception of Bobby as a character, as a superficially nice young man who’s a killer, constantly chewing on candy.
At the same time Bogdanovich moves out beyond Hitchcock in portraying a killer whose activities have no plot motive and inspire virtually no traditional suspense, and by the finale Bogdanovich countenances the breakdown of movie narrative into warring images in a way Hitchcock always resisted: the Master’s consciousness that film was a reality created by juxtaposed imagery could not face blurring such lines. Most of the second half of Targets unfolds in a negative behavioural zone where tension is wrung more from forced identification with Bobby, obliged through the camera lens – agonising as Bobby lines up his shots, feeling the frustration of missing, the pricks of pain in failing to carry out the mission and frustration of the deadly synthesis of spectacle and homicide, the anxiety of trying to survive just a little longer to keep the nullifying rain falling. Bobby leaves his home, buys stacks more ammunition and charges them to his father – that he lacks any cash bolsters the hints of his joblessness – and waits with patient bravado whilst the manager rings his father to get permission for this, the kind of moment usually reserved for a spy hero trying to get past some enemy cordon. Success; Bobby heads out to a perfect vigil he spied driving around earlier, atop some oil tanks overlooking the freeway, a place to enact the idle fantasy of stopping the ants from moving.
Bobby goes about his apocalyptic mission nonetheless like the suburban sojourner he still is, settling down to munch on a home-made lunch and a bottle of pop whilst anticipating the day’s fun, whilst unpacking his sack crammed full of death, guns and bullets laid out with geometric precision atop the tank with its gleaming white paint and equally geometric forms of piping and railings. The cinematographer for Targets was Laszlo Kovacs, and he can be seen developing an argot here (as with the previous year’s Psych-Out), that visual lustre charged with raw on-the-road poetry and diffused yet immediate imagery he would later deploy on the likes of Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Movie (1971), and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), movies where Kovacs could pivot in an instant between a New Wave myth of Americana and textures of filmy, grainy psychology, and both are present to a degree in Targets – the urban landscapes in all their variegated shininess seem charged with a kind of putrescent glitter whilst the interiors are coded by colour into discrete zones of characterisation. The crucial early scene in the Thompson house where Bobby confesses having strange ideas is one, long shot tethering actors and environs in a systemic statement, bedroom, kitchen, hallway and living room folded about them all, not ending until Bobby goes outside to fetch a pistol from the car, because happiness is a warm gun.
Bogdanovich gives a first clue to how clever the dovetailing of his two storylines will be when, before Bobby arrives at the tanks, he portrays Orlok, with Sammy and a mollified Jenny, hanging his mind about attending the movie screening, and sitting down with a local DJ, the motor-mouthed hipster Kip Larkin (Sandy Baron), to go through the arrangements for the show: Orlok cringes at the various tired audience questions Larkin plans to lay on him, and instead relishes Sammy’s suggestion that he tell some stories. He settles down with casual displays of stagecraft tells a variation on the old fable “Appointment in Samarra,” in which a servant flees Baghdad for Samarra after encountering Death in a marketplace, only for the man’s employer to speak to Death who admits to having been surprised to see the servant when he’s expecting to meet him “tonight in Samarra.” This vignette is marvellous for a number of reasons. As a switchback towards a pre-modern world of fables and verbal storytelling. As a chance for Karloff to show his talents in that waning art. As a showcase for combining the verbal and visual for an anecdotal, character-defining effect Bogdanovich would use again notably and repeatedly in The Last Picture Show. As a clever narrative gag confirming Orlok’s still-guttering talent to grip an audience, even arresting the DJ’s attention. And as a thematic anticipation of Bobby’s sniping spree, as people riding along the highway have no idea they’re journeying to Samarra, the ultimate event of their lives the remote game of shooting moving cans for Bobby, who has, at least for one crucial moment, assumed the immortal mantle of Death, but in his detachment from his crimes he reveals a peculiar impotence. Whereas the artist can countenance and express awful things harmlessly, and gifts this on to others for their relief.
As varied and generally far lighter as most of Bogdanovich’s subsequent films would be, it’s entirely possible to see characters like the perturbing heroines of What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Daisy Miller (1974), the wandering con artists of Paper Moon (1973), the wayward romantics of At Long Last Love (1975) and They All Laughed (1981), and the filmmakers of Nickelodeon (1976), as very different expressions of the same will to anarchy Bobby also draws on, except for many of these that will is revivifying, an expression of creative need and survival will, rather than embarking on a death trip. But the vast majority of Bogdanovich’s oeuvre floats on a sea of sublimated anxiety about collapsing forms and protocols. The repressed and desolate world portrayed in The Last Picture Show meanwhile depicts a private hell for Bogdanovich characters, their acts of rebellion and dissent far more petty and human than Bobby’s but motivated by a similar eruption against the tyranny of normality. Bobby on top the oil tanks and later above a movie screen in the ultimate foldback of art and audience is an avatar of Bogdanovich himself, stirring the audience’s nerves to the same pitch of disquiet as his own with aesthetic bullets, setting stability into chaos, tapping the nervous systems of others in games of stimulus-response. Like just about any movie director, in truth, which is why the climax registers on so many levels.
Where Bogdanovich defines Bobby’s scenes with his family through their wooden good cheer, Orlok’s scenes with Jenny, who is Chinese-American and has been teaching him the language (a sign Orlok isn’t at all close off from new experiences and learning) and Sammy, who speaks fluent movie brat, are defined by their sinuous blend of familiarity, affection, irritation, and provocation – they have no bonds beyond business and yet act far more like a real family. Their scenes are flecked with moments of deft characterisation, like Orlok’s rueful pleasure in giving Smith pain, despite Loughlin warning Orlok Smith will sue and win, and telling Jenny to cancel the tickets she bought him on the Queen Elizabeth because “I told you I wanted to go home on the Queen Mary,” a ship with a place much deeper in the heart for an old-school transatlantic wayfarer. Orlok’s disappointment not to continue their Chinese lessons segues into an odd Hawksian stretch of dialogue where the idea of speaking Chinese stands in for a variety of home truths and sharp quips. Bogdanovich spares sympathy for Loughlin, who tries and fails to make peace between Orlok and Smith, and muses, in a register of defeated wistfulness, that he has a degree in English literature from Princeton, before resolving to go get drunk. Bobby’s shootings from the oil tanks represent a nervelessly constructed sequence as his bullets hit home and cars swerve and wobble on the road. One car crashes into the median ditch, a woman trying urgently to open the driver’s side door and get to the wounded driver: Bobby takes aim at her but the pin clicks on an empty chamber, and Bobby, frantic to reload, burns his hand on the hot barrel. He’s able to reload in time to shoot the woman as she tries waving down help, her distant body twitching and falling. A worker in the oil depot hears the shots and climbs up the tank, only for Bobby to snatch up a shotgun and blast him, sending his body spinning to earth.
Finally cops arrive as the greater amount of carnage than usual on the freeway registers, and Bobby grabs up his arsenal, just panicky enough to drop guns and ammunition like a breadcrumb trail. Nonetheless he makes it to his white convertible roadster and speeds away, entering the Reseda Drive-In which is largely empty, parking his car, and taking up a new post atop the scaffolding behind the movie screen. Many friends and onlookers felt Bogdanovich was never really as good without Platt than he was with her, as invaluable production mastermind and creative sounding board: Platt did go on to become a major producer in her own right. It’s tempting to look at the similarly paralleled Ilene and Jenny as analogues of Platt herself, encoded into a story she had a hand in writing, if more in Jenny’s solicitous blend of aid and scepticism compared to Ilene’s what-me-worry dismissal of her husband’s furtive attempts to communicate, even as Ilene also seems to be a chipper player in making the great life project of marriage a going concern. One reasonably radical aspect of the film is the complete lack of a music score save sounds from diegetic sources, exacerbating the deadpan horror, culminating in eerie synthesis where the grating echo of The Terror’s dialogue rises up along with Bogdanovich’s camera through the scaffolding to find Bobby in his shooting blind, gun barrel poking through a hole, the protoplasmic forms of projected images surrounding the very real weapon. Fast zoom shots stand in for the act of shooting. A mischievous alliance of authorial need and Fate is needed to bring Bobby and Orlok together. Orlok himself and Jenny meanwhile are driven by a chauffeur through the LA twilight, with Orlok noting, as he surveys an unending stretch of car lots, “God, what an ugly town this has become.”
Targets only became really well known after Bogdanovich gained later fame, but as if by compensation it’s become a powerfully influential work, directly and indirectly. As a foundational text of the New Hollywood era, it presages many recurring concerns of the era’s filmmakers, like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Taxi Driver’s (1976) preoccupation with the crossroads of ironic media fame and murder and The Conversation’s (1974) paranoid feel for the urban world. Its DNA can also be spotted in movies made by directors with a similar nostalgic passion for, and amused scepticism about, the old film industry, like Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), as well as a future time of meta genre cinema like the Scream series where characters are both within and aware of a Horror movie. Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (1976/2019) suggests he might have watched it and came out similarly preoccupied with the hostile landscape of the period towards the grand old dinosaurs of Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino, an avowed fan of the film, virtually subsumed Targets into his aesthetic persona, taking up its feel for the LA landscape as a style guide and Bogdanovich’s tailor-made rescue of old timers as a basic career goal. Tarantino annexed the film-viewing-as-massacre motif for Inglourious Basterds (2009), whilst Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) is basically a remake of Targets writ large, with the same basic plot of a washed-up actor finding himself a real hero going about against a murderous force of modern sociopathy, whilst touching base with similar period details, like the popular DJ ‘The Real’ Don Steele heard on the radio (perhaps a double-layered reference on Tarantino’s part, as Bogdanovich often voiced DJs himself in his movies, and had recreated this for Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych).
As a revisionist Horror movie, Targets also retains a pure prognosticative streak, even if many of its lessons were only partly heeded, and audience tastes quietly chose a third path. Targets was released almost simultaneously with Night of the Living Dead (1968): the two share an evident, caustic perspective on American gun-happy lifestyles, and Bogdanovich was entirely right in seeing a transition away from quaint bygone representations of psychological unease to more modern ones nascent in the genre. But he didn’t anticipate the fusion of approaches as found in the subsequent slasher movie style, where often masked, monstrous killers deal out carnage in a modern fashion but retain an aspect of the primeval and the abstract to them: the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s (1974) Leatherface or Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers are every bit as alien and boogeyman-ish as any character Karloff every played and indeed more so, although the terror they deal out is more realistic and believable. Bogdanovich by contrast completely avoids any signposting of monstrosity with Bobby, who comes across like any vaguely pleasant, stolid young man on the street right to the movie’s end. “The banality of evil” is today an excruciatingly overused phrase, but Bobby certainly embodies it.
The finale then sees the ritualised imagery of Orlok’s last movie transmuted into an act of aesthetic terrorism, whose deliverer is almost incidental, as the movie screen starts gunning the audience dead. Beat that, Godard. As with the freeway scene, awareness of the danger and chaos only slowly begins to take hold of the audience in their ranked cars and others around the theatre, like a man in a phone booth (Mike Farrell) who Bobby challenges himself to shoot despite not being able to see him properly, and who, badly wounded, slowly and agonisingly drags himself across the gravel compound, and the film’s projectionist who is instantly killed, the movie rolling on regardless. Lovers and families realising the danger crouch low, and those who can try to flee. Bogdanovich finally arrives at the most disturbing and tragic image of the movie, as a young boy weeps in stricken, frozen fear whilst staring at his dead father behind the car wheel. A theatre employee’s innocent act of turning on lighting endangers everyone as cowering in the dark behind the dashboard is the only protection for many. People in the crowd with guns start shooting back.
Sammy frantically tries to reach Orlok and Jenny near the screen after abandoning his car, as the flight of cars out of the drive-in becomes a choked dance of light and dark, the red glow of brake-lights ironically infusing the contemporary action with some of the surreal lustre of the Gothic drama on the screen. When Jenny is shot through the shoulder by Bobby, the infuriated Orlok starts a march up to where he can seen Bobby shooting it out with the yahoos from the crowd, and Bobby is momentarily startled and disorientated by the sight of two Byron Orloks on the move, one real, the other on the screen: Bobby hysterically shoots at both, a bullet clipping the Orlok’s brow but not stopping him, and before Bobby can recover and take up another gun, Orlok swats it from his hand with his cane and slaps Bobby into submission. If this moment was mishandled it could easily have slipped into comedy and anticlimax. Instead Bogdanovich makes it work as a nexus where genuine heroism on Orlok’s part and the general insanity of Bobby’s project each find the perfect moment of expression, each needing the other to find fruition.
Orlok’s disarming of Bobby coincides, through Bogdanovich’s hair-trigger editing, with the movie reel running out in the projector, the false imagery suddenly ceasing and replaced by neutral white. Life and art confront each-other, and at such a point of singularity an overwhelmingly sane man like Orlok has that one crucial defence over a lunatic like Bobby, as he can tell the difference between the two. “Is that what I was afraid of?” Orlok questions in disbelief as he looks down at Bobby who, disarmed and chastened and surrounded by quickly by cops, has been reduced to a pathetic boy given a good spanking by his grandfather, whilst Sammy solicitously wipes Orlok’s bloodied temple. This clarifies something of Orlok’s character as well as finding the last irony in Bobby’s, as Orlok’s own sense of fear and horror finally gains illustration, where he’s done it for others for decades. Bobby himself can only question of the cops who drag him away, “I hardly ever missed, did I?”, as a man proud at least of a job well done. Bogdanovich fades from the churn of chaos to the forlorn image of Bobby’s car, still parked where he left it, the only car left in the drive-in, as if Bobby vanished along with the Byron Orlok in his last Horror movie, all part of the same dark dream, no matter what guise it wears.
Director: Edgar Wright Screenwriters: Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Edgar Wright
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
Edgar Wright built his fame as a filmmaker with a very particular brand. Wright offered sarcastically comedic takes on well-worn film genres that, rather than playing as outright lampoons, took the up the thrilling, extraordinary, dynamic experiential journeys found in the likes of a George Romero-esque zombie horror movie or a Michael Bay-style cop action movie. Into these he inserted very ordinary characters contending with the most commonplace and stodgy life problems, taking the truism that the heightened metaphors found in genre films represent more fundamental and familiar human quandaries, and gaining strange fizz from the disparity, the awareness that in some ways it’s easier to face up to big disasters and epic calamities than the small, everyday terrors of life. Wright wielded filmmaking technique skilled and kinetic enough to bind the two seemingly opposite dramatic styles into lucid, giddily amusing wholes. Wright’s breakthrough feature Shaun of the Dead (2004) and its follow-ups in the so-called “Cornetto Trilogy” Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2014), were also fuelled by that disparity, but also the tension between the very British settings with their air of cosy familiarity, and the adrenalized, stylised, fantastic precepts of Hollywood blockbusters.
Wright’s first Hollywood film, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2011), whilst working in a similar fashion, inevitably lacked that tension of sociology as well as genre, although it tried to retain it to a degree in adopting a Canadian setting. Wright’s 2017 hit Baby Driver, whilst a divisive experience that proved oddly aggravating to some viewers in mashing together bratty comedy, neo-musical, and action thriller, signalled Wright starting to shift ground. Last Night In Soho, his latest film and judging by early signs his least well-received to date critically and commercially, continues that shift in offering what is essentially a straitlaced mystery-horror film. That is, straitlaced to a degree. Last Night In Soho is every inch a Wright film in its stylistic and thematic refrains. The fetishism for pop music and use of it as a seismograph of life experience for the characters and a texture-imbuing device for the filmmaking. The constant theme of a hero trying to come of age even as life proves rather more daunting and dangerous than expected. But where in Wright’s previous films the pop culture fun was presented as a kind of spicy sauce layered atop the smart-aleck allegories, Last Night In Soho goes a step further. It makes the allure of nostalgia and the habits of creative young folk, wrapping themselves in a self-mythologising cloak of preferred culture, into a topic to be dissected rather than played off. Wright is certainly out here to do something more ambitious than offer a feature-length version of Don’t, the terrific little unit of pastiche he made as a fake movie trailer for Grindhouse (2007).
Wright’s heroine Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a pure avatar who for myriad young, talented dreamers, albeit with her own, particular abilities and inspirations. She’s first glimpsed dancing about her grandmother’s house in a tape-and-newspaper dress to Peter and Gordon’s “World Without Love” and fantasising about being a famous fashion designer. Eloise’s penchants for a world of retro glamour are given a plain story basis, as she was raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) on a diet of 1960s LPs, after her mother’s death by suicide. Eloise is blessed with an extra layer of oddness in that she has a form of psychic awareness, allowing her to stay in touch with her mother’s watchful shade. Eloise’s embracing world of old music and big dreams faces the challenge of going to the London College of Fashion from her home in Cornwall. Eloise’s stranger talent is the vehicle for the plot as it leaves her especially vulnerable in both her sense of detachment from other people her age and her ability to absorb the dense layer of experience, good and bad, soaked into every inch of London. But it also provides Wright and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns with a clever metaphor for a certain kind of heightened, transformative awareness that would surely feel familiar to many an artistically inclined youngster. Eloise’s private universe allows communing with history, both personal and social, conjuring a glorious lost golden age when the culture’s fruits were in full bloom compared to the petty, happenstance, unpredictable present, all the better for drawing on as fuel for one’s own attempts to create alternate universes where more perfect things can exist.
Eloise’s specific spur to such yearnings is her childhood loss of her mother. When she first lands in London she’s both been schooled to be cautious in the Big Bad World to a degree that she overreacts at some manifestations of it – a flippantly libidinous taxi driver, ads for sex workers festooning phone booths – and quickly finds herself run ragged when she falls into the hard-partying company of her new roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) and her circle of friends. Her first student dorm party ends up with her zoning out whilst listening to her favourite sounds and falling asleep wrapped in a blanket, huddled in a corner. This part of the movie is the most familiarly Wright-esque as Jocasta and her circle are swiftly and wryly sketched as insufferable poseurs, providing a few good laughs in the process, with Jocasta explaining why she’s dropping her last name thanks to the example of Kylie – Jenner, not Minogue – and tries to make social capital out of belonging to the “dead mum’s club,” desperately trying to make up ground when Eloise incidentally outmanoeuvres her in the pitiable stakes. Jocasta and her pals provide suitably snooty foils for Eloise, whilst also representing the debased modern world with its most shallow and transitory obsessions and heedless lack of interest for anything that doesn’t feed into the machine of current commercial appeal.
Wright might be making a nod to Pretty In Pink (1986) as Eloise turns up to college wearing clothes she designed and made herself only to find Jocasta and company festooned in designer gear. Jocasta does a least perform the essential service of introducing Eloise to the pleasures of booze and a rowdy night out in Soho, where Wright cheerfully plays John Barry’s theme for Beat Girl (1959) on the soundtrack. But the only person Eloise finds any real connection with at school is John (Michael Ajao), a young man who admits that he also has had trouble fitting in in North London. Being as he is from South London. Quickly tiring of dorm life, Eloise chooses to seek out a place of her own and seems to find the perfect place in a small flat in Soho rented off the elderly Ms Collins (Diana Rigg), who seems like a reassuring substitute for her grandmother, and the flat seems to harbour hidden pleasures available specifically to a person like Eloise. When she falls asleep on her first night there, drifting off whilst listening to Cilla Black’s “You’re My World,” Eloise enters into a dream so vivid it seems more like an inherited memory. There she watches/becomes young and lovely Sandie (Anya-Taylor Joy), who saunters into the Café de Paris, the hub of Soho nightlife circa 1965, and goes about trying to catch the eye of the right person to help her dream of becoming a singing star.
This sequence is perhaps the most unabashedly grandiose and idealised Wright has ever dared be in his staging and evocation of a past that’s imperial in its renascent confidence and glamour, an embrace of something in a fashion that Wright, long the hipster’s hipster in his blend of fervour and irony, has clearly both admired but held himself wary of. He stages a travelling shot from Eloise’s point of view emerging from a side street into the midst of busy Soho, a huge poster for Thunderball (1965) pinpointing the historical moment as Black’s singing rises from soft and enticing to grand and swooning in force, before entering the Café de Paris. There Eloise finds herself the reflected, fragmented image of Sandie descending stairs as the perfected dolly bird, and Eloise is able to share the experience as Sandie dodges the sleazy, grasping Cubby (Paul Brightwell) and makes a beeline for Jack (Matt Smith), who seems every inch Sandie’s period male counterpart with his slicked-back pompadour, sharp suit, and insouciant charm, still daintily gripping drink and cigarette even as he joins Sandie on the dance floor. Sandie sets about wowing Jack, who seems to be the man to talk to break into Soho show business, by dancing to Graham Bond’s “Wade in the Water”: Sandie gets to act out her fantasy of arresting the very eye of the zeitgeist whilst Jack plays her ideal swashbuckling lover, socking Cubby as he becomes insulting and dashing off with Sandie to make out in a telephone booth.
Eloise’s vicarious experience through Sandie’s persona gifts her a vision that fits her concept of the past and also an idealised edition of her own hopes and anticipations: Sandie has all the brash confidence Eloise (and Wright) associated with a spectacular era and which Eloise finds conspicuously lacking in herself. Here Wright touches on an essential matter that’s fascinated him since Shaun of the Dead – how people construct themselves not only through their own lived experience but the art they love and how those two realms interact, art itself being an inheritance whether it’s a week old or a century and presents a way of seeing that contains truth but not reality. Although both characters are linked by their maintained bubbles of detachment from the world, Wright makes Eloise subtly different to the hero of Baby Driver: for him all the music he loved, soaked in through his perpetually present ear-buds, was rendered equal and contemporary through the omnivorous way he encountered it, where Eloise, detached from the mainstream by her life circumstances, uses music to create a world to retreat into. Eloise’s psychic talents, in this regard, are unabashedly presented as an amplification of her creative talents, and the tale of Sandie and Jack, at first at least, operates like her fantasy projection of herself, a vehicle to evoke the textures she tries to recreate in her design work, birthing designs taking inspiration from Sandie’s apparel. Of course, Wright is creating both stories, and the hall-of-mirrors story structuring is recreated within, as Eloise finds herself increasingly uncomfortable and unable to maintain the vicarious perspective, trying to escape the mirrors, but finds the price of that is the other world can access hers, too. Finally, after taking Jack back to her flat in an attempt as much to try and escape that other world as to gain experience of her own, Eloise is driven into screaming hysterics as she envisions Jack threatening Sandie and seeming to kill her in a gruesome welter of blood.
That Wright plainly loves the mid-1960s pop culture and the fabled stature of Swinging London is etched into every frame of the film even when considering its dank and malevolent side – indeed Wright knows full well part of the allure of nightlife groves is that debauched and seedy aspect, the feeling of a place carefully cordoned off from polite society where animal pleasures can be indulged, so long as it’s place where one can safely be a tourist rather than a permanent resident. A little like horror cinema itself. If Last Night In Soho had been made at the time the period scenes are set they would in turn be transposed to about 1910. And, indeed, there were a number of horror movies in the mid-1960s and early ‘70s that cast their minds back, if not quite that far, then to the Jazz Age as a sounding board for contemporary drama, with a similar motif of an age of quaint glamour on the edge of popular memory, recalled by bedraggled and ancient survivors, a la Robert Aldrich’s gothic valentines Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1963) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967), and Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Wright makes the obvious gambit of casting Tushingham, Rigg, and Terence Stamp in prominent roles as actors who aren’t just the right age for their characters but carry a distinctive cachet from the era that gives an extra sense of import in their roles: Tushingham still has the limpid crystalline gaze she had in Doctor Zhivago (1965), now used to give a little twinkle of familiar compassion to Eloise’s aging but reliable guardian.
Stamp is cast as an elderly man Eloise keeps encountering around Soho including in the Toucan, a pub where she gets a job pulling pints. Eloise soon begins to suspect he may be the older Jack, a suspicion that gains solidity when he seems to recognise her inspiration once she changes her hairstyle to match Sandie’s. Stamp is still a formidable screen presence, and he brings something ineffable to his part, expertly deploying his native Cockney accent in alternations of gruff, chisel-on-stone scepticism and passages of wry, almost lilting wistfulness: “How dare you,” he retorts when Eloise notes he was once a ladies’ man as he bangs out air piano on the bar: “Still am.” Eloise’s conviction that he is Jack leads to a confrontation in which she tries to get him to confess to Sandie’s murder and record it on her phone, only for the increasingly irate man to become so distracted in his irritation he’s hit by a car, and Eloise learns not only isn’t he Jack, he’s actually Lindsay, a former policeman – the same one who decades before encouraged Sandie to get out, and has survived into old age as the keeper of the memory of all Soho’s nasty secrets. Wright leaves it frustratingly vague as to whether Lindsay dies, and indeed it’s a subtly dark touch where Wright makes his heroine essentially responsible for the death of the closest thing the period scenes offer to a hero figure.
Last Night In Soho is, evidently, a homage-cum-revision of 1960s and ‘70s giallo thrillers, most famously and specifically associated with Italian cinema and directors including Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci. But giallo can be argued to in part have British roots. The style took heavy licence from Alfred Hitchcock – Wright mischievously closes the stylisation loop by referring back to Vertigo (1958) in having Eloise’s room flooded by red and blue neon light, in good Bava style, from the neighbouring sign of an Italian restaurant much like the hotel room in the Hitchcock film – and directors like Seth Holt and George Pollock were engaged in giallo-like stories and visual motifs at the same time Bava was synthesising the giallo style and creating his signature colour film filled with clashing, drenching hues which Wright quotes copiously. The very Italian quality of the giallo as it developed was of course more one of aesthetic, the delirious gusto in entering entirely into a tricky, deceptive way of seeing that in the hands of directors like Argento and Fulci all but lost contact with standard ideals of coherent narrative. Wright honours the giallo style with expected levels of referentialism, nicking from Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) the motif of a murderous assault witnessed but misinterpreted in terms of who is attacking whom, and the obsession with dream visions and psychic connections from the Fulci films like A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971) and The Psychic (1977), devices that allowed Fulci to play cinematic games with perception and enter completely into a dreamlike space. And, in classic giallo fashion, the climax involves a gender switch of the expected killer, a gender switch connected with the style’s concern with disrupted social mores. Like Suspiria (1977), Wright’s film tracks a young student as she enters into a dark fairy-tale realm where the dangers and strangeness about her dramatise her urgent attempts to mature.
Wright also nods to a more local tradition in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), and some of its odder children like Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning (1972), variants that drew on a more psychological and realistic style of horror preoccupied with sympathetic killers whose sanity has broken down until they are isolate islands of neurosis. Wright also reminded me a little of “The Mirror” episode from Kevin Connor’s From Beyond The Grave (1973), which similarly depicted a hapless person experiencing mind-twisting visions in a recently-rented apartment, although Wright stops well short of going down the route in that story of having Eloise possessed and start killing herself, as amusing as the thought of the winsome McKenzie going on a killing spree is. Alongside the horror movie trappings, though, Last Night In Soho is also like Baby Driver before it a covert musical, and again takes its title from a song, in this case by cult ‘60s band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, whilst its heroine is named after the song by Barry Ryan, featured in a key scene. The way Wright weaves music into the film’s texture and its storytelling rhythms is represents perhaps his best filmmaking to date. Wright’s use of music has always been inspired – the scene in Shaun of the Dead where the heroes bash zombies in semi-choreographic time to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” being a beloved example. But here he goes deeper in the way he exploits emotional associations with music, most obviously in Eloise’s first dream where Black’s singing encapsulates all her fantasies about the past and the authority of its art, segueing into Sandie and Jack’s dance together as a tableaux of retro cool.
In Eloise’s second dream of her, Sandie performs an a capella rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” a song specifically about the romantic allure of the big city’s most fervent quarters, to Jack and the owner of a club called the Rialto (Terence Frisch), in an audition Jack arranged. The performance is a success, and the boss gives Sandie a job, leading to Sandie and Jack becoming lovers. So far Sandie’s story is still perfectly on song for Eloise’s idea of emerging into adulthood. Next dream, however, Eloise finds herself watching Sandie from amongst the all-male audience in the Rialto, and beholds Sandie as merely one of several back-up dancers in a burlesque act headed by “Marionetta” (Jeanie Wishes), who performs a tawdrily naughty dance whilst lip-synching Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String.” This sequence, whilst depicting bawdy high spirits, nonetheless represents one of the most effective tonal shifts I’ve ever seen in a film, as Eloise confronts the squalid flipside of her throwback dreaming. Soon enough she realises Sandie, as well as being degraded in the show, is doomed to become Jack’s thrall and pet prostitute, rented out to a parade of bland middle-aged businessmen who go through the motions of charming her to a predestined outcome involving her sprawled in depressive self-loathing on her bed back in the flat with a wad of cash laid out beside her.
Wright uses the lyrics of the Shaw song, with its jolly but oddly sinister evocation of romantic dependence, to set the scene for Sandie’s downfall, and segueing into a deliriously garish vision in which Eloise swaps places with Sandie and flees through the interior of the Rialto, glimpsing visions of grim fates for girls like her glimpsed in dressing rooms engaged in sex acts or drug use, whilst being chased by Jack who’s now become an ogrish incarnation of the sleaze. The fantasy suddenly becomes a bleak, Fellini-esque nightmare zone where the fetid flipside of the period is unveiled with all its abusive prerogatives. Wright follows this sequence with an equally effective episode where Wright communicates Sandie’s mental fracturing and apparent total defeat through her dancing frenetically to the Walker Brothers’ cover of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” dissolving in deliriously psychedelic imagery, intercut with her listless and repetitious encounters with prospective johns. Amongst these, only an encounter with a man she takes to be a cop (Sam Claflin) stands out, as he suggests she’s too good for what’s she’s doing and should get out while she can.
Last Night In Soho is, then, a story about the problems of nostalgia, rather than an unleavened paean to it. Eloise is an apt vehicle for such explorations: thanks to her empathic gifts, Eloise is able to explore the past both as spectator but also actor in it, cinema viewer and theatrical performer, a detachment that becomes increasingly frustrating – at one point Eloise tries to shatter the barrier, represented by the mirror she exists in as Sandie’s reflection, and grab hold of her in a gesture of desperate protectiveness, a moment that perfectly illustrates the powerful feeling a lot of us have in contemplating the lives of people from the past we admire but know came to a bad end, wishing we could have intervened. But detachment is also deliverance, as Eloise is safe to awaken from the vicarious demimonde. At first, at least, before her dream life begins to invade her waking one, and she’s stalked by grotesque shadow-men with blurred faces who resemble Sandie’s client-rapists, as well as Sandie and Jack themselves. The dichotomies built in here invest Last Night In Soho with a depth that eludes many such genre-sampling tributes, stumbling into territory for Wright close to Brian De Palma, another arch image-player with a penchant for quoting giallo cinema, although Wright, thus far, lacks De Palma’s deeper perversity, his fascination for the dark battles in the soul he represents through his characters who are often brutally stripped of their naiveté.
Wright by contrast prizes the gawky innocence of his characters whilst also meditating on the inevitability of disillusionment and the sometimes unbearable impact of it. He has Eloise strikes up a tentative romance with John as the two uncool kids in the College of Fashion, but when the two finally try to take some time out for a little authentic youthful fun of their own as they attend a student union Halloween party and start bouncing about joyfully to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House,” and where Eloise and John’s sudden exuberance might partly be the result of Jocasta giving them spiked drinks. This island of true, personal, potentially transformative experience for Eloise nonetheless becomes a jagged trap as she starts seeing the ghostly men hovering around the dance floor, their grey semi-transparent forms flickering like the strobe lighting. An extremely effective image that also, oddly, calls back to the imagery of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World in Wright presenting the arena of music as a literal warzone, a place where people battle for control of their personalities, and perform great acts of self-discovery. Here Wright counters the jollity of that film with a jolt of ghostly visitation that can also be read as a portrait of melancholia piercing through fun, the melancholia that Eloise is trying to outrun, inherited from her mother. This theme of preternatural sensitivity to environment which operates as a kind of recording device for the common consciousness connects to a later comment by Ms Collins when Eloise asks her if someone once died in her room, “This is London – someone’s died in every room in every building in this whole city.” All cities are cities of the dead as well as the living.
The Toucan’s owner, Carol (Pauline McLynn), offers her converse version of this when she expresses a faith that her pub’s walls are haunted by ghosts of good times, as a stage where everyone – “Every gangster, every copper, every red-faced lush” – has some time of another stopped in for a drink and a laugh, forming part of the great mesh of community and continuity that imbues the city with its identity, in which every person is both a fleeting presence and a vital player, stars of their own movie overlapping with everyone else’s, and life happens in those overlapping margins. Eloise’s decision to seduce John leads into a keen example of Wright’s talent for layering his motifs, presenting her as at once a normal but troubled young person contemplating a familiar rite of passage in part to try and root herself in the here and now rather than her dark obsessions, and a very unusual one, making a desperate but oddly practical attempt to find a way to distract herself from a haunting that’s not metaphorical: from Eloise’s viewpoint an array of kissing couples in the street outside the nightclub blur and become their predecessors from another era, including the abused and maligned, part of a chain of events. When Eloise freaks out at the vision of Sandie’s apparent death as she and John try to have sex, John becomes the fool of absurd fortune, his humiliation and anxiety illustrated as he shatter a mirror and dashes out past Ms Collins with glass cutting up his feet, whilst Eloise is lost in a delirious and horrifying scene of flashing steel and spraying blood, taking to the most hyperbolic reaches imaginable the basic proposition of an initial sexual encounter proving tragically clumsy and hurtful.
Eloise, trying to find some historical record of Sandie’s death in part to prove she’s not simply suffering from a hyperactive imagination, goes trawling through old newspaper microfiche reels in the college library, not noticing that some of the faces from the old missing persons cases are awfully familiar. The Halloween dance party and its nightmarish interrupting is a brilliant scene that Wright, perhaps trying to really live up to his ambition to make above all a horror movie rather than a deconstructive impression of one, repeats arguably once or twice too often, as Eloise keeps experiencing similarly bloodcurdling and disorientating encounters with the wraiths. She cracks during one such assault during her library sojourn and tries to stab one of the ghosts, only to for her blow to be stopped just in time by John, and Eloise realises she was actually about to stab the understandably perturbed and wrathful Jocasta. It’s not at all hard to guess where the plot of Last Night In Solo leads, for anyone who’s ever watched a giallo or even an episode of a TV show like Medium, and when the casting itself serves to a degree as a giveaway. Suffice to say that there’s a very good reason Eloise finds her double-edged dream-life in the place she does, which turns out to be as crammed full of dead bodies as Reginald Christie’s notorious address. Classic giallo films liked playing games with perception, of course, much of it built around preoccupations with alluring images of beauty and complications of gender. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage climaxed with the revelation a psycho killer was actually the seemingly victimised young woman, whilst Deep Red rifled a whole Freudian litany in its often literal deconstruction of bodies and the beings that inhabit them.
Last Night In Soho takes up those preoccupations in a manner that can be seen, depending on one’s predisposition, as timely or trendy, but it’s also wound deeply into its form and function. Whilst the narrative follows a classical giallo arc to its end, why we get there is given a new spin rooted in the exposure of sexism and exploitation in the entertainment industry, where monsters beget monsters. Wright’s cunning approach to casting also made me think of how different actors in different eras are used to encapsulate similar personas, linking the ambidextrous talent of Taylor-Joy as well as her unusual looks to Rigg, and Claflin’s brief but eye-catching embodiment of the young and urbane Lindsay, ingeniously able to reproduce the notes in Stamp’s performance as a figure who is in many ways the closest thing to a hero in the narrative but fatefully stymied by a streak of smug detachment that curdles eventually into angry, guilty boding. This is also reflected in the casting of McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, who don’t really look that much alike but are able to almost will themselves to resemble each-other. Rigg, for her part, in her last role, goes out luckily with a part that depends entirely on her specific talents as an actor: Rigg’s particularity, going back to her days in The Avengers TV series, lay in her ability to suggest something steely and dangerous under a carefully maintained surface, be it the chic insouciance of Emma Peel or a wrinkly old granny type here.
When it’s finally, inevitably revealed that sweet old Ms Collin is actually Sandie, or Alexandra as was her full, true name, Rigg handles the shift in manner to great effect, letting the sly, maniacal edge Sandie’s used to survive for half a century show as she proposes to kill Eloise and John. The edge of fierce and unsentimental knowing in Rigg’s performance as well as a certain indulgent awareness about life and the mistakes people make in it up until that point changes in perception from crusty-but-likeable to disturbing, like her comment that she would have killed John if she’d caught him in the bedroom scene. Sandie confesses that she killed Jack rather than the other way around before embarking on a campaign of vicious revenge by slaying all her old johns as well, and she drugs Eloise and stabs John in a last-ditch, determined attempt to keep her secret. Wright goes for broke in the finale in a way that risks excess – indeed many have found it so – in seeking reaches of quasi-operatic grandeur to match the emotional heat of the songs Wright deploys in the film, returning to “You’re My World” as Wright switches between the reality of old Sandie stalking Eloise up the stairwell and the swooningly stylised version of her fantasy where she’s young again and bringing the murderous pain in a most glam way. Here, Wright tries to twin the opposite poles of his cinematic lexicon in a new manner, the adoration of grandiose spectacle and show business colliding with sordid reality.
The climax still has its twists, as the ghostly men seem to erupt out of the floor and walls, and demand Eloise gain revenge and kill Sandie, only to wring a note of tragicomic sickness out of the sight of the shades all cringing like chastised boys as Sandie looms over them and they remember the savage wounds she inflicted. Only the ghostly Jack with his leering, provoking sneer holds the line in maintaining what is actually his perpetual puppet-play where even in murder and afterlife Sandie and the others can’t escape until cleansing fire claims them all. Wright tries to have his cake of genre fulfilment and eat his slice of revisionism, and there is some concomitant awkwardness. But ultimately I appreciated his attempt to be more complex, the dead men just as misogynistic and implacable as they were alive but not merely rendered as undead demons needing putting down again, Sandie neither fully crazed nor entirely sympathetic in answering abuse with abuse, grinding on in a joyless cycle that creates little hells on earth, a hell which, as Lindsay warned earlier, was in part Sandie’s own choice. Eloise refuses to let Sandie cut her own throat, but still has to leave her to her auto-da-fe, catching a last sight of the youthful Sandie seated on her old bed, about to be consumed by boiling flames, striking in her pathos but also at least finally gaining the kind of spectacular ending any good performer deserves. Wright includes a coda that sees Eloise emerging as a designing star with her flowing retro creations now bobbing on the bodies of male models, watched by her grandmother and the healed-up John, whilst Sandie’s image is now the one that keeps watch from the mirror, signalling Eloise has embraced the ambiguities, gender and otherwise, of the present and is keeping the cautionary example, and sense of mission, gained in her ordeal.
Film festivals are in an odd position these days. Given the wealth of venues for viewing movies we have now, the idea of gathering everyone together in one place to watch the new crop threatens to feel passé. And yet critics and cognoscenti still look to the major film festivals to winnow down the ridiculous number of movies produced each year, to showcase and gate-keep for the supposed crème-de-la-crème. The Cannes Film Festival has been the premiere event in the international cinema calendar since the late 1940s, providing a great crossroads for the many artistic streams around the world, but it’s still had a bumpy ride in the past few years, with a large number of Palme d’Or winners failing to make much impact. Recently, however, Cannes has managed to reverse that to a degree, first with 2019’s anointed Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and this year’s Titane, both choices well-attuned to capitalise on contemporary cultural talking points, much as the Venice Film Festival created a stir with its 2019 choice Joker. Such choices, however good as actual films they are, nudge awareness that current film discussion is animated as much by the way art is framed as much as by what it does in itself. The way movies are sold to us today is in terms of cultural discussion as important, or indeed more so, as the movies themselves, one reason why today YouTubers can make a good living fossicking through trailers interpreting the signals blockbuster movies are transmitting into the populace, and in art-house cinema touching on hot-button issues can make a movie seem vitally important even if its message is something like, “greed is bad,” and when you’re desperately trying to make up for a roster of seventy-odd previous Palme d’Or winners where only one was directed by a woman.
All that doesn’t really have much to do with Julia Ducournau’s Titane beyond noting that it’s very easy these days to be pulled into reviewing the way a movie is framed by external factors rather than the movie itself. But today we might well be facing cinema that plays this game within itself. On YouTube it’s common to see movie trailers that start off with a kind of miniature trailer within a trailer, a little grab-bag of moments of action and spectacles offered as a taster presumably offered to instantly capture the attention of attention-deficient young people. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have much to do with Titane, except that the film’s narrative approach reminded a little of this: Titane is frontloaded with elements of attention-getting intransigence before taking a swerve into something for the large part more conventional. Ducournau emerged in 2017 with the gruesome, stylish Raw, a portrait of a girl attending a veterinarian school, who contends with the abusive social strata in the student body and begins to develop voracious cannibalistic traits. Ducournau immediately declared herself in the running as one of the many possible heirs to David Cronenberg as the founder and champion of “body horror” on the current scene. Ducournau is also working in a familiar stream of outrageous, carnally and intellectually provocative French filmmaking long plied by the likes of Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, and Jean-Claude Brisseau: Ducournau borrows Vincent Lindon to play a similar character type as he did in Denis’ Bastards (2013), the igneous but weathered exemplar of Gallic manhood.
Body horror retains an aura of cool because it readily situates itself at a fruitful nexus of cinema’s most low-down and most exalted aesthetic vantages. Any director who dabbles in it is automatically edgy because not everyone can stomach it, but it’s easy to be considered elevated in the mode too, because body horror challenges contemporary culture’s obsession with physical wellness and beauty and easy commercialised images of such by degrading, perverting, and outright assaulting such imagery with inversions of decay, damage, and grotesquery. It is therefore intellectually and aesthetically connected with the deliberate destabilisation and defiling of form found in post-World War I modernist art. Which leads me to consider another odd contemporary trait: nostalgic attachment to yesterday’s iconoclasm, often matched by an absolute resistance to current iconoclasm. Anyway. Ducournau’s first film, in a manner that’s becoming increasingly pervasive in current, ambitious horror cinema, turned the cannibalistic theme into an unsubtle metaphor, in this case for emergent sexuality, which was something horror cinema had done arguably to more effect before, but the framing of quasi-abstract artiness made it more respectable, more discourse-worthy. One problem with body horror is that, to me at any rate, it’s a style most effective when being sparing. Many of Cronenberg’s imitators, constantly trying to up the ante of provocation and abnormality, see their films devolve into sprawls of blood and other bodily fluids without that much wit or depth to their musings, and indeed I too often get the feeling the showmanship is substituting for anything actually stimulating to say.
Ducournau is most interesting for most onlookers as a female filmmaker venturing into this zone, and both Raw and Titane are predicated around impudently twisting ideals of femaleness on screen. Actually Titane is ultimately rather old-fashioned, given the fiercely schismatic debates going on about gender and its meaning today, in what it says about the female body. Ducournau’s journey to that end is a long and winding one. She begins with a jarring scene that presents an everyday sort of life-altering disaster. 7-year-old Alexia (Adele Guigui) sitting in the backseat of her father’s (Bertrand Bonello) SUV, stokes his irritation with constant humming, fidgeting, and finally unbuckling her seat belt and flipping about. When the father turns momentarily to force her back into her seat, he loses control of the car and it crashes against kerbside barrier blocks. Cut to gruesome surgery scenes as surgeons implant a titanium cap in Alexia’s skull, which leaves her with a large scar, and Ducournau’s vision of the shaven-headed girl, encaged by a steel truss (nodding less to Cronenberg than to the vision of the hospitalised father in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986, another constant point of emulation for would-be art-house provocateurs) presents her as something already ambiguous in gender and physical integrity, a fusion of human and machine, a misbegotten by-product of rage, damage, and family. As she’s released from hospital, Alexia walks to the family car, caressing it and hugging it, pressing her scar against the window glass as if in intimate communion.
Ducournau takes this basic idea to a weird and literal extreme as the adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is portrayed as erotically attracted to cars. Ducournau stages a long, dynamic tracking shot travelling through the environs of an auto show where exotic dancers gyrate atop vehicles to The Kills’ “Doing It To Death,” conjoining the fetishisation of flesh and of shiny steel for the titillation of the mostly male consumers, but Alexia has ironically taken this to the logical conclusion as her dances are to covertly get her rocks off with the machines, even as they’ve made her famous in this world. But Alexia’s strange tastes have a dangerous side. Showering after her performance, she gets her hair entangled with the nipple ring of a friendly fellow dancer, Justine (Garance Marillier), in a moment of comic intimacy; as she heads out to her car later, she’s tracked by a male fan who crosses the line between eagerness and offensiveness when he tries to force her to kiss him, whereupon he stabs him in the ear with a sharp metal file she hides in her hair like a hairpin. Ducournau seems to stoke sympathy for Alexis here, presenting her as a cold-blooded survivor who’s justified to a degree in lashing out at a sexist and abusive world. But this is soon enough revealed as Ducournau trolling the audience: Alexis is an active serial killer, murdering anyone she gets close to.
We’re obviously in quasi-surrealist territory here, even before our antiheroine fucks a car and gets pregnant by it. Or at least, surrealism in a contemporary usage. Original, authentic surrealism aimed to move beyond mere symbolism and strangeness to explore a realm of total instability, where all things can become their opposites; its aim was anarchic. Titane is not anarchic, not really: how it works as a movie depends on the degree to which one swallows the storyline’s outlandish ideas as metaphorical. We can, say, interpret Alexis’ injury and reconstruction as recovery from childhood abuse and her later persona as a resulting maladaption, her ardour for cars a symbol of a need for perverse and self-mortifying kicks, as well as offering a clear enough nod to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). But it’s more fun to take literally. Alexis, infused with foreign metal as a child, has been infected with the hunger for steel, and only such fearsome penetration can satisfy her, the language of the metal beings is the one she speaks. Ducournau depicts Alexis having an actual erotic encounter with a self-animated Cadillac that demands she emerge from her dressing room, car bouncing up and down with glaring headlights and beeping horn as Alexis within has a raging orgasm, wrists wrapped in the seatbelts and tits jogging merrily, sweat flowing down her tattooed form. A bold, funny, weird, sexy image. We, and she, will of course pay a price for this. Turns out if you have an automobile for a lover you can still get knocked up.
Anyway, Alexia’s taste for violence asserts itself when she hooks up with Justine, biting her nipple with hungry force when they make out at a waterfront locale, just before Alexia vomits and realises she’s fallen pregnant by the car. When she goes to Alexia’s house and they resume their make-out session, Alexia slays Justine once again by her hair needle, missing at first and plunging it into her cheek, before a struggle that ends when Alexia manages to plant it in Justine’s ear. But she’s quickly confronted by the necessity of killing the two people Justine shared the house with, plus a random guy one had brought home for sex. Here Ducournau feels locked in the same creative zone as Raw, basically repeating its driving, punkish preoccupation with a young woman whose carnal needs manifest as a desire to kill, only sans cannibalism and with a different motivation. It could be that Alexia is supposed to be gripped with such a homicidal impulse because of her injuries, or because she’s not entirely human anymore. But the real explanation is that Ducournau simply wants to galvanise the audience with images of bloodshed and mayhem ironically committed by a young and sexy woman. When she has Alexis tussle with a topless woman on the stairway, it seems Ducournau’s trying to do an arty lampoon of trashy thrills. Alexia, deliberate as she is in her murderous activities, experiences a blackly comedy exasperation as her task keeps getting more gruelling, including killing a sweet-natured black man named Jerome (Lamine Cissokho) and one of Alexia’s housemates: a second manages to throw her off and escape. Realising she’s going to be busted, Alexia returns to her home and sets fire to her clothes, seeming to set fire to her family home as well, and flees northwards.
It’s easy to see why Ducournau kept all this stuff in her script, because it’s provided all the talking points for many critics and viewers ever since, the sort of thing that gets reported in breathless “it’s so crazy” terms, even though it only accounts for about a third of the film. The rest of Titane is an oddball take on a Shakespearean pastoral play, mixed with a variation on the Monster and the blind man scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Alexia adopts a cunning plan to elude police: a couple of times early in the movie an old missing persons case is mentioned on TV broadcasts, with the father of a young boy named Adrien Legrand who vanished several years earlier still searching for the son he still resolutely believes it alive. Realising she looks just enough like a new computer-aged picture of the boy that’s being circulated by investigators to possibly pass for him, Alexia retreats to a bus station bathroom and quickly gives herself a brutal makeover to look like a teenage boy, even breaking her nose on the sink to complete the illusion. And so she’s ironically able to use the police hunting for her to instead deliver her to Adrien’s father, Vincent (Lindon). Vincent proves so eager to find his son that it quickly becomes clear he’s willing to accept anyone in the role, refusing to get a DNA test and immediately taking “Adrien” under his wing. Vincent is the captain of an all-male squad of firefighters, and he swiftly inducts his reclaimed son into their ranks.
This portion of the film feels the most adroitly observed and successfully ironic, in the contrasting visions of people doing gruelling things to themselves in bathrooms. Alexia’s self-effacing, self-mutilating adventure, strapping down her breasts and smashing her nose and shaving her head to a ragged crop, segues into vignettes of Vincent not just forcing his body through a gruelling nightly exercise regime, but injecting himself in his bruised and track mark-riddled flank with steroids. This is his ongoing attempt to maintain his physical fortitude as the macho hero and king of the crew of professional heroes: as Alexia is trying to erase and overcome her biological identity, Vincent trying desperately to hang onto his. This works because, wild as the adult-woman-passing-as-a-teen-boy twist is and these scenes nudge zones of heightened grotesquery, it’s still made just sufficiently believable by Ducournau and the actors. I’m sure someone’s also already writing a thesis comparing the scenes of attractive women breaking their own noses in this and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow from earlier this year, an act with the quality of a last taboo. With so many women, and men, in the world desperately trying to improve their looks, to reverse their aging, to assert their inner vision of what they are over the crude material of their genetics and environmental moulding, what perverse freedom in the act.
Once this point is made, however, Titane begins to tread water, settling into a wash-rinse-repeat structure of Alexia/Adrien constantly trying to avoid being caught in the altogether, first when she’s bunked down for the night when her/his “father” comes to give her clean clothes, and then repeatedly thereafter. In between are vignettes of Vincent fiercely declaring his determination to protect Alexia/Adrien at all costs, and his pseudo-offspring interacting uneasily with the firefighter squad, including when she accompanies them on an emergency call and manages to save a life. The smirking younger men take the slight and shy-eyed Adrien to be “gay.” For a moment I imagined a more farcical variation on the situation where all the nominally straight young braves start hitting on the newbie who has to keep his own secrets, but this is a supposedly serious movie. Finally Vincent’s ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou), the mother of the missing boy, barges in on Alexia and recognising her fraud demands a basic compact: she won’t tell on Alexia if Alexia will continue her charade for Vincent’s sake as one who truly knows how deep and painful his psychic wound is. Underlying all the superficial perversity here then is a straightforward emotional arc: Alexia, so badly damaged by her own pinch-faced father’s incapacity to control himself, finds a superior father figure in Vincent, who engages Alexia/Adrien in an extended dance of role-playing where each is entirely willing to sustain their role according to their needs, leading to moments like Vincent insisting on shaving Alexia/Adrien’s face, as well as ignoring the gigantic scar from her childhood operation on her head.
Their relationship seems to be constantly in danger from the ticking biological clock of Alexia’s pregnancy, and she finds herself increasingly, frustratingly beset by her body’s rebellion against her attempts to bury it. Eventually she’s forced to survey her mangled form, covered in bruises and gouges and with the stigmata of her unnatural pregnancy breaking out regardless as she leaks out motor oil in place of milk and blood from nipples and vagina, and splitting skin on her bulging belly reveals the infesting gleam of metal. This narrative turn reminded me, in a seemingly distant swerve of attention, of something out of ancient ritual myth, or variations transmitted in some more profane vehicle like Jane Seymour’s Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973) – the seer who loses her mystic power when she’s sexually awakened. Similarly, Ducournau seems to offer Alexia as depowered by the admission of anything like human feeling, with her killings representing some sort of sovereign power – a ridiculous metaphor but okay – that she loses, although it’s her impregnation that nominally starts her down this road, an impregnation brought about by her rare nature. The trouble with this is that the early scenes of Titane seem to explicitly disavow sentimentality in terms of its characters, only to then try and milk Alexia/Adrien and Vincent’s relationship for something resembling grounded pathos. Their connection is deepened when Alexia finds Vincent prone after one of his steroid injections goes wrong, and finds she can’t take advantage of the chance to kill him.
More power to artists trying to walk a tonal tightrope and reach for strange new epiphanies, but I never felt particularly convinced or compelled by any of this, despite Lindon’s vehemently committed and deeply felt performance: Lindon is one of the best actors in movies today, and he brings a depth of feeling and a palpable sense of his character’s bleary mental and emotional exhaustion and desperate attempts to keep up appearances. The greater part of the problem is that Alexia/Adrien is by comparison an empty vessel: the casually murderous entity of the first section of the film becomes a poor vehicle for exploring unexpected and unusual bonds later in the film. It might have been more interesting if Alexia/Adrien was allowed a greater degree of self-expression, but the character is stricken with an impassive blankness beyond mere registers of transient feelings – pain, anger and so forth – particularly emphasised in the long mid-section of the film where Alexis/Adrien refuses to speak lest her voice give the game away and it’s taken for a traumatic symptom. Such blankness is rather too common in contemporary “serious” movies, usually because filmmakers want characters who function as ready viewpoint figures, but Alexia remains stuck someplace else, between multifarious symbol and actual character. Alexia’s scar is constantly, improbably on show, obvious both when she’s a dancer – is that a good career move? – and later when she’s posing as Adrien, gaining no comment from anyone. Again, of course, one can read it as symbolism of a kind, but it still feels overly garish and distracting.
In Raw Marillier also played a character called Justine, whilst the two major characters framing her emergent nature were named Alexia and Adrien, suggesting those names have some totemic meaning, particularly in their ultimate pseudo-fusion. Ducournau killing off this version of Justine, who’s bold and queer, might represent some leaving behind of the past. Or maybe it’s just a precious screenwriting touch. The version of Alexia presented early in the film is completely unsympathetic; the version we get later, the quasi-Adrien, we’re asked to feel some odd sympathy for as she’s beset by increasing impotence, stricken as her body rebels on her and her former cold-bloodedness deserts her – she can’t kill Vincent and she fails in her attempt to abort her new body-infesting foetus with her hair needle. She can’t even wield the same sexual imperiousness as before – when she’s laughingly goaded by the fire fighters into dancing atop a fire truck during one of their unit’s occasional parties, her sexy dance style falls flat by the weirded-out young men. This scene aims for cringe-inducing discomfort and obtains it, although Ducournau seems to think it’s utterly verboten for a young man to dance like a sexy woman. Most guys would find it hilarious and the highpoint of the party. The repeated jabs at the raunch culture Alexia profits off feel rather dated in themselves, whilst Ducournau’s collection of firefighters looks like a gang of male strippers anyway. The cultural targets in Titane feel a bit hackneyed is what I’m saying. Alexia’s revisit of her ritual seduction dance is then followed by her attempt to get it on with the fire truck, but gains no result: Alexia has lost her ability to give or gain satiety that way.
Being inducted into the firefighter crew at least seems to offer Alexia/Adrien the chance to enter a world defined by madcap physical heroism and gutsy dedication that’s the polar opposite of her/his sharklike and parasitic existence, an induction that also sees Alexia/Adrien slowly embrace the role of sustaining Vincent’s illusions, something everyone around him seems to agree to do on one level or another. Vincent already has a surrogate son figure on his team, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), who gets jealous of Alexia/Adrien. It’s not a thread of the film that goes anywhere, and Rayane is killed later when he and Vincent fearlessly venture into a forest fire and Vincent gets him to take charge of a gas canister retrieved from a caravan which then explodes. This event serves to chiefly serve to drive Vincent even deeper into his self-imposed role, even beholding Alexia naked finally but still avowing his function as father and protector. Things build to a head as Alexia tries to seduce Vincent, a move that creeps him out too much, but also seems to finally provoke Alexia to give birth, with Vincent desperately trying to coach her as her body tries to do something at once natural and inimical.
Much of Titane made me wish Ducournau had stuck to the initial epater-le-bourgeois zaniness or had started with Vincent accepting this odd changeling and had rolled from there in a more careful journey through a game of arbitrarily agreed rules in deception and acceptance. Because it feels like an uneasy conjunction of a couple of different script drafts, and there are points in the film where it comes close to – quelle horreur – a typical indie feels entry where some life-ragged people find each-other and form an oddball unit. Or perhaps it’s the dream life of the Fast and Furious films turned inside out, with their obsession with cars and family. The scene with Vincent’s ex-wife, although exceptionally well-performed by Akheddiou, nonetheless disrupts the dragonfly-skating-on-water tenor of the rest of the film’s mutually agreed reality, a veering into quotidian psychological realism that feels misjudged. Overall, as a film Titane lacks the derivative but compelling aesthetic of Raw, and in many ways feels like a classic awkward sophomore effort, even if the faults it shares with its precursor are fairly consistent: an indecisive tenor to the toggling between realism and anti-realism, and a lack of a clear sense of somewhere interesting or exciting to go after the basic conceits are employed and their elemental value expended, until a great climactic image partly makes up the difference. This climax does manage to bring many of the film’s meandering threads and depraved emotions to coherent and fitting terminus, culminating with the indelibly sick image of Vincent cradling Alexia’s offspring with veins of rippling metal running up its spine and head, ironically reborn himself as a father to some fresh hybrid whilst the misbegotten mother lying dead and mangled.
Ducournau’s attempt to restore some of the primal anxiety inherent in childbirth is fascinatingly visualised even if it remains at an arm’s length from the nominal narrative containing it. Maybe if I felt something more maniacal and wilful in Alexia, something that made her body’s rebellion and her ultimate fate feel more palpable, I might have been more persuaded by the drama overall. But I kept thinking back to the moment in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) where Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) wails “Oh no!” when she suffers a crippling injury that finally foils her brash physicality. That scene hits in a few brief seconds exactly the note Titane tries constantly to strike. In terms of the film’s nominal exploration of gender role-playing, Titane actually makes an unfashionable point – that, no matter how it’s denied, disguised, revised, and inhabited, the body is still ultimately a slave to nature. Perhaps the proper zone of ambiguity there is just what nature is, what it imposes on us, the people trapped within such cages of flesh, could be a much larger question than anyone knows. Which is a damned interesting point to chase down, and the pity with Titane is that it doesn’t really ask it until the very end.
If Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) sounded in abstract like a movie unlikely to leave much of a mark on cinematic culture upon release, the sequel seemed if anything even more ill-starred. Alien had been a big hit, but attempts to make a sequel soon became bogged down in changing executive regimes at Twentieth Century Fox, lawsuits, and wrangling over returning star Sigourney Weaver’s salary. Despite having emerged as a potential major star thanks to Alien, Weaver had only had one major success since, with her strong if not essential supporting turn in Ghostbusters (1984). A potential answer to the question as to who would make the film, at least, provided when an employee at Brandywine Films, the production company of the first film’s producers and co-writers Walter Hill and David Giler, was on the lookout for interesting new scripts and found a pair by a young filmmaker named James Cameron. Cameron, a graduate of the film schools of Roger Corman and Italo-exploitation, had submitted a potential sequel for First Blood (1981) and his own original sci-fi work called The Terminator, and was busy trying to forget his first foray as director, Piranha II: The Spawning (1982). Hill and Giler, who had taken a chance with Scott and would continue later to hire interesting new talents for the series like David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Joss Whedon, fed Cameron a basic idea of thrusting the first film’s heroine Ripley into a situation with some soldiers. Cameron hit the ground running in developing the project, but was considered too green to take on directing duties until he made The Terminator on a low budget with maximum industry and potent results.
Cameron was officially hired to make the Alien sequel, given a large but, even by the standards of the time, hardly enormous budget of $16 million, with his then-girlfriend Gale Ann Hurd, who had produced The Terminator, taken on in the same capacity. Cameron’s osmotic knowledge of sci-fi, which caused problems for The Terminator, also drove his interest in portraying spacefaring soldiers in the mould of writers like Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt. The sequel was filmed at England’s Pinewood Studios, and the 31-year-old Cameron upon arrival found himself facing a lot of scepticism from the British crew, as The Terminator hadn’t yet opened in the UK. Cameron’s own relentless approach to filmmaking, soon to become notoriously onerous, also ruffled feathers, but the film came in, as studios like so much, on time and budget. Aliens was finally released seven years after the first film, an eternity by pop culture standards, particularly in the 1980s. Nonetheless the film proved an instant smash with audiences, and one that would soon enough prove perpetually influential, to the degree that it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that Hollywood’s been trying to make it again and again for the past 35 years and never quite succeeding. All anyone who was young and impressionable thought when they first saw it, most likely on video, was that it was awesome.
Arguing over whether Alien or Aliens is the better film is one of those topics movie lovers enjoy fighting over, but what’s certain is that Cameron managed the very rare trick of emulating a great model in a manner that both suited his own sensibility and logically expanded on the original. Indeed, the significant problem that beset subsequent entries in the series was in the inability of any single entry to pull the same trick. Cameron had the unenviable task of mediating Scott’s stylistic approach, which had invested the first film with much of its unique power, and find something new to offer the audience through bringing his own sensibility to bear. The simple addition of an S to the title was all the promissory needed, as simple a declaration as any possible: where before there had been one alien, and the situation matched it, now there would be many, and Cameron follows through on the expectation to expand upon the world and the nightmares Scott depicted. The opening seems to take up where the first film left off, with Ripley drifting through deep space in the Nostromo’s shuttle, the Narcissus, ageless in cryogenic sleep. The craft is intercepted by a much larger salvage vehicle, with a remote robotic unit cutting through the escape hatch and scanning the shuttle before salvagers enter and find Ripley and the Nostromo’s cat Jones still alive. This prologue is exacting in returning the viewer to the mood and method of Alien, not just in the careful recreation of the shuttle set and the hushed, eerily romantic strains of James Horner’s scoring mimicking Jerry Goldsmith’s work, but in the rueful and world-weary comment by one of the rescuers, “There goes our salvage, guys,” immediately recapitulating that this is a universe inhabited by working stiffs where the profit motive looms large and deep space is hardly an escape route from the mundane, where the possibility of rescuing someone is a secondary concern when rounding up a drifting spacecraft.
Cameron continues to follow Scott’s model at first, artfully building a mood of quiet dread where for a vast chunk of the film little seems to happen, although of course every moment of charged intensity without payoff eventually gains it counterweight in thriller action. Such an approach to storytelling in a blockbuster feels all but impossible today, but it’s part of Aliens’ greatness, testifying to a near-vanished moment when crowd-pleasing on the biggest level could also still involve patient, careful storytelling and directorial conditioning. In the theatrical cut of the film, a full hour passes before any actual alien is seen on screen; well over an hour in the “Special Edition” director’s cut assembled for laserdisc in 1990, which stands now as the essential version. Cameron does break from Scott and follows a lead more reminiscent of Brian De Palma in a fake-out dream sequence early on, in which what seems to be the authentic memory of being told by Burke (Paul Reiser), a representative of the company that owned the Nostromo, that she was rescued after 57 years in cryosleep, in the medical bay of a huge space station orbiting Earth: Ripley’s probably real panic attack becomes a nightmare in which she imagines herself impregnated with one of the alien beings which starts to hatch inside her as it did in her fellow crewmember Kane, until she abruptly awakens, panicked and sweating, in the real medical bay. This dream both illustrates the deeply traumatic impact of Ripley’s experiences and provokes the audience’s presumed memory of the first film’s most infamous scene.
As made particularly clear in the Special Edition, Cameron’s script works initially to undercut any hope Ripley’s homecoming will be as positive as the last frames of Alien suggested. She finds herself jobless, disgraced, doubted, and wracked by traumatic nightmares, without friends or family to recognise her upon return, a relic and an exile torn out of her moment. Even her daughter Amanda, who was a young girl when she left, has since grown old and died, a wizened face gazing out at her still-young mother from a pixelated image, time, fate, and identity all in flux. As Burke comes to give Ripley this news, Ripley seems to be sitting in a garden, delivered into nature to recuperate, only for her to pick up a remote control and switch off the large TV screen feeding the illusion. Cameron’s wry visual joke here about technology and falsified environments feels oddly connected with his own extended act of providing such illusion in the fantasy world of Avatar (2009). Soon Ripley is unable to keep her temper when thrust before a review committee who plainly don’t buy her story about the infiltrating alien and seem more concerned by the destruction of the Nostromo and its cargo, and to an extent one can see their point. Finally Ripley is found to have acted negligently, has her flight officer licence cancelled, and learns to boot from the committee chair Van Leuwen (Paul Maxwell) that the planet where the Nostromo’s crew found the alien spaceship and its deadly cargo, now known as LV-426, has now been colonised and is undergoing terraforming.
Aliens immediately recapitulates the cynicism of Alien towards the company, whose canonical name, Weyland-Yutani (suggesting in very 1980s fashion the future convergence of American and Japanese corporate interests into one all-powerful gestalt), was first revealed in the Special Edition, scapegoating Ripley and reducing her to a menial with a tenuous grip on existence. Burke introduces himself by assuring her that “I’m really an okay guy,” which is a pretty good sign he isn’t: although he does seem at first like a solid advocate for Ripley, he nonetheless uses a practiced line of clichés in the course of trying to manipulate her into helping him when it appears she was right all along. Cameron allows images of the cast of the previous film to appear on the computer feed scrolling behind Ripley during the meeting, a salutary touch. But another of Aliens’ qualities is that it’s well-told enough to be a completely stand-alone entity, as the film carefully lays out Ripley’s survivor guilt and contends with the consequences of a situation in a manner most similar types of movie gloss over whilst also offering enough sense of what happened to make her fear as well as the continuing plot entirely comprehensible. Cameron alternates visions of Ripley awakening in stark, body-twisting terror with moments of glazed stillness as Ripley smokes and stares off into nothingness. One nice, barely noticeable touch sees her mane of wavy hair as sported in the first film still present in early scenes but later shorn away to a more functional do, suitable as Ripley is by this time working a labourer in the space station loading docks.
The Special Edition also sports an early visit to LV-426, allowing a glimpse of the colonist outpost, dubbed Hadleys Hope – the outpost’s place sign has “Have a nice day” scrawled in graffiti over the stencilled lettering. Futuristic all-terrain vehicles trundle by the pre-fab structures, buffeted by wind and dust in this tiny island of human civilisation located amidst roiling volcanic rock forms, located someplace between a Western movie town and the outer precincts of hell. A conversation between two administrators (Mac McDonald and William Armstrong) establishes their jaded and frazzled state of mind in running this pocket of habitation whilst an important plot point is conveyed: some company honcho has sent a message asking for a grid reference far out in the planetary wilds to be checked out, so wildcatter mining couple, the Jordens (Jay Benedict and Holly De Jong), have gone off in search of it. Of course, the Jordens come across the all-too-familiar wrecked horseshoe spaceship. I’ve always found this portion of the director’s cut interesting but ungainly: effectively atmospheric, it gives a glimpse of Hadleys Hope as a functioning zone of labour and community, with convincing touches like the playing children who invade the control area of the otherwise tediously functional outpost, and a glimpse of the Jordens as an example of the kind of people who would choose such an existence – tight-knit, working class, adventurous. But it dispels the highly effective sense of mystery and discovery sustained in the theatrical cut, has noticeably weaker acting, and it goes just a little too far in coincidence in presenting Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn), later to prove an essential character, as being at the epicentre of the nascent crisis. Newt screams in horror as she beholds the sight of her father with a facehugger gripping his head with remorseless biological purpose whilst her mother urgently sends out a mayday.
An unstated amount of time passes before Burke comes to Ripley’s domicile with a representative of the Colonial Marines, Lt. Gorman (William Hope), and tells her that contact with LV-426 has been cut off, and they want her to come with them as an advisor as a unit of Marines are sent to investigate. Ripley is at first, understandably, determined to not to go, resisting Burke’s arsenal of pop psychology cliché (“Get out there and face this thing – get back on the horse!”) and the offer of protection from the armed forces that Ripley already, plainly half-suspects might be vainglorious. Only another wrenching nightmare and a long, hard look in the mirror convinces Ripley there’s only one way out of labyrinth for her, and that only after calling up Burke and seeking assurance that the plan is to exterminate the aliens. Cut to the Marines’ spaceship, the Sulaco, cutting through deep space: the name, taken from a town in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, extends that running gag and the connection with Conrad’s grim contemplation of hearts of darkness and corporate-imperial enterprise. Cameron apes Scott’s creation of mood and tension by recreating the quietly gliding camera movements Scott explored the Nostromo with, now scanning the Sulaco’s interior. James Horner’s scoring, like Goldsmith’s employing horns and woodwinds to illustrate the eerie absence of life, interpolates faint drum taps that match the sight of military hardware dormant. One quality that invests Cameron’s early films with much of their populist muscle is the respect and feel he had, certainly earned in his time working as a truck driver in his early 20s, for working class characters, strongly defined by their little social units and camaraderie. It’s a quality Cameron shared with John Carpenter, his immediate forebear as the hero of neo-B movies, although with Cameron it’s arguable this quality arguably hardened into a kind of shtick by the time of Titanic (1997) and Avatar, and where Carpenter’s sensibility led him to increasingly ironic considerations of genre storytelling, Cameron knew which side his bread was buttered on. Nonetheless this lends weight to Cameron’s glancing portrait of life LV-426 and the attitudes of the grunts of the Colonial Marines, as well to Ripley herself. Weaver herself noted that Aliens is essentially one great metaphor for Ripley overcoming her trauma, albeit in a way that thankfully avoids overtness.
It’s important for Cameron that Ripley, originally portrayed in Alien as an officer who makes a slightly snooty impression on her more plebeian crewmates and irks others with her cautious mentality even as circumstances prove her right, here falls basically to the bottom of society as well as mental health. Burke, whilst assuring her there’s nothing wrong with it, tries to plants hooks in Ripley by commenting on her newly tenuous existence. What he doesn’t know, nor Ripley herself, is that her fall also occasions her rise, with particular consequence in the climax, where her specific skill and talent learnt on the loading docks arms her for the ultimate battle with her personal demon. The detachment of Gorman’s Marines, awakening along with Ripley and Burke from cryosleep, is quickly and deftly sketched individually and as a functioning team, particularly the dominant if not necessarily most genuinely strong personalities, including the motor-mouthed, enthusiastic Hudson (Bill Paxton) and the formidable Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), as well as the quiet, calm Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), and the no-nonsense sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). The Marines are reassuring in their confident certainty of their own toughness and competence, and also their generic familiarity, combining classical war movie archetypes and modern sops: the unit includes women, a touch that illustrates Cameron’s cunning retrofitting of old movie templates for a new audience as well as suiting his own sensibility – Apone, who jams a cigar between his teeth within moments of awakening, is right out of a Sam Fuller. But the most crucial point of emulation is Howard Hawks, as the core team fuses together in to a functioning unit once the authority figures are dead or counted out and prove more effective once reconstituted as a semi-democratic whole. Ripley could be said to play the part of the traditional Hawksian woman, except Cameron inverts the old emphasis: she doesn’t have to adapt to the group, but the group fails because it doesn’t adapt like her. Cameron disposes of any dissonance as Hudson teases Vasquez, as she immediately starts doing chin-ups, with the question, “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” to her immortal riposte, “No. Have you?”
The soldiers patronise Ripley not as a woman but as a civilian, something she gauges immediately, and she takes a certain wry, challenging delight in showing off when she clambers into a robotic loading suit that resembles an anthropomorphic forklift and casually handles a heavy load, much to Apone and Hicks’ approving amusement. Cameron drops in effective, intelligently accumulating character touches that give depth to the Marines, from Hicks falling asleep during the bumpy descent to the planet, to Vasquez and Drake (Mark Rolston) displaying their deep sense of camaraderie as masters of the big guns, drilling in choreographed movement and sharing their own sense of humour, and shades-wearing, ultra-cool shuttle craft pilot Corporal Ferro (Colette Hiller) spouting surfer lingo as she steers her craft down through the stormy clouds of LV-426. There’s also the android (“I prefer the term artificial person myself”) Bishop (Lance Henriksen), present as a standard member of the team. At one point Gorman gets Hicks and Hudson’s names mixed up, a hint at the speed with which the unit was formed that can also be taken as a wry acknowledgement of the difficulty in telling a bunch of young men with buzz cuts apart and of Gorman’s lack of deep investment in noticing the distinction. Hudson himself has an edge of bratty braggadocio that first vanishes when Drake forces him to give aid to Bishop in his party trick display of speed and precision with a knife, but resurges as he regales Ripley with the splendours of these “ultimate badasses” and their arsenal of cutting-edge technological weaponry. The soldiers and their tag-alongs eat before getting mobilised, and another facet of social tension manifests: the grunts notice Gorman doesn’t eat with them, another early sign he’s not going to prove much of a leader. Ripley, remembering Ash from the Nostromo, reacts with virulent unease when she realises what Bishop is, despite his Isaac Asimov-quoting reassurances.
Later, during a briefing for the unit, Gorman generically describes the creatures Ripley has encountered as a xenomorph – exterior-changer – in some official taxonomical flourish that has become since the general name for the malevolent species. After preparing for deployment, the unit is dropped into LV-426’s atmosphere and upon landing find Hadleys Hope seemingly deserted, with signs like half-eaten meals, in a nice nod towards the mystique of the Mary Celeste, betraying the suddenness of what befell the colonists. The Marines soon turn up signs that prove Ripley’s story, particularly patches of metalwork eaten through by the xenomorphs’ spilt acidic blood, and occupy the command centre which was hastily fortified for a last stand. Whilst exploring the deserted domicile, movement detected on their sensors proves to Newt, now bedraggled and deeply traumatised, but also having managed to survive thanks to her intricate knowledge of the domicile’s air duct system, gathered in her years playing in them. Ripley quickly takes on a motherly role for Newt. The team discover two live specimens of the “facehugger” strain that implants larvae in living hosts, kept in plastic tubes in the centre’s Med Lab, with a surgeon’s notes queasily reporting a patient died having one specimen removed. Finally the Marines, trying to find the missing colonists by looking for their subcutaneous tracking chips, locate them seemingly all congregated together in a space under the gigantic atmospheric plant, a fusion reactor-powered array busily making the planetary atmosphere breathable. But when the Marines venture into the plant, they quickly find signs they’re entering a xenomorph nest, and the one living human they find amongst the many eviscerated victims they find fused to the walls quickly dies as one of the larval aliens explodes from her chest. Within moments the unit is attacked by swarming xenomorphs, quickly reducing their ranks and setting the remnant to flight, and it falls to Ripley’s quick thinking to save them.
One aspect of Aliens, relatively minor on the dramatic scale but important to the deep impression made by its overall look and texture, was Cameron’s strong feel, bordering on fetishism, for both a realistic technological milieu, and for military lingo and tough-hombre attitude. Some of the hardware, like futuristic guns mounted on steadicam harnesses and the robotic loading suit, still remain exotic, but other touches, from the Marines’ helmet-mounted cameras to video phones, have become familiar, and all still seem part of a coherent vision of a future that’s at once hi-tech but also rough-and-ready, everything designed for hard encounters on far-flung rocks. That the Marines would use a “drop ship” to shuttle them to and from the planet rather than land a cumbersome spaceship like the Nostromo on LV-426, provides both a logical-feeling aspect of the mechanics of the enterprise whilst also echoing both World War II landing craft and helicopters in the Vietnam war, and also, eventually, provides an important component of the plot. The drop ship itself disgorges an Armoured Personnel Carrier, which the Marines use as a mobile protective base of operations. The visual sheen of Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, with omnipresent steely blues and greys, suggests that the atmosphere itself has soaked up the cobalt-hued lustre of gunmetal and industrial colossi, and the first sight Ripley and the Marines have of LV-426 is of the enormous atmospheric processor installation, powered by a fusion reactor, looming out of the grimy haze, and Hadleys Hope beyond, blurry and smeared in being seen through cameras.
Cameron’s use of such mediating technology also gives Aliens flashes of estranged menace, as the signs of battle and carnage the Marines find once they penetrate the interior of Hadleys Hope, bearing out Ripley’s accounts, are mediated through grainy, fuzzy camera feeds. The oft-emulated scene of Gorman steadily losing all connection and control as the Marines are attacked and the mission turns to lethal chaos intersperses immediate footage and glimpses conveyed through the way their cameras capture incoherent flashes of action and, in the cases of those grabbed or killed by the xenomorphs, blacks out: the technology, which seems to embrace and unite the humans, instead only testifies to their breakdown and impotence. This sequence, which sees the film finally combust after its long, nerveless build-up, cleverly reproduces a key aspect of Alien in the idea of the responses to the xenomorphs being limited by situation, as the nest is directly underneath the plant’s cooling systems, which means that firing off powerful weapons could critically damage the reactor and result in a nuclear explosion. Given the unexpected signs of sentient intelligence the xenomorphs display, too, this might not be a coincidence. This means the team is left almost defenceless as the aliens pounce, save flame throwers and Hicks’ shotgun (“I like to save this for close encounters.”), although Drake and Vasquez, having contrived not to hand over all their ammo, start blasting away wildly as the attack comes.
Cameron and the design team gave the xenomorphs a slightly different look for the film than the sleek anthropoidal shark look of the original model, kicking off a motif in the series where the creatures adapt to their environment. Here they’re distinctly more demonic with a more veinous-looking exterior, hobgoblins surging out of dark reaches they’ve decorated to suit themselves, an environ festooned with eviscerated corpses in a vision of a Dantean hellscape. They discover one living woman (Barbara Coles) who, as Ripley did in her dream earlier in the film, begs her would-be rescuers to kill her, but they’re too late to stop the larval “chestburster” alien from erupting from her chest. The Marines immediately incinerate it with a flamethrower, but this has the unfortunate effect of stirring the other xenomorphs from their nooks. Gorman, pale and sweating and delirious in his horror, quickly proves incapable of a response, so Ripley leaps into the seat of the APC and charges through the corridors of the processor plant, Horner’s furiously martial scoring booming out in announcing the gear change from cosmic horror to rumble-time action. Ripley’s frantic driving in her compelling sense of mission, APC careening against walls, and Gorman’s attempt to intervene only sees him fought off by Burke and then knocked silly by falling containers. Ripley crashes through a partition and reaches the Marines, but not in time to save Drake, who takes a face full of acid blood when Vasquez blasts a xenomorph about to launch on him. As it tries to force open the APC doors, Hicks jams his shotgun in a xenomorph’s mouth and cries “Eat this!” before blowing its head off – an all-time great cheer-out-loud flourish that deliberately makes mincemeat of one of the most disturbing aspects of the xenomorphs as seen up to this point, their double jaw.
One of Cameron’s most important storytelling inflections that recurs throughout Aliens is evinced here in near-throwaway fashion, as Hick’s heroic action nonetheless results in spraying acid blood burning Hudson’s arm. This motif of rolling crisis where gestures and actions constantly result in unintended consequences drives much of the story in a manner that feels realistically chaotic whilst also forcing it onwards in compulsive motion. Ripley manages to barrel the APC out through the plant door after running over a xenomorph that tries to break through the windscreen to get at her, at the cost of shattering the APC’s transaxle. The Marines call in Ferro and the drop ship to come pick them up, but a xenomorph gets aboard the ship and kills the crew, resulting in the drop ship crashing and colliding with the atmospheric plant, setting in motion exactly the inevitable nuclear meltdown they feared. Later in the film Vasquez and Gorman’s final action of blowing themselves up to avoid being eaten and take a few xenomorphs with them offers a moment of valiant kamikaze grace, but also causes another accident that forces Ripley to even more dangerous and strenuous actions.
Aliens tends not to be thought of as a horror movie, unlike Alien, which more obviously straddles the narrow gap between that genre and sci-fi. And yet it has just as much horrific imagery and atmosphere as its precursor, and indeed goes a few steps further, like showing the results of people getting sprayed with the acidic alien blood, and the imagery of the hive festooned with dead, eviscerated colonists. As well as the obvious Horror cues Alien subsumes – the “haunted castle” space ships, the blasted alien planet, the lurking monster, the presence of Ripley as an early and defining “final girl,” the strongly Lovecraftian tilt of the imagery and ideas – it exemplifies how Horror is a style or genre defined by tension derived from the fallibility of the feebly human before forces beyond their control. By contrast, action as a genre is defined by the dispelling of such forces through exemplars of human resilience and toughness: filmmakers don’t have some big, tough muscleman turn up in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978) to kick the fiend’s ass, precisely because such stories require the heroes to be distinctly more vulnerable than the avatars of evil. Aliens can also count classic horror films like The Birds (1963) and George Romero’s Deadfilms as precursors in the theme of fighting violent inhuman besiegement.
But of course Aliens is also a war movie and an interstellar western, and the argument between the immobilising dread of horror and the proactive furore of these other genres is part of what makes Aliens endlessly engaging as a grand nexus of various storytelling traditions and inflections. As legendary as the film’s heroic beats have become, they wouldn’t be at all effective if Cameron wasn’t also so committed at walking his characters up to the edge of the truly nightmarish. The disparity can be traced to the divergent urges expressed in the roots of the two genres. Both go back to stories told around tribal campfires in a far-flung past. In such oral traditions, horror is based in the kinds of stories told to keep children close to the circle of light, warning balefully of the gleaming eyes watching from the dark, whereas those other genres are based in the tales told about great warriors and leaders, the defenders of the tribe, the ones strong enough to go out into that dark. Something Aliens does better than just about any other example I can think of is find the interlocutor of the two in the image of a protecting parent.
Cameron’s approach to the war movie, whilst containing character types going back to silent films like The Big Parade(1925), is nonetheless shaped by his own and his original audience’s cultural moment. Aliens presents a strongly nudging subtext for a popular understanding of the Vietnam War: the Marines, confident in their edge of both machismo (even the women) and technological superiority, as they descend into an environment which their foes, who prove far more intelligent and dangerous than expected and motivated by more coherent, communal urges, are all too good at exploiting. Cameron emphasises the motif through both casting – Matthews, in a casting touch anticipatory of R. Lee Ermey in the following year’s Full Metal Jacket, had been a real-life US Marine, and knew the required attitude inside out – and details like the future-but-not drop ships and the subsumed banter and attitude of Vietnam-era American soldiers. Cameron had success writing the post-Vietnam revenge and homecoming fantasy of Rambo: First Blood Part II and to a certain extent Aliens can be read as its distaff variation, with Ripley fulfilling the role of resurgent natural warrior. But Aliens feels closer to the more considered metaphorical meditation Cameron had woven into The Terminator, where Biehn’s Kyle Reese was easily read as a damaged returned veteran. Aliens came out in the same year as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and the two films’ similarities include a soldier’s-eye sense of disdain for officer school training grad lieutenants.
Aliens feels its way around all this in portraying Ripley’s reconstruction from PTSD-riddled human cargo to the essential and emblematic action heroine. Ripley’s place in finally and persuasively creating an archetype scarcely seen so unfettered since folkloric figures like Boudica, Kahina, or Jeanne Hachette has been very well covered ever since, but it’s worth noting on some of the things Cameron and Weaver manage to do through her that made her so vital. As noted, Cameron presents a largely gender-egalitarian world, mediating the traditional Hawksian testing of the outsider on the level of civilian versus soldier and grunt versus officer, cutting out any of the usual jockeying and bickering or tendencies towards what is now called “girlboss” politicking. Ripley’s wisdom, as in the first film, is a mere edge of awareness and forthrightness, and what seems to be her chief liability, the crippling horror of her prior experience with the xenomorph, proves to be a great advantage too, able to recover more quickly from the dizzying blows of their attacks and already knowing what kinds of behaviours will save lives and which will get them all killed. A crucial moment comes when she reacts to the horrible death of the cocooned survivor, recreating her own image of herself from her dream as impregnated and doomed, as Ripley grips her own stomach and grimaces in terrible sympathy. As far as catharsis goes, this is about as rough as it gets, but it nonetheless immediately precedes her resurgence as a fighter.
To this Cameron added a faith that Ripley’s specifically feminine qualities were potent virtues rather than discomforting appendages to be denied or ignored in the course of enabling her. Alien suggested maternal instinct in Ripley in her choice to save Jones at the risk of her own life, and to a certain extent Cameron merely elaborates on this streak in reiterating the lengths Ripley will go to to save those she cares about and in subtly reproducing the original film’s basic plot beats. Nonetheless Aliens is much more specific, and particularly in the Special Edition makes it clear that for Ripley such instinct is because being a mother is a significant and immediate part of her identity. This signals why she’s able to form such a quick and intense bond with Newt, and also underlies her instinct to race to the rescue of the Marines. It’s also apparent even in small but consequential gestures as when Ripley orders Newt to leave the APC’s command space when the cameras show the Marines exploring the hive and seeing colonist bodies festooning the walls: as well as the awful spectacle in and of itself, in which Ripley amusingly resembles a dutiful parents warding a child off from something verboten on TV, Ripley also knows well Newt might see her parents and brother amongst them.
Newt herself is in part a nod to the kinds of urchins who attach themselves to soldiers in classic war movies, whilst presenting an ideal surrogate daughter for Ripley in the way too she is an uncommon, alternative kind of survivor: at one point Ripley admonishes the ranting Hudson with a reminder that Newt found ways to subsist for weeks without help or training, so surely the ultimate badasses can take a few lessons. Newt wields a mixture of the authentically childlike – picking up the Marines’ idiom and gestures (“Affirmative!”) with mimicking delight – and an edge of premature awareness and gravitas, in her certainty that the Marines’ firepower “won’t make any difference” against the aliens, and her nudging reminder to Ripley that her doll Casey isn’t cursed with scary dreams unlike herself and Ripley because “she’s just a piece of plastic.” It’s a measure of the depth of Weaver’s performance, and probably the reason why she gained a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role, a rarity for such a genre movie, in that she’s coherently able to shift between more fearsome postures and gently coaxing maternal interactions with Henn’s Newt, in utterly convincing vignettes like her murmuring ruefully, after dabbing away some dirt on the girl with some cocoa when she’s first discovered, “Now I’ve done it, I’ve accidentally made a clean spot here – now I guess I’ll have to clean the whole thing.” Newt is of course also, like Jones, a plot device, providing a motive for Ripley to not only survive, but to take the kind of risk usually reserved to heroes of classic mythology.
Meanwhile the rest of the humans interact with a deft combination of acting and writing to the point where they’re more precisely drawn than many another film’s lead character, from Paxton’s brilliant slide from posturing wiseass to whiny hysteric before finally going out in a blaze of authentic glory, to Goldstein’s strident Vasquez demanding of the injured Gorman, “Wake up, pendejo, and then I’m gonna kill you!” Henriksen, a familiar enough character actor in movies including Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), had been the star in Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning and his initial proposed casting for the role of the Terminator. Cameron’s fondness for him was justified as playing Bishop finally boosted him to cult acting hero status, in part because he expertly walks a line of studied blandness that sustains the question as to whether Bishop is another cyborg monster like Ash – he has a similar awed regard when studying their anatomy – or a good guy. The answer finally comes when he makes a quip, “I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid,” when he volunteers for a risky mission only he can likely pull off, and it’s impossible to doubt him henceforth, even when he seems to abandon Ripley and Newt to their fate.
Biehn, hastily brought aboard the movie to play Hicks after James Remar was forced to drop out, finished up playing a similar role to the one he had in The Terminator as an ideal male hero who nonetheless finishes up too battered and scarred to be of much help to the heroine as she faces evil alone. Hicks however isn’t a damaged case like Kyle Reese was, but rather a quiet, intense dark horse who clearly isn’t eager to be the star: “Yeah…yeah,” he murmurs ruefully after Ripley points out he’s now in charge, a marvellous little moment for Biehn. But within moments, after being incidentally belittled by Burke, Hicks readily commits to command and to implementing Ripley’s suggestion of aerial nuclear bombardment of the area – “Only way to be sure” – in a way that suddenly confirms he’s the rare character both smart enough and sufficiently untroubled by ego to know the right idea when he hears it, and so is precisely the leader the crisis needs. The crash of the drop ship foils this plan, and obliges the team to fortify themselves in the command centre, sealing up every conceivable door, pipe, and conduit, planning to wait out the 17 day interval before another rescue mission is sent. But Bishop soon tells them they can’t wait that long: the drop ship’s crash damaged the atmospheric processor and it’s now on a countdown to explosion. Bishop agrees to venture outside to patch into the outpost’s transmitter and remote pilot a second drop ship down from the Sulaco. During the wait, Ripley and Newt find themselves trapped with two freed facehuggers specimens, and are only rescued by the Marines in the nick of time. Ripley knows full well this must have been orchestrated by Burke, who she already knows both ordered the search for the alien ship and wants to take the specimens back to Earth, and saw a good way of getting what he wants whilst silencing Ripley. And, incidentally, everyone else.
The reveal that Burke is a villain isn’t at all surprising, as it was pretty compulsory for a 1980s genre film to have an asshole yuppie. It could be said his presence dials down the Kafkaesque portrait of corporate insidiousness in Alien to something more containable: rather than operating on the company’s behalf Burke’s self-defence suggests it’s his own opportunism driving his actions. Still he’s the avatar of the same forces at work, and Reiser makes the character effective in the way he carefully shades Burke’s purposefully inoffensive façade with his unblinking believe-you-me stare and air of practiced facetiousness, a film of sweat greasing his upper lip as he labours to keep up his bullshit in the face of the Marines’ murderous anger. His execution is only staved off by a sudden power outage, a failure that tells Ripley the xenomorphs are on the move with purpose, much to Hudson’s disbelief (“They’re animals, man!”), but quickly confirmed by the team’s motion detectors. Cameron’s use of the detectors, pulsing with ever-increasing pitch and squirming blurs on their readout screens confirming the horde’s approach, to generate tension is peerless, whilst also returning to the ambiguity of technology as a filter for experience. The relentless march of the monsters towards the command centre remains invisible and illogical as they seem to be right upon the humans but without any sign of them, until the penny drops and Ripley turns her gaze upwards towards the panelled ceiling – the one, forgotten conduit for invasion. The pure essence of the monster movie and everything the mode encompasses comes in the next moment: Hicks is boosted up to lift a panel and turn a torch down the duct, glimpsing the hellish vision of a horde of xenomorphs crawling inexorably closer.
Aliens created a template that young and eager genre filmmakers, and some not-so-young ones, would imitate exhaustively in years to come. The hard, chitinous look imbued upon the tech and environs would be endlessly imitated along with the plot patterns and lines of defiant dialogue. Cameron’s editing of the action scenes is quick almost to the point of being subliminal in places, generally to mask limitations of the special effects but also amplifying the sense of the blindsiding speed with which situations turn on a dime from anxious calm to life-and-death conflict. And yet it’s also still entirely lucid and precise in filming and framing. Cameron’s repeated, forceful use of point-of-view shots goes beyond the fascination with layered media, and provides much of the film surging, immediate energy – barely noticed in the rush of events as when he cuts between Burke’s viewpoint as he shuts the door sealing off himself from Ripley and Newt and theirs as they see the door close, and repeated with more bravura towards the end as Cameron adopts Bishop’s pilot’s-eye-view as he barrels the drop ship through plumes of smoke and fire amidst the jutting steel forms in fleeing the atmospheric processor. The sequence of Ripley and Newt trapped in the Med Lab is particularly great in exploiting what the audience both knows and doesn’t know as well as offering a moment of pure situational thrill-mongering. Cameron reiterates the constant motif in the film and its predecessor involving waking and sleeping and the blurred ground between dream and nightmare, as Ripley, who has fallen asleep with Newt who by habit hides under her bed from the very real monsters, awakens and spies the toppled tubes that contained the facehugger specimens, shifting from an idyllic portrait of her bonding attachment into imminent danger and threat, as well as invoking the basic parental role, as the person whose presence allows a child to sleep untroubled.
Ripley quickly finds they’ve been locked in, and Cameron cuts to a shot of Burke switching off the security camera in the Med Lab unnoticed by the Marines. Hicks has given Ripley one of the pulse rifles after showing her how to use it, but it’s been lifted and left on a table outside. Ripley has to find a way of attracting attention, a problem she solves quickly enough by setting off the fire alarm. Hicks and the other Marines dash to the rescue, but how long it will take them to get there is unknown. Ripley has gained their attention, but has made the situation even more nightmarish as infernal red fire lamps glow, the harsh siren buzzes and robs any advantage of listening for the creatures, and water pours down: will the water slow down the facehuggers, or do they love it? For those who had seen Alien, the facehuggers are known to be swift and akin to an instant death sentence once attached, but just how fast they can move and whether they can be outwitted is still moot. Cameron builds to the sear-itself-into-your-cortex shot of the facehugger scuttling after Ripley with obscene multi-limbed motion before it springs on her, wrapping its tail about her neck, Ripley trying to find off its furiously wriggling form, whilst Newt manages to pin the other one’s tail against the wall as it comes for her. Only then does Cameron cut to the sight of the Marines outside, having arrived in the meantime: their appearance is both logical but also a non-sequitir, a startling break from the suffocating moment of dread. Hicks tells the others to shoot out the plexiglass window before launching himself through it in a moment of fearless bravura, and the Marines earn a moment of heroic effectiveness as Hudson saves Newt whilst Hicks, Gorman, and Vasquez untangle the one on Ripley and toss it into a corner to be blasted to bits.
The final invasion by the xenomorphs likewise exploits the red emergency lighting to signal the change from placidity to hellish urgency, as monstrosities drop from the ceiling and erupt from the floor. Burke momentarily prevents the team’s retreat by locking a door, seemingly hoping the team will be killed so he can meet up with Bishop and escape, only to find himself trapped with one of the monsters. It’s a measure of the craftsmanship brought to bear in the film that this sequence manages to evoke the authentic chaos of such a battle as the jangling monsters spring and surge in the bloody red light, whilst also capturing iconic vignettes for its heroes – Hudson taunting the xenomorphs as he guns them down, Vasquez blasting them with her grenade launcher, with Horner’s most epic strains blasting all the way. Hudson, Vasquez, and Gorman all die in the rear-guard defence. Cameron allows each to go down as the reborn absolute badass they always sought to be, fighting to the last round with all their ferocity and grit brought to bear, Hudson dragged into the abyss still screaming out curses at the monsters, Gorman blowing himself and Vasquez up when he realises they’re trapped and can’t escape.
But it’s also worth noting that their gestures are also self-defeating, dying in part by their own heroic pretences as well as the monsters, as none of them quite has the sense to follow Newt at top speed: the little girl holds the key to their salvation in knowing the way through the air vents to the landing field. In this regard Cameron echoes something of the romantic fatalism of H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and indeed its source novel with its last line describing its ill-fated hero as one killed by his own ferocious determination to live. The way Vasquez wails, “Oh no!” after she’s crippled by some of the xenomorph blood, is a perfect signature for her character, registering both fury at herself and terror in finally being crippled, before the simultaneously stirring and ironic sight of her and Gorman locked together in a moment of perfect fulfilment in the second before Gorman’s grenade goes off, and they vansish in a fireball. Problem is, this götterdamerung for warriors results in a shockwave that makes Newt fall into a vent and plunge to a lower level in the building, demanding Hicks and Ripley pursue her. By the time they reach her she’s been snatched away to the hive by a xenomorph, and Hicks is badly burned by acid blood killing another. Ripley manages to help Hicks reach Bishop as the drop ship arrives, but insists she has to back into the hive to rescue Newt. Cue perhaps the all-time greatest variation on a standard action movie vignette, as Ripley arms herself to the teeth in preparing for the venture whilst Bishop flies her into the atmospheric processor, which is beginning to show signs of destabilising in the face of imminent meltdown.
Everything up until this point has been great, but Aliens kicks to a higher level, reaching the innermost core where those divergent ancient storytelling traditions fork, in this sequence. This is of course in large part to the converging elements of cinema – Weaver’s performing, the shooting and editing, Horner’s big brass-and-drum scoring – but also because of the way everything seen before in the film and its predecessor unites into one, pure spectacle. Much like the following year’s Predator, the climax dispenses with all social-animal preliminaries and gets down to a basic, primal rite, the hero who must venture into the bear’s cave and risk tooth and claw. But with the corollary that Ripley’s motive is not symbolic or general, but a specific, deeply personal expression of maternal urge that overrides every other instinct in the existential manual. The deep-flowing fairy tale motif returns as Ripley uses flares like the breadcrumb trail in Hansel and Gretel, whilst on a more mythic level she combines in herself Theseus and Ariadne heading into the Labyrinth on the hunt for the minotaur, Perseus and Andromeda, St George and the princess. The processor plant, glimpsed as Bishop flies into it, has become a gothic monstrosity, spitting lightning and fire, the most literalised edition of William Blake’s vision of dark satanic mills as the blight of industrialism conceivable. All classical storytelling kneaded into modern psychological theory, and it’s working on that level too, as Ripley has also found the overriding urge that makes all inner demons ineffective. At the same time, Cameron lets the audience see Ripley thinking as well as acting: the weaponry she assembles – taping a flamethrower to a pulse rifle, readying the flares – is, far from heedlessly vainglorious, instead utilising every particle of knowledge she’s gathered about her foes and their home, from their physical traits to their numbers, which by this point if hardly decimated must be greatly thinned, and with the majority of the remaining host left behind in the abandoned command centre. In short, even as Ripley finally becomes an action hero unbound, she’s still very much the character she’s been portrayed as, quick on her mental as well as physical feet. If Cameron had by and large eased back on the protean erotic imagery Scott wielded by way of H.R. Giger’s art in the earlier part of the film, he brings it back with a more sickly, suggestive edge in the sight of Newt swathed in hardened cocooning gel that looks like ejaculate, a xenomorph egg peeling open in rather penile fashion, giving this vignette a coded quality of a wrathful mother coming to save her child from a paedophile.
The symbolism inverts nonetheless as Ripley successfully locates Newt and tears her free only to stumble upon the monstrous queen, a great bony crone with a gross, pendulous egg-sack spitting out monstrous seed. Ripley has found her own interspecies doppelganger – the queen’s squarish jaw even seems to have been deliberately moulded on Weaver’s – as another fiercely protecting mother, but this one diseased, spawning misbegotten devils. The two communicate in gesture, as Ripley gives a spurt of fire from her flamethrower, just enough to make clear to the queen she’ll set fire to her eggs if she lets the xenomorphs lurking in the wings come out, and the queen bids them retreat. The tentative little truce ends when one of the eggs opens: Ripley gives a tilt of her head, grits her teeth, and starts blasting. It’s impossible not to share Ripley’s raw, punishing, near-mindless expression of exterminating rage, and yet as with the Marines earlier, her warlike self-purgation is self-defeating, as she wastes most of her arsenal destroying a hive that will be blown up anyway in a few minutes, making herself very close to a victim of new warrior bravura. Tellingly, Ripley aims all her rage and grenades at the queen’s vestigial egg-sack rather than her exoskeletal body, and after Ripley flees with Newt, the alien queen rips free of the sack and follows, bent on vengeance. Ripley finds Bishop seems to have flown off with the drop ship, seemingly confirming Ripley’s anxiety about Bishop, and in the moment of ultimate confrontation with both parental and childhood fear, Ripley tells Newt, “Close your eyes, baby,” as the alien queen emerges from the shadows of an elevator. Except, of course, Bishop suddenly flies the drop ship into view and scoops up the two humans, before fleeing at top speed, just managing to escape the colossal explosion that consumes Hadleys Hope and everything around it and zooming back into the stars.
Cameron makes a dry nod towards a Spielbergian take on a cinematic fairy-tale motif, as he shifts from the cataclysmic vision of the explosion to the sight of the drop ship zooming up into the stars, Horner’s music now offering gently melodic, resolving sounds at a juncture that for most movies would mark the end of the bad dream. But this being Cameron, of course, he has a trick up his sleeve as he did with the emerging cyborg in The Terminator and with the same basic concept of an inimical form of intelligence simply refusing to observe the niceties of what a human would justifiably call enough, as well as repeating and expanding upon the finale of Alien. Right at what seems to be the hearty final moment of conciliation between Ripley and Bishop, who’s delighted by her praise, the hiss of burning acid and Bishop suddenly contorting in pain announces a last act as the alien queen crawls out of a landing gear bay, having skewered Bishop on its horny tail, before ripping him in half. Being as he is an artificial person Bishop doesn’t expire from such treatment, but the vision of both Hicks and Bishop left too injured to help Ripley not only demands she find a way to battle the monster alone but also carries potent metaphorical aspects – Cameron’s viewpoint of a fatally injured idea of masculinity, exposed in both the classical hero Hicks and the motherly, slightly fey male Bishop, whilst playing nice in that they’re both nobly wounded rather than toxic and imperious like the Terminator, nonetheless demands a new kind femininity evolve to take its place, and with the suggestion that the last act of all wars is ultimately fought by women, those who have to deal with the subtler but more pernicious monsters it unleashes.
Bishop’s sundering is also a bravura moment of visual ruthlessness, a shock twist that resembles Ripley’s discovery of the alien on the Narcissus in the previous film and also a last, needling reminder that the material is still mean stuff. Whilst the alien queen hunts for Newt, who tries to hide under the docking bay floor gratings, Ripley emerges wearing the power loader suit, augmented to a level of power equal to the monster. Okay, altogether now, three…two…one: “Get away from her, you bitch!” An unnecessarily rhetorical flourish, probably, given we’ve already seen the idea illustrated thoroughly, but still one of the most delightful moments in the genre film canon, and the signature for Ripley: this isn’t Ripley the damaged survivor or Ripley the hysterical berserker but the ultimate version, powered up with steel fists, completing the journey in now making clear it’s the monster that should be scared. Later, in Titanic and Avatar, Cameron would more conspicuously re-devote himself to what could be called new-age editions of imagery and themes echoing out High Romantic art and literature of the 1700s and 1800s, where artist-heroes rewrite reality with passion, flee collapsing idols, and bestride pristine wildernesses, a twist that might have seemed odd given his penchant for technology as a device both liberating and frightening.
But it becomes clearer in watching Cameron’s oeuvre that the dark side of technology lies in its potential, indifferently destructive effect on living systems, the appeal of it lies in restoring the kind of heroic agency associated with classical art forms. Thus Ripley repurposes a tool, one associated previously with her humiliation and reconstruction, into a new kind of knightly armour, able to step up to the nastiest demon lurking in Beelzebub’s caverns and sock it in the face. Finally, in the titanic struggle that follows, she manages to dump the creature into an airlock and blast it out into the same void as its predecessor, although not before the queen, with its species’ characteristic will to survive, keeps hanging on to Ripley to the bitter end. Finally Ripley seals up the ship as the bifurcated Bishop clings onto the flailing Newt, who finally, unthinkingly anoints Ripley as “Mommy!” as they’re finally united. Cameron returns to the fairy-tale motif for a final image of mother and daughter delivered back to their dreams, perhaps no better than before, but at least now just dreams.
The Keep’s very first shot, as if tracing the path of a falling angel, describes a seemingly endless downwards pan, descending from grey, storm-ridden sky to jagged pine forests clinging to the flanks of soaring mountains, before finally settling on a convoy of grey-painted Wehrmacht trucks labouring their way up a narrow mountain pass, set to the throbbing, alien textures of Tangerine Dream’s score evoking both the roll of thunder and the chugging of the straining motors and mimicking the narcotising effect on the German soldiers rolling up the road. A cigarette lit in ultra-close-up, a shot of caterpillar tracks churning along the gravelly road, swooning visions of the mist-drapped mountain peaks. Immediately, director Michael Mann, making his second feature after Thief (1981), deposits the viewer within a dreamlike space, offering a classical Horror genre setting and motif in journeying from the mundane world into one of oneiric remove, but wrapped not in traditional genre style cues, but a hard shell of burgeoning 1980s high style cinema. The year, a title card informs us, is 1941, with the Nazi onslaught reaching its climax with armies closing in on Moscow. In this place, the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Mountains, Captain Klaus Woermann, embodied in rugged, sagging melancholy by Jürgen Prochnow, leads his men into a tiny Romanian hamlet clinging to the jagged walls of the pass’s highest reaches, to occupy and garrison an enigmatic medieval fortification there.
Actually entering the village, penetrating a veil of mist to behold a medieval hamlet, sees Mann shifts to slow motion and the score to spacy, mysterious strains as Woermann surveys this piece of another, older world cut off from the sturm-und-drang of the warlike moment and, seemingly, whole other intervening centuries. And the Keep itself, a featureless trapezoidal block of grey brick, looming over the village and a deep gorge. One of Woermann’s men complains about this unimportant detail when Germany’s soldiers are near to total victory, but Woermann assures him the real fighting is over and Germany is now master of Europe: “Does that enthrall you?” he enquires with theatrical enthusiasm. Woermann’s own ambivalence over fighting in a war that most certainly does not enthral him is something that resolves even as his situation becomes ever more mysterious and terrible. Woermann and his men enter the Keep and begin setting up their garrison. But Woermann notes, however, the building is not a defensive structure, but designed like a prison. The walls are lined with 108 silvery, crucifix-like markings that the Keep’s caretaker, Alexandru (Morgan Sheppard), warns are not to be touched, a taboo he insists upon with deadly seriousness although he doesn’t know why and can’t report any bad events in the Keep save the general refusal of visitors to stay through the night: “Then what drives people out in the middle of a rainy night?” Woermann questions. “Dreams?” the caretaker replies.
Since the time of its release, The Keep could scarcely seem more benighted. Despised by F. Paul Wilson, author of its source novel, it was also soon disowned by Mann, furious at the way Paramount Pictures threw the film away after losing faith in the project. Special effects master Wally Veevers died during production, leaving the planned spectacular finale in uneditable disarray. Finally the film proved a calamitous bomb at the box office and was generally dismissed by critics, although many Horror genre fans and scholars grasped its unique and fascinating aesthetic. Mann’s active role in keeping the film hidden away, refusing to let it be released on DVD for many years, only helped its slow accruing of near-legendary mystique for anyone who could catch it on TV or had access to its early VHS and laserdisc releases. The Keep has evolved into one of my absolute favourite films, and its evident flaws are an indivisible part of its compelling makeup. After success with the telemovie The Jericho Mile (1979), Mann made a terrific debut as a feature filmmaker with Thief, a movie that commenced Mann’s career-long aesthetic preoccupation with trying to blend classical genre cinema with a hypermodern, dramatically distilled approach, trying to place as much of the weight of the storytelling and ambience fall on his rigorously constructed imagery that often nudges a kind of neo-expressionistic minimalism. This approach generally suits his preference for tough, stoic heroes, beings who still have some of the toey instinctiveness of forest animals even in the densest urban jungle.
When, for his second film, Mann chose to make a Horror movie, he took a similarly essentialist approach, trying to make a movie describing the idea of a Horror movie as much as the thing itself. He stripped out almost all of the background lore of Wilson’s novel and trying to convey a sense of dread and lurking menace through careful visualisation, to make a fable of pure menace and mood. Mann shot most of The Keep in Shepperton Studios whilst building the Romanian village and the Keep’s exterior in a Welsh quarry, but Mann’s notorious later habit of causing budget overruns with his exacting shooting style was apparently already emerging. But, again as he would later, Mann’s exacting reach for effect justifies itself. The early shots see him weaving his style in a series of elusive directorial flourishes: that opening shot conveys place and time but relentlessly pushes the eye down a vertical access, giving little sense of the surrounds. A lake surface mirrors back the sky, turning the grand space into a trap. Woermann’s first glimpses of the village are dreamy, punch-drunk, barely liminal. The Keep itself is hardly glimpsed apart from the looming grey gateway, with only two proper wide exterior shots of the structure in the whole film. This approach lets Mann skirt location and special effects shortfalls, of course, but also conditions the viewer to a zone unmoored from any sure sense of geography and spatial stability, just as Woermann beholds a scene out of the Middle Ages, unmoored in time.
The Keep itself presents a cultural, architectural, and military conundrum: the locals who maintain it have no real idea of how old it is, who pays for its upkeep, or what its purpose it ever served. Woermann’s soldierly eye notices that for what seems to be a defensive structure it’s built inside out, with easily scalable exterior walls and the largest, strongest stone blocks inside, more like a prison. Rumours start to grip Woermann’s more avaricious men, including Pvt Lutz (John Vine), that the crosses are made of silver and other treasures might be hidden in the Keep: Lutz tries to break off one of the crosses only to receive watch detail for a week from the irate Woermann. During the night, as Lutz stands bored and lonely watch, one of the crosses begins emitting an eerily bright blue light, and looking closer at it Lutz realises that this cross does indeed seem to be silver. He fetches another man on watch, Otto (Jona Jones), and the two men claw out the granite block the cross is affixed to, revealing a narrow tunnel that Lutz crawls into. Mann’s stylistic oddness continues in this sequence, as he distorts the avaricious franticness of the two soldiers with slow-motion shots of them running to and fro amidst hazily backlit shots, all bound together in strange manner by the use of Tangerine Dream’s theme “Logos” on the soundtrack, imbuing a propulsive mood, if retaining a spacy, alien texture inherent in that classic synthesiser sound, of a unit with Mann’s recurrent passion with intensely rhythmic image-audio match-ups, the flagrant anachronism of the scoring heightening the disorientating texture.
Lutz crawls into the passage and dislodges a block, only to almost fall into a vast, dark space beyond, saved because he had Otto tie a strap to his waist. In one of the greatest shots in all of fantastic cinema, Mann’s camera retreats a seemingly infinite distance away from the soldier’s dwindling torch into the furthest depths of the abyss, a space which contains mysterious ruins of some ancient structures. Once the long pullback shot finally concludes, a surge of light swoops into the frame and coalesces into ball of light that rises up to meet the faint torchlight. Otto is almost pulled into the tunnel by a sudden, violent jerking, and when he drags his comrade out, finds only a steaming, headless trunk, before being flung away with bone-shattering force as a mysterious power floods out of the shaft and infests the Keep. Mann cuts with headlong force to the antipathetic force stirred to action: Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn), awakening in a bed somewhere in Greece, eyes glowing and surging energy drawing into his body, stirred by the eruption of the entity in the Keep. Glaekus rises from bed, packs his belongings including a long wooden case, and heads to the docks of Piraeus where he bribes a fishing boat captain to take him to the Romanian coast: Mann films the boat’s voyage into dawn light in a languorously beautiful vignette.
Walking the line between intriguing hints and frustrating vagueness is always a tricky art, and for many Mann went too far with The Keep. But it’s precisely the film’s allusive sense of arcane and ageless struggle, and its near-ethereal, carefully reductive vision of perfect forms of good and evil, that makes it something unique, the hints of cosmic battles and unknowable history at the heart of the story, a vast mythic-emblematic Manichaeism pointedly set against the more immediate and definable evil of Nazism, the heart of darkness nested inside the European übermenschen dream. Paramount might well have hoped the film would prove a Horror movie variant on the supernatural anti-Nazi revenge fantasy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most broadly and obviously, the film presents a variation on the classic motif of a haunted castle. Wilson’s novel presented a Lovecraft-tinted rewrite of that founding tome of modern Horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a work that’s retained much of its popularity for the way, published just before the dawn of the 20th century, it charted so many of the oncoming age’s faultlines. Wilson made more literal the connection between Dracula and the paranoid impression of dread power and evil rising in the east of Europe it articulated, by moving the setting to World War II and drawing together crosscurrents of folklore and politics at the moment.
Mann, whilst divesting much of the novel’s superstructure, had his own take on the same idea evidently in mind. In particular, Mann seemed interested in investigating through visual and thematic refrains the link suggested by German film historian Siegfried Krakauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler between the psychic anxieties communicated in the imagery of classic German Expressionist films and the oncoming fascist mentality. The German Expressionist era was replete with contradictions, like future Nazi Paul Wegener’s obsession with the Jewish myth of the Golem that caused him to make two films on the subject, and the Nazi leaders’ worship of the monumental aesthetic laid down by the half-Jewish Fritz Lang. Krakauer’s ideas had their highly dubious aspect, but Mann found how to put them to dynamic use, making The Keep perhaps the closest thing anyone has made to a truly modern take on the Expressionist Horror style, and tethering it to a story that specifically offers meditation on the Nazi mindset and questions of how to resist it. The story purposefully unfolds simultaneous to WWII’s supreme tipping point of the furthest Nazi advance during the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the drama enacted in the Keep is both far more intimate than the war and far larger, a confrontation of primeval forces.
Mann’s casting notably has the Eastern European characters speak with American accents, to emphasise their distinctness from the Germans, who are played by a mix of British, Irish, and German actors. Mann also shifted away from the novel’s use of vampirism, which he found silly: once the entity trapped within the grand cavern is unleashed into the Keep, it begins killing Woermann’s men by absorbing their life essence, leaving charred and withered corpses. The entity, appearing after a time as a writhing pillar of fog around a stem of skeletal parts and blood vessels, builds substance out of its harvested victims. The idea of a monster slowly assembling itself a physical form echoes back to Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and would be used again in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999). Woermann’s messages of distress soon bring not relocation as he hopes, but an SS Einstaz Kommando detachment under the command of Sturmbahnführer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), which steams into the village, takes a number of hostages, and shoots them before their horrified fellow villagers. Kaempffer promises of more retaliation against them if any more Germans are killed. The irate Woermann, who is ordered by Kaempffer not to interfere, points out that Kaempffer has just killed citizens of an allied state.
Kaempffer nonetheless begins using all his arrogant prowess as a bully and killer to get to the bottom of the mystery, using terror tactics to root out presumed partisans. “Something else is killing us,” Woermann states in riposte: “And if it doesn’t care about the lives of three villagers? If it is like you? Then does your fear work?” When some mysterious words appear carved in a wall of the Keep near another dead soldier, the village priest, Father Mikhail Fonescu (Robert Prosky) recognises that the words are not written in any living language, and suggests the only way Kaempffer might get them translated is to find Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), a scholar and expert in Romanian history and linguistics, who grew up in the village and once made a study of the Keep. Problem: Cuza is Jewish, and has recently been rounded up for deportation. Cuza and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are at that moment sitting in a depot with other Jews, Gypsies and sundry undesirables awaiting transportation. Cuza is crippled by a degenerative disease that makes him look far older than he really is, and Eva acts as his carer.
Kaempffer’s command brings them both to the Keep, where the SS commander taunts Cuza with talk of place he was just about to be taken to, a place with two doors out, one of them a chimney: “So you had better find a way to be of use to me in three days.” Cuza recognises the language of the writing on the wall as a language dead for 500 years, and reads, “I will be free,” a message Kaempffer immediately interprets as a rebel declaration. Woermann tries to assure the Cuzas that he might be able to sneak them out of the Keep to a safe hiding place if they can buy enough time by keeping Kaempffer satisfied: “But then again you may not,” Eva comments sceptically. Eva soon attracts the lascivious eye of a couple of the German soldiers, who track her through the Keep after she comes to get food in the mess, and assault her in a dark, lonely corridor. Mann pulls off another of his weird yet potent visual flourishes as he pans down from Eva’s body, suspended between the two would-be rapists, to the leather boot of one soldier, an almost fetishistic contrast of the soft and feminine with macho brutality. As with the appeal to greed that helped set it free, the assault on Eva only stimulates the entity’s appetite as well as its cunning: the entity, now a ball of fire and smoke reminiscent of the one that pursues the hero of Night of the Demon (1957), surges through the Keep’s innards and falls on the soldiers, who disintegrate messily as the entity absorbs them.
Mann lingers on the image of the entity, now with two burning red eye-like orbs attached to a glowing brain stem, peering out of a writhing pillar of mist, carrying Eva with tender-seeming care back to her and her father’s room, a particularly strange distillation of the classic image of the monster and the maiden, whilst the scoring imbues the vision with the overtone of angelic deliverance. The stunned Cuza nonetheless retains his wit and will sufficiently to tell the entity to release his daughter. The entity speaks to Cuza, accusing him of collaborating with the Nazis: Cuza responds vehemently that he’d do anything to stop them, so the entity reaches out and touches him, giving him a shock of energy. When he regains consciousness, Cuza finds that he’s been restored to full health and mobility, and he realises why quickly enough: the entity wants his help to escape the Keep, which still entraps him. When he again encounters the entity, whose name, Molasar (Michael Carter), is only uttered once in the film, the mysterious being refers to the Jews as “my people” and vows to destroy the Nazis if Cuza will help him escape the Keep: Cuza agrees to find a mysterious energy source hidden in the grand cavern, an object Molasar describes as the source of his power and must be removed if he is to leave the Keep’s confines.
Mann’s enigmatic approach to the entity and the supernatural drama emphasises the humans in between ultimate good and evil as enacting gradations. “You believe in Gods, I’ll believe in men,’ Cuza tells Fonescu, and yet both material and emblematic conflicts have to play out to their bitter end. Where Thief had mooted Mann’s fascination for self-enclosed, self-directing protagonists, The Keep introduced his other career-long obsession, one with with doppelgangers, characters sharing similar traits and characters who often find they have surprising kinships, yet are doomed to clash violently because they’ve become, or were born, disciples of opposing creeds. It’s a preoccupation Mann would notably take into Manhunter, which revolves around the hero’s capacity to enter into the mindset of his repulsive quarries, and Heat (1995), where the cop and criminal have more affinity for each-other than anyone else, as well as The Last of the Mohicans (1991), where the heroes and villains are linked but also perfectly distinguished by their responses to loss of home and habitat. Mann would extend his recurrent imagery and implications to the point where he’d shoot Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat (2015) in a way that would make him look strikingly similar to Glenn in this film. In The Keep Mann’s preoccupation is presented in a set of generically rigid yet unstable binaries: Woermann and Kaempffer, representing Nazi Germany’s armed forces and yet divided by completely different characters and philosophies, contrasted with the atheist Cuza and Orthodox priest Fonescu, who’s desperate to do anything to keep his learned friend safe, and gives Cuza a crucifix as a gesture of protective feeling: Cuza hands the cross on to Woermann. In the course of The Keep, the link between the overt evil of the Nazis, particularly Kaempffer, and the entity as manifestation and overlord of their diseased ideals, is constantly reiterated; Woermann likens the twisted psyches of the Nazis to the illogical forms of the Keep’s architecture, and the entity itself no mere stand-in for their sick fantasies but the secret source of them.
As the film unfolds the affinities evolve and twist: Fonescu, under the influence of the evil in the Keep, degenerates into a ranting fanaticism for his creed like Kaempffer, whilst Cuza’s physical prostration is mimicked by Woermann’s moral impotence. At the same time the shaded oppositions cast Woermann as a pawn of the necessities of patriotism in the same way the entity turns Cuza into his Faustian representative: Cuza’s desire to smash the Nazis is realised but as he flexes his fist in his new strength he unconsciously mimics a fascist salute. Behind each set of mirroring protagonists, the eternal champions of light and dark, converging in the Keep. Glenn’s Glaeken is glimpsed making his way to the Dinu Pass, frightening and intimidating a pair of Romanian border guards at a checkpoint when his eyes again flash with brilliant energy as he warns them not to touch the case he has strapped to his motorcycle, a marvellously eerie vignette. Fittingly for a character intended as the pure incarnation of good, the otherworldly Glaeken is also presented as the ne plus ultra of Mannian hero figures: mostly silent, he dominates purely by corporeal presence and baleful charisma, communicated by a stare that seems to x-ray people even when not radiating supernatural energy. Mann had Glenn base his character’s odd, halting, ritualistic speaking style on the vocalisation of electronic musician Laurie Anderson. Glaeken turns up in the village at last making claim to a room in the inn which has been promised to Eva, after Woermann and Cuza outmanoeuvre Kaempffer in getting her out of the Keep. Glaeken the eternal warrior seems to have been left to wander the earth until needed to exterminate Molasar once and for all, and he quickly seduces Eva.
Mann’s debt to William Friedkin as a source of influence on his style – one that would reverse for To Live and Die In L.A. (1986), much to Mann’s displeasure – is apparent in The Keep through borrowing of Tangerine Dream’s pulsing, estranging sonic textures and a visual preoccupation with machines in motion from Sorcerer (1977), and subsuming that film’s subtler sense of atavistic powers working behind the mask of inanimate yet strangely motivated things. Mann’s style is its own thing, that said, to a radical degree. Mann contrives glimpses of grotesque and perplexing things, like the discovery of a dead soldier under the carved words comes in an obliquely framed glimpse of the man’s head fused into the wall, one staring eye amidst a charred black face, and Eva realising she can’t see Glaeken’s reflection in a mirror in what seems a perfectly intimate moment. The colour palette of Alex Thompson’s brilliant photography is mostly reduced to a sprawl of slate greys and blacks and misty whites, tellingly broken up only by the red of the SS Nazi armbands and the glowing eyes of Molasar. The film is full of disorientating jump cuts and discordant camera angles, work to sever a clear sense of chronology and context, as precise measures of time and place cease to be relevant as if within an explosion of the innermost Id, whilst relating back to classic genre cinema and the sense imbued by works from Lang through to Val Lewton of a world gone mad: indeed the cumulative sense of isolated paranoia closely resembles Isle of the Dead (1945), with which it shares a wartime setting and invocation of imminent doom in an isolated locale that seems to have slipped off the edge of the world’s physical and psychic maps.
Molasar meanwhile poses as a saviour to please and manipulate Cuza, who’s desperate to find a way to halt the Nazi onslaught: the Molasar costume, designed by Enki Bilal, an artist for the storied sci-fi and fantasy comic book Heavy Metal, was designed to be reminiscent of Wegener’s Golem with its dark, lumpen, bulbous, stony form, and Molasar, like the Golem of myth, promises to be a righteous weapon defending the faithful and victimised, only to prove a destructive monster. Molasar needs a man like Cuza to release him because, as Glaeken later mentions when he confronts Cuza, only an uncorrupted soul can even approach the imprisoning talisman. McKellen, who after playing D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love (1981) was having a brief moment as a major film actor long before his eventual resurgence in the mid-1990s, wields a noticeably plummy American accent, but ultimately gives a galvanic, impressively corporal performance in playing an intellectual hero who nonetheless experiences his world physically in his relationship with his wrecked body and frustrated will, and whose transfiguration from angry cripple to empowered and determined avenger has suggestions of both spiritual and erotic overtones – “He touched my body!” he tells Eva in describing his encounter with Molasar. This echoes again in Glaeken’s seduction of Eva, an act that has the flavour of ritual, the lovers become vessels connecting the immortal and mortal, sacred and earthly, flesh and alien substance, culminating in the couple forming themselves into a cruciform.
Prochnow was undoubtedly handed the part of Woermann because of his similar role as the intelligent and humane U-boat captain fighting for an evil cause in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), although Woermann’s ultimately quite a different character, and Prochnow gives a subtly apposite performance. Where the captain was endlessly tough and resourceful in defence of his men and his command whilst maintain open cynicism for their cause, Woermann is already bursting at the seams when he arrives at the Keep, haunted by witnessing SS men slaughtering people in Poznan, and by the wish he’d fought in the international brigades in Spain and had taken a stand against Nazism before it consumed his and everyone else’s lives. His punishment for his failures of nerve is to be stricken with ineffectiveness in protecting his men, relieved only by upbraiding the icily revolted Kaempffer, who ultimately diagnoses Woermann in turn with “the debilitating German disease – sentimental talk.” Woermann describes Kaempffer’s version of strength as having become literal in the Keep, a force of evil beyond imagining, the manifestation of all the sick psyches that have been given guns and carte blanche to slaughter. The clashes between Woermann and Kaempffer are unusually potent rhetorical vignettes thanks in part to the intensity of the two performers, inhabiting archetypal roles, the classic liberal and the perfect fascist: Woermann ferocious in his denunciations of evil but lacking the necessary edge to be truly effective, Kaempffer all too willing to do anything to make the Nazi ideal real, and willing to murder anyone who stands in opposition, including, ultimately, Woermann.
Their clash reaches its climax when Kaempffer furiously shoots Woermann in the back, just as Woermann, hearing his men screaming as Molasar assaults them, grabs up Fonescu’s cross, and he dies with it in his bloody hands. Kaempffer, plucking the cross from Woermann’s bloody hands, heads out into Keep’s atrium only to find all the remaining Germans killed, some fused into the walls, others scattered in smouldering chunks across the floor, their war machines twisted and melted, as if Molasar has become some Picasso-like modern artist working in the medium of stone, steel, and flesh to create mangled interpretations of warfare. Kaempffer is confronted by Molasar, causing him to drop to the ground wailing for Jesus to protect him, brandishing the crucifix. Molasar seems momentarily afraid of the icon, which resembles the talisman that holds him in the keep, so Kaempffer gathers up enough of his customary arrogacne to stand and face the thing. “What are you?” he demands. “Where do you come from?” the amused hulk asks: “I am you.” He takes the cross from Kaempffer, crushes it, and casually sucks the life from him with the same pitiless ease with which Kaempffer murdered, the Nazi releasing a bone-chilling shriek as he does. This is a brilliant moment where even the utterly despicable Kaempffer earns a flash of cringe-inducing empathy in the face of such pure, inhuman malevolence.
Mann’s hope to make a parable about fascism might well have been a tad pretentious, but he succeeds within the film’s dream logic as Mann paints in visual textures the symbolic drama he’s describing. Molasar literally feeds off the darker desires in the men who release him, and in turn stirs people to more and more destructive acts. Kaempffer’s total embrace of Nazi ideology and methods makes him the human equivalent of Molasar, aiming to build “the next thousand years of history” on the bones of necessary sacrifice, but Molasar even uses Cuza’s own best qualities against him by posing as a messianic saviour figure simply by appealing to his righteous anger and hunger for revenge. The blackened, shrivelled, charred bodies of the Germans ironically resemble holocaust and atomic bomb victims, the casual victims of the war’s unleashed apocalyptic logic. Mann’s depiction of the Keep’s architecture, a strange space of uncertain angles and spaces above the mammoth, black, atavistic cavern, presents an ingenious visualisation of what Woermann describes as “twisted fantasies” of Nazism, growing out of the Nietzschean abyss, the abyss that looks back and sees right through all civilised and intelligent pretences. In this manner, Mann expands on Kracauer’s key concept of the Expressionist cinema movement as directly expressing the collective neurosis gripping Germany after World War I, which finally malformed into susceptibility to Nazism.
Mann’s concept of the Keep nods then back to the Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (1926), films that offered their stylised physical world as discrete emanations of human will and mind, beset by insane and sclerotic sectors. The Keep’s interior recalls the cavernous zones of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1923), and the windmill in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) where the good doctor performed his experiments, with alternation of spaces vast and cramped, soaring and warped, fashioned with rough and inhospitable brickwork. In most classic Expressionist Horror the weird world presented in them was the world nonetheless for the characters who exist in them, except notably in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari which laid down the template but also revoked it by presenting the key drama as the ravings of a madman. Mann does something similar in the opening moments of The Keep by emphasising Woermann’s act of seeing the village and the Keep, presenting his drama as subliminal, with a sense of passing through a discrete veil between waking and oneiric states, and everything encountered beyond there is operating on an unreal level. Whilst Kracauer’s thesis that Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari expressed a collective wish for a paternal dictator to restore shape to reality remains largely unconvincing, Mann puts it good use, correlating the perverse mental projections of the Expressionist style with the reality-distorting influence of Molasar. At the same time The Keep is also a movie that was, in 1983, a work defining a stylistic moment in moviemaking, which it quite obviously belongs to with its obsessive use of diffused lighting effects and backlit shots, as well as the dreamy slow motion and music: Mann follows Das Boot not just in casting Prochnow but in annexing its blithely anachronistic electronic score.
It’s often hard to exactly pinpoint in a compromised work like The Keep where exactly directorial intention and jarring interference diverge: what is apparently true is that Mann was forced to cut the film down from two hours to just over an hour and half. Eva’s swift seduction by Glaeken is often taken to be one sign of editing, but frankly it seems to me like one of the more purely Mannian elements of the film: near-instantaneous fusion of lost and needy souls is common in his movies, like John Dillinger’s swift claiming of Billie Frechette in Public Enemies (2009). There are however snippets of interaction between Eva and Glaeken in the film’s trailer that certainly suggest their scenes were cut down. The rough transition around the one-hour mark more clearly demonstrates interference. What’s presumably supposed to be the insidious infiltration of the village by Molasar’s influence comes on far too suddenly, particularly Fonescu’s pivot from kindly, good-humoured friend of Cuza to a ranting loony who barks zealous scripture at him. Soon after, in a moment difficult to parse on initial viewings Eva goes to Fonescu for aid only to find he’s sacrificed a dog on the altar of his church and is drinking its blood from a goblet. There was also a scene of Alexandru being murdered by his sons with an axe.
Given Mann’s stylisation, however, the jagged editing and resulting elisions really only reinforce the generally unmoored mood of the tale, the sense of obscene things lurking in the corner of the eye and numinous forces working relentless influence on the merely human. What was lost from the film through cutting, as well as some of the integrity of the last act, was Mann’s attempt to film the idea of evil as a miasmic influence, meant to mimic the fascist sway picking at the stitches of society and stampeding the world towards barbarian ruin. On the other hand, most of that stuff is supernal to the essential drama: Kaempffer and Woermann’s deaths transfer the weight of the story on Cuza and Eva. Moreover, it’s apparent that when faced with cutting the film, Mann often chose to jettison plot sequences to concentrate on moments commanding his bleary and submerged sense of atmosphere – that long shot of the fishing boat sailing into the dawn, for instance, kept instead of a moment taken from the book where Glaeken kills the captain of the boat who tries to doublecross him. Glenn, the top-billed actor, is nonetheless barely in The Keep for most of its first half, and even when he does arrive at the Keep he remains detached, ambiguous: authentic good is as alien as pure evil.
Glaeken seems to wield some sort of psychic power over Eva, brushing a hand over her eyes to make her sleep as they together in bed, a subtler but equally coercive force to the one Molasar wields. Glaeken senses through Magda the nature of her father’s compact with Molasar, and when Cuza takes a chance to leave the Keep with the German guards insensible under Molasar’s influence, Glaeken warns him about Molasar’s true nature and need. Cuza refuses to believe him, and drops hints about his presence to Kaempffer, who immediately sends some of his men to bring him in. When Eva frantically protests the arrest and gets into a tussle with the soldiers, Glaeken, to protect her, begins tossing the soldiers about like nine-pins, only to be machine-gunned: splotches of luminous green blood appear all over his torso and he refuses to die, until he plunges into the ravine and finishing up sprawled on a ledge where the Nazis presume him dead. Molasar’s subsequent slaughter of the remaining Germans clears the way for Cuza to descend into the cavern and locate the talisman, which he then carries back to the surface, whilst Glaeken revives and begins climbing the jagged ravine wall.
Mann offers one of his signature sequences here, a mesmerically constructed climactic running montage set to intensifying music, later exemplified by the likes of the hero’s Iron Butterfly-scored dash to the rescue in Manhunter and the clifftop chase in The Last of the Mohicans. Mann cuts between Glaeken hauling himself up the ravine face, still covered in glowing green blood (a touch notably recycled by Predator, 1986), whilst Cuza retrieves the talisman, which Molasar can’t even look at. Cuza climbs up through the cavern, a vast, eerie space filled with unknowably ancient ruins and signs of mystique-ridden history, all set music sampling operatic choruses and a church bell-like propelling rhythm. Striding down a corridor as he re-enters the Keep, Cuza’s progress is marked by the crosses on the wall glow in reaction to the talisman’s passing. Glaeken, after escaping the ravine, opens the case he carried to the Keep and removes what appears to be a simple metal tube, actually a weapon capable of destroying Molasar. This passage is one of Mann’s greatest units of filmmaking, and reaches its apotheosis as Cuza reaches the atrium, only to meet a dazed Eva, who tries to stop him removing the talisman. Molasar, watching on as the two struggle, commands Cuza to kill her and continue out.
As if in humanistic rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac myth, Cuza turns on the monster and demands of it, “Who are you that I should prove myself by killing my daughter?” before insisting that if the talisman is Molasar’s, he should be able to take it out himself. This marvellous climactic moment closes the loop on the moral drama before the supernatural battle can occur, as Cuza’s faith in men is proven right by his own deed, refuting the famous test of Abraham’s faith whilst sticking up for the nobility of the reasoning person. McKellen’s challenge to the monster, shouting “Take it!” with the ferocity of hero facing down a demon, is every bit as epic as McKellen’s confrontation in the guise of Gandalf with Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring some seventeen years later. Infuriated, Molasar reduces Cuza to his crippled state again, but before he can kill Cuza and Eva, Glaeken walks in with his cosmic bazooka, fitting the talisman into its muzzle and unleashing energy rays that charge the crosses and drive Molasar back into the Keep. Of all the sequences in The Keep the finale was the most crudely curtailed by Veever’s death, production quagmire, and Mann’s own creative uncertainty. What was intended to be an epic showdown was reduced to a straightforward scene where Glaeken, despite knowing that “when he goes, I go,” as he tells Eva earlier, nonetheless confronts Molasar with the intention of annihilating him.
Mann interpolates flash visions that hint at alien origins for Glaeken, whose physiognomy changes to match Molasar’s (Molasar already resembling Glaeken in turn in his complete form, nudging the refrain of dualistic kinship), and a close-up of his eyes as he wields the energy weapon sees a kind of mesh grid has been exposed on them. When Molasar tries to hit his foe with an energy pulse as Glaeken glances to make sure the Cuzas are safe, Glaeken responds by blasting a hole through Molasar, who returns to a formless state and is sucked back into the cavern. Glaeken, after giving a last, forlorn gesture to Eva, is then sucked in after him, disappearing through the cavern door amidst blinding white light. And yet, once again, apart from the rather jagged edit in the brief combat of the two beings, the climax feels more consistent with the movie as it stands than a more drawn-out fight would have. The proper climax of the story we’ve been told is Cuza’s challenge to Molasar, proving that Molasar cannot ultimately corrupt everyone. Glaeken’s arrival merely delivers the coup-de-grace, although this comes complete with a memorable vision of his weapon gathering power, pulling in energy with a rising whir before unleashing primeval force.
Mann instead, typically, places the weight of the scene’s power and meaning on the intensity of the gestures and visuals, particularly in Glenn’s deliberately stone-faced yet delicately plaintive characterisation as Glaeken finally proves he’s a true white knight, fearlessly eliminating the evil despite knowing it will cost him everything, leaving behind Eva screaming in dismay. A TV reedit of the film, screened a few years after The Keep’s theatrical release, sported a restored coda based on the novel’s ending, in which Eva descends into the cavern and finds Glaeken still alive there, restored to mortal form. This was excised from the theatrical release, an odd move in itself, as presumably movie studios would usually take the more clearly upbeat ending. The movie proper instead concludes on an enigmatic note, as Fonescu and other villagers, now free of the evil influence, rush to help the Cuzas, and Mann offers a final freeze frame of Eva staring back into the Keep, as if hoping, or sensing, Glaeken is still within, still existing in some form. Again, Mann’s choice here prizes evocation over literalism, with the surging, soulful music and the image of Eva capturing an iconic impression, of triumph bought at a cost, and love as strong as death. The Keep is undoubtedly an untidy, misshapen work, but it’s also a uniquely potent and densely packed work of brilliance, and to my mind close to ideal of what a Horror movie should be.
Since his debut feature film Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned him from an obscure Pittsburgh TV crewman into a cult cinema hero, George Romero had first tried to avoid becoming entirely associated with Horror films. But his follow-up, the satirical comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was barely noticed, so Romero made a string of stringently budgeted but jaggedly intelligent and carefully crafted Horror movies, with Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1976), in which he had tried to blend familiar genre ideas and motifs with his distinctive brand of melancholy realism. Still, whilst those movies had gained attention and continued to signal Romero was one of the most interesting and determinedly maverick talents on the wild 1970s movie scene, what everyone really wanted from him was another zombie movie. Romero had no great wish to revisit the territory of his signal hit, but gained a perverse source of inspiration one day in 1974 when a former college friend, Mark Mason, invited him to visit the Monroeville Mall, a large shopping complex just east of Pittsburg managed by Mason’s employers. As the two men joked about the labyrinthine place filled with blissful shoppers, a story hatched out in Romero’s mind. When the time came to make the film, he gained an unusual collaborator in the form of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento, a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager to help Romero produce a sequel.
Not that Dawn of the Dead was a sequel in the traditional sense. All of the major characters in Night of the Living Dead were dead by its end, and Romero’s reiteration of the same basic concept spurned any mention of the first film’s apparent rationalisation of the living dead phenomenon. Romero later emphasised that he considered all his “Dead” films variations on a theme rather than parts of the same story, at least until his directly connected final diptych, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Nonetheless the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead seem to take up almost to the moment where the precursor left off, with a zombie plague rapidly spreading and unleashing chaos. The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead, depicting the fraying nerves and collapsing sense of mission on the set of a television news program attempting desperately to keep up a necessary flow of information to the presumed audience, contains sidelong meta humour. Romero cast himself as a director who finds himself impotent in dealing with the tide of events, Romero’s ironic kiss-off to his days in television whilst also evincing his fascination with how deeply wound it was into the infrastructure of his nation by the mid-1970s, expected to provide something like narrative and enclosure to the vagaries of life.
Dawn of the Dead was an immediate and massive commercial hit that many Horror fans and critics also recognised as an instant genre classic. It soon finally vaulted Romero towards Hollywood, for better or worse. And yet Dawn of the Dead’s time might be said not to have really come until a good twenty years after it was made, whereupon it suddenly began to influence the Horror genre and a new generation of creators in good and bad ways, most immediately in inspiring a string of imitations and variations, and a proper remake from Zack Snyder in 2004. More pervasively, Romero’s template showed how to blend the base elements of Horror, with required levels of gore, suspense, angst, and more gore, with threads of satire and parable wound into the very skeleton of its storytelling so it couldn’t be written off as a pretension or affectation, an achievement that’s become ever since a grail of ambitious genre filmmaking. Where Night of the Living Dead had been, despite its implications in terms of racial and gender politics and socially ironic sideswipes, essentially a straightforward survivalist thriller, Dawn of the Dead on the other hand achieves a Swiftian sweep in its comprehensive assault on the modern way of life and its absurdist vision of human devolution.
The film’s first is of its troubled heroine Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) huddled in the insulated corner of the TV studio’s control booth, sleeping. She wakes with a start from nightmare, although of course it might rather be said she wakes into the nightmare. Fran soon finds herself battling with the frantic producer over the crawl giving addresses for rescue shelters, because it’s plain the information is now dangerously out-of-date, but the producer insists on keeping them up because then the station, GON, isn’t providing anything useful enough to viewers to keep them watching. Meanwhile the news anchor Berman (David Early) argues fiercely with his guest (David Crawford), who tries to explain the terrible new facts of life, death, and undeath. Eventually the broadcast begins to collapse as personnel walk out or jeer the controllers, and Fran comments, “We’re blowing this ourselves.” She arranges to rendezvous with her boyfriend Steve Andrews (Ken Emgee), the station’s traffic reporter, as he has control of the station’s helicopter and wants to try flying to Canada. Departure is delayed as Steve insists on waiting for a friend, Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a member of a National Guard unit that’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a radical group holed up in a slum tenement building, as the radicals are resisting the Guard’s efforts to collect the dead.
Roger’s relative decency and seriousness are soon revealed as he manages to bail up the radical leader Martinez (John Amplas) and tries to get him to surrender, only for the man to insist on getting shot down, and then trying to stop one of his fellows who starts on a kill-crazy rampage through the tenement, blowing off the heads of people unlucky enough to live in the building. Here, Romero notably grazes a common anxiety in the 1970s, that outright urban warfare would break out in America’s ghettos, the “urban Vietnam” The Clash sang about in their single “This Is Radio Clash” released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, as well as finding an effective way of linking the waning Blaxploitation wave to Horror in the images of the literally repressed underclass. The National Guard ignore warnings about parts of the building that have been closed up to contain zombies in the building, and their crashing about releases the walking dead, who immediately and eagerly take great bloody bites out of anyone they get their hands on, as a zombified husband does to his wife when she embraces him amidst the panic of the invasion. Roger and a young Guardsman crash into an apartment where they find a corpse with its foot gnawed off, only for the corpse to start wriggling its way remorselessly after the young Guard, who shoots it and then himself in perfect horror at how the utterly absurd has suddenly become terrifyingly real.
Romero, who as usual with his early works edited the film himself – there’s a case to be made that his films were never as good again after he stopped – strikes a uniquely intense, frayed, off-kilter mood in the TV station scenes, the bristling, reactive hysteria, the ultimate confrontation with the fringe of genuine, proper social collapse beginning in its TV temple. This air of sweaty intensity intensifies to a maniacal extreme as he segues into the frenetic four-front battle between the nominal representatives of stability and order and their rogue members, the radicals, and the living dead. Roger is first glimpsed sarcastically anticipating his commander’s attempts to talk out the radicals, whilst his fellow Guardsman eagerly awaits the chance to blow away all the “lowlife” ethnics. Roger soon finds himself flung into the company of Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, stoic, intense black Guardsman who guns down the crazed racist comrade, and the two men strike up a quick friendship as they take a moment’s downtime from the carnage to have a smoke. An aged, one-legged black priest (Jese Del Gre) appears and comments with baleful simplicity to Roger and Peter, after alerting them to a cache of bodies being kept in the basement, that “you are stronger than us but soon I think they be stronger than you.” Descending to the basement, the two men find most of the dead there revived and mindlessly gnawing on pieces of other bodies in a nightmarish survey, and they begin shooting each zombie in the head, the only thing that seems to permanently put them down.
There’s thematic overlap here with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself took some licence from Night of the Living Dead. Romero finds emblematic perfection in his illustration of his ideas as the Guards bash at an improvised barricade only for dozens of discoloured hands belonging to what were denizens of this suppurating corner of the body politic suddenly thrusting into view, before breaking loose and overwhelming the lawmen. As characters Peter and Roger are strongly reminiscent of the heroes of The Crazies, who were also members of the National Guard whilst being very ordinary men fighting for survival, although their position is at least never as self-defeating as their precursors. One essence of humanity, Romero quickly suggests, is our tendency to treat the dead with respect because they still resemble what was alive, and this crashes headlong into the urgent and gruelling necessity of abandoning that feeling, to turn ruthless and unflinching violence on these caricatures of being. Even men as tough and trained as David and Roger find themselves jittery and almost overwhelmed by the zombies, although the creatures are neither terribly quick and are certainly not smart, but simply because they keep coming on with single-minded purpose when they smell warm, moist, living meat.
Romero had hit upon something original and shocking in Night of the Living Dead as he introduced the concept of zombies as cannibalistic rather than simply murderous. Here he took the concept a step further in the gleefully obscene sight of zombies taking bites out of former loved-ones and tearing out entrails from people still alive to watch. Roger and Peter extract themselves from the hellish trap of the tenement and dash to meet up with Fran and Steve, who have their own troubles when they try to fuel the helicopter only to encounter some cops engaged in looting. The cops debate taking the helicopter, but decide against it, and flee in a speedboat. Roger and Peter arrive and, after giving Peter curt introduction, they take off and start northwards. Just before taking off, they do a stock-take on people they’re leaving behind: “An ex-husband.” “An ex-wife.” “Some brothers.” As the chopper lifts off Romero lingers on a haunting shot of the lights going out in a skyscraper in the background: will the last person to leave civilisation please turn out the lights. Dawn of the Dead offers curt reiteration of the climax of the previous film as the fleeing quartet fly over National Guards and volunteer shooters roving the countryside having the time of their lives gunning for zombies, turning the end of the world into a kegger where nobody has the same scruples as the slum dwellers when it comes to shooting down the formerly respected dead.
Landing to take on fuel in the morning, the cobbled-together gang of mutually reliant survivors soon discover what they’re up against, both from zombies and each-other. Attacked by zombies including an undead child that tries to maul Peter and a zombie that tries to clamber over some boxes to get at Stephen as he fuels the chopper only to get the top of its head sliced off by the whirling blades, the team barely survive a relatively mundane task. The jittery, inexperienced gun-user Stephen almost shoots Peter in trying to save him, sparking Peter’s anger, pointing his own gun at Stephen: “Scary, isn’t it?” Shortly after taking off again, the foursome spot a large shopping mall in an area where the power is still on – Peter theorises it could be coming from a nuclear power station – and land upon the roof. Although the mall proves to be crawling with zombies, the survivors recognise a chance to stock up on supplies. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen theorises when Fran wonders why the zombies are there, “Memory – of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
Part of Dawn of the Dead’s then-unusual approach to the horror genre was its relentless pace and rolling set-piece structure, closer in many ways to the emerging blockbuster style than to traditional Horror cinema’s slow-burn of disquiet and tension and with bloody pyrotechnics rather than explosions. Romero, of course, was repeating strategies from Night of the Living Dead in quickly thrusting characters defined by their ordinariness into a siege situation that becomes a pressure-cooker of survivalism, and would again for the last of the classic trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), where the action would play out in a nuclear bunker. Dawn of the Dead’s first two-thirds depict the heroes escaping the city, finding the mall, and labouring first to raid it and then take it over and fortify it when they recognise it could be as good a bunker to wait out the crisis, if that proves at all possible, as any other. The mall, like the besieged house in Night of the Living Dead, becomes the defining locale for the drama and an extension of its symbolic dimension. The house in the previous film encapsulated tensions between old and new America and city and country, as well as provided a crucible for the social tensions between the survivors within where different ideas of home and security came into fatal misalignment.
But the shopping mall, by contrast, offers an illusion of embrace that quells and quashes all such tensions, its offer of consumer paradise a beckoning zone of nullification, and where Night of the Living Dead was happy to suggest its sociological and metaphorical aspects through self-evident aspects, Dawn of the Dead is more overt in presenting its ideas, turning its central situation into the lodestone of meaning. Romero melds quasi-Eisensteinian editing and sick screwball comedy as he cuts between the zombies, reeling in time with the corny muzak Peter and Roger incidentally start piping in as they turn on the mall’s power, and shopfront mannequins, interchangeable simulacra of a commercially glamorous ideal. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran collaborate to at first merely trying to strategize a way of getting supplies out of a department store within the mall to their own makeshift hideout in the mall’s administrative and storage areas. Then, as the temptation of the place claims them, they establish boundaries, going through an elaborate process of fetching trucks parked nearby and parking them in front of the various entrances to the mall, trying to reclaim a toehold in a world rapidly losing any sense of place for the merely human. Then, they clear out the zombies within and establish themselves as rules over plastic paradise.
This reads like a smooth process on paper, but things go wrong. As they become less automatically distressed by the zombies and come to understand their physical abilities and lack thereof, Peter and Roger begin to enjoy defying, tricking, trapping, and “killing” them, and for a spell the mission of defying and expelling them from their reconquered little corner of the world becomes a lark. Stephen and Fran are reduced to watching out for them, Stephen from the chopper, Fran from the mall roof. The sense of fun is however coloured by macho hysteria, chiefly afflicting Roger, who becomes increasingly reckless in the course of the fortifying operation. He almost gets caught by zombies as he tries to hotwire one of the trucks, with Stephen, seeing his predicament, obliged to use the helicopter to alert Peter to his plight because the noise drowns everything out. Roger gains an apotheosis of enthralled disgust when Peter shoots one attacking him, spraying blood all over him. Roger’s desperate attempts to retain his sense of bravado finally proves his undoing as he gets bitten by the zombies, and the other three members of their little band are forced to watch helplessly as he wastes away, doomed inevitably to succumb to the mysterious force animating the dead. Romero might have been taking cues from the self-destructive behaviour of the would-be mighty hunter Quint in Jaws (1975), both films certainly sharing a critique of the action-man ethos in the face of blank and remorseless existential threat. Peter waits in a sullen vigil for Roger to die and revive before shooting him in the head.
Dawn of the Dead followed its precursor but also did more to lodge zombies as the coolest and most malleable of movie monsters, both victims of and perpetrators of hideously gruesome violence, both mauled in physical form and mauling. The punishment doled out to them throughout confronts the problem of killing things that are already dead, immune to physical force except for blows directly on the head, annihilating the last spasm of guiding intelligence. In some of his later films Romero would begin granting them something like the sympathy saved for a life form, however devolved and diseased. Here, their sense of threat and edge of comedy both stem from their single-minded and ravenous will matched to limited physical capacity for seeking it out, dangerous when taking humans by surprise or in large numbers, but, as Peter and Roger find, easy to fend off and outwit, giving them a slightly overinflated sense of their own viability. Fran is momentarily arrested by the disquieting sight of a zombie, recently a young man, settling down to watch her through protecting glass with some kind of bemused fascination. But the zombies just keep coming, constantly beating at the doors of the mall. The first time any kind of conceptual link between Romero’s living dead and the voodoo tradition of zombie is evinced when Peter muses on his grandfather, a former voodoo priest in Trinidad, and his prophetic comment, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
This totemic line, which is also the closest the movie comes to explaining the plague, gives the film a sense of connection with other works of its era in the Horror genre and beyond, with the disaster movies popular in the previous few years as well as the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Such films were preoccupied with a sense of decay and destruction befalling the modern world for all its Faustian bargains. Like its precursor, Dawn of the Dead draws on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and also this time its film adaptation The Omega Man (1971). Dawn of the Dead amplifies the mockery of lifestyle upkeep and consumerism in a post-apocalyptic environment in The Omega Man, as well as taking licence from its trendsetting blend of fantastical aspects and action fare: where The Omega Man’s hero holed up in an apartment he made a trove of retained civilisation, here the mall becomes the world in small for its heroes, even burying Roger in a small patch of earth in an arboretum in the mall’s heart. The difference in these variations on a concept is The Omega Man’s hero had made his own home into a strongpoint and repository, where here the protagonists lay claim to the bounty of goods, useful and not so much, but also the wealth of wasted space and conspicuousness that ultimately undoes them. Anticipating the possibility of other survivors penetrating the mall, they disguise the entrance to the office and maintenance sectors where they hole up and forge a kind of home for themselves.
Part of the specific power and weird beauty of Romero’s early films comes from their pungent sense of place enforced by the low budgets and local-to-Pennsylvania focus of his efforts. He recorded and found a sense of mystery and drama in zones of American life in the 1970s far from the usual focal points of mass media. He mapped landscapes from decaying ethnic suburbs and bourgeois housing tracts in Season of the Witch and Martin. Here he captures the blinking bewilderment of the shopping mall as a tacky-plush environ offering deliverance from the mundane and run-down, where everything is shiny and plentiful, landing like a great oblong UFO in the midst of the Pennsylvania hinterland, a world that’s entirely palpable and workaday, albeit suddenly devoid of people. The fringe atmosphere is enforced by the total lack of name actors. Stephen’s status as an extremely minor kind of celebrity – one of the thieving cops they encounter recognises him – and Fran’s behind-the-camera job give them a degree of familiarity and contact with the infrastructure behind media authority, and yet they’re more keenly aware than anyone how paltry a defence that becomes right away. Stephen, setting up a TV in their hideaway, manages to tune into an emergency broadcast show where a scientist, Dr Rausch (Richard France), and host (Howard Smith) keep on arguing in much the same way the pair at the beginning did, the scientist eventually reduced to murmuring “We must be logical…logical…logical” over and over whilst the sound of Peter’s coup-de-grace on Roger rings out with tragic finality.
Where in Night of the Living Dead the luckless Barbara became the avatar for the ordinary world completely shocked out of all function, Fran is a very different figure, cut from ‘70s feminist cloth: she is obliged to be the film’s most passive character in many respects and yet she’s also its flintiest and more frustrated. Revealed some time into the film to be pregnant, she presents what would be in another kind of movie a spur to gallant behaviour by the men, but here she has to fight her own depressive and recessive streak as well as her companions’ tendency to skirt her presence. Fran is almost caught and killed by a zombie that penetrates the hideout whilst the men are running around having a blast, an experience that shakes her profoundly but soon underpins her to demand inclusion and to be taught enough of the arts of survival the others have to stand a chance alone, a demand that’s also a prod to herself to keep functioning. She is nonetheless more saddled with the status of Madonna for a new world than anointed: what her pregnancy means, can mean, in such a moment remains entirely ambiguous throughout. States of sickly and inescapable physicality are contrasted as Fran vomits from morning sickness whilst Roger wanes and withers. Fran most closely resembles the detached and forlorn heroes of Romero’s previous three films, not stricken with a murderously dualistic nature like Martin but like him responding with a certain degree of realism to her lot.
Fran’s alternately loving and strained relationship with Stephen at first blossoms and then becomes disaffected as the couple get to live out a magazine lifestyle but constantly confront the void beyond it. Romero manages to annex Antonioni-esque anxiety and evocation of existential pain within the frame of a gaudy genre film. After Roger’s death the remaining trio form a momentarily stable community, the two lovers and their solicitous pal – notably, where Stephen cringes at Fran’s demand for inclusion, Peter coolly acknowledges it – who play within the mall. Stephen and Fran practice their shooting on store mannequins set up on the ice rink where Fran also sometimes cavorts alone, shattering the plastic visages with high-calibre rounds as if executing the old world even as they can’t escape it. But Fran also takes the chance to make herself over as a plush matinee idol, albeit one clutching a revolver with a mad glint in her eye. Peter plays chef and waiter entertaining the couple with a swanky dinner, a last hurrah for civilised dining and a romantic ideal. Peter excuses himself and goes to pop the cork on a champagne bottle over Roger’s grave. This marvellous vignette, one of the warmest and saddest in any Horror movie and indeed any movie, also marks the zenith for the trio’s deliverance from the nightmare without. But the zombies are still trying frantically if pointlessly to penetrate the doors, their flailing, mashing physiques matching the fulminating disquiet that quickly enough poisons the heroes in their remove.
The vision of the mall as microcosm of the modern consumer society works in part because of its obviousness: the film is free to engage or ignore it when it feels like it because it’s so omnipresent. Orgiastic violence before the J.C. Penney! The heroes are engaged and motivated when fighting for it, adrift and dejected once they have it. The basic notion likening the mesmerised victims of capitalism the zombies is obvious to the point of being, generically speaking, a truism today. In this regard Dawn of the Dead’s influence has become a bit trying in giving tacit permission for would-be Horror filmmakers to present visions that most definitely stand for this-that-or-the-other. That Romero’s vision doesn’t collapse as a moraine of pretence is due to his finesse in moving between tones and stances as well as piling on galvanising thrills. The frantic, overwhelmed feeling apparent in the film’s first act and the intrepid, sometimes borderline larkish middle third as the foursome take over the mall, unfold with a real-feeling sense of the characters and their mission, giving credence to their motives and choices. Romero puts a sense of process and detail front and centre, presenting them with challenges to overcome. Romero charts the way seemingly benign situations can become fights for life and vice versa, giving weight to everything from the amount of time it takes to close and lock some shopfront doors to the exploitation of a car set up on the mall floor for a lottery prize as a fun and zippy way of traversing the space within when it comes to the survival process.
Indeed, Dawn of the Dead is as much farce and adventure movie as gory fright-fest, with Romero allowing an edge of outlandish hyperbole even in horrific moments, from that astonishing zombie beheading to the sight of a zombie Hare Krishna stalking Fran, a dash of satire not that far from Airplane! (1980) in the wry depiction of 1970s subcultures and general weirdness. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people, from bulbous to gnarled and barely hanging together. The scenes of our heroes merrily plundering the shops and turning the mall space into a private playground are reminiscent in their way of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at play in the department store in Modern Times (1936). When the characters raid a gun shop to put together an arsenal and wipe out the zombies inside the mall, Romero’s carbolic sense of humour and skill for editing highlight the fetishism for the shiny, deadly weapons and the claimed mantle of empowered heroism – Peter claims twin revolvers to hang from his belt and eyes zombies through a rifle scope with pleasure – through his rhythmic jump cuts. The gun shop’s paraphernalia, replete with stuffed animal heads and elephant tusks and African tribal music on the loudspeakers, promise a romp across the savannah on safari shooting whatever moves, oiling up racist macho fantasy. It’s a scene that’s only come to feel more and more relevant and biting in the intervening decades.
The film’s signature touch of sarcastic ruthlessness is the playful muzak theme that blasts from the mall’s loudspeakers, repeated over the end credits as a jolly soundtrack to perambulating zombies. The score, provided by Argento and his band Goblin, is one of the odder assets of the film, veering between straightforward suspense-mongering with propelling, atmospheric electronica, and a spoof-like take on B-movie music, particularly in the finale. Romero takes up where Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) left off in contemplating the apocalypse as a space where lunacy reigns with its own strange wit, mocking the forces mobilised to deal with the disaster as symptoms of the problem. Romero even dares take up Stanley Kubrick’s discarded pie fight intended for that film and incorporate it in the delirious climax, when a gang of bikers and lowlifes who seem to have formed a mobile pirate fleet attack and invade the mall. This gang ironically has achieved an equally viable way of surviving the zombie apocalypse through open embrace of mayhem and savagery that makes the zombies in their fashion look tame, careening down the wide spaces with their grunting motorcycles, loosing off rounds from Tommy guns and swinging down sledgehammers on the zombies. They’re attracted to the mall when they catch sight of the helicopter hovering over it, actually Stephen teaching Fran how to fly it.
The devolution of what we see of humanity apart from the core protagonists, from the redneck gun-nuts, who at least seem vaguely amenable to public service, to these neo-barbarians, is Romero’s sourest meditation. Dawn of the Dead is still alive in every respect but its ferocity is certainly rooted in its moment, its evocation of cavernous dread and contempt for the state of America in the post-Vietnam, post-counterculture moment, the mood of dissociation amidst the lingering hangovers of a frenetic cultural moment and the promised birth of Reaganism: nowhere else was Jimmy Carter’s diagnosed “malaise” illustrated with such brutish, vigorous force. As he did with Martin, Romero shows how smartly he was plugged into the boondock zeitgeist and understanding the emerging punk ethos in pop culture with its love of mayhem, force, and violence as cure-alls for a forced and phony culture. The biker-vandals storm the shiny temple of mammon and unleash pure anarchy. Amongst their number is Tom Savini, the Vietnam veteran turned actor and makeup artist who also first laid claim to becoming a Horror cinema legend by providing the film’s gore effects.
Savini’s gift for creating convincing atrocities with the help of some latex and offal helps Romero achieve wild catharsis in the climactic scenes as the biker invasion devolves into a three-way battle. Stephen shoots back at the raiders: Peter joins in reluctantly but soon finds satisfaction in driving off the attackers. The raiders enjoy unleashing carnage on the zombies, but when their pals flee several are left to be trapped and consumed alive by the dead, cueing gleefully gross visions of gouged entrails and torn limbs. It could be argued that it’s a wonder the raiders have survived so long being so stupid and reckless, but then again their approach to the apocalypse is perhaps as valid as any other going, getting high on their own violent prowess. Romero’s frenzied editing ratchets up the descent into utter hysteria in a sequence that stands a masterpiece of the demented. Perhaps Romero’s goofiest joke is also a black comedy piece-de-resistance, as one of the biker insists on trying out the compulsory mall blood pressure machine only to be attacked and eaten, leaving his arm still in the strap. Stephen is wounded by the wild bullets of the raiders and then bitten by zombies drawn by his blood, and finally he emerges from an elevator as a zombie, his remnant instinct this time leading other ghouls through the false front towards the hideaway. Peter guns him down, but the act feels like an embrace of ultimate nihilism.
Romero had originally planned the end the film with the suicides of Fran and Peter, but changed it whilst shooting. It’s not hard to see why, as such an ending would have been as glum as hell but lack the specific kick of Night of the Living Dead’s more ingeniously cruel and pointed ending. The one he chose instead sees Peter, resolving not to live anymore in comprehending what’s become of the world after shooting Stephen, encouraging Fran to leave in the helicopter whilst intending to remain behind and shoot himself before the zombies can get him. But Peter’s fighting instincts kick back in at the last second, forcing him to fight his way out and join Fran in flying away in the dawn light. An ambivalent ending for sure, sending the two off towards an unknowable fate that might meet them an hour or a decade hence. Goblin’s scoring as Peter resurges manages to be vaguely sarcastic in its sudden heroic vigour but also genuinely pleased the life impulse still means something. Moreover, it’s an ending that suits Romero’s theme as expressed throughout the movie, underlining the entire point of the experience in the mall. The act of fighting is life itself; everything else slow death. The departing duo leave behind the mall now filling with zombies inchoately pleased to be back in their natural habitat, wandering the aisles, shuffling gently to the jaunty muzak. Truly a fate worse than death. Despite intervening decades of imitation, Dawn of the Dead remains without likeness, one of the singular masterpieces of the genre.
Directors / Screenwriters: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
By Roderick Heath
The incredible string of great films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced in the 1940s was charged with a quality resembling proof of faith. Throughout the war the films the duo made, from the relatively straightforward rhetorical counterpoints of The 49th Parallel (1941) through to the epic historical and cultural surveys knitted into The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), they fought on just about every conceivable level to articulate what about their society was worthwhile and worth fighting for, counting small, individual experiences and epiphanies, even perversities, just as worthy expressions of that worthiness as ancient buildings and grand principles, in contrast to the pulverising fantasies of totalitarian projects. Powell and Pressburger, who had formed their legendary The Archers production outfit and begun officially collaborating as directing partners on One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), got in trouble with Winston Churchill for portraying a decent German and also acknowledging the dark side of certain aspects of English history in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, as well as finding a shocking level of sympathy for their outmoded and old-fashioned hero. To them, Clive Wynne-Candy’s ridiculous and antiquated streak was the essence of everything worth defending about their world.
Both the cost and necessities of fighting the war with Nazism, and the aesthetic dynamism and textured humanism The Archers packed into their movies in this face were created as and intended to serve as cultural arguments. After the war, Powell and Pressburger inevitably wrestled with the question of what all that grim and sadomasochistic commitment had cost, but through distorting lenses: Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (1948) presented female protagonists who give themselves up to lives of extraordinary dedication only to run into problems of distracting passion on the way to facing a crack-up. Powell himself came close to identifying the peculiar motive inherent in the two films when he noted of The Red Shoes’ success that after years of being told to go out and die for democracy, that film told people to go out and die for art: the only coherent answer to years of dedication to war was to dedicate equally to the passions of peace. The Small Back Room (1949) finally dealt more directly with the war experienced as existential exhaustion, a last way-station before the 1950s began and the Archers hit bumpy road in trying to understand a very different zeitgeist start with the vastly underrated Gone To Earth (1950).
Black Narcissus is far more than just a metaphor for post-war psychic and moral fatigue, of course. The basis was a book by Rumer Godden, a dance teacher and novelist born in Sussex but who had spent most of her life in India. Her books often contended with the uneasy meeting of east and west in the physical space of India, a space teeming with sensual potency. Black Narcissus, her first bestseller, handed Powell and Pressburger a lucid metaphor for the great moment of dismantling of Empire just beginning for Britain, and a mythopoeic account of a battle between the sacred and profaning urges, as well as simply purveying a vivid human drama. Most revealing: the essential humanity Powell and Pressburger celebrated in their wartime films here begins rebelling, not consciously or controllably but in process that begins as termiting and concludes with another matter of life and death. Black Narcissus commences with a scene that can be read as a lampoon of the kind of war movies where a team of talents is assembled for a dangerous mission in enemy territory: Powell and Pressburger even punctiliously note the location with an onscreen title as in many such movies, with the Reverend Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts) of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta calling in Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to give her mission and assigning her a team comprised of different strengths to back her up.
Such assets are notably different to wartime heroes, of course: Dorothea surveys the nuns in the convent dining hall and apportions members of the team according precepts including strength, in the hale and hearty Sister Briony (Judith Furse), popularity in the good-humoured Sister Blanche (Jenny Laird), called Sister Honey by her fellows, and a green thumb in Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), ingenious and stoic cultivator. The Reverend Mother also assigns to her retinue Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), absent from the dining table, to Clodagh’s immediate protest that “she’s ill,” but the Reverend Mother wants Ruth included not to benefit the team but be benefited from being on it, noting “She badly wants importance.” The Reverend Mother readily tells Clodagh that she doesn’t think she’s ready for the job she’s been given, seemingly by other powers in the Church, and advises her, “The superior of all is a servant of all.” The seeds for the failure of the mission are sowed right at the outset. Clodagh senses being saddled with Ruth is a mistake and the Reverend Mother correctly senses Clodagh does not yet have the skills for nurturing required to head off such an end.
The actual assignment Clodagh must fulfil is to head to the principality of Mopu, situated at the edge of the Himalayas’ highest regions, and set up a convent to be called St Faith’s in a building donated by General Toda Rai (Carl Esmond), ruler of the locale. The building, the Palace of Mopu, was built specifically by the General’s father as a home for his concubines, long since cleared out leaving the palace a draft-scored husk cared for by Angu Ayah (May Hallatt), a crone who longs for the return of the old, sensual thrills of the past, and is instead dismayed to be obliged to help the nuns set up their convent, which the General wants installed so the nuns can offer schooling and medicine to his citizens. Some monks, Clodagh learns quickly enough, previously tried the same thing and fled. The General, his English expatriate agent Mr Dean (David Farrar), and the bellyaching Ayah prepare for the nun’s arrival, with the General announcing with businesslike simplicity when Ayah demands to know what to feed them as he points to some crates he’s had brought in for the purpose: “Sausages…Europeans eat sausages wherever they go.” The cultural joke here is also an ever so faintly phallic one, rhyming with all the ripe and pulchritudinous figures painted on the walls of the palace, decorating halls and corridors where the incessant wind, gusting from the vivid white shoulders of the great neighbouring mountain called The Bare Goddess, stirs the old curtains and the dust, and the air never settles in a semblance of tranquillity.
Powell and Pressburger’s penchant for unusual rhythms of storytelling and discursive narrative gestures evinces itself early on as Clodagh’s reading of Dean’s explanatory letter to the Reverend Mother becomes narration and the hot, ordered confines of her office gives way to conjured visions of Mopu, its people, and the palace itself where Ayah stalks alone save for the many caged birds she keeps and mimics, a sort of devolved version of the harem she used to oversee. Clodagh’s mission immediately feels haunted by the looming presence of the palace, its environs, and the people connected to it. The soaring ice-clad peak opposite and the deep green folds of the valley are glimpsed, the interior of the palace with its empty halls: place is imbued with the boding knowledge of a person. Dean himself is also characterised through the wording of his letter as well as the intonations of Farrar’s voiceover: “It’s not the first time he has had such ideas,” he says of the General, hinting at his wry and cynical awareness, as well as a touch of poetic insight, saying of Ayah that “she lives there alone with the ghosts of bygone days.” The ghosts are loaned voice by Ayah’s caged birds chanting her name. Dean’s sociology is minimal but contains hints of his worldly perspective and promise-shading-into-warning for the approaching do-gooders: “The men are men. The women are women. The children, children.” Only after this conjured survey does the film return to the Reverend Mother and Clodagh as they begin selecting her team.
The nuns the Reverend Mother gives Clodagh form a collection of traits that could be said to symbolise the ideal balance of traits in her own personality, even Ruth with her need for importance, with the Reverend Mother advising Clodagh to “spare her some of your own.” It’s signalled here that Ruth is Clodagh’s dark side, her daemon, the side of herself still tormented by earthly needs. Into the high and rugged place the sisters of St Faith’s march with confidence: Clodagh with her clipboard instantly becomes the eminent cliché of a British tendency to take charge and put things in order regardless of whether they want to be. She immediately finds the landscape replete with perturbing phenomena. There’s Mr Dean himself, swanning about in shorts and often bared chest, refusing to bend at all to pious authority but rather making constant, barbed innuendos, as when he comments that “You’ll be doing me a very great favour, teaching the local girls English.” Dean soon brings a young woman named Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a penniless but pretty waif who’s been hanging around his house on the hunt for a husband, to be employed and hopefully segregated from other prospective males until proper match can be made.
There’s also the old and wizened mystic encamped above the palace on a perpetual vigil on levels far beyond the apparent, bastion of an alternative kind of faith both in the scriptural sense as a Hindu and in a more immediate one, offsetting the sisters who belong to an “order of workers,” the ancient schism inherent in religious tendency exposed on several strata. Despite his immobile and apparently disengaged state, the ancient mystic holds an authority over the local people the nuns find intimidating, even, as Dean puts it, worrying the General at all times of day with the feeling he should do the same. Indeed, the swami is his uncle, a former warrior and man of great education, but who has cast off all the affectations of the world and reduced himself to a nerve of metaphysical communion. The mystic continues his unwavering vigil, lending the night something like a benevolent but disinterested consciousness, from the mountain top even as the sudden cessation of the pulse-like drums in the valley indicates that the General’s elder son and heir has died of the fever he’s been suffering from.
This vignette shifts the cultural gravity of the locale, as the General’s second son Dilip Rai (Sabu) now inherits the unofficial but consequential title of “Young General” and is called back from his Cambridge education. The Young General hopes to continue learning with the nuns, and despite her rules and misgivings Clodagh concedes to taking him in. Farrar’s Dean is presented as the male equivalent of a femme fatale from the noir films of the same time, a physically, morally, and mentally provocative being. Dean teases the scruples of the nuns and ultimately provokes, however inadvertently, acts of madness and murder. Dean hasn’t exactly gone native in the old parlance but he does seem to like his life far away from the mores and morals the sisters insistently embody, seemingly a natural and committed pagan if not entirely lacking nostalgic affection for the paraphernalia of Christianity. Immediate provoked by Clodagh’s imperious piety and challenging glare, Dean plays soothsayer of failure (“I’ll give you ‘til the rains break.”) but also starts lending a hand, called out by Philippa when she finds him trying to install plumbing for their much-needed convenience.
Dean’s allure is concrete: he knows the lay of the land, is sufficient in forms of practical enterprise the nuns aren’t, and he seems to feel drawn to help them out through some rarefied sympathy which could also be connected with the definite sparks he strikes with Clodagh from the first, attraction that must register as antipathy because of their polarised identities. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you’re dying to ask me?” Dean questions Clodagh with sly import when he brings Kanchi to her threshold. The arc manifests more agreeably in a flash of shared humour over Briony’s professed but dubious coffee-making talents, lending an almost conspiratorial quality to the reluctant reliance Clodagh must seek from Dean. Later, when Dean is fetched back in a moment crisis despite being coldly chased away on his previous visit, he comes in this time shirtless as if in a deliberately provocative gesture, and Powell and Pressburger allow Ruth to slowly lean into the frame with him with woozily hungry glances at his torso, not that far from a Friz Freleng caricature of lust.
Dean’s willingness to help the nuns and their increasing reliance on him comes to an ugly halt when he turns up to their Christmas mass, lending his hearty baritone to the carols and momentarily giving Clodagh the thrill of seemingly having brought him back into the fold, only for him to prove rather drunk and still full of sardonic comments. Clodagh’s infuriated accosting has a charge of personal offence that seems sourced in her equally double-edged memory from a Christmas of yore, whilst Dean’s affectation of blasé receipt masking a deftly expressed edge of offence and wounding that hint he’s used to such accosting, says much of how Clodagh willingly incarnates despite herself everything he’s fled in the lowlands. His provoking revenge is to start his way down the mountain warbling a bawdy ditty declaring, “No I cannot be a nun! For I am too fond of pleasure!” The setting of Black Narcissus is certainly a predominate character in the drama. Powell and Pressburger, their production designer Alfred Junge, and cinematographer expended all their ingenuity on realising the setting thousands of miles from the actual Himalayas.
Cardiff’s brilliantly diffused lighting helps render the set looking completely real and exterior even as the lushly hued matte paintings create the landscape of Mopu with a flavour of the near-dreamlike, particularly the famously dizzying vantage of the palace campanile, perched right on the edge of a soaring precipice, fervent jungle and sheer rock below: the nuns using this bell as their signal and call to prayer must negotiate with the infinite, the fear and temptation, every time they ring it (honestly, folks, nail on a bloody rail). The cavernous, draft-ridden halls of the palace with the fading glories of royal décor and teasing, ghostly forms of semi-naked women festooning the halls, has a strong touch of the dream like to it, a feeling exacerbated when Powell and Pressburger shoot Simmons’ Kanchi dancing through the halls in a rough draft for the fantasias of space and movement in The Red Shoes.
Powell’s fascination with isolated communities and discreet local cultures predated his partnership with Pressburger, already apparent in some of his early B movies like The Phantom Light (1936) and The Edge of the World (1937), and burgeoned as the war wound down again with I Know Where I’m Going!, where the filmmakers noted that the corners of the British Isles themselves were as foreign and strange to Londoners as India. This was also a natural viewpoint for the transplanted Austrian Pressburger, whose simultaneous romanticisation and observant criticality of his adopted culture intensified Powell’s. Acts of journeying correlate to changes within for characters, naturally. A Canterbury Tale rendered that idea in echoing the Chaucerian theme of pilgrimage ironically rearranged for an age at once more profane and more urgent in its need and seeking. Black Narcissus is in part a revision of I Know Where I’m Going! in again tracking a heroine dedicated to a project journeying to “the back of beyond,” colliding with unexpected attraction, albeit with wry romantic comedy and gentle sublimation into a new way of life swapped out for seething neurosis and cross-cultural incoherence. The sisters of St Faith’s bring in foreign religions, not only Christianity but also scientific, medical, and cultural, strange and exotic and incoherent in themselves without being aware of it.
But the great project of Empire and colonialism rather attempts to resist such correlation: instead it aims to act more like a great act of inoculation, inserting alien DNA into other cultures. The sisters are soon perturbed to learn the great turn-out for their infirmary and school is because the General is paying his citizens to attend, overcoming their disinterest. The General hopes, as Dean spells it out, to make it a ritual or custom for people whose lives tick by according to rhythms entirely imposed by nature in place where one must “either ignore it or give yourself up to it,” a line that doubles as a commentary on the Raj where the ruling English maintained themselves as a transported pocket, unable to countenance adjusting to other values and so expelling them altogether. Soon the sisters are lying awake at night as the cold wind wafts in through the palace windows and their skin breaks out in blotches denoting not disease but a startling and unfamiliar level of purity, as if civilisation is a disease they will expiate from their flesh whether they want to or not. Attempts at meditation and sublimation are soon enough recolonised by their suppressed worldly selves. Philippa shows off the callouses on her hands, worked raw in trying to escape her reveries even as if compelled she plants the palace terraces with riotous alternations of flowers rather than vegetables, a creative and decorative urge bursting out in ignorance of the practical.
Seeds of a poisonous breakdown are meanwhile sown when Ruth dashes into a meeting Clodagh is having with Dean and Briony, her white habit stained red with blood, excitedly reporting that she managed to stop an injured local from bleeding to death after much struggle. Rather than praising her and elevating her struggling sense of self-worth, as the Reverend Mother wanted Clodagh wanted her to, Clodagh angrily retorts that she should have called in the more medically experienced Briony. Clodagh isn’t wrong, but her instinctive sense of what her authority is immediately proves the Reverend Mother’s point about her own unreadiness, reacting more like a bossy, know-it-all older sister to Ruth’s flailing need for validation and pride in achievement and unable to concede that sometimes risks need to be taken to help anyone mature. Dean instead casually spares Ruth a kind word in registering the moment of crucially dashed pride, a flash of recognition that gives Ruth’s psyche something to cling to, if less like a flowering orchid than a parasitic vine. The attentiveness of the film’s designers registers in the stiff, almost tentlike habits of the nuns, contrasted violently by the red of Dean’s shirt and the mottled gore on Ruth’s habit: the stain of blood is spreading, Dean and Ruth’s moment of sympathy marked by fate.
Not that Clodagh is unwarranted in her testiness with Ruth, whose internal tension and need to feel superior sometimes makes her intolerant and mean-spirited, calling the locals stupid-looking and, after catching a whiff of the Young General’s handkerchief doused with the eponymous scent of Black Narcissus, an exotic fragrance ironically bought from the Army and Navy Store in London, deciding the perfume’s name is apt for the man too. Moments like Clodagh’s connection with Dean over Briony’s bad coffee similarly deny the popular cliché of the surprisingly good-humoured and earthy religious figure, the kind Bing Crosby had just won an Oscar playing in Going My Way (1944). Clodagh’s lack of ease signalled by her incapacity to bend in that direction in any way. Clodagh’s drifts into personal reverie during prayer present biography in fragments mixed with deeply sensual associations, the cold water of a lake she once fished in, the thrilling rush of riding a horse in a fox hunt, the chill of snow and the glow of lantern light on Christmas Eve in singing with carollers.
Clodagh’s memories crowd into her head even as she leads her fellow nuns in prayer in the convent chapel, recollections of such thrills filling in for any hoped-for divine ecstasy. Such memories are connected with her long and finally ill-fated romance with a son of the same clique of landed gentry in Ireland, Con (Shaun Noble), who Dean plainly reminds her of as another lanky, tauntingly ambivalent rooster, a man who chafed at being expected to play prospective lord of the manor rather than make a career in America like his brother. Clodagh’s lips twist up ever so slightly in sardonic awareness as she remembers protesting her desire to live just in the place she comes from forever, and yet here she is.
Black Narcissus nudges aspects of both the haunted house movie and the slasher flick even as it holds itself aloof from any sure genre identity: the film is also a comedy of manners, a romantic melodrama, character study, satire, and parable. I’m often struck by the similarities between Black Narcissus and the Mark Robson-directed, Val Lewton-produced horror film Isle of the Dead (1945). Both films are set in old, isolated buildings where psyches fray and conclude with a maddened woman falling to her death after a bout of homicidal intent, walk a fine line between psychological narrative and entering a more irrational and symbolic zone, and are replete with shared images, atmospherics, and an ingrained subtext contending with the moral fallout of war and awareness of mortality. Hard to know if Powell and Pressburger ever saw the other film, of course, but the similarities are pronounced enough to signal commonalities of thought. Powell had lampooned a certain kind of spooky tale early in his career with The Phantom Light, but also laid down precepts for this film, the fascination with the bastion of mystery and the mystified interloper.
Black Narcissus might also have had a notable influence on horror films that followed it, including the “nunsploitation” subgenre and more deeply on the Hammer Horror aesthetic, and anticipates Powell’s shift in a horror direction for Peeping Tom (1960). Of course, its progeny rank far and wide, echoes in everything from Powell’s former mentor Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) to his generational alumnus David Lean’s globetrotting dramas of searcher heroes flailing amidst social and historical fluxes, and eventual acolyte Martin Scorsese’s entire oeuvre. Black Narcissus initially charts seemingly basic binary entities – man/woman, east/west, sensualism/asceticism, religion/unbeliever, sex/chastity – and tests them until their common roots lie exposed, each reflex, instinct, custom, and construction sourced in twinned relation to its opposite. The ideal of pious, sexless world-love the nuns practice is purposely against nature, that being its very point, and can sour into a kind of narcissism, but obeying nature brings no-one great happiness either.
Cynical as the film trends in regards to virtuous ideals, the film never really stoops to any kind of Buñuel-esque anti-clericism but regards the avatars of religion as merely, painfully human: “Yes, we’re all human aren’t we,” Clodagh comments sadly in response to Dean’s comment, meant as praise, that she’s become moreso since her arrival. Also avoids is any kind of ecumenical openness of religious experience, writing that off as a fantasy ignoring how much religious precepts are grown in native soil. The story ultimately states that no system of belief or practice can successfully deny nature without resulting in schizoid self-destruction, it also allows that it’s also a most human thing to resist descending to a level of insensate and primal appetite to fuck and kill. Such a fate ultimately consumes Ruth, just as she is the mere inversion of the old mystic, who has cleaved himself out of the physical world. Everyone else subsists on the scale on between. The abashed Young General, after his experience with Kanchi, abandons his desire to prove himself a fit citizen of a new era and decides to give himself up to the old order and expectations of his creed: it’s simpler and requires less personal moral and intellectual bravery. He’s not alone. Everyone in the film essentially finishes up foiled on some level, their attempts to transcend themselves failed, finding some comfort in their essential creeds.
The film’s commentary on the clash between eastern and western sensibilities contrasts many such stories of its time in plying the contrast mostly for dry satire and gentle comedy that only slowly shades towards darker, more confronting episodes. Rather than climaxing with some sort of outbreak of war or violence, crisis on this level is precipitated when Briony disregards Dean’s advice and treats a badly sick child who then dies, but despite Dean’s warnings of potential violent consequences this doesn’t result in riot of murder, simply the end of the locals’ trust and interest in the interlopers, leaving them without clientele and students. By the tale’s end it is rather the faultlines within the heads and hearts of the interlopers that results in tragedy. Until that point the film drolly charts incidents like Kanchi’s and the Young General’s initiation into the school, as well as the appointment of an official translator in the form of Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley Jr.), son of the General’s cook and one of the few bilingual people bout, a boy who estimates his age as between six and ten. Joseph Anthony’s sly glances around at the vignettes unfolding about him even as he coaches his fellow local urchins in fastidious pronunciation of the names of weapons and flowers, as when he notices Ruth staring down at Dean speaking to Clodagh through a lattice from the schoolroom, anoint him as young but quick-study incarnation of artistic observation and subversive intent.
The film’s anti-generic form contributes to what might be its only real fault, that it sometimes threatens to dissolve into a series of vignettes: it’s chiefly Powell and Pressburger’s overwhelming sense of style that gives it form until the key psychodrama finally erupts. Black Narcissus nods to familiar elements and clichés of the kinds of exotic melodrama popular back in the day, with visions of drum-beating Mopuris in the jungle night (The drums! Don’t they ever stop?!). Even as it takes care to place such things in a steadily evolving sense of context – the drums have a specific cultural and religious function to the Mopuris – they take on a different, more fervent and obsessive meaning for the nuns. We have passed through a veil into a zone where the psyche expands to fill the universe and everything becomes a function of the overheated inner life. The teasing games of erotic sparking and quelling that play out between the nuns and Dean are given their contorted reflection in Kanchi’s furtive attempts to catch the Young General’s eye, whilst the Young General himself taunts Ruth’s nose in the classroom with Black Narcissus.
Sabu’s terrific semi-comic turn as the Young General presents a lad enthusiastic to learn about the world, trotting up to the school with a programme for his education that contains unwitting double entendre and prophecy: “One PM to three PM, French and Russian with the French and Russian sisters, if any; three PM to four PM, physics with the physical sister.” Kanchi volunteers as the physical sister, looming sylph-like over lattices and under desks as the incarnation of enticing pulchritude, true to Dean’s comment that she’s surely heard the folk tale “The Prince and the Beggar Maid” and has the stuff to alchemise legend into reality. Eventually Kanchi and the Young General run away together, an incident which, along with the child’s death and Ruth’s decision to not retake her annual vows, seems to signal the complete collapse of the convent’s efforts. As well as speaking of the breakdown of imperialist projects in the face of different cultural norms and general human nature, there are overtones of satire in the film that might be aimed closer to home: the Old General’s determination to make his citizens care about things like ringworm can be read as a send-up of the post-war positivism and reformism being foisted in Britain and elsewhere, the challenge to old orders and the difficulty in shifting them noted.
Tempting to see autobiographical qualities encoded in the film, too, Powell and Pressburger’s more sarcastic anticipation of Fellini’s harem in 8½ (1963), the storage place of every real affair and masturbatory fantasy. Powell was making a film with his ex-wife Kerr, was married to Pamela Brown whom he had left her for, and commenced an affair with Byron during the shoot. The on-screen bevy are all save Kanchi nonetheless defined by their nominal untouchable status, the ever-teasing disparity in the idea of the sexy nun given a self-castigating gloss. Dean makes for an ironic projection for Powell’s masculine self-image, less a playboy despite his affectations of wolfish assuredness and more a kind of unwitting fetish object. “I don’t love anybody!” Dean finally bellows to Ruth when she tries to seduce him, a moment of denial that also feels like an unwitting self-exposure: Dean’s self-sufficient aspect, his air of male independence to the nth degree, is also the ultimate incapacity to give himself to anyone or anything. His sexual detachment gives an ironic dimension to his impersonation of the detached Englishman, subsisting within another culture but never at one with it.
Ruth, who leaves the order and dons a red dress she’s ordered by mail, recreates herself as the antithesis of what she was, playing Hyde to Clodagh’s Jekyll, and conceives of them both engaged in a war, at first psychic but eventually quite mortal, to possess Dean. Ruth’s rebellion against the army she belongs to and enterprise she represents results is ultimately self-defeating, but at least it most definitely is rebellion. Black Narcissus embraces its lexicon of religious images and concepts even as it tests them to the limit, eventually playing out as a no-holds-barred battle of the assailed sacred and the consuming profane. Much of Black Narcissus’ still-potent appeal for film lovers lies as much or more in sheer, lustrous quality as a piece of visual filmmaking as well as its dramatic richness. Movies had made great and artistically worthy use of Technicolor before Black Narcissus of course, but Cardiff’s work on the film might well have been the first work in the medium to prove a film shot in colour could be richly, subtly textured and flexible in expressive palette in the same way great black-and-white photography could.
Cardiff manages to create a style that matches Powell and Pressburger’s unique ability to be realistic and stylised, palpable and fairy tale-like all at once. The shooting style bears the imprint of Expressionism, particularly in the film’s last third as the visuals become increasingly shadow-riddled and split into multiple hues and shades of light and colour, the far mountains, sky and cloud in shades of blue and white, the crystalline amber hues of light from lamps and fires, and the slow spread of infernal reds, betrays an aesthetic sensibility created with unique care. One shot of the lantern-carrying nuns congregating in the forecourt of the convent after trying and failing to track down Ruth is particularly great, their lights jiggling and casting pale light of fire on the cobbles, recalls academic-mythological paintings of the Pleiades searching for their missing sister, whilst also evoking the metaphysical and psychological struggle before them, trying to keep the lamps of their faith alight in a vast and crushing night.
Dean singing his bawdy, calculatedly insulting song as he departs the Christmas mass is filmed sarcastically as a most perfect Christmas scene, a man on a mule lit in a precious lantern field, moving slowly down through a snow-caked landscape. Ultimately the camera zeroes in on sections of Byron’s physiognomy as Ruth’s lunacy hatches out and her identity fragments even as her body becomes ritualistically exalted. Close-ups of Ruth as she first challenges Clodagh see the lower half of her face in shadow whilst her eyes blare out with feral pleasure. Later, she delivers another calculated insult and repudiation to Clodagh by making her watch as she daubs her lips in red lipstick, an act that Ruth seems to think is an act of war and defiance but instead sees what’s left of her personality subsumed by the daemonic impulse. Finally Ruth’s mad, red-rimmed eyes fill frames, blazing out from the shadows at her objects of lust and hatred, reducing her from person to a kind of malevolent entity inhabiting the convent, flitting up steps as a shadowy, barely-glimpsed wraith.
Ruth’s venture through the jungle to reach Dean’s house becomes its own, brief waltz through a Freudian id-zone, guttural sounds possibly from tigers echoing through the bamboo. Still time for some observational fillips, as Ruth pauses to don thick and sturdy hide boots that somewhat despoil the image she tries to present, at once the ardently desirous mate and the red-draped, fire-lipped succubus. The war of gazes reaches a climax where at last the camera takes on Ruth’s point of view as Ruth chants Clodagh’s name in fury and the screen is literally flushed crimson as Ruth sees red. Ruth’s show of clenched calm after fainting before Dean is more alarming than her brittle hysterics, and sure enough when she climbs back up to the convent she assaults Clodagh as she rings the bell for morning prayers. Ruth’s savagery extends to not just trying to push Clodagh off the cliff’s edge but picking her fingers off the bell rope to which she desperately clings. Clodagh’s will to live drives her to regain footing even as Ruth unbalances and falls into oblivion, Clodagh’s horrified gaze driving down into the shadows, before the film resumes an indirect method and Ruth’s striking the valley floor far below is signalled by the flapping of some alarmed birds and the cessation of the thundering drums.
As a climax this more than fulfils the essential requirements of the film’s many levels of narrative, good and evil in a deadly grapple, the segments of a psychotic culture trying desperately to find resolve, and the sorry sight of a priggish but essentially decent woman fighting a victim of mental illness for her life. The melancholy of the coda scenes, as Clodagh encounters the chastened Young General and then Dean as she departs expecting demotion and ignominy, becomes a reckoning with lost illusions and cruel tutelage, even as the tacit connection between her and Dean finally achieves something close to authentic mutual understanding and sympathy. Clodagh charges Dean with the responsibility of tending Ruth’s grave and gives him her hand as a final gesture of affection. Dean’s sad and salutary gaze after Clodagh as she and her escorts vanish into the curtains of rain just starting to fall evokes an extraordinary pathos, Dean finally learning to miss something but also left with a kind of treasure in his hand, evidence that once something and someone meant something to him. And that’s ultimately the deepest and most resonant theme in Black Narcissus as it takes stock of the inevitable age of disillusionment after the one of mortal struggle and contemplates a new era where the old structures will be dismantled. Some lessons are not just hard but truly wounding, but whatever is left after them can be called the truth.