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

The White Buffalo (1977)

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Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenwriter: Richard Sale

By Roderick Heath

Horror films and Westerns long seemed utterly irreconcilable genres. The Western engages official mythologies of nation, history, and society, where the Horror film tends to set them in happy disarray. Horror films court anarchic impulses and dwell in zones of psychological figuration, where Westerns roam large in the world and usually operate by rigid moral parameters. And yet the two genres wield some definite affinities. Both depend upon generating atmosphere as a tangible force, a sense of being at extremes beyond the reign of normality, at the mercy of a random and hostile universe, and often involve clashes of firmly demarcated good and evil enacted by supernormal characters. Horror elements creep through some apparently upright Westerns, including John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Richard Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969), particularly when dealing with the anxious threat of the Native American as the menacing Other surging out of the vast prairie night. The rise of the Spaghetti Western injected Gothic imagery and a spirit sometimes verging on death worship, and entries like Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) have strong doses of savage violence and semi-surreal weirdness very close to Horror in nature. In the late 1950s a proper fusion of the two genres was born, dictated by commercial inspirations in combining two ever-popular styles for patrons of drive-ins and grindhouses.

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The results of this fusion were usually pretty lame if not outright ridiculous: Edward Dehn’s interesting but hesitant Curse of the Undead (1959) kicked off a run of gunfighter-versus-monster films, like William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1965) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966). It wasn’t until the 1970s that some sort of fruitful union of the two began to appear, usually with Western imagery providing a kind of septic spiritual backdrop to Horror, on the likes of The Velvet Vampire (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Race with the Devil (1975). The ‘80s and ‘90s saw some vigorous attempts to fuse the forms, with the likes of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), and John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) all calling back to the classic stand-offs of the old school Western with their own wilful tweaks. Most of these films were set in contemporary times, placing them in deliberate tension with the aura of historical remoteness that once again links the Western and the Gothic Horror mould. Wayne Coe’s Grim Prairie Tales (1990) and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) tried more concertedly to find middle ground for the classic genre moulds. In recent years Horror Westerns have become relatively plentiful as trashy home viewing fodder, but S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) gained real admiration as a rich and gruelling entry that truly understood where the overlap between the genres lies.

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But The White Buffalo is perhaps the strangest entry in this rarefied mode, and my favourite. Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis was trying to carve out a place for himself in Hollywood in the mid-1970s, and after his interesting if garishly misjudged remake of King Kong (1976) looked to gain commercial traction with tactics well-thumbed in the Italian film industry in particular, by making some oddball cash-ins on recent successes, in this case Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1975). De Laurentiis produced two ambitious, eccentric derivations, The White Buffalo and Orca, the Killer Whale (1977). Orca was the rather more stridently trashy and weird of the two, marrying King Kong’s sympathy-for-the-beast trip to a sub-Herman Melville plotline and going far over the top in its man-versus-beast action. The White Buffalo, on the other hand, was based on a 1974 book by experienced screenwriter and novelist Richard Sale. Both films feature not just battles with marauding animals, but notably strong themes derived from fashionable concerns for ecology and pro-Native American sympathies. Both feature the Muscogee actor Will Sampson, who had gained a measure of stardom thanks to his part as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

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De Laurentiis hired Sale to adapt his own novel which was published before Benchley’s, and drew more meditatively on their common inspiration, Melville’s Moby-Dick. Sale was an arch professional, but he had evinced an interest in bizarrely spiritual adventure tales with his early novel Not Too Narrow…Not Too Deep, which was filmed under the title Strange Cargo (1940), depicting escaped convicts battling their evil impulses under the watchful eye of a Christlike stranger. The White Buffalo transferred Melville’s scenario to the Old West, and converted it into a metaphor for the clash of civilisations enacted on the western plains as well as the looming death worship underscoring much Old West mythology. Rather than going for any of the young tyros lighting up Hollywood at the time like Spielberg, De Laurentiis preferred hardy professionals to helm his Hollywood forays, often nabbing seasoned British directors, having employed John Guillermin to make King Kong and Michael Anderson on Orca. For The White Buffalo he hired J. Lee Thompson. That Thompson had just worked with the film’s star Charles Bronson on the nifty LA noir flick St. Ives (1976) probably helped. Thompson, like Sale and Bronson, was a weathered old salt of the sound stage. Orson Welles famously dissed him for that once, but Thompson probably took it in his stride, as he was one of those rigorous, skilful, no-bullshit talents who used to make film industries go ‘round.

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Thompson, who came from a theatrical family and made his start as a playwright, had served as a tail gunner during World War 2. He decamped from Britain to Hollywood after gaining international attention with exactingly crafted, vividly composed movies like Ice Cold In Alex (1958), Tiger Bay, and North West Frontier (both 1959), and soon gained a Best Picture Oscar nomination with The Guns of Navarone (1961). Thompson had a real knack for action-adventure films, often with stories involving small groups overloaded with bristling personalities travelling through dangerous and remote zones, expertly diagramming both group dynamics and faultlines of social perspective as well as his action sequences. But he took on just about every genre in his time, and revealed surprising ability at horror on Eye of the Devil (1967), a film that transmuted Thompson’s feel for colliding worldviews into a different zone, as did the cruel but memorable post-Holocaust melodrama Return From The Ashes (1965). Commercial stumbles in the late ‘60s with Mackenna’s Gold (1968) and The Chairman (1969) saw Thompson sink down the Hollywood totem pole. Thompson nonetheless continued to prove himself invaluable in bringing energetic camerawork and expert storytelling to an odd raft of films, including the last two Planet of the Apes films. Thompson fell into regular collaboration with Bronson until the late ‘80s when Thompson wrapped up his career ingloriously with films like Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989).

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The White Buffalo itself was a little too weird for critics and audiences in 1977 and not quite weird enough to gain a cult following. Nonetheless it represents an apotheosis for the ‘70s style of “mud and blood” Western, taking the genre’s new grittiness and outsider empathies up to the threshold of a hallucinatory terminus. It might be one of the offbeat Westerns ever made, but it’s also one of the last not afflicted with any hint of self-conscious nostalgia for the genre’s rapidly fading heyday, whilst also tackling some of the issues causing that wane head-on. Sale’s concept had some felicity, as the notion of a white, monstrous beast representing death is a common one in folklore: Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer (1953) had tackled a version found in Sami legend. Here Sale offers it unabashedly as cosmic invocation of the annihilating force unleashed by colonialism and race war, as well as the eternal, personal frontier of reckoning with fate. In a manner reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), the narrative yokes together famous figures of Western lore, in this case the gunfighter James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (Bronson) and the great Sioux war chief Crazy Horse (Sampson), who both are predestined in their own way to chase down the eponymous animal.

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Hickok’s spur is a recurring dream in which he sees a snowy clearing in the woods, the monstrous animal stalking him in the moonlight with terrible purpose. So terrifying is the dream that Hickok often awakens firing off the pistols he sleeps with: he’s lucky not to kill anyone on the train taking him west when he does this, as the bunk above his is unoccupied. Hickok travels under the pseudonym of James Otis, as he’s not keen to advertise his identity on the frontier after a sojourn to New York, considering that so many people want to claim his scalp for the sake of specific grievance or the desire to make a name. The train conductor, Amos Bixby (Douglas Fowley), recognises him easily and reassures him that the last known albino buffalo was recently shot dead by hunters: such creatures, exceptionally rare, were a prized and valuable prey for hunters. But a white buffalo is certainly at large in the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Hunter and prospector Charlie Zane (Jack Warden) barely escapes a small avalanche the powerful beast sets off, and then it charges pell-mell into an Oglala Sioux camp, leaving gored warriors scattered and killing the small child of Crazy Horse and his wife Black Shawl (Linda Moon Redfearn). Stricken with grief, Crazy Horse is renamed Worm by his father, and told to placate his daughter’s spirit and regain his true name he must kill the buffalo and bring back its hide to wrap the child’s body in.

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When he arrives in Cheyenne by train, Hickok is soon forced to fight for his life when a local Cavalry commander, Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter), brother to the better known Colonel, arranges with some of his loutish underlings to ambush Hickok and kill him as payback for an old altercation that saw Hickok kill two of his men. A barman, Paddy Welsh (Bert Williams), who upbraids Custer for his self-serving memory and unsporting purpose, tosses guns to Hickok, allowing him to blow away the soldiers and forcing Custer to flee. Hickok quickly moves on towards the frontier, catching a stagecoach on to Fetterman along the Bozeman Trail, driven by Abel Pickney (the inevitable Slim Pickens) and also carrying Winifred Coxy (Stuart Whitman) and Cassie Ollinger (Cara Williams). Hickok threatens Coxy over using bad language before the lady, but when she releases a string of cuss words Hickok gives up and tries to sleep. The white buffalo itself is hardly the only threatening thing on the loose in the stormy night. When Hickok catches Coxy about to kill and rob him, he forces the cad out of the coach despite the man’s desperate appeals for mercy, and he’s quickly shot dead by Crazy Horse, who tracks the stage’s passage. Crazy Horse later tries to snipe at Hickok when Pickney pulls up beside a pair of dead gold miners left on the roadside. The war chief’s bullet misses Hickok and the gunman drives him off with a fusillade from his pistols.

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Thompson stages this sequence, the familiar Western situation of a stagecoach journey with some disreputable characters, with a nightmarish lilt, as the conveyance trundles laboriously along muddy roads in pouring rain with lightning flashing, half-seen menaces dashing through the shadows. Mortality is so discounted out in these leagues neither Hickok nor Pickney are terribly bothered when they have to load frozen corpses onto the stagecoach roof. Thompson picks out vivid images of cruel death, in the astounding sequence of the buffalo’s charge through the Sioux camp as the beast’s horns gouge out eyes and rip open bodies in gory flash cuts, and when Coxy lolls in the mud and rain, hands smeared in his own blood. Snowfall turns nightmare to fairy tale but death is just as arbitrary, as Hickok learns when he realises the unfortunate Cassie has been killed by Crazy Horse’s bullet meant for him. Arrival at Fetterman in the bleary, mud-strewn morning finds old coot Amos Briggs (John Carradine) burying two men who killed each-other in a fight, inspired seemingly by one swearing he’d seen the white buffalo. Hickok visits local madam and former flame “Poker” Jenny Schermerhorn (Kim Novak), who’s following the frontier with her special services. But Hickok takes his leave of her after another nightmare of the buffalo sees him blast away the fake white buffalo head she hangs on her bedroom wall.

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The White Buffalo carefully builds up mirroring aspects to Hickok and Crazy Horse, noting that both men are using pseudonyms in trying to avoid their worldly status whilst pursuing their private missions. Each deals out annihilation with casual ease although neither sees himself as an aggressor – Hickok blows away Custer’s soldiers trying to kill him just as Crazy Horse shoots men intruding on his land and fights off a rival tribe’s braves. Both are dogged by enemies from their own nominal nations as well as the foes they’ve unstintingly earned in the frontier wars between Europeans and natives, and the two finally move into wary mutual respect and friendliness when Hickok decides to help Crazy Horse fend out some of his Indian enemies. But they’re also propelled by very different urges. Hickok is pushed towards his confrontation with the beast by the call of his own dream-world communion with death, whilst Crazy Horse has a far more personal motivation, driven to avenge his daughter in the same way he’s obliged to protect his ancestral homelands from the invading whites. Hickok has a dose of syphilis slowly corroding away his body and mind and can’t take bright light, and the pair of vintage dark glasses he perpetually wears are reminiscent of those worn by Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Hickock is unsure at first whether the prophecy he seeks to fulfil is real or just a product of his decaying wits. He fends off Jenny’s amorous advances although, as she comments, “I probably dosed you myself.”

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Thompson and Bronson’s collaboration seemed to be fuelled by a strong suggestion of mutual recognition, a sense transmuted into the film and Hickok and Crazy Horse’s screen amity. Bronson praised Thompson’s to-the-point style and economy on set, something a coal miner’s son made good like the former Charles Buchinsky appreciated. Beyond that, both men seemed to share an understanding as talented guys who nonetheless found themselves increasingly reconciled to servicing an ever-narrowing notion of what they were good for, and continuing to work for the sake of sheer professional cussedness. Bronson had become a big star in the 1970s playing variations on the terse-talking, stone-faced, death-dealing persona he’d perfected in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), including in huge hits like Death Wish (1974), but sometimes he tried to stretch his persona and occasionally reminded moviegoers he had a latent romantic streak and a talent for dry comedy on movies like St. Ives and the wonderful From Noon ‘Til Three (1976). Bronson’s Hickok probes Bronson’s screen persona as a dealer of death and picks up the same notion of the Western hero who finds he’s live long enough to become a victim of his own legend as in From Noon ‘Til Three. Hickok has just returned from performing on the New York stage with Buffalo Bill Cody, serving up that mythology to audiences. Now Hickok tries to outrun his one real talent, as a killer, returning to a territory where the myth is still being played out and the costs on the intimate, human level still flagrant.

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Identity is a performance in The White Buffalo, but the typecasting also runs deep. Novak’s Poker Jenny affectionately calls Hickok “Cat-Eyes” for the mesmerising beauty she once saw in his killer gaze, most ironically, when he was in the heat of battle rather than love. Sale seems to have taken some licence from the encrusting of folklore that built up around Hickok in particular, like the fact that he supposedly had odd premonitions, like fearing Deadwood would be the last town he would visit – the new settlement is mentioned fleetingly by Zane – and of course the totemic meaning of his legendary last hand of aces and eights Hickok would hold before being shot in the back. So, here Hickok is a protagonist drawn on to his duel by prophetic dreams and blessed with an intimate relationship with the great beyond. Aspects of The White Buffalo anticipate Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1996) in conjuring a spiritual western, where adventure out into the wilderness becomes an allegory for confronting mortality. Both films regard with horrified fascination the mountains of bones built up by buffalo hunters, engaged in wiping out the food source for the unpliable plains nations, and consider the American West as a vast amphitheatre of annihilation. Charlie Zane reports to Hickok seeing the white buffalo standing off the other Custer and his 7th Cavalry soldiers at a river crossing, bringing the touch of imminent demise to them too.

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“You know what I hate more than anything else in this world?” Hickok asks Zane as he contemplates the inevitable journey out into the mountains to court his destiny: “Even more than dying? Being afraid.” Mastery of death, the honed talent for dealing it out, is in Western mythology necessary for life, for civilisation and order to take hold; that’s the essence of the genre. But it’s also, equally, a fact that must be put to bed as soon as its end is accomplished, the corollary to the myth enacted in many a movie like Shane (1953) and The Searchers. “It was like you were fighting Armageddon with Satan himself,” Jenny declares after Hickok’s riddled her bedroom walls with bullets following one of his dreams, and though the fight with the real buffalo appears to only be a confrontation with a wild animal, its seems to have just such a spiritual import. The demonic bull awaiting Hickok and Crazy Horse becomes a mystical task only two titanic death-dealers can take on, the task of putting down the rampaging incarnation of death, in order to give some sort of peace to the anguished spirit of the place and allow the possibility of eventual peace. Hickok seems to unconsciously sense this as he ruefully considers the chance of developing a real rapport with Crazy Horse, although a ticking time bomb threatens to wreck their amity: Hickok is considered a callous and committed enemy for shooting dead one of their chiefs, a man who was called The Peacemaker. Before he properly encounters Crazy Horse, Hickok survives another attempt to shut his eyes, this time at the hands of the hulking “Whistling Jack” Kileen (Clint Walker), out for vengeance because one of the soldiers Hickok shot down in Cheyenne was his son.

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Hickok meets up with Zane, an old comrade, in a memorably bustling, grimy tavern for miners called the Frozen Dog, a place where men line up to sleep with the couple of frazzled prostitutes on hand and otherwise get drunk and gamble; it’s the standard frontier dive as rendered by Breughel or Bosch, one even Peckinpah and Altman might have turned their noses up at. Zane helps Hickok blow away several of Kileen’s gun-toting friends, and the two head out into the mountains, trying to keep a step ahead of further reprisals as well as track their quarry. Hickok falls in with the ornery Zane, who has a glass eye and a general contempt for Indians, one that Hickok protests he shares, and yet he soon proves to be surprisingly proficient in the courtesies of Native American negotiations as he deals with Crazy Horse. The war chief pays back Hickok for his help by saving him from Kileen when he ambushes Hickok and keeps him pinned down, riddling Kileen and his confederate with arrows after sneaking up on them by pretending to be a wolf. Knowing the white buffalo is close after it gores one of their tethered horses, the hunters settle down to wait out a snowstorm and hammer out their fractious philosophies around the campfire.

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The White Buffalo has an odd rhythm at first, almost tripping over its own feet in rushing through early scenes and utilising some patched-on narration by Fowley to fill in the gaps, probably the result of studio tampering to get the film down to its current runtime of just over an hour and a half (Thompson and Bronson’s follow-up Caboblanco, 1980, would be more seriously wrecked by this). But rather than being gutted, this only seems to have compressed the film’s essence, managing to evoke a sense of the Wild West that is, in its way, as epic and disorientating as something like Apocalypse Now (1979), with which it bears kinship as a trek towards the edge of human experience enacted as a physical journey, a succession of vignettes illustrating a zone of life where history and morality are in a state of flux. Thompson’s highly mobile, often lunging camera, mediated by DP Paul Lohmann, heightens the feeling of being constantly dragged on by a current through a flooded cave. Sale’s brand of frontier lingo with its blend of archaic grammar and salty directness is constantly in evidence (one favourite line, from Carradine, in explaining the cause of death for two corpses he’s burying: “This one with the moccasins allowed as how this one was a fork-tonged lying asshole.”)

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One aspect that ties The White Buffalo together with authority is John Barry’s superb score, evoking in the opening dream sequence a sense of foreboding, a mood that pervades the entire film; indeed, it’s one of the great Horror movie scores. Discordant strings hint at the presence of numinous influences and lurking fear, whilst deep, sonorous brass signifies the force of the buffalo and what it represents. One of the film’s finest moments comes when Thompson stages a breathtaking long-range zoom shot that pulls back as Hickok dashes down a snow-clad slope in pursuit of his foe, revealing the small and hapless human amidst a vast mountain landscape under roiling storm clouds, Barry’s music surging with grand, sepulchral menace. The cathedral of nature is a place where Crazy Horse’s mode of spiritual understanding reigns, and communing with the wind and sky and the stone bulwarks means negotiating the dreams dark and light of the universe, and the path of the white buffalo leads Hickok into Kileen’s trap. There was some irony in Thompson finding his niche in action films given that his wartime experiences had left him a considered pacifist. But that tension surely informed the particular strength of much of his work in the adventure film mould, as he thrived on depicting microcosms where characters come into conflict because of violent schisms in their most stubborn faiths.

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Situations like the cross-country train trip in the midst of a religious war in North West Frontier and the problems of using expedience against epochal evil versus personal feeling in The Guns of Navarone were ideal for Thompson, although he could also wield it in a setting like Eye of the Devil, where adherence to a pagan faith clashes with traditional religion and modernity but unsettles both with fervent promise. Here this manifests in the uneasy endeavour by Hickok and Crazy Horse to understand each-other’s perspectives is one of the most interesting and meaty attempts in any Western to depict such a negotiation. Hickok ripostes to the Sioux chief’s claims that they were given their territory by divine providence that his people won in conquest over neighbouring tribes, and that the white man is only doing the same thing. Crazy Horse counters in turn that at least they did it honourably. “That’s a thing called progress.” Hickok states, to Crazy Horse’s sharp retort: “It’s a thing called greed.” Finally Hickok tries to tell Crazy Horse, to Charlie’s delight and Hickok’s rueful warning, that no matter what kind of stand he makes, sooner or later the whites will swamp his nation with sheer numbers and terrible weaponry. Crazy Horse declares his intention to die trying, but he and Hickok nonetheless make a pact of brotherhood and not to fight each-other in the future, much to Charlie’s disgust. Nonetheless Crazy Horse has no intention of leaving the white buffalo to them, and he sneaks out in pursuit of the beast. But all three men are destined to converge on a landscape Hickok recognises in shock from his dream, and declares, “If this is the night I was born for then so be it.”

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The buffalo itself is seen fairly early in the film as it rampages through the Sioux camp, but lurks for much of the time glimpsed in fragmented close-ups of a balefully glaring eye and curling maw. The animal was cleverly realised in animatronic form by Carlo Rambaldi, who would gain repute a few years later for creating the title character of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); it’s a little marvel of pre-CGI monster making. Thompson offers astonishing images of the buffalo charging through underbrush, barrelling out of the night and careening by the hunters: Hickok seems to have a perfect shot at the beast but realises too late his trigger’s become caked with ice, and almost finishes up skewered on its horns. The hunt builds to the grand moment reminiscent of John Huston’s film of Melville, when Crazy Horse manages to spring onto its back and stabs its hump furiously with a handful of arrows, red blood caking white fur, until it throws him and bounds away. The hunt proves a real battle but also one invested with a ritual quality, hinted at through Hickok’s premonitions and the way the buffalo behaves, sneaking up on its foes as if just as determined to wipe them out as they are it. Finally a few quick-draw shots from Hickok manage to bring the buffalo down just before it crashes into him and Crazy Horse.

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The White Buffalo was widely criticised upon release for not spelling out what the symbolic thesis is here, but to me, that’s precisely what makes it so intriguing, as the underlying drama is constantly suggested and delineated without needing to be overtly stated. D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death dream at the heart of the frontier warrior legend finds a suggested purpose as legendary gunfighter and war chief perform their allotted metaphysical task, enacting blood rite and spiritual cleansing. Hickok defends Crazy Horse’s right to take the hide nonetheless to an outraged Zane. The coot stomps off after accidentally letting slip Hickok’s real name to Crazy Horse, who declares with sad solemnity to the gunfighter that although they’re now brothers in spirit they can’t ever meet again without being obliged to enact their roles as avatars of their societies, “and we will both solve the great mystery.” The film fades out to fake tintype images of the two men, noting the similarity of their ages and the fact both would soon be murdered. As the film would have it, they succeeded in reining in the dominion of the death dream, but at the cost of offering themselves up as sacrifices to the violent gods they were committed to worshipping without understanding why. The White Buffalo stands as a unique achievement for both the Western and the Horror film in the way it manages to outdo the likes of Sergio Leone and Mario Bava on one crucial level, by leading both back genres to the same inception point in primal mythology, the battles of culture heroes with the monstrosities born of perverted natural order, given a new and coherent shape in terms of history.

The White Buffalo .can be viewed here.

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1980s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Film Noir, Horror/Eerie, Mystery, Romance

Blue Velvet (1986)

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Director/Screenwriter: David Lynch

By Roderick Heath
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David Lynch’s name is synonymous with a creative style close to a genre in itself. His is an outlandish, numinous, discomforting aesthetic, purveyed across several art forms, where the texture of dreams, and nightmares, can suddenly colonise an apparently stable and homey world, where humans peel apart and become separate entities coexisting in different versions of reality. Lynch has purveyed that style since his early short experimental films, and the grotesque and startling debut feature Eraserhead (1976), a film that so impressed Mel Brooks he hired him to direct the Oscar-nominated hit The Elephant Man (1980), where Lynch successfully synthesised his unique imaginative reflexes with more familiar storytelling needs. Lynch has managed to sustain a truly unique status as America’s homespun surrealist, through works like his Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart (1990) and the acclaimed Hollywood fugue Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as the various iterations of the TV show Twin Peaks. That Lynch has managed to pull off such a career against seemingly every current of contemporary fiscal and cultural impulse is in itself an achievement, but it’s also one Lynch has managed with sly concessions to, and annexations of, conventional screen culture. Perhaps the only other voice in modern American film so resolutely self-directed is Terrence Malick, and the two stand in near-perfect polarity: Lynch is as dedicated to trying to charting his sense of the tension between conscious and unconscious as Malick has been in describing his vision of the transcendent.
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As specific and perpetual as a beloved figure of the wilful fringe as Lynch seems now, there was a time in his career when he was a hot property and seemed poised for a relatively ordinary film career. After The Elephant Man he passed on directing Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) to tackle a colossal project, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune. That project turned out to be dismaying experience for Lynch as it was severely recut and released to poor reviews and paltry box office. And yet the experience of it seemed to have an ultimately positive effect on Lynch, who reoriented himself with newly gained technical expertise, and looked for a new way to express himself on his own terms whilst refusing to retreat back into cinema marginalia. Where Eraserhead had taken place entirely in a dream-state filled with the furniture of Lynch’s deeply private anxieties and associative lodestones, with The Elephant Man and Dune he laboured to articulate his feel for the oneiric in coherent contexts, illustrating the awe of the Victorian bourgeoisie when faced with strangeness through a web of dreams that equated industrial grime with natural travesty in the former, and in the latter depicting the process of the human tuning into the music of the universe perfectly enough to orchestrate it.
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With his next film, Blue Velvet, Lynch began a push back in the other direction, slowly nibbling away at his own carefully falsified notion of normality and subjecting it to the perverting whim of the id, and he managed the mischievous project of remaking a subcontinent of pop culture in his own image. Lynch also pulled off a remarkable feat in relation to Horror cinema, as he found a way of making the form arty and respectable. After the days of high expressionist cinema, when it was the genre most fit for artistic experimentation thanks to the likes of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror (1922), horror films to be accepted as “elevated” horror has to offer a certain level of deconstructed generic impetus and provide carefully parsed and obvious metaphors for various worldly concerns, or apply showy visual touches. Lynch has had a lot of influence on ambitious horror cinema in this mode of late, but in other ways he remains radically at odds with it. Lynch worked to create a charge of disquiet by boiling down a nightmarish lexicon of sights, sounds, and ideas, sometimes but not necessarily desiring to link them to any clear sociological or psychological idea, beyond his certainty that to be human is to be filled with some dank and distressing impulses as well as noble and upright ones. Blue Velvet is the film on which Lynch struggled to articulate the strangely alluring gravity of the dark side, and it remains probably his finest articulation of his obsessions as well as his most controlled.
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Blue Velvet sets images at war with each-other, less any concept of the real world than of inherited ways of seeing it. The film’s acerbically humorous starting point relies on recognition of the paraphernalia of Lynch’s childhood, an idealised sense of small-town Americana, the kind celebrated in ‘50s TV shows and gently tested in beloved texts like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery books, places based around an assumption of a settled and harmonious social system and hierarchy. Lynch sets up his war in the opening scene as he offers languorous shots of well-scrubbed normality – children out of school crossing the street, waving firemen on the back of a fire truck – that aim for a hyperbolic sense of placid, wholesome Americana. A suburban father, idly watering his green lawn, suffers a stroke, collapses in agony on the grass, and lies in a writhing fit, his dog playfully snapping at the spurting hose in his agonised grip. Lynch’s camera descends amongst the grass fronds to study black beetles seething in monstrous reign over this level of existence, under the feet of the soft, pink titans of the higher. The felled patriarch is Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey), and his son Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his home burg of Lumberton on hearing the news.
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Jeffrey is confronted by the grotesque sight of his once-strong and commanding father stuck in a hospital bed with a stern array fixed about his head to keep it still and secure, and the two men weep at the inevitable spectacle of the younger seeing the elder in such a state. Walking back homewards across an empty lot, Jeffrey happens upon a disquieting find: a severed human ear, with ants crawling over it. Lynch’s camera delves into the decaying hunk of flesh, which becomes a world unto itself as the grass did, as if it’s not merely a receiver for sonic vibrations but a source of them, soundtrack filling with echoic reverberations and cavernous drones. Jeffrey coaxes the tattered organ into a paper bag and takes it to a policeman friend of his father’s, Detective Williams (George Dickerson). Jeffrey later goes to Williams’ house to ask him if the investigation is turning up anything up. The cop is politely obfuscating, but Jeffrey then encounters the detective’s beautiful high school senior daughter, Sandy, who reports to him some of the snatches of gossip she’s managed to overhear, talk that suggests a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is somehow mixed up with the sordid business. Jeffrey talks Sandy into helping him infiltrate Dorothy’s apartment, posing as a pest control worker, and he manages to purloin a set of keys and return in the night to feast upon scenes he quickly realises no-one should have to see.
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“I can’t tell if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells Jeffrey as he readies for his adventure, to which he responds with a crooked grin: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” The exchange is hilarious in its own, Mojave-dry fashion as it identifies the blend of bemusement and eccentricity underscoring the two young would-be heroes’ mission to do a good turn: the thrill of becoming has its own strange momentum, already dragging them both along. But the exchange also elucidates Lynch’s general proposition. Jeffrey’s desire to solve a mystery also opens up frontiers of tempting experience and the chance to escape mere voyeurism to become an actor, and quickly learning the cost of complicity such a step demands. Sandy is first a voice speaking from the dark – “Are you the one who found the ear?” she questions Jeffrey from the shadows before stepping into the light as the fresh-minted image of a certain ideal of American beauty, at once stolid and ethereal. Sandy has a football-playing boyfriend, Mike (Ken Stovitz), but she quickly falls under the sway of slightly older, slightly more worldly Jeffrey, who entices her with an adventure into illicit zones but remains plastic-wrapped as the perfect blonde suburban virgin. Dorothy is the eternal contrast, dark and mysterious, breathing out her husky strains in performing her version of Bobby Vinton’s song that give the film its title, beckoning to Jeffrey as the incarnation of mature sexuality and the allure of the forbidden.
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Dorothy hears Jeffrey in his hiding place and drags him out under duress with a kitchen knife in her hand. Dorothy is initially anxious and furious, but that quickly dissipates as she considers the handsome young man in her thrall, and in short order has him strip down, seemingly excited by having a pillar of tall and tender young male flesh at bay. Trouble is, Jeffrey isn’t the only one in thrall to her gravitas. As he hides again in her cupboard, he’s obliged to watch as into Dorothy’s apartment bursts Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), walking incarnation of the id, a violent and thuggish gangster who’s taking over Lumberton’s drug trade but seems more concerned with keeping Dorothy on a short, tight leash. Jeffrey is treated to a brutal spectacle as Frank repeatedly punches Dorothy, stuffs scraps of actual blue velvet in both their mouths, and rapes her on the carpet. Tables are soon turned as Dorothy, left alone again as if the invasion never happened, drags Jeffrey to her bed to be initiated into the nocturnal universe. Soon Jeffrey is her regular lover whilst romancing Sandy in a more familiar daylight fashion. Jeffrey makes the leap from investigator-voyeur to self-cast hero in a dark moral drama, except the morality proves slippery and the drama frightening in ways Jeffrey can’t yet conceive. Dorothy soon demands he start hitting her in bed, out of some virulent strain of masochism infecting her, in a way that erases the first few layers of insulation between Jeffrey and “people like Frank” as he describes them. Jeffrey experiences dreams in which Frank is a roaring beast of the veldt, and the fires of transgressive passion are first a flickering candle and then a roaring curtain as he taps the same vein of visceral sexuality in himself.
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The epic scene of revelation and transgression in Dorothy’s apartment sees Jeffrey dragged through one of the film’s many invisible but palpable barriers of behaviour, seeing him pass from concerned young man to voyeur to active participant in the sick drama with startling speed, and indeed, with little real choice. Lynch conflates Hitchcockian tropes at high speed – the snooping neighbour of Rear Window (1954), the wicked knife of Psycho (1960) – and then moves right past them to actively portray the stew of desire and complicity Hitchcock was usually obliged by censorship and genre parameters to only suggest. The moment where Dorothy strips off her curly wig is both wryly amusing and disquieting, a subtler but in a way more intense illustration of Jeffrey’s violation of her privacy as well as signalling the way Dorothy is forced to live out a kind of drag act, remaking herself in the image of Frank’s (and Jeffrey’s) notion of the feminine mystique. Jeffrey finds himself obliged to dole out brutal force to Dorothy in a way that threatens to upend Jeffrey’s very identity, although it’s Dorothy who later cries out, in pain and ecstasy, that Jeffrey “put his disease inside me,” perhaps the disease of youth and hope, the cruellest infection. It’s cliché to say that heroes and villains are quite often two sides of the same coin; Lynch here studies the edge of the coin. More than that, he approaches drama in a fashion that, although its draws on a panorama of modernist concepts, ultimately reveals itself to work more like ancient myth, its characters talismans for the human condition rather than psychological units unto themselves in the modern manner. Much as Heracles could be cosmic hero and bestial murderer depending on the forces enacted upon him by the universe and fighting all the while to define his true self, Jeffrey contains the seeds of hero and villain within and feels both serpents stirring and uncoiling.
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The drama about him works similarly in a system of sign-play that counts upon the audience recognising Lynch’s codes, but Lynch’s cunning in this regard lies in his understanding how common what he’s conveying is: most everyone shares some version, either personally or inherited through media saturation, of the idyllic landscape of Lumberton. Blue Velvet came out in the waning years of the Reagan presidency, and many took it for a corrosive lampoon on the kind of back-to-the-‘50s false nostalgia Reagan and his ilk propagated and which still lingers in popular discourse. And it certainly is that, although it’s hardly only that. Lynch is genuinely, powerfully fond of that lost idyll even as he seeks to diagnose the forces that make childhood and adulthood such irreconcilable states. Jeffrey is both a player in a highly specific and rarefied story but he’s also any young man who’s been bewildered by the evil at large in the world and startled by the ferocity and kinkiness you can uncover in a lover. Sandy is quick to forgive Jeffrey his transgressions in the name of love, as he acts for her in a similar way that he acts for the audience, the one sent out to report back from the fringes and give loan of vicarious thrills. Meanwhile Lynch writes preparatory sketches for the more volatile dance of the homey and the infernal on Twin Peaks as he notes Jeffrey’s mother (Priscilla Pointer) and chirpy but timorous aunt (Frances Bay) as a perpetually comforting duo about the Beaumont house, and depicts Jeffrey and Sandy sealing their romantic pact in the most traditional manner possible, at a high school dance.
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Part of Lynch’s implication here is that every white picket fence and well-swept porch is a couple forged in a similar furnace of lust and perversity, only cocooned, contained, and finally, slowly dissipated through the carefully contrived paraphernalia of normality. Suburbia is a mechanism designed to drain off and reappropriate erotic energy, like some grand, inverted William Reich invention, keeping extreme passions and lunacies at bay but with the price of leaving its inhabitants crumpling husks like Jeffrey’s father or a tense, cautious sentinel like Williams. The frontier of illicit behaviour, as Jeffrey’s mother warns him, is Lincoln Street, where the tract housing gives way to the urban colonising influence of apartment blocks: when Jeffrey and Sandy do finally stray into that precinct, Angelo Badalamenti’s scoring surges with a melodramatic cue that somehow manages to seem both good-humoured and utterly earnest. Much later in the piece the traffic is reversed, as the petty and quotidian, if by no means unthreatening, encounter between Jeffrey and Mike is cut short by the sudden appearance of Dorothy, stripped naked and covered in bruises, reminiscent of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of “Truth Coming Out Of Her Well” in her appearance as the image of a wraith at once eroticised and ghastly in reporting harsh facts, collapsing into Jeffrey’s arms and sending the Lumberton milksops scurrying for cover. Even an encounter with a guy walking his dog seems charged with strange implication through the way Lynch has the actor stand rigid as if posing for a photo as he looks back at Jeffrey: part of Lynch’s aesthetic lies in the way he seems to be trying to take a perpetual snapshot of the moment when two scarcely reconcilable realities collide.
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Blue Velvet maintains a relatively straightforward storyline and structure by comparison with Lynch’s more overtly dreamlike and associative works. But it also sets up the schismatic souls of his later works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, where the same person can enact a panoply of stories depending on a multiplicity of divergence points for narrative; only here and there does Lynch suddenly open up a perfectly bizarre vantage where the pull of the void seems to be invoked. Lynch’s surrealist allegiances are studiously cited, particularly Luis Buñuel, with all the infesting insect life and violated body parts, and Edward Hopper, in the careful depictions of apparently bland settings stirring with intimations of strange transformations and repressed forces: Dorothy’s apartment, with its mysteriously wafting curtains and uterine-coloured walls implies this influence in particular. Jeffrey’s brief guise as a bug sprayer calls to mind William Burroughs’ alter ego’s job as a pest controller in The Naked Lunch. Lynch betrays a powerful admiration for Hitchcock but also declares less famed allegiances. He makes nods to the likes of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place – Hope Lange, who plays Sandy’s mother, had played one of the younger characters in Mark Robson’s 1956 film of that book – and Vincente Minnelli’s films of Some Came Running (1958) and Home From The Hill (1960).
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There’s also a strong dose of a certain school of drive-in heyday cinema: stuff like Jack Arnold’s sci-fi films where monstrosities roam in disguise in the streets of small towns and shrunken men battle monsters in the basement, and his High School Confidential (1958) and similar efforts by the likes of Roger Corman and Edward L. Cahn, cheapjack myths of high school heroes and debutantes discovering the seamy side of life. Badalamenti’s justly hailed score charts Lynch’s poles expertly, shifting from beatniky jazz to surging Technicolor melodrama cues to shimmering synth-pop tones, befitting the film’s carefully smudged sense of era – the setting is nominally contemporary and yet Lumberton is littered with the paraphernalia of past eras and barely seems to have left the ‘50s. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) had to a great extent beaten Lynch to the punch, conceptually if not in execution, in realising a surrealist aesthetic in a humdrum suburban setting and unleashing destabilising forces upon both that world and the horror-thriller genre as a form. Even the basic situation is the same, a young hero combating a monstrous, barbarically humorous figure come straight out of the collective id to torment and belittle. Meanwhile Lynch seems to be battling his own bruising experience on Dune, remixing images and plot elements from that project into a radical new setting, telling the same essential myth, of a young man who is left rudderless after losing his father and is forced to battle the world’s threat alone. Prophetic dreams play a part in both, as Sandy voices her own augury about the return of robins to Lumberton will spell the end of evil influence.
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Lynch installs some relatively straight-laced thriller twists in the course of the narrative. He introduces Frank’s circle of henchmen and collaborators in capturing Lumberton’s drug trade and singers – and by implication its nocturnal economy of sensual delights. Jeffrey learns that a dark-haired, heavy-set man in a yellow jacket he sees talking with Dorothy and working with Frank is actually one of Williams’ cop colleagues, Detective Gordon (Fred Pickler), who Jeffrey dubs The Yellow Man for his jacket’s colour, with overtones of reference to old weird fiction. Jeffrey’s overgrown Hardy Boy act reaches an apogee as he manages to capture photos of Frank, the Yellow Man, and the rest of the gang associating with a secreted camera. Jeffrey manages to communicate his discoveries to Williams, and after a period of uncertainty as to whether Williams will act upon them, he drops the boom and shoots it out with Frank’s gang in an old-fashioned come-and-get-me-copper shoot-out. Except that Lynch drapes the scene in the languorous romanticism of Ketty Lester’s version of “Love Letters” – love letters having already been described by the ranting Frank as a metaphor for “a bullet from a fuckin’ gun.” This scene manages to both offer a familiar movie convention, the climactic shoot-out, but as with so much of the film subjects it to a bewildering transformation, finding lyrical pathos in the righteous violence, whilst also clearing away all distraction of nominal plot to concentrate on the ultimate confrontation between Frank and Jeffrey.
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Before reaching such an end, Lynch contrives to thrust Jeffrey into Frank’s clutches, caught leaving Dorothy’s apartment just as the gangsters arrive: at once furious and fascinated, Frank steals away the duo for a wild ride in their nocturnal Oz with his goons Raymond (Brad Dourif), Paul (Jack Nance), and Hunter (J. Michael Hunter). They speed around Lumberton’s streets, discovering hidden abodes of bohemian weirdos amongst the hollowed-out shells of the downtown buildings. Frank visits his pal and apparent partner in criminal enterprise Ben (Dean Stockwell), a creature of surface affability and fey calm who nonetheless takes pleasure in casually punching Jeffrey in the gut, and overseeing a bizarre court of riffraff, like a less overtly camp Frank-N-Furter. Ben is a hipster priest stuck away in a corner of small town America, promising silken delights and sadisms, lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” with a mechanics lamp shining on his face, in one of Lynch’s signature sequences of bizarre pantomime and performance. Orbison’s song seems to have a peculiar totemic value for Frank, particularly the image of the “candy-colored clown,” that both salves his fury and stokes it. It seems to wield a similar power for Lynch himself, a perfect iteration of a purely American, entirely commercial paean to surreal values, delivered by one of the most eerily emotive voices in the pop pantheon, transmuted here through the self-conscious artifice.
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Lynch surveys this scene mostly in master shots with his actors arranged in rows in a manner reminiscent of the forced, flat framings of early silent film, or like hauling his cast out for a curtain call before an invisible audience of mocking deities. Old women sit apparently oblivious to the weird in the background, whilst Dorothy’s son is hidden away in a side room, driving her frantic with apparent rejection. Back out into Frank’s car again, to the town’s fringes where machinery and the waste of industry loom, and Frank taunts Jeffrey as if still trying to work out what species he has at bay. Jeffrey obliges him by demanding he leave Dorothy alone and eventually punches him, an act that stokes Frank to a gleeful fury but also impresses him: “You’re like me,” Frank grants before having him pulled from the car by his goons and held at bay whilst Frank beats him senseless. The promised violence awaiting Jeffrey finally arrives, and yet there’s a suggestion his show of pith, as well as confirming the aspects of commonality between Frank and him, saves his life, as he gains an iota of respect. In the morning, Jeffrey awakens on the ground, bruised and batted, demeaned and disillusioned, but still and alive and in one piece, coughed out of hell’s gullet as something just a little too hard to swallow.
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Part of Lynch’s shrewd humour lies in his way of conceptualising evil, no matter how inflated and perverse, as something readily understandable to a young man like Jeffrey. Frank is a school bully inflated to the nth degree, with his coterie of giggling companions, existing purely to dominate and humiliate. At first Frank might seem too wilfully extreme, too bizarre a creation to offer social commentary. But Lynch makes clear when he glimpses Frank watching Dorothy perform and when he adopts his “well-dressed man” disguise he’s capable of acting sufficiently ordinary to move amongst daylight people. Normality is a guise he puts on but for him the pleasure of, and motive for, his criminal activities is the way they allow him to mostly dispense with his own, specific veil of behaviour, the one that stands between the inner, id-driven man-child that operates through whim and appetite and what it wants, alternating cruel tantrums and displays of jarring, fetishistic neediness that manifests in the need to control. His random habit of plucking out a facemask and huffing on some gaseous intoxicant makes him look like in turn vaguely insectoid and cyborg, a creation born in the primal age and just at home in a post-apocalyptic landscape. He casts Dorothy as lover, mother, slave, and psychic ashtray, needing to know only what it takes to make her conform to his will. It’s a siren song Jeffrey experiences too, the shocking mainlining thrill of walloping pretty white flesh and watching it turn purple. Lynch never tries to state whether Dorothy’s masochistic streak is a by-product of guilt and anxiety over her family or if it’s a more intricate aspect of her nature, and perhaps it doesn’t matter; everyone is the by-product of their grazings against other bodies and wills, forming and malformed. In the end Jeffrey seems to be just as compelled to place himself under Frank’s fist as her, as if he senses pain is a profound contract with reality that must be paid one way or another.
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Part of what makes Blue Velvet so potent is Lynch’s disinterest in acting superior to his dark fantasy, as ironic as his method often seems: he really is the still-naïve Jeffrey asking why there’s evil like Frank in the world. MacLachlan does well in purveying both Jeffrey’s boyishness and the fleeting glimpses of a kinky spirit behind his eyes, and Rossellini justly made a splash not simply by stepping into a part that demanded so much exposure of her flesh but also in making the emotional extremes displayed by Dorothy so vivid. Hopper’s performance gives the film much of its unique charge of lunatic comedy, as the actor took hold of his own wild man image and used it with cunning effect, presenting not the frazzled, fry-brained hippie he’d been taken as since the early ‘70s but a kind of reptilian overlord. It’s a performance in a similar key of outsized, purposefully cartoonish spectacle as Kenneth McMillan’s as Harkonen in Dune, but more skilfully modulated, as Hopper, with slicked-back hair and snapping teeth, paints his mouth with lipstick and glares at MacLachlan with hophead eyes semaphoring the raw fury and glee of untrammelled release of the inner predatory beast.
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The film reaches its apotheosis in grotesquery as Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment in seeking sanctuary, only to find the Yellow Man and Dorothy’s husband both present. The husband is tied a chair, dead, a red patch where his severed ear used to be, a tell-tale scrap of blue velvet jammed in his mouth, his brains spread over the wall behind him. The Yellow Man stands upright, still clinging to life but with a chunk of his skull blown away, portion of brain winking out at the world, nervous system twitching in blank-minded confusion. A shattered TV screen emitting buzzing white noise illustrates the utter nullity of moment and the still-firing synapses of the Yellow Man even though the station signal’s gone entirely blank. Much of Lynch’s modus operandi recalls Freddie Jones’ decrepit ringmaster in The Elephant Man, half-momentously, half-shamefully promising to show you sights you’ve never dreamt of seeing, and might wish you hadn’t after getting an eyeful; this here is Lynch’s most gruesome and startling flourish of showmanship, one Jeffrey surveys in shock but also in speedy assimilation. His rapidly evolving survival instincts immediately give him a plan and the tools to accomplish it, in making use of the Yellow Man’s gun and walkie-talkie, although he only just manages to pull himself up in making use of the radio as Frank can surely hear what he’ll be saying on it, only to realise he can use that against his foe too.
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When Jeffrey returns to the closet he was hiding in earlier, it’s no longer to gain a vicarious glimpse but escape the deadly consequences of his foray. Lynch never bothers to explain just what went down with Frank, the Yellow Man, Dorothy, and the husband. Not that it matters, as Jeffrey, like Phil Marlowe, often stumbles upon the wreckage of human activities, beggared by the results of such competing passions. Jeffrey defeats the demon by summoning his own killer instinct, but Lynch grants him the peace and ease of a lawn chair. He’s surrounded by signs of restored stability: Dorothy playing with her son, his propeller hat back on his head, an ear again explored by the camera but this time still safely connected to Jeffrey’s head, and the robins of Sandy’s dream have come to peck away at the chaos-invoking ants. It’s very tempting, and easy, to describe the concluding scenes as Lynch lampooning the notion of a happy ending. But in calling back to the childlike fantasia of falsity found in pantomime theatre in The Elephant Man, Lynch seems to me to be chasing a shrewder point, about the longing for a restoration to innocence that can only be achieved through falsifying its appearance. This falseness, the fakery, is not indicted as bad for being such; in fact Lynch seems to believe that’s what civilisation is, a well-composed system of agreements not to look at certain things, out of wise fear of where they lead.

Standard
1970s, 1980s, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Omen (1976) / Damien: Omen II (1978) / The Final Conflict (1981)

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Directors: Richard Donner; Don Taylor; Graham Baker
Screenwriters: David Seltzer; Mike Hodges, Stanley Mann; Andrew Birkin

By Roderick Heath

The success of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) inaugurated a brief moment when Horror films were not just big business but could potentially be classy, mass-audience fare. Rosemary’s Baby had woven quotidian anxieties over childbirth and coupling into a story that slowly unveiled the presence of genuine supernatural evil but avoided all but a faint aura of standard genre imagery. The Exorcist had become a huge hit for many reasons, on top of satisfying a basic hunger for raw showmanship and thrills. Perhaps the most vital factor was how it identified the degree to which religious anxiety had percolated during the sexual and social revolutions of the late 1960s. By the time The Exorcist came along, disaster movies had also become hugely popular, serving up another variety of realistic horror as Hollywood’s old-timers and young stars alike lined up to be endangered and often killed off in inventive ways. Producer Harvey Bernhard hit upon a project that allowed him to combine these two popular modes. A friend of Bernhard’s suggested the idea of the Biblically-predicted Antichrist being incarnated in a contemporary setting, and the excited producer hired screenwriter David Seltzer to give flesh to this notion.
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Bernhard aimed high and succeeded in hiring big-name actors not normally associated with the genre, in particular Gregory Peck, who was attracted by the element of psychological drama inherent in the story. The result became a colossal hit that Bernhard and Twentieth Century Fox soon sought to expand into a series, producing two sequels over the next few years that became one of the first real examples of something more familiar to moviegoers today, a coherent blockbuster trilogy. For a director, Bernhard bypassed established genre talents, looking instead for someone with experience in more intimate dramas with the ability to imbue a glossy texture, and one who would also be conveniently cheap. He settled on the little-known Richard Donner, a Bronx-born director who hadn’t made a feature film in five years, since the jailbait sex comedy Lola (1970). Donner was 45 when he was hired to make The Omen, hardly one of the young tyros setting ‘70s cinema alight at the time. Donner had debuted as a feature filmmaker with X-15 (1961), but had done most of his apprentice work on television, on everything from The Rifleman to Kojak, with perhaps his most notable effort being the infamous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone.
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The raw material of The Omen could surely have fuelled a hit at any time, but the resulting film’s potency is rooted deeply in the mid-‘70s sensibility. Not only did it successfully tap the same vein of religious angst as The Exorcist, but also connected with a broader zeitgeist, one fuelled by a general feeling of cultural crack-up in the face of events like the Energy Crisis and Watergate, and compelled by a general penchant for conspiracy theories and New Age jive. A time of Erich von Daniken and In Search Of…, the post-counterculture distrust of official narratives and a blend of paranoia and mystical assurance greeting any theory that a deeper truth lay behind any façade, that even human history itself might be an elaborate cover-up. Another aspect of The Omen’s unusual approach to the fantastical lay in the way it avoided the usual trappings of Horror films, taking on a glamorous milieu in dealing with a rarefied zone of worldly consequence and power, quite a distance from the often grimy realism inflecting the lower-budget genre movies of the time, and showing evil at work not with monsters but a blend of human conspiracy and otherworldly influence. Val Lewton’s series of horror films and some rare other examples like Sidney Hayers’ Night of the Eagle (1961) had purveyed a certain level of ambiguity over manifestations of evil as possibly elaborate accidents and the like, but The Omen films made this aspect the essence of their formula. With the added twist that rather than trying to establish doubt, these tricks mesh together to form the irresistible impression of something perfectly wicked and insidiously purposeful at work.
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The Omen begins with American diplomat and wealthy scion Robert Thorn (Peck) trying to reach the hospital in Rome where his wife has just given birth to a son who died almost immediately. Robert is soon convinced by the hospital chaplain, a priest named Spiletto (Martin Benson), to adopt another baby born at the same time, one without any apparent family connections; even his wife doesn’t have to know about the substitution. Thorn agrees, and he and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) name the boy Damien. The family soon travels to Great Britain, where Robert is appointed ambassador, representative of his old college roommate who’s now the US President. An apparently idyllic childhood for Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) begins to destabilise at a showy fifth birthday party thrown for him, a great moment in diplomatic and plutocratic hoopla. Damien’s nanny (Holy Palance) seems to fall under the spell of a staring Rottweiler hovering in the bushes of the Thorn estate. Soon after, the nanny appears the roof of the house, and after shouting the salutation, “It’s all for you Damien!”, hangs herself in full view of the party. The nanny’s place is taken by the sweetly assuring but enigmatic Mrs Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), who breezes into the Thorn house and quickly establishes a rule over Damien that perturbs his parents. An anxious, seemingly disturbed priest, Brennan (Patrick Troughton), sneaks into Robert’s office to spout warnings that Damien is the anointed Antichrist, and pleas for Robert to perform Communion.
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When Robert meets him again on the Thames bank, Brennan warns him that Katherine is pregnant and now in danger from her son. The priest is immediately killed when a bizarre windstorm rises and a lightning rod, dislodged from the church he dashes to in seeking sanctuary, impales him. Fulfilling Brennan’s warning, Katharine does prove to be pregnant and loses the baby after she suffers a spectacular fall caused by Damien. A freelance photographer, Keith Jennings (David Warner), approaches Robert to share bizarre evidence about Brennan’s obsession, including photos Jennings took that seem to depict supernatural forewarnings of Brennan and the nanny’s deaths, and perhaps his own. Robert travels to Italy with Jennings to investigate Damien’s birth, but they find the hospital burned down along with all records. After tracking down Spiletto, left badly mangled by the fire and repentantly clinging to existence in a lonely monastery in Subiaco, they head to a remote cemetery where Damien’s birth mother is supposedly buried. They find the skeleton of an animal, alongside a baby with its skull smashed in – Robert realises this is his true son’s remains, whilst animal skeleton conforms a prophecy the Antichrist would be born of a jackal. Robert and Jennings head on to Megiddo in Israel, obeying one of Brennan’s implorations, to see Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), a former exorcist turned archaeologist. Bugenhagen presents Robert with seven antique daggers, part of set forged specifically to destroy the Devil’s spawn, and instructs him how to use them, and also on how to finally prove Damien is the Antichrist, by looking for a birthmark of the letters 666, the number of the beast, which might be under his hair.
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Donner and Seltzer’s talent in purveying a potentially absurd story is evinced right from the opening frames of the film: Donner immerses the audience in Robert’s fraught emotional state as he’s driven through the Roman night filled with anxiety and heartbreak as a phone conversation telling him his baby is dead loops in his head. The expert use of disjunctive sound and vision establishes Donner’s storytelling as sophisticated in a very (1976) modern manner, even as his story subsequently dives into a realm of atavistic terrors and ethereal faiths. After Katharine’s recovery from childbirth and a brief moment of panic when Damien vanishes from sight during a country walk, the Thorn way of life seems like perfect fodder for a glossy lifestyle magazine, a similarity Donner underlines as he depicts their life in a montage of still photos. He manages in this way to fend his way through a difficult narrative movement in getting from Damien’s birth to his fifth birthday, when the real drama starts, shocked into life by the nanny’s suicide, a shock illustrated in Remick’s wide blue eyes as Katharine cradles her son and stares aghast up at the dangling body.
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“We’re beautiful people aren’t we?” Katharine half-sarcastically asks her husband in bed as they contemplate the possibility something’s wrong in their life. Peck’s imposing stature and air of stiff-necked conviction made an ideal framework to hang such a movie off, with a strand of dark humour as well as aspirition lurking behind such casting, as the former Atticus Finch is pushed towards trying to stab a small child for the sake of sparing the world a great evil, degenerating from emblem of state to a sad, sick, murderous avenger: finally, when he narrates the same poem Brennan quoted to him recounting the rise of the Antichrist, Peck is back playing Ahab again, speaking incantations of bleak promise. Robert’s emotional crises fight to escape his long, rigid Yankee body, all the smouldering, blue-blooded authority encoded in his frame and mindset resenting being forced to such an end. The build-up to his ultimate failure evokes both the biblical task of Abraham moving to sacrifice Isaac and also the popular moral conundrum of whether you’d kill an infant Hitler. Although The Omen’s plot invokes cosmic-scale drama, Seltzer proved smart enough to focus it on a resolutely human scale, refracted through real-feeling parental anxieties as well as a mainline connection to a lode of paranoia that might be mental illness or pan-cultural.
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Katharine flails increasingly under the certainty not only that Damien is not her child but has malign intention towards her, and Robert becomes increasingly rueful of the choice he made seemingly to protect his wife and secure his family legacy. The Omen builds up the impression of Damien’s strangeness through happenings that could simply be reflections of the unexpected eccentricity and intractability of kids that so easily upturns all picture-perfect lives, as when Damien throws a screaming fit when his parents take to a church for a wedding. A visit to a safari park sees howling baboons crawl over the car. The storyline invokes maternal depression as Katharine becomes increasingly alienated from her son and mindful of Baylock’s influence, who breezes in as a cruel lampoon of Mary Poppins, installs the lurking Rottweiler as a guard dog, and who advocates for the child’s needs above the parents’ wishes, like a personification of ‘70s childrearing books. At the same time The Omen also presents a twist on an old folkloric metaphor for such a state of emotional alienation, the notion of the changeling, the creature that takes the place of a child and stakes a parasitical place in a family. The finale pivots on Robert’s awareness upon returning to his house that it now lies under an alien regime, like a newly divorced father contending with others controlling his child.
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Although it’s not gleefully gruesome as some other set-pieces in the film, the sequence of Katharine’s fall is the film’s greatest illustration of its cunning method, a seemingly very credible kind of domestic disaster touch with signs of genuine malice and numinous influence. Damien drives his tricycle around in his room whilst Katharine stands on a table trying to arrange a hanging plant, high on a second floor balcony. Damien, deep in that trancelike intensity of transportation kids can achieve in playing or possibly actually pushed along by Satanic will, with Baylock watching him with indulgent and opening the door so he ride out: Damien crashes into the table and knocks Katharine down. A fishbowl crashes to the floor far below and explodes. Katharine clings to the railing, unable to pull herself up, and falling to earth under her son’s staring regard. Donner’s direction here is a master-class in building a sequence, observing patiently as the circumstance is created in a way everyone can wince at because it’s so believable, whilst there are signs, as Baylock opens the door to let Damien out and Jerry Goldsmith’s chant-ridden, chugging music scoring betrays an unseen factor.
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More famous, however, and gleeful in purveying startling evidence of demonic influence masquerading as happenstance are Brennan’s and Jennings’ deaths. Brennan’s last moments invoke more traditional horror movie imagery, as powerful winds rip through trees and Brennan desperately seeks sanctuary, before the lightning rod plunges from its perch, flash edits alternating a high perspective on Brennan’s screaming face and his of the plunging rod. Jennings’ end comes when he resolves to pick up the seven daggers after Robert tosses them away in a fit of resistance. A truck laden with glass sheets for a building job rolls down a slope after its handbrake slips off, and one of the sheets slides off the tray in languorous slow motion, slicing Jennings’ head clean off. Less pyrotechnic but just as vividly staged is the graveyard venture, where Robert and Jennings uncover the troubling skeletons and fight off a team of savage watchdogs that suddenly try to lunch upon them, ripping teeth and jutting steel fixtures brutalising their bodies. Donner’s gift for intensifying a narrative is suggested in more off-hand scenes, too, as when Robert and Jennings press the gnarled and barely living Spiletto where to find Damien’s mother. The agonising process of him scribbling out the answer with a piece of charcoal is rendered even more unnerving and rhythmically intense as a bell starts to peal above their heads.
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Another vital aspect of the film lies in how Seltzer’s inventive plot uses the structure of a mystery thriller to pull the narrative along, as Robert and Jennings parse the increasingly suggestive evidence and contend with a lurking, almost existential threat. The act of parsing the signs and omens becomes, rather than medieval irrationality, a process of contemporary logic, whittling down alternatives until it’s plain what’s going on. By the end every cue in the film leaves no ambiguity that Damien really is the Antichrist when it might have been plied far more subtly with the possibility Robert’s psychotic. Which might be counted as a fault of the film but it also surely explains why it became such a big hit. The climactic scenes see the family house, initially seen as a great hunk of real estate porn, become the classic, labyrinthine old dark house, a place where Robert has to outwit the devil dog and battle a startlingly savage Baylock before snatching away Damien. But not before he’s penetrated the ultimate layer of the mystery by clipping away Damien’s hair until he finds the 666 mark. Robert stabs Baylock to death in a tussle and steals Damien away to the church, but pursuing police, thinking some kidnapping drama is unfolding, instead seem him perched over the boy with raised dagger and shoot him dead.
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Here Donner twists the knife with particular sadism as Damien speaks properly for the first time in the film, pleading with his “daddy”, and the cop’s bullet erupts from his gun in spectacular slow-motion. Dissolve to a funeral at Arlington as Robert and Katharine are interred and young Damien is now seen taken in hand by the President, turning to smile triumphantly at the camera. One of the great merciless endings in cinema, of course, but also one that invites the audience conspiratorially into Damien’s space at the end: all the evil is, after all, being purveyed specifically for our entertainment. As classy as The Omen affects to be, it’s really sheer blood and thunder, wielding the thrill of bloodshed with a hint of gamesmanship and design cleverness wrapped in an affection of high-minded metaphysical and familial distress. Part of the film’s effectiveness lies in its sense of branding – the gnarled and creepy 666 birthmark, the lovingly crafted Megiddo daggers. There’s mystique and evocation of grand historical backdrops in the scenes of Robert’s visit to Bugenhagen in Megiddo, the ancient catacombs yawning wide and echoing with the whispers of archaic lore. The strength of the supporting performances also do a lot to convince you this malarkey is conceivable, particularly Warner’s projection of cool anxiety, Troughton’s sweaty disquiet, McKern’s bristling presence, and Whitelaw’s marvellous incarnation of ferocious momma-bear force touched with fanatical lunacy.
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The Omen’s success made Donner a go-to arch-professional for muscular action films and stylish melodramas for the next thirty years. Donner quickly moved to make a kind of messianic sequel/antistrophe when he next took on Superman (1978), offering a hero who’s a perfect inversion of Damien, staving off disasters and misfortunes. For an actual sequel, however, neither Donner nor Seltzer would return. The Omen’s success and open ending begged one, however, and Bernhard began to think more expansively. After hiring Stanley Mann to write the script, he then brought Mike Hodges, the punchy, intelligent director of Get Carter (1972), on board; Hodges contributed to the screenplay and began making the film, but soon he was fired for moving too slowly, and instead Don Taylor was hired to finish it. Taylor was a decent filmmaker who had done yeoman service on Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), but one prized for productivity rather than invention. The sequel, Damien: Omen II, commences immediately after the original, with Bugenhagen dashing into Tel Aviv after reading of Robert Thorn’s death and seeing young Damien’s photo in a newspaper. Bugenhagen talks a colleague, Michael Morgan (Ian Hendry), into coming with him to see a recently unearthed mural in Megiddo called Yigael’s Wall, painted by a prophet and affecting to reveal the faces of the Antichrist in his maturation. The wall does indeed prove to have young Damien’s face as one of the visages, but the underground excavation complex collapses in upon itself and buries both men alive.
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Bugenhagen’s death right at the outset of the second entry was both a clever touch and also a bad one when it came to expanding a one-off hit into a series. The trilogy was left without a strong antagonist or connecting figure other than Damien himself, leaving a hole an actor of McKern’s skill and force might easily have filled. But it also served the purpose of re-establishing the original’s sense of threat, the lack of any assurance the Satanic project can be forestalled, and reiterating that any character can be killed. The cleverly exploited wellspring of the series’ anxious outlook was in identifying not simply the fear that scripture might be right and that a great contest of Good and Evil is in the offing, but in also suggesting that there might not actually be such a contest. That the Devil is uncontested now. That perhaps Jehovah has grown disgusted and uninterested in the fate of his wayward creation in the face of the rational, permissive, immoral modern human world, the infrastructure of which seems to stave off such metaphysical worries and yet which proves consistently throughout the series entirely amenable to Satan’s uses. The way holy talismans and places seem to offer little real defence against Satan’s power throughout constantly hints at this state of abandonment, and the ironic passion the various Satanic minions and then Damien himself wield stems from their state of utter religious conviction, conviction out of reach to anyone else.
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Moreover, Damien: Omen II is wise enough to expand on the original’s basis in family, with the extended Thorn clan coming into play as a rough assemblage. Seven years later: Damien, now 12 and played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor, has been adopted by his father’s brother Richard (William Holden), who has a son the same age, Mark (Lucas Donat), who Damien regards as a brother, and a second wife, Ann (Lee Grant), who plays mother to both boys. Damien and Mark attend military school together, where Damien is solicitously treated by his new instructor, Sgt. Neff (Lance Henriksen). Richard is a powerful industrialist at the head of the Chicago-based Thorn Corporation: Richard and his long-time associate Bill Atherton (Lew Ayres) are taken aback by the plans of hotshot young executive Paul Buher (Robert Foxworth) to buy up land in the third world and seize control of international food supplies to ensure hegemony that can counter OPEC. Meanwhile Richard’s elderly aunt Marion (Sylvia Sidney) urges him to split Damien and Mark up as she believes Damien’s a bad influence, despite lacking any real cause to think so. Shortly afterwards Marion is visited by a raven in her bedroom, and she drops dead from a heart attack.
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After convincing Richard not to go along with Buher’s plan, Atherton falls into a frozen lake whilst playing ice hockey with the Thorns, and drowns. Dr Charles Warren (Nicholas Pryor), the head of Richard’s charitably financed Thorn Museum, works to retrieve Yigael’s Wall from Megiddo and bring it to Chicago. His journalist friend Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shepherd), who also knew Jennings, has seen the artefact as it was excavated, and she approaches Richard in a panic to warn him about Damien. Whilst the first film suggested that Damien was aware of his true nature, Damien: Omen II finds him oblivious, at first merely an occasionally smart-aleck but hardly terrible lad on the brink of manhood. The ideas that propel the film are notably similar to the thesis espoused in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, adapted for TV in the same year of 1976, in presenting a metaphor for the creation of a social monster via the active, purposeful elimination of characters who represent not just opponents in a hierarchical chain, but also alternative value systems, like Ayres’ conscientious old-fashioned businessman, aghast at a nascent age of dictatorial corporate cynicism, and other checks and balances of family and friends, charity, and faith. Damien’s callow overconfidence and agonised struggle in realising what he is amplify a familiar state of adolescent angst.
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The first film was fairly vague beyond the lot of the Thorns themselves and the trappings of ambassadorial power about the wider implications of the Antichrist’s rise, beyond muttered references to the European Common Market and the Eternal Sea that is “the world of politics.” Whereas Damien: Omen II tries to animate an intriguingly pointed contemplation of American Empire as fit soil for the Antichrist to grow from, from martial inculcation at the military school to increasingly amoral corporate governance. The film’s portrait of world-shaking evil spawned in the form of a relentlessly coddled son of privilege is one that’s taken on a shade more relevance in recent years. A less cluttered narrative might have made more of the way Damien’s ego is fed by minions like Neff and Buher, as he’s rewarded with such adolescent fantasy pleasures as captains of industry kowtowing to him and white-clad debutantes hanging on to his every word. Bill Butler’s excellent photography wraps proceedings up with a sense of high-life lushness in the snowy landscapes and autumnal leaves, the polished and glitzy worlds of the Thorn estate and the military school, as well as pulling off the staging coups when it gives to delivering the goods in the various scenes of contrived death and calamity.
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Where Donner was able to surprise with his death-spectacle trimmings, however, unnerving the audience as the mechanics of death could appear out of nowhere, Taylor is much more obvious, inspiring more a chortling anticipation of watching him set up grim demises than real menace. Still, there’s real visual force in some of the set-pieces, as when Joan is gruesomely attacked by the ominous raven, which pecks out her eyes and leaves her stranded on a highway to be run over by a truck, and when a doctor, Kane (Meshach Taylor), on the verge of discovering Damien’s inhuman physiognomy, is sliced in half by a cable connected to a plummeting elevator counterweight. The film’s best scenes however aren’t the episodes of violence but the very personal ones involving Damien, as when he contends with a teacher at the military school who finds he can’t trip the lad up on historical events, Damien retorting his answers with defiant cool. The highpoint of the film, and perhaps the series, comes when, following a breadcrumb trail of clues left by Neff, he discovers his birthmark. Divining its import, Damien dashes in anguished panic through the school ground before collapsing on a jetty, gazing up into a cloud-riven sky, and screams out the eternal demand, “Why me?” Damien quickly accepts his lot, however, because the promise of power is the ultimate salve and, as noted above, it blesses him with the potent weapon of self-belief. Later, when he’s driven to use his powers to kill Mark, he releases a great cry of despair and weeps over his brother in also mourning for the last of his abandoned humanity.
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As strong as these aspects of Damien: Omen II are, it doesn’t add up to nearly as much as it might have, because it struggles in lacking the original’s sense of foreboding and discovery whilst trying to retain its formula. The basic premise is solidly established and the film refuses to do much to complicate it. So it becomes too often a mere succession of elaborate set-pieces aimed at pleasing an audience there for the great kills, repeating the same process – some hapless individual gets in the road of the Satanic programme or threatens to uncover Damien’s identity – over until the requisite running time is reached. Meanwhile Holden is locked into a role that forces him to play out Peck’s arc from the last film again, with the twist at the end that this time the doting Jane, who makes a show of refusing to think ill of anyone, proves to be another Satanic minion. She stabs Richard in the stomach with the retrieved Megiddo daggers when he plans to use them on Damien. The film ends effectively if bluntly with Damien unleashing an exploding boiler in the Thorn Corporation headquarters to clear away all evidence including the luckless Jane, and he marches out of the burning Thorn Corporation building to take charge of his kingdom. The third and final entry, The Final Conflict (sometimes also called Omen III: The Final Conflict), came out three years later. This time Bernhard hired Graham Baker, who had only directed TV commercials previously, perhaps in the hope he might nab another Ridley Scott or Alan Parker, and he hired a young New Zealand actor, Sam Neill, to play the now-mature Damien.
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Set nearly twenty years after the previous film (although all films are set demonstrably “now”), Damien has become an immensely powerful plutocrat who’s plotting to spark war between east and west by blowing up the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and leaving conflicting evidence about who did, with the chance to step in and appear the humanitarian saviour. But his attention is distracted by the seemingly imminent rebirth of his ultimate nemesis, Jesus, whose return is heralded by three stars converging into an alignment in the night sky, recreating the Star of Bethlehem. Damien becomes convinced through interpreting Revelations that Jesus will be reborn in England, so he manipulates the current US President (Mason Adams) into assigning him his father’s old post of Ambassador to Britain, after the compulsory hovering Rottweiler mesmerises the current Ambassador into committing elaborate suicide. Meanwhile a team of monks at the Subiaco monastery have formed themselves into a band of assassins, led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi). Having recovered all the Megiddo daggers, the monks set out well-armed to protect the returning Jesus by slaying his foe. As Damien moves to battle them and kill the returned Messiah, he also falls into a pensive romance with BBC TV journalist Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow).
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Although it was another big box office success, The Final Conflict has since its release been generally taken for a humiliatingly weak cap to the series, and a particularly worrying example of what can happen to an interesting property if it hasn’t been thought through by a strong creative hand. But it certainly wields some good ideas, chief amongst them a central sequence in which Damien assembles an army of his acolytes, called The Disciples of the Watch, to recreate Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, killing all the male children born in England in the appointed time for Jesus’s return. Damien addresses them in a meeting that evokes a twisted recontextualisation of artwork depicting Christians performing masses in the Roman catacombs. There’s also one charged and memorable moment in which Damien, having survived an assassination attempt by the monks during a fox hunt, performs the ritual of “blooding” Kate’s son Peter (Barnaby Holm) by wiping the blood of the prize on his cheeks, only with the blood being that of one of his felled enemies, bringing Peter under his influence. Primal rite plays out in the blasted beauty of the English countryside laced with a discomforting note of seduction. There’s also an interesting notion in Damien’s desire to influence all youth, after also wrangling himself the post of UN Ambassador for Youth, setting himself up as a cultish hero for rambunctious youths who might all share, as he once did, a thirst for such ego gratification and exaltation.
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Moreover, The Final Conflict could be regarded as an analogue, Horror genre precursor to The Social Network (2010) in portraying a lonely and neurotic young billionaire who responds by developing delusions of grandeur whilst simultaneously grasping greedily on his few human contacts and also using them cruelly. Damien hovers around his country mansion, barking taunts at the Jesus icon he keeps hanging about his attic, extolling the beauty of “perfect solitude” as a worthy riposte to a saviour he accuses of doing “nothing but drown man’s soaring desires in a deluge of sanctimonious morality” when “there is only one hell, the leaden monotony of human existence.” There’s a great idea here, as Damien tries to convert his own alienated emotional state into a religious paradigm. Damien begins to suspect his loyal lieutenant and executive Harvey Pleydell Dean (Don Gordon) is lying to him over the time of his child’s birth and eventually uses his canine harbinger to mesmerise Harvey’s wife Barbara (Leueen Willoughby) into slaying both her child and husband. When he seduces Kate, he turns from tender lover to brute in bed, buggering her and leaving her bruised and bedraggled (he’s the son of Satan, so of course he’s also a sodomite).
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There’s a hint of the familial psychodrama dynamic of the first two film sustained as Kate realises her son has become Damien’s slavish follower, and the Deans are destroyed by Harvey’s attempt to profit from managing Damien’s malign mission only to run off in horror when he learns he might have to make his own sacrifice. The trouble is, The Final Conflict desperately lacks any of the sense of urgency and wild, obscene revelry that seems inherent in such an ambitious story motif, nor any Biblical-scale spectacle in watching Christ and Antichrist do battle. The film rather plays out on a level that’s so stodgy and unpassionately earthbound it might as well be a rejected episode of a TV soap. Granted, it would never be an easy thing to try and film an apocalyptic drama or sell it to a Horror audience, who, much like the characters in the film, find it much easier to believe in the Devil than in God. And to be fair, The Final Conflict tries to sustain the core substance of the series as a perverted bildungsroman, locating the adult Damien as a man both obsessed with justifying himself and operating from a position of crushing solitude, and playing out his apotheosis and downfall on a worldly scale. But where the film might have been rich, weird, and clever in the attempt, The Final Conflict just slouches along. Given that special effects showmanship was starting to creep into Horror and Fantasy filmmaking around this time, it feels particularly frustrating that The Final Conflict nails itself down to such a glum palette.
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Baker has none of Donner or even Taylor’s sense of composing suspense sequences, with some supposedly thrilling episodes, like when three of the priests try to corner Damien in a ruined castle, and the scene of the Dean family’s nasty end, proving particularly clumsy and enervating. Rather than seeing righteous ministers finally stepping up to the task of battling the Antichrist, the priests are ludicrously incompetent and clumsy mob who all get themselves pathetically killed. Hiring Neill and Harrow, who were a couple at the time, to anchor the film suggests a level of bravery on the filmmakers’ part, the feeling that now the series didn’t need big names to attract viewers – Brazzi is the only old-time star on hand, and he’s given very little to do. But the film desperately lacks a compelling focal point. Neill looks the part but his Damien is dull and shrill, desperately lacking wicked charisma. There’s not even a note of amour fou and romantic apocalypse in his relationship with Kate, who finishes up wielding the last of the Megiddo daggers after DeCarlo manages to maintain his team’s terrible batting average by trying to knife Damien but killing Peter accidentally instead.
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Kate stabs Damien in the back vengefully just as he manages to track down the reborn Christ to his hiding place in an old monastery and is confronted before death by the brilliantly shining cosmic manifestation of the Holy Spirit hovering over the infant – Disco Jesus to the rescue. The Final Conflict is generally so flaccid and uninspired that it feels almost unfair to consider it with the first two films, except for two elements: the excellent, atmospheric photography by Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter, and, once again, Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. Astonishingly, Goldsmith won his only Oscar for The Omen, particularly its main theme with Latin lyrics and dramatic choral singing of inverted paeans to Satan’s son. Goldsmith remained with the series, turning each film in a grandiose study in what great music can do with mediocre cinema. At the end of The Final Conflict, Goldsmith’s invocation of resurgent divinity is every bit as impressive as his portrait of depthless evil, and succeeds in doing what weak filmmaking can’t, in conjuring a sense of truly epic spiritual horizons opening as the series concludes.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Experimental, Horror/Eerie

Mandy (2018)

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Director: Panos Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn

By Roderick Heath

Panos Cosmatos is a second-generation directing talent, son of the Florence-born, Greco-Italian director George Pan Cosmatos and Swedish sculptor Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos. Cosmatos the Elder directed many a punchy action movie over the years, including Escape to Athena (1979), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984), Leviathan (1989), Tombstone (1994), and my personal favourite, his blend of disaster movie and epidemic thriller, The Cassandra Crossing (1977). At his best George had the kind of headlong, take-no-prisoners energy to his filmmaking that makes for great trash cinema. Panos Cosmatos debuted in 2011 with the instant cult film Beyond the Black Rainbow, signalling that he was going to be a very different filmmaker to his father. Just two films into his career, Cosmatos the Younger has confirmed a style based in delirious visuals and an allusively creative approach blended with concerted fetishisation of genre plots and imagery, a schismatic aesthetic Panos had stated very plainly is based in a desire to unify the artistic styles of his parents, George’s popular, spectacular thrillers and Birgitta’s abstract conjurations. Mandy, his second film, reaped a lot of excitement in the build-up to its release by promising a hallucinogen-tinted, utterly madcap revenge thriller carefully pitched to give fans of star Nicholas Cage a pure, uncut dose of his weird and galvanising talent.

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For once hype was inescapably correct, but Mandy proves something even more eccentric, a plunge into an evocation of a netherworld at once dreamy and charged with hellraising headfucking, but also a considered attempt to portray extreme woe as a state of mind that remakes the universe in its own sorry image. Mandy unfolds in a version of 1983 that might as well be in an alternate dimension, the landmarks all the same but the general spirit and rules of reality all revised by cosmic fiat. Red (Cage) and his partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in a house in the Shadow Mountains of British Columbia. Red works as a lumberjack, hewing away at the fringes of the primal forest, whilst Mandy mans the counter at a gas station and store, whiling away her hours reading paperback fantasy novels and painting fanciful illustrations for what seems to her own comic book take on her favourite genre. Red and Mandy both have the aspect of survivors, renegade lovers recovering from wild youths now happily drifting through the days out on the fringes of civilisation, with only need for each-other’s company when Red comes back from his logging adventures. Mandy, with her heavy metal T-shirts and goggle eyes, is a fawnish, fey-seeming lady who seems to operate purely by some skewed interior compass, whilst Red seems to have built his life around providing her with a safe shell to crawl into, partly because he needs her arms to crawl into himself.

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One day, as Mandy walks up on the gravel roads bisecting the forest about their home, a van passes by, and she locks eyes with a man in the vehicle, one Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Sand is the guru and warlord of a wandering gang of bohemian rabble calling themselves Children of the New Dawn, all in his thrall as a self-appointed messianic voice, and he instantly decides he must possess Mandy. Once ensconced in a nearby motel, Sand angrily spurns his older disciple and concubine Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré) in favour of a younger, Sister Lucy (Line Pillet), whilst instructing his slavish aide Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) to find Mandy and bring her into their midst. To help Swan, Sand gives him a device he calls the Horn of Abraxas, which Swan uses once he’s driven out into the woods; the horn proves to have the ability to conjure up the Black Skulls, a band of demons riding motorcycles, whose hellish ranks Swan impresses for the task of taking Mandy and Red captive in their home. In exchange for their services, Sand casually tells Swan to let the demons have another of the disciples as blood sacrifice. The demons and cultists break into Red and Mandy’s house in the night, separating the lovers, tying Red up, and dragging off the hapless disciple for slaughter. Marlene and Lucy dose Mandy with a drug cocktail and subject her to the sting of a huge wasp just for flavour, before taking her to meet Sand in the living room, where the cult leader tries to dazzle her with his brilliance until she submits to his overlordship.

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The opening scenes stake out the dominant mood and style as one of narcotised and amniotic immersion, a state of free-floating spirit that seems to mimic the womb-like remove of Mandy and Red’s life together. They’re the kind of couple who know each-other’s sense of humour backwards – Red’s punchline-lacking knock-knock joke cracks them both up – and who settle down for dinner whilst watching a trashy horror movie. Their house has mostly glass walls that allows them to all but float amongst the trees. Mandy has a pacific sensitivity about her that lends specially charged meaning to a moment like when she stumbles across the corpse of young deer, and steps naked out of a lake with fixated eyes that seem to hold Red enthralled by her irrational power, in the best possible way. The jagged hieroglyphic of a scar on her cheek testifies to some encounter with terror and pain in her past. Riseborough’s preternatural gaze has never been quite so well exploited in a role where she’s required less to seem like she’s acting – which of course can demand very difficult acting – than a spirit haunting the movie even when Mandy is still alive. Mandy’s talent for illustrating seems to mesh with her fondness for the fanciful, as she’s reading a high fantasy novel called Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye about a questing hero battling sorcerers and demons. After finding the deer’s corpse, she recounts to Red, in a long, slow, eerie vignette, the story of how her father encouraged her and some childhood friends to slay some starling chicks he found, through his hatred for the greedy birds, but Mandy, lacking that edge of sadism so many only need encouragement to indulge, ran away.

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The arrival of Sand and his band offers a contrasting state of hermetic self-involvement, with Sand a tight-wound ball of craven wont mixed with a strange, livewire intensity that suggests a state of painfully ecstatic awareness. Sand wields some authentic-feeling qualities of the cult leader. Like Charles Manson he’s a failed musician, and explains with wide-eyed fervour about the transcendental experience of God speaking to him and telling him everything in the world was his, seemingly as a recompense for his dud career, and he offers a similar pleasure to those who follow him, a promise that even if he doesn’t want to use all the gifts of the people under his aegis all the time, he can still channel them towards a greater purpose than what the world usually extends to them. You’d dismiss him as a colossal wanker if he didn’t seem to really have some mystical powers, with his ability to completely compel his followers and summon demons to do his bidding. Whenever fear or anxiety unseat him, he’s able to draw in and recover a sure sense of his power, returning to glazed and fanatical stature.

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The film’s focal sequence comes when the drugged-up and tethered Mandy is obliged to witness as Sand parts his robe so she can behold his scrawny body and flaccid penis and listen with edification to his psychedelic folk-rock, a scene pure black comedy fervour wrapped in a shiny glaze of trippy colouring and droning scoring that keeps in mind the menace underlying all, the assurance that Sand will readily and easily do terrible things to Mandy and Red. What he doesn’t expect, however, is Mandy’s reaction to his great performance, as she begins to laugh with fearsome contempt for the man and his music: Mandy has encountered and defeated such monstrosities before, if only on the plain of her dreams. Sand’s punishment for mockery is however dreadful: once his underlings tie Red to a tree in the yard, he has Mandy bundled up in a sack, hung up before him, and burned alive. Left to his own devices by the Children, who leave after reducing Mandy to ashes, Red manages to work his hands free from his bonds and goes into his house, still tauntingly the same as it was a few hours before but now utterly changed, absent the presence that gave it meaning. Red is transfixed by the spectacle of an ad for “Cheddar Goblins” on TV that has demonic visages rising from a bowl of snack food, beset by animated visions of Mandy as a zombie, and stung as he pours vodka on his raw wrists and slashed side, raw physical pain anchoring him to a reality he’d probably easily check out from otherwise.

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Mandy’s bizarre style, sporting rich colour effects, plangent sound design, and general miasmic mood, sees expressive textures explicitly related to the otherworldly sensibility of the two tribes, the world of two that is Red and Mandy and the cobbled-together family that is the Children. Cosmatos seems bent on creating a modern version of psychedelic cinema, but that style’s generally gaudy, amped-up sensibility is swapped here for one liquidinous languor, as if David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky tried to collaborate on a New World movie for Roger Corman. The storyline proceeds with near-mythic simplicity, telling an essential story of loss and retribution, in order to describe the obsessive emotional quotient of Red’s experience after Mandy’s death. Mandy describes Panos’s imagined idea of 1983 as an age viewed through a prism of cultural detritus and childhood impressionism. The past is surely another country, populated with counterculture exiles and illustrated through the vivid, conceptually related but subtly diverse and individually totemic styles of cover art on Heavy Metal albums, drugstore paperbacks, VHS schlock, and comic book illustrations, all soaked in the bad Woodstock brown acid. The film might be a dream either Red or Mandy are having, the stuff of their waking fantasies churned together in the dye welling out of their subconscious.

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The demarcated chapters are announced by titles written in retro fashion, mimicking the horny curlicues on ‘80s horror paperback covers or the glazed, glowing fonts of fantasy film logos in trailers, the sorts of stylistics that tend to be so ubiquitous that you don’t really notice when they go out of favour. Cosmatos seems to be recalling with happy barbarity the days when pop cultural schisms were potent demarcations, when furious arguments over things we tend to laugh at now like Satanic messages in rock music could echo through the news space with credulity. The joke of this is that a pair like Red and Mandy, who often sports a pentagram-emblazoned Motley Crue shirt, are harmless when left to their own devices, whilst the Children, who are in spite of their hellspawn helpmates are actually designated “Jesus freaks,” are the cruel and marauding imposers. Cosmatos shows Reagan on the TV as another brand of beatific cult leader. The sociological import of this, Cosmatos suggests, is that more real damage has been done to the modern mindset by those proposing to have a path to God and glory than those happy to roll around in affected devilishness. The mysterious treaty between Heaven and Hell proposed by Sand and the Black Skulls, echoes an idea out of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where the obsessive Jesuit Naphta proposed Satan was much closer to God than Man because the Devil was playing his part in the scheme of things whilst Humanity is always trying to go off on its own path. You could even describe Red’s path in the second half of the film as the dramatization of that path.

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Meanwhile Sand portrays a certain type of vanity to the hilt, turning his own libido and mesmeric conviction in his own value into a cosmic state, a diseased devolution of hippie mysticism into pure Me Decade ego service, bedecked in faux-religious finery. Mandy wins a kind of victory over him, signified as her face and his seem to be blurring and becoming one, doubtless the process by which he subsumes his slavish believers into his service, in an image reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). But Mandy instead rips free and begins to howl with laughter, the worst offence to the man-god, who desperately masturbates as if hoping it’s a rite that can ward off humiliation, before he casts Mandy into the fires where, as the Children gleefully tell Red, she’ll remain burning for eternity. After escaping his bonds Red tries to touch her scorched remains, only for her skull to crumble into dust. Cage, up until this point mostly a quiet and beholding figure becalmed by Mandy’s presence in his life, now squirms in terrible private pathos. In his tiger-emblazoned shirt and underpants, pale legs barely propping up his weary body and pouched genitals and finally giving out, he’s like a caricature of a very specific image of bereft and pathetic masculinity, and concludes with the sight of him weeping on the toilet.

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Red sets out to avenge her with steady determination, visiting his enigmatic friend Caruthers (director and former Predator star Bill Duke in a splendid cameo), a calm but foreboding helpmate who has his ear to the ground, and who keeps a crossbow Red owns stashed away, a device of death Red calls The Reaper. Caruthers tells Red that he’s heard about the Children and their demon brethren, who tear along the remote roadways of the region transporting a powerful version of LSD concocted by some mad alchemist living out in the wilds, and reports rumours about the Black Skull’s nightmarish activities and supposed origin, as a biker gang perverted and misshapen by the alchemist feeding them a particularly obscene brew. Realising he needs a more than ordinary weapon to fight such monstrosities, Red returns home and forges a battle axe out of silver, moulding, hammering, and polishing the weapon until it’s a glistening demon slayer which he names, of course, Mandy. This sequence comes weighed up with brazenly iconic, fuck-yeah delight in the macho swagger and sense of impending reckonings, and Red sets out on his battle with evil well-armed if still facing great odds: “You’ll probably die,” Caruthers has warned him, to Red’s reply, in a tenor of slight hurt mixed with dry resolve, “Don’t be negative.”

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When the time comes for the roaring rampage of revenge Mandy certainly delivers. But it remains steadfast in its strangeness, its air of surreal grappling with a specific keynote of emotion. It’s also a film dedicated utterly to describing a mood that, for all the retro trope harvesting, seems somehow purely contemporary. A feeling of being bound and trapped, flailing in impotent anxiety before the entitled arrogance of others, of being naked before looming arithmetic of debts that can be repaid fourfold and yet only ever be too late and too little. It’s close to a zeitgeist right now, and Cosmatos, however coincidentally, speaks to it. More immediately, his purpose is to define Red’s sense of dislocated grief, and that is also the idea of grief in general. Red goes to war with “all that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil,” as his ancestor Ahab once did. Mandy zeroes in a rarely-contemplated aspect of the revenge saga, which usually, when not simply using it a pretext for violence, utilises it as a metaphor for the process of expiating loss. Mandy immerses Red, and the viewer, in a sodden state of inescapable awareness where the shock of violence intensifies rather than dispels the punch-drunk atmosphere, each gruesome slaying and sticky end ratcheting up the insanity a few more degrees. Every torn body and crumpled skull simply underscores the impossibility of escaping the sink of sorrow until the very last station is reached.

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Like some of the other more interesting films of 2018, like Lynne Ramsay’s equally shell-shocked You Were Never Really Here and Steven Spielberg’s more larkish take Ready Player One, Mandy considers the universe conjured by the mind, infinitely transformative and replete with manifold masks and yet so often defined by certain, infinitely significant points of reference, giving shape to the fragmentary nature of existence. Perhaps it’s the last frontier, a place of authentic struggle as well as retreat. Early scenes of Red and Mandy out picnicking and swimming in the woods are given the faintly unreal lustre of how Mandy might paint such a scene, with surging vortexes of pure energy in the sky and walls of fire appearing to Red, whilst the film’s very last shot perceives a landscape transformed into an exoplanetary wasteland, with soaring crags and hovering galactic bodies. Mandy herself seems to exist in a liquid state of being, timeless and resistant to ossification, a state that Cosmatos identifies as specifically feminine, in a manner reminiscent of Ma Joad’s speech from The Grapes of Wrath (1940), whilst Red is defined by a reductive sense of the function of masculinity, in the sense that he’s only free of the need to hunt – to chase down and destroy – when immersed in her space, and to be bereft of that space as he is when Mandy dies is like being born in a cold world all over again, birth that is like death. That Red plucks out a bottle of spirits from where he’s kept it stashed for god knows how long and uses it balm wounds inside and out says a lot of how he doused and dimmed that need before meeting Mandy.

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For a film that depends on exploiting Cage’s reputation as Hollywood’s most obliging fruitcake, his performance in Mandy is actually quite controlled, expertly managing the leap from dreaming companion to nihilistic marauder. When he pulls out some trademark mannerisms, like his mad grin, they come with a newly certain sense of import, of the soul in extremis, after passing through moments of convincing naturalism, as in Red’s despairing bathroom moment. Cage is willing to look undignified and slightly absurd here, in a way a lot of actors don’t dare. Mandy’s death is portrayed for the most part via Red’s agonised reaction. This scene presents a variation on another memorable recent Cage role, inverting the situation in Kick-Ass (2010) where he was the one burning whilst the female he cared for tried to save him. Red hits the warpath, hacking, slashing, goring, and felling his foes, who seem to become less substantial with each one he defeats, phantoms who are functions of his mourning. Even more so when the Black Skulls take him prisoner and pinion him with a nail through one hand and handcuffs on the other, perfectly encapsulating his agonistes. Red even taunts one of the demons into punching him repeatedly, although this has the practical purpose of loosening the pipe length he’s cuffed to, and when the pipe comes loose he clobbers the vile creature until it plunges into a gaping pit.

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The Black Skulls’ abode, a mixture of torture chamber and drug house where garbage is piled up, startling elixirs waits in jars, and porn flicks buzz on the TV, cunningly blurs the line between presenting the Black Skulls as authentically paranormal figures and merely heightened, hallucination-transformed junkies; in their look, with their nail-bedecked clothes, blade-sporting limbs, and chitinously masked faces, they seem like a cross between the Cenobites from Hellraiser (1987), the gimp from Pulp Fiction (1994), and Brando-idolising bikers. Red slays all of the Black Skulls and moves on to track down the chemist (Richard Brake) who makes their dire drug concoctions: the chemist proves able to deduce purely by reading Red’s stoic facial expression what his thoughts are. The chemist releases his pet tiger – yes, pet tiger – on Red’s unstated insistence and guides him on to the remote church where the Children congregate, where he does battle with the cultists one by one, gruesomely shoving the end of his battle axe down Swan’s throat and duelling Brother Klopek (Clément Baronnet) in a contest with roaring chainsaws. Finally Red approaches the end of his journey in the church, built over a subterranean system of tunnels that look like they might have been built for a government installation, a labyrinth where Red must first move past the sensual pleasures Marlene offers before reaching Sand and his assurances that Red is a paltry thing compared to his exalted triumph. But Sand is reduced to an obviously fake waxen skull and limbs breaking and melting under the fire and wrath Red brings, a crumpled mannequin in death: perhaps that was only ever his function, to awaken the apocalyptic force in Red. He drives away from the burning church, seeing Mandy in the car seat beside him, perhaps her spirit rescued from perdition or just a wishful apparition in his overheated brain, but with the sure meaning that as far as Red’s concerned he’s done right by her.

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Mandy comes on as an enveloping audio-visual experience, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sonorous final score charting the tale’s psychological tenor and sense of spiritual angst, infusing Cosmatos’ lysergic images which roll on drenched in clashing primary hues that suggest Mario Bava making a music video. King Crimson plays over the opening credits. Recognisable fragments of the kind of late ‘70s and early ‘80s drive-in and video store fodder Cosmatos seems to have consumed and reprocessed into the fuel oil of his imagination float by: the chainsaw duel is out of Motel Hell (1981), the forging scene reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian (1982). The vision of Red overlooking the Children’s church, a spire of pyramidal wood in the midst of a deep, cleaving gorge, has a sense of outsized, cyclopean strangeness reminiscent of Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and some other, oddball by-products of the era. Often Cosmatos aims for self-conscious transformation of kitsch, like a vision of the released tiger roaring under a pulp mag moon, that obeys some personal logic, an attempt to transcribe the memory of what it was like to be a particularly imaginative adolescent, trying to imagine the perfect movie behind all those video cases, the one the real movies usually proved so disappointingly not to be.

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Mandy could be the strangest and most interesting attempt to blend art house and grindhouse notions of cinema since Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001). The feeling of inevitability in its narrative could be called a fault, a limitation of its cumulative power. But it’s also certainly an offshoot of Cosmatos’ motive, his desire to dramatise a state of mind, to work through a fixation and exist entirely in an oneiric space. The Red who comes out the far end of his savage adventure is not the same man, but a new chimera, the product of his loss and love both. Mandy struggles to articulate the feeling of a particularly intense variety of dream or trip, and succeeds as such, but also emerges as the sort of movie doomed to split those who dare enter its colour-drenched frames into ranks of true believers and those who run the other way hard and fast. For myself, I both love it and distrust it, for the same reason as it tries to speak past the front of the mind to the weird and fetid recesses in the back. It is, in its way, the most intense and reorientating cinematic experience I’ve had since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), a film with which it shares little but the increasingly rare treat of directors utterly in love with their mediums determined to enact their vision to the limit.

Standard
1940s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

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Director: Jacques Tourneur

By Roderick Heath

The success of Cat People (1942) took many by surprise. The film’s producer was Val Lewton, a sometime journalist and novelist, and nephew to the once-exalted screen idol Alla Nazimova. Lewton had gained a reputation in Hollywood working as assistant to David Selznick. When the time came for Lewton to break out on his own, he was offered a niche at RKO Pictures. The studio wanted to create a unit devoted to horror films, hoping to make some quick money-spinners after the studio’s engagement with wunderkind Orson Welles resulted in several projects abandoned or dumped at great cost, at a time when Universal Films were still making a tidy mint with their horror brand. Lewton, hired for $250 a week, was given control over his product if he obeyed two basic precepts: the movies he made had to cost under $150,000, and he had to use titles given to him by studio executives. The first project was to be called Cat People, probably in response to George Waggner’s The Wolf Man from the previous year. Lewton determined to use this chance to make something that might fulfil his studio mandate but also meet his own expectations of what a film sporting his name as producer could be. Lewton put together a team of like-minded collaborators, including screenwriters DeWitt Bodeen and Ardel Wray, editor Mark Robson, and director Jacques Tourneur, a talent Lewton had met several years earlier when both worked on Selznick’s production of A Tale of Two Cities (1936).

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Lewton laid out a formula he later summarised as, “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror, and one of actual violence,” and always worked scripts over himself without credit, working in carefully interpolated details and knitting a unified sensibility. Cat People proved a forlornly romantic tale of psychic distress, alienation, and fear of crumbling sanity and aberrant sexuality, possibly presenting a highly coded commentary on Nazimova. Such fretfully implied notions struck a chord with wartime audiences, along with the ingeniously orchestrated suspense sequences that exploited fear of the unseen. Rumours that Cat People saved RKO from bankruptcy might have been exaggerated, and RKO brass hardly felt like celebrating what seemed a disreputable success. But the film’s impact was real, and Lewton and Tourneur were quickly asked to make a follow-up, this time handed the title I Walked With a Zombie, taken from a magazine article written by Inez Wallace. With characteristic litterateur impulse, Lewton decided he could fit that title to a variation on Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, an idea that might have seemed interminably pretentious at first airing.

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Tourneur was the son of French master silent filmmaker Maurice Tourneur. Young Jacques had travelled to Hollywood with his father, who made films there including The Last of the Mohicans (1920) and The Mysterious Island (1925), but soon the family returned to France. Jacques made his directorial debut with Toto (1933) before returning to America and working for a time as an assistant director, before graduating to helming B-movies like Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) and Phantom Raiders (1940). Tourneur and Lewton’s shared experience as émigrés with respected relatives and cultured backgrounds now fending for themselves in a tough racket seems to have been a crucial aspect of their accord, as well as Tourneur’s gift, inherited from his father, for creating cinema with careful visual textures based in intricate lighting and set dressing. Lewton was a rationalist interested in psychology and sociological insights, whilst Tourneur was credulous of the supernatural, a divide that might have resulted in clashing visions but which proved entirely appropriate as the two men laboured to carefully smudge perceptions of just what their movies were about, and deploy a then-radically minimalist and suggestive sense of menace. I Walked With a Zombie saw input from another émigré, Curt Siodmak, who had started his career in the German film industry and was becoming one of Hollywood’s familiar creators of fantastic cinema, penning the same year’s Son of Dracula over at Universal for his director brother Robert.

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Not as dense with references and ideas as The Leopard Man or The Seventh Victim (both 1943) after it, nor as compressed as a nightmarish metaphor as Isle of the Dead (1945) or penetrating as a tale of the rational and irrational at war as The Body Snatcher (1945), I Walked With a Zombie is nonetheless the height of Lewton’s creed, a lushly composed, sinister-hued tone-poem. Where Cat People had been notable for creating a contemporary, urban style of horror movie, I Walked With a Zombie might have nudged Lewton and Tourneur into more familiar territory, voyaging off to a sequestered isle where the rules of life and death feel more mutable. The esoteric world of the voodoo creed was often sensationalised and caricatured as a crude amalgam of mainstream religion and bloodthirsty cult practiced by primitives, but fascination in the topic had been fed by works like William Seabrook’s The Magic Island and Wallace’s journalistic report. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) was one of the first real screen zombie movies. Halperin introduced an explicit consideration of zombie-making as a logical extension of slavery and business exploitation of a workforce as well as a device of interpersonal domination, presaging the modern tendency to use zombies as a metaphor for, well, anything you care to think of. But the notion of separating the zombie from this background would have to wait until Night of the Living Dead (1968) many years later.

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The opening credits pull off the trick of turning the hype title into a poetic missive, as two figures walk along a beach under a dappled dawn sky, iconographic versions of the film’s heroine Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) and the hulking menace of the night, the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones), strolling along in placid amity, perched between earth and sea, night and day, black and white, states of being in life and death. “I walked with a zombie…It does seem an odd thing to say…” Betsy accepts a job offered to her by an agent (Alan Edmiston) on the Caribbean island of St Sebastian, one that means good pay and a chance to escape a bitter Toronto winter: the promise of palm trees beckon to her with the voice of paradise in a snow-smothered city. On the last leg of the journey, Betsy voyages on a sailing ship across a black sea, crew members carved into a Gustav Dore etching by lantern light. “Byronic character” Paul Holland (Tom Conway) stands on the stern, gazing out to sea with a stark and silent affect.

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Paul takes unseemly pleasure in shooting down Betsy’s delight in the beauty: the glow in the water is the “glitter of putrescence,” the flying fish jumping because “bigger fish want to eat them.” The coachman (Clinton Rosemond) who takes her to Holland’s home chuckles indulgently at the notion they live in a beautiful place and says, “If you say so, miss.” The island is named for a statue of the saint that stands in the compound of the Holland family, a figurehead carving that once festooned the bow of the slave ship that brought the modern-day islanders to it, depicting the Catholic martyr executed by arrows. The same figurehead now offers cruelly piquant decoration and spiritual symbol of human suffering imposed on both self and others as well as the perpetual need for redemption: the descendants of the slaves call the figure “Ti-Misery”.

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Cat People had commenced with a title card sporting a fake quote from a work supposedly written by the psychiatrist Louis Judd, a character in the film, declaring that “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low place, the depressions in the world consciousness.” This could also be the thesis statement for I Walked With a Zombie, although the prior film’s evocations onerous social mythology guarding the gates to transgressive sexuality here gives way to a more overt concept for the insidious grip of the past. St Sebastian doesn’t seem to have quite entered the twentieth century yet. Paul Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) are men produced by the polarised shores of modern western civilisation’s best seats of learning, as one was schooled in the US and the other in England. They’re blessed with social status and advantage as they manage the sugar plantation that is their inheritance along with all the guilty self-knowledge of being the descendants of slave masters. The brothers span old world and new uneasily, lacking even the strange kind of certainty the Voodoo faith offers those who practice it. Paul maintains a hard and morose attitude, whilst Wes is slowly declining into alcoholism in trying to throttle his lingering anger and heartbreak. Their mother Mrs Rand (Edith Barrett) is the nominal voice of rationality, offering calm maternal advice with good sense, taking up the practice of voodoo itself with the hope of encouraging safe behaviour from islanders.

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The Holland compound is first envisioned without a human presence, instead offered with Betsy’s narrated emotional associations for its various spaces and rooms heard on sound as Tourneur’s camera explores its environs. A homestead built around the ruins of an old military installation, the compound is at once fairy-tale castle fitting for discovering knowledge of self and love as well as confessions of madness, a cradle for bad dreams and septic memory as well as delicate fantasias. The Saint Sebastian figurehead abides, metal arrows jutting from his carved ribs, with a fountain’s water trickling down his form, in place of blood, tears, and lapping seawater. An old watchtower rises at the heart of the compound, gothic interpolation in a colonial landscape, haunted by echoes tears and white-draped somnambulists. The tower is the scene of Betsy’s rude introduction to her charge, Paul’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), whose apparently mindless, perpetually somnambulant wanderings scare Betsy after she’s awoken in the night by the sound of crying. The tears were those of servant Alma (Theresa Harris), celebrating in the inverted rituals of birth and burial seen on the island, mourning for the child being cursed with life and joy for all dispatched to peace. Betsy meets the sight of the blindly wandering Jessica, advancing on her up the watchtower interior, with the film’s single scream that brings others to gently lead away Jessica.

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Betsy arrives at the Holland compound to do a job but she quickly also finds herself slotted into various roles required by the household. Alma is happy to have a lady to care for, and Paul and Wesley are both pleased in their different ways to have an attractive young lady for company, much as neither can escape Jessica. Alma’s presentation of a brioche to Betsy for breakfast makes for a gentle gag as Betsy is initially intimidated by the prolixity of food only to find it collapses – a joke that presages the darkness and menace Betsy confronts, which likewise proves mostly illusion and a small amount of consequence. Betsy soon finds herself drafted into the family quarrels when she encounters Mrs Rand, who asks her to get Paul to leave aside the whiskey decanter that usually decorates the dining table. But this simply peels the scab off a festering wound, a fraternal hatred that cannot heal, just as Jessica cannot live nor properly die, played out in spasms of liquor-loosed rage and tense decorum held together by a well-ironed dinner jacket. Betsy finds herself transfixed by “love, deep through the heart” for Paul, and, knowing it’s an impossible ardour, resolves instead to cure Jessica, talking family doctor Maxwell (James Bell) into trying a dangerous cure through insulin shock, and then listening to Alma’s suggestion she try the “better doctors” at the houmfort, the centre of voodoo worship on the island.

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I Walked With a Zombie doesn’t simply transplant Jane Eyre, but revises and inverts many of its inferences and basic concepts, getting the jump on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea by a couple of decades as a work considering classic literature’s relationship to the modern world’s viewpoints. Bronte’s portrayal of madness and repression was partly rooted in diseased transplantation and racial paranoia, as embodied in the figure of Rochester’s creole wife, who then infests an annex of the English country mansion to occasionally escape and offer feral threat. Betsy, avatar of Jane, travels from a cold climate into the sweat-stoking environs of the tropics, where the cycle of life and death is fast and blatant. Here the placidity of zombified Jessica strikes a radically different posture, identifying Jessica in her way as the perfect version of a certain ideal of femininity – blank, pretty, “a great big doll” as Alma calls her. The tormenting visage that set brother against brother, has been literally objectivised, reduced to perfect, empty, decorative existence. Tourneur’s depiction of the air of studious repression that subsists in the Holland household diagnoses people urgently trying to keep up facades in spite of knowing full well the futility of such efforts; Jessica is the only person who can perfectly play her part because she has been emptied of all inner life. Such a fate has been imposed on Jessica by her mother-in-law, an act of spasmodic anger from a rational and decent yet momentarily vengeful woman. Or, at least, so Mrs Rand thinks, holding herself responsible for evil thoughts that seem to have become manifest in the real world. All these people might count themselves masters of their nut shells if not for bad dreams.

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The power of the mind to create its own reality is one of the obsessive refrains of Lewton’s films, their overseeing creator’s way of mediating the irrationalism of his genre turf with his convictions about life. His series was mostly made during World War II, and whilst never overtly paid heed to it, still they often betray a searching concern for a basic, humane sensibility in the face of an age demanding everyone turn themselves into parts for an engine of warfare, betraying a pedagogic edge on occasions in the urgent plea to retain finer feelings and instincts. The portrayals of characters who give themselves up to dark and compulsive, eventually maniacal worldviews – Irena in Cat People, in The Leopard Man, Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship (1943), General Pharides in Isle of the Dead, and Master Sims in Bedlam (1946), all diagnose a problem of morbid obsession that in several cases shades into definite cases of megalomania, to, as Judd describes it in Cat People, give in to a temptation to release evil into the world. In this mould, Mrs Rand’s attempts to safeguard her family and the people she’s made her responsibility have the best intentions but also have made her vitally susceptible to temptations of misusing power. The beguiling Harris had appeared in Cat People where she played a waitress who diagnosed character by the desserts they ordered, and Lewton began a habit of using black actors in ways that were for the time all but radical in their normality and fresh, everyday demeanour. Here Harris is a very ordinary, worldly person – “She didn’t impress me none, hollerin’ around in a towel,” she quips after being chided for upsetting Betsy with her ritualised tears. But she’s also a figure who initiates Betsy into a nocturnal world where magic is a possibility and existence is charged with unseen forces: “Better doctors,” she whispers with the strange light of promise in her eyes and hints of things marvellous at bay.

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I Walked With a Zombie is a panoply of the carefully crafted and deployed landmarks of physical and dramatic detail which accumulate into a small, isolated universe at once tangible and dreamlike, something the Lewton’s brand is justly famous for, and perhaps at its height here. The arrows jutting from the statue of Ti-Misery, one of which will be repurposed into a weapon of relief. The ruined tower, exterior crawling with vines, interior with its stark, blank, shadow-drenched walls and gleaming, spiralling steps, haunted by the dead-eyed, white-draped “beautiful zombie.” The drums that announce midnight arts of sugar syrup-pouring and the blown conch horn that calls the faithful to worship at the houmfort, economic and spiritual life-bloods. The gently hummed song of the sailors and the oracular songs of Sir Lancelot. The dappled leaves of the Holland compound and softly lit interiors with gently waving curtains and mosquito nets and a copy of Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead” on the wall, announcing future Lewton adventures. The precisely-charted way-stations on the path to the houmfort. A sword thrust through an arm that does not bleed. A store-bought doll that becomes the avatar of a woman. A droning voice through a door that promises the beatification of a strange god. The visuals are decorated by the elegant curlicues of Wray and Siodmak’s dialogue, rendered in a style consistent with the rest of Lewton’s films in refusing mere naturalism, sometimes tending towards elegant curlicues of romanticism reminiscent of Hemingway (“Since knowing you I’ve learned how sweet and fine things can be between a man and a woman,” Paul tells Betsy, via the incomparable instrument of Conway’s rum-rich voice) and resolving in outright elegy in the final voice-over.

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All Lewton’s films weave in fragments of folk culture, usually in songs. It’s a way of communicating the flavour of any locale but also offering subtler orientation, of mental and social reflex, exposing the underlying cultural lexicon and habits of thought in any place. I Walked With a Zombie depends even more crucially upon such flourishes, as culture as a mode of retention and transmission is part of its deep meaning. St Sebastian’s culture is defined by terrible schisms of experience and the way such motifs join, mix, blend, become something new and strange, to itself as well as the outside world. Paul pointedly refuses to offer any separation of them and us in his accounts of the island’s history, indicating all are marked by old crimes and deep sorrows and blighted lives, and, possibly, racial mixing that’s invisible but conscious. The folk-culture reflex is embodied most obviously by the Trinidad-born troubadour Sir Lancelot, who plays a chorus-like street singer. His warbling in the streets of the island’s large town alerts Betsy to the true nature of the triangle between Paul and Wes and Jessica, much to Wes’s embarrassment, as the duo converse at a café table. This seems a moment of pure happenstance, as the singer insists it is, offering apologies with gentlemanly forthrightness: “I’ll creep in just like a little fox and warm myself in his heart.”

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The singer however returns as day has become night, Wes has drunk himself into a stupor, and the moonlit surf washes the shore, to offer grim warning to Betsy that she will be woven into this story (“The brothers are lonely and the nurse is young – and now you must see that my song is sung.”) to play out its last act. The feeling of an unseen conspiracy evinced in this scene constantly nudges the surface of things throughout I Walked With a Zombie but never properly resolves. The influence of the Voodoo practitioners seems to have potency, but of a kind that’s impossible to deduce entirely, perhaps really guiding events and creating monsters or perhaps merely feeding susceptible minds with solutions when life feel terribly random otherwise. Only Tourneur’s director-as-god actions knit a conspicuous chain of events, as when he cuts between the rituals of the voodoo practitioners and the people they’re supposed to be influencing. Similarly, the script refuses to entirely discount any point of view; Wesley’s vision of Paul as a cold and vicious creep is analysed and found to be, in part, the result of Paul’s being married to an unfaithful narcissist, but also reflects truth about Paul himself, a general cynicism given exquisite permission.

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The following year, Lewton would contort a dictated sequel to Cat People into Curse of the Cat People (1944), into a wistful evocation of troubled childhood, but there’s a quality of the childlike to all of Lewton’s films, unfolding as they do like a child’s nocturnal adventure, overactive imagination conjuring monsters in dim places and imagining threats in every corner. Betsy’s moment of fear in the tower upon first seeing Jessica occasions the film’s only scream, wrung from her in anxiety for the unknown and the foreboding rather than real threat. “I used to be afraid of the dark when I was a child, but I’m not afraid anymore,” Betsy tells Paul, unconvincingly. Betsy vehemently denies being what Paul calls her, “a frightened girl,” and yet everyone on St Sebastian seems on some level beset by childish instinct, a desire for certainties that never come, lost and locked in their dreamy states of solitude and faith. Eventually, Betsy will oblige herself to lead Jessica to the houmfort in search of a cure, an act in defiance of the dark and Betsy’s own, tremulous anxiety as well as self-abnegation. The trek to the houmfort is the central sequence of I Walked With a Zombie and one of the greatest moments in horror cinema, indeed, of cinema in general. Nothing overtly frightening or spectacular takes place; it is rather an exercise in pure mood that depicts and transmits the process of being walked through a succession of devices designed to inculcate credulity and susceptibility in the face of unknown forces.

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Tourneur’s camera glides along with Betsy and Jessica, the silk threads of Jessica’s nightgown flickering in the breeze, waving sugar cane obscuring and crowding, turning the escape into the landscape into a claustrophobic experience whilst the call of the conch and the tattoo of drums offer elusive guidance. Totems of obscure meaning and disconcerting effect litter the path. A lamb carcass dangling from a tree, a ram’s skull on a pike, a human skull neatly set up on the dirt, a wind chime hung from a frame humming eerily. Guarding the way is the towering form of Carrefour, the supposed zombie guard set to fend off unwelcome visitors from the houmfort, who can only be passed by those wearing a special badge. He’s glimpsed at the very start of the sequence, backlit and menacing, and soon to be picked out in Betsy’s torch, staring-eyed, seemingly oblivious yet formidable. Alma has pinned a badge on both Betsy and Jessica, but Betsy’s is lost during the trek, so she has to shuffle carefully past gripping Jessica close. They move out of the sugar cane down through passages between twisting trees and vines, the whistling wind now riven with drums, drawing them on.

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Tourneur exploits the studio-bound recreation of the tropical island setting here to create a zone that’s realer than reality, something straight out of dreams, a scene you can watch over and over again and still feel you’ve never quite grasped the essence of it. The houmfort itself proves a scene where the worshippers gather in a religious ceremony that has an aspect of parochial familiarity, like the male congregants in neat shirts and ties, and the incantatory, in the intense, ritualised dancing and thunderous drumming that builds a sense of frenzied anticipation. The sudden cessation of the drumming presages no momentous arrival but the muffled sound of a godly visitation emanating from the hut at the heart of the houmfort. Except, as Betsy finds when she makes her appeal to Dumbala, that the voice emanating in the dark is that of Mrs Rand. Betsy’s own attempt to work good instead provokes a new possibility of danger as the voodoo faithful recognise in Jessica something unnatural. A member of the congregation who dances with a sword, called the Sabreur (Jieno Moxzer), punctures Jessica’s arm with it: seeing that the wound seems not to bleed, the worshippers decide she really is a zombie, and begin a campaign to draw her back to the houmfort again presumably to destroy her in ritual fashion. They send out Carrefour for this first, resulting in a close encounter for Paul and Betsy forestalled by Mrs Rand’s barked commands for the guardian to go away. But the resulting stir, and Wesley’s angry insinuations, stir new police interest in Jessica’s illness, and the threat of possible arrests forces Mrs Rand to explain her conviction of her own guilt.

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I Walked With a Zombie offered something of a challenge to Lewton, as zombie movies up until this one depended at least in part in a traditional, paranoid vision of black people as more credulous to superstition and engaging in primitive rites, often intending harm upon some milk-skinned woman. Some, like White Zombie and, later, Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) and Plague of the Zombies (1966), got around this by portraying white characters who have subsumed and perverted voodoo practices or totems. This is also true, after a fashion, of this film, where Mrs Rand has subsumed the role of priestess to further her agenda, but through not taking it seriously, leaves herself vulnerable to its temptations. As intimidated as they are by the sight of Carrefour lurching out of the shadows like the personification of the blighted past lurching out to torment the living, he’s actually an agent of good, for the rest of the voodoo congregation act not to harm but to initiate an act of healing and to remove the canker that blighting lives in their vicinity, as well as the shadow of black magic behind it. The white characters define their own rationalist creeds against an alternative faith, but they’re also, in the end, utterly enthralled by the notion of such powers.

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The very end offers Mrs Rand’s aide as voodoo priest giving a eulogy to the eased pain of the living and the deliverance of the dead, good and bad as they were in life. That confirms that above all voodoo is another mode of religion, and that the zombie is a creation, if it’s anything, symbolises the refusal of the past to take its place as past. Wesley finally moves, obeying either his own fraying line of reasoning or the demands of the voodoo drums, to end Jessica’s pain and his own, allowing her to leave the Holland compound and then stabbing her through the heart with one of the arrows plucked from Ti-Misery’s chest. This is intercut with the Sabreur with his incantatory dance style, seeming to guide actions with a store-bought doll embodying Jessica, and plunging a pin through the simulacrum. Cause may be effect, but either way, Wesley walks out into the sea with Jessica’s body to drown and cheat Carrefour of his prize. Tourneur offers another of his most beautiful vignettes as the bodies of Wesley and Jessica are found lolling in shallow water by men fishing by torchlight, pluming flames and Jessica’s bloodless face both specks of brightness against the black sea and a horizon vanishing towards opaque eternity. The bodies are carried back home to the tears of Wesley’s mother and the solemn self-knowledge of Paul and Betsy, both grieving and delivered. Te-Misery abides still, but with one less barb in him.

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1980s, Auteurs, Horror/Eerie

The Shining (1980)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick

By Roderick Heath

A yellow Volkswagen Beetle winds its way along a vertiginous mountain road, a route that leads from the rational lowlands to the mountains of madness. We’ve already been introduced to Jack Torrance even though we haven’t seen him, a being enclosed in a tight bubble of metal, an economic and cultural refugee from the larger human world, entering a zone where his existence is viewed with implacable disinterest by the soaring, jagged peaks and silently abiding pine trees, merely waiting for winter’s hammer to fall. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s pulsing, droning synthesiser version of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique resounds on the soundtrack. Torrance in the flesh takes the shape of Jack Nicholson, authoritative Oscar winner flashing his trademark zesty grin. But the eyes are slightly fixed, the smile a tad strained, as he speaks with the manager of the Overlook Hotel, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), a conversation punctuated with Ullman’s uneasy revelation that one of the previous caretakers, a man named Delbert Grady, killed his family during the long winter isolation with an axe, whilst Jack grins and responds it will be a topic of delight for his horror film addict wife. Mutually agreed subtext: Torrance is desperate for a settled job and a chance to break his writer’s block, and Ullman urgently needs someone who’ll take on a job that has a nasty history of chewing up human life.
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Like the conversation of scientists in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) who represent the urges of rational cooperation and irrational partisanship, Jack and Ullman’s exchange here manages to be at once perfectly bland, yet also conscious of standing on the edge of an adventure into the unknown where mysterious forces can already be sensed slowly gathering new strength. Down in the flatlands, where the mountains loom in the dreamy distance, wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) wait for news on Jack’s luck with the job. Wendy reads that eternal tome of the sensitively literate and rebellious, The Catcher in the Rye, whilst Danny has conversations with an invisible friend, Tony. But there’s more to Tony than simply providing a slightly detached and creative little boy’s outlet: Tony is an internal voice, a spirit guide, a doppelganger who hovers within and beside Danny, mediating his powerful psychic gifts. Danny senses Tony’s unease over the coming journey to the Overlook. When he asks Tony to show him why, the only image needed is one returned to again and again throughout the film like a pictorial leitmotif – a colossal torrent of blood spilling out of the hotel’s elevators, as if the heart of the building has stored up every drop of gore ever spilt upon the soil it stands upon.
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The story has it Stanley Kubrick, looking for a strong commercial property to film after the weak reception of Barry Lyndon (1975), sat day in and day out in his office working through piles of recently successful novels, and one day the sound of the books thudding against the wall ceased when Kubrick took up the third novel by a fast-rising horror writer named Stephen King. What’s fascinating about this vignette is how much it resembles some moments in the film, the anguished search for a story to tell, an idea worth hanging years of mental and physical effort upon, stoking the sensation that Kubrick was drawn to the book because it reproduced aspects of his own mental landscape. Then again, that’s probably true enough for any creative person. Kubrick had not tackled an outright horror movie before, although much of his earlier work had suggested some affinity, in his fascination for humans devolving into imps of the perverse, and moments measuring the precise impact of violence. Kubrick, penning the script with novelist Diane Johnson, entirely sublimated King’s story into his own sensibility, an aspect of the film that still rankles the author. What we watch when we watch The Shining is not just adaptation, but something more like translation, a tale remade through new methods of communication, and inevitable imprint of the new artisan. Kubrick’s The Shining, as King put it perfectly correctly, is cold where the novel is hot, the writer’s guilt-ridden, morbid fantasy of his own worst side unleashed by his drinking problem, transmitted via Kubrick’s contemplation of his own tendency to withdraw and struggle through endless phases of creative genesis, drifting through pentimento layers of past and present and future in contemplating civilisation and its discontents.
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Kubrick had already stepped back and forth through the Ages of Man from the horizon of human time to the gilded pretence of a recent past and on to a gleaming technocratic future, evolving somehow towards both divine perfection and primal resurgence all at once, the benign indifference of the Star Child and the savage grins of Dr. Strangelove and Alex De Large the Janus faces of evolution and poor old Barry Lyndon the beaten and curtailed by-product. Kubrick knew very well the human race’s capacity to put on its best face whilst committing its worst crimes, his singular, most obsessive theme. All found a logical terminus in the Overlook, a place where past and present join and twist and the present dissolves like white sky into snow. The Overlook Hotel. The description King’s idol Shirley Jackson gave to her Hill House could describe it just as well – “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone…and whatever walked there, walked alone.” An outpost of affluent white civilisation, a bustling hive of activity when filled with staff. Imposed upon the crown of the American landscape, so offensive to the dispersed and decimated native inhabitants they even tried to stop its construction upon a burial ground. The Shining is the contemporary nightmare rising out of the dream of ’70s shambling westerns like Little Big Man (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). The mountaintop burial place whose invasion stirs the massacre of Jeremiah’s family in the latter film is the unavoidable touchstone. Folk cultural remnants decorate the hotel walls, whilst the art deco interiors quietly mimic and refine the simple, jagged geometries of the Indian artefacts. A common motif in late ’70s horror, of course – the Amityville house was also perched upon an Indian burial ground. A hedge maze adjacent, a feature strayed over from one of the Enlightenment gardens of Barry Lyndon, the orderly compression of space and time into a devious sprawl of false hope.
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Jack’s already simmering instability is merely stoked rather than imposed by the Overlook, his fantasies of godlike control over his mental world meshing with a locale that serves as the last stop on the psychic river flowing through a land won in harsh contest. Danny’s reassurance of his parents that he knows all about cannibalism from watching TV stirs a most unnervingly strained and lunatic grin from Torrance as he repeats his son’s words, testifying to a mind already frayed by being long outpaced by other modes of media communication even in the process of shaping his son’s mind. Methods of communication are a secret plane of warfare in The Shining. Jack’s inability to communicate meaningfully, represented by his writing or failure therein, is matched to his urging Danny to suppresses his psychic gifts, perhaps out of concern for the way people will think of him and perhaps jealous of them. Some vital mechanism in Jack has broken down, perhaps from the same process, of having to contour himself and his expectations into a workaday world, or perhaps from suppressing the gift in himself – if the two processes can be extricated at all. Jack hopes to dislodge the clog to his ambitions in the Overlook. Wendy, meanwhile, cute and gawky and ever so chipper, wears her identity like a baggy sack dress, the woman with a shrivelled sense of self-esteem who convinced herself she married a genius.
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The Overlook provides the struggling writer and his family with a little kingdom with a brief illusion of possession, reminiscent on one level of the similar smorgasbord of consumer delight George Romero sent his heroes careening through in Dawn of the Dead (1978), albeit slightly more upmarket. Head chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) gives Wendy and Danny a tour of the hotel’s larder, stocked for a long winter and a veritable horn of plenty, a wonderland of space and illusory wealth backed up by an authentic aura of history. The Torrances settle into life in the Overlook, but after initial celebration of their new world, nothing goes right. Jack becomes increasingly tetchy and offensive. Danny keeps seeing strange and terrible things in the hotel corridors, and finally, fatefully ventures into Room 237, where something leaves him bedraggled and traumatised. This assault sparks suspicion and diverging responses of concern and infuriated frustration in his parents. Nature conspires to force a crisis. A terrible snowstorm falls upon the Colorado Rockies. Jack displays increasing signs of falling into a cabin-fever-driven frenzy with dangerous intentions. Soon Jack will also destroy the radio and snowmobile that offer the chance of rescue or escape.
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The horror artist’s imaginative landscape is transposed onto the locale, filling up space with illustrations of events gruesome and strange, the many crimes and lost histories straying out of their boxes into the halls and corridors. Trauma clings to the place like a subtle stink of rot, particularly infecting the notorious Room 237, a space Hallorann detests so absolutely Danny can sense it in him, obliging the chef to warn him away from it at all costs. Danny and Hallorann find instant accord, for Hallorann has the psychic gift too, and he seems to be the first other psychic Danny has encountered. Hallorann calls their shared gift “shining,” and gives nostalgic account of his ability to communicate with his mother without moving their mouths. There’s a hint here that Jack probably has the shining too, but has suppressed it so deeply he becomes a mere conduit for the psychic evil in the hotel rather than a bulwark against it, as Hallorann and Danny are. It’s also suggested that the building’s latent evil is often sparked by the intrusion of such preternaturally super-conscious people into its zone. Grady’s slaughter of his family was occasioned by the attempts of one his daughters to burn the place down in her awareness of what it is.
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Time quickly begins to break down once the family is ensconced in their private abode within the hotel, a space that serves as a kind of mocking simulacrum of a proper family hostel sealed off from the rest of this cavernous space. Kubrick’s deployed intertitles seem to precisely delineate the time but actually hack up the film into random shards, units of measurement without rule. Days dissolve into one-another; character actions take on a kind logarithmic variability, moving according to programs laid down by the Overlook. One of the most famous flourishes, the endless repetition of the phrase “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” testifies to an illusion of forward motion when in fact the some moment is repeating. Young Danny makes endless tours of the hotel corridors on his tricycle, a system that seems to depend on the same Byzantine logic as the hotel’s beloved hedge maze. The monstrosity at the heart of the labyrinth is no longer a fanciful Minotaur – it’s a suburban father. Kubrick reverse-engineers cinematic language in the course of the film, as if mimicking his time-warp theme. The stark, squared-off, rectilinear shots attune themselves to the hard blocks and angles of the decorative motifs and forms around the hotel, but also call back to early cinema and the work of Fritz Lang and other movie pioneers, their deadpan gaze upon severe and unyielding compositions. As in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), the implacable regard of order and fate is invoked through such rigid figurations, as is the rectangular frames of the photos that in the very end prove to contain and cage the spirits of the dead in the Overlook. The eye of the camera is a mocking form of immortality, locking time in an eternal frieze.
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Part of the unique stature The Shining has acquired over recent years, which has evolved to the extent that a whole movies has been made the obsession with this one, seems rooted in just this aspect of The Shining. It’s a movie about looking, in much the same way as Blowup (1966), mediated through a master filmmaker’s eye, one whose visual style was based in his background in still photography. The very last shot reveals, unnoticed amongst the hotel’s keepsakes of a lost, glittering past a photo of a suited Jack standing before a large group of Independence Day revellers, a detail observed by Kubrick in a systematic journey in closer to the image, much like in Blowup. The truth is available if you look hard enough. Small wonder some folks scour the film in urgent hunt for details that might act like the small map of the hedge maze, a map that blends imperceptibly into the real one as Jack studies it. Jack’s own pretensions of omniscience are invoked here as he seems to see his wife and son wandering in the aisles of the maze. The shining is a way of seeing, reading, experiencing – “It’s just like pictures in a book,” Tony tells Danny in coaching him through the seemingly manifold terrors of the Overlook itself, which seems to lack sufficient power to actually hurt anyone, therefore requiring a pliable amanuensis like Jack to do it. Kubrick strips the games of look and reality down to brutalist essentials throughout, constantly hinting at unseen things. The Shining invites you to look closer but also observes the breakdown of order and logic, and the closer you get the faster this process speeds up.
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The broadest variation on this motif comes when Jack ventures into Room 237 in search of an apparent interloper who has roughed up Danny. Jack sees at first an extremely beautiful woman climbing sylphlike out a bath, encouraging Jack to embrace her, but then transforming into a garish hag covered in terrible burns and stigmata of disease. This scene mimics the forms of horror with the heartbeat-like soundtrack and steady build to grotesque revelation, but rather plays more as a smirking gag at the audience’s expense, with Jack as the frustrated avatar, inviting in with the desire to see something sexy and then give it a right good goose. In a place where time folds in on itself, beauty and ugliness coexist in one frame. There’s also a hint of in-joke to this scene, or at the very least a sort of knowing reference. Nicholson started in his career in the low-budget scifi and horror of Roger Corman, and this sequence essentially compresses one of his first starring roles, in Corman’s faux-Poe escapade The Terror (1963), into a few excruciating minutes. Poe is an inevitable touchstone for any American artist dabbling in the oneiric arts, of course, the saturnine poet who was found dying one day on a park bench after everything else in his life had slowly withered and died, lost in fantasies of a gallant past turned septic trap. Poe unwillingly but implacably observed the genteel fantasies of the southern planter class he didn’t quite belong to regressing into blood crime, psychosexual dwarfism, and lunacy. King’s approach to the Poe imprint was to use his motifs to interrogate American hierarchism – the bludgeoning effect of money, class, race, gender. Kubrick? Well, suffice to say Stanley seemed a little sceptical about everything.
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Sequences depicting Danny’s habits of charging about the hotel on his tricycle are excellent thumbnails describing Kubrick’s skill at compressing and paring back his style in order to land his effects with purified force. The director tracks the boy’s speeding advance from behind, in shots that intriguingly connect them with the same sense of headlong rushing with which he shot the B-52 bomber shooting towards apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove, or; How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), the sounds of his tricycle’s tires alternating between hissing smoothness on carpet and thunderous, irritating sound on the bare wood. You can all but feel Danny’s heedless release in the wealth of space after a life cooped up in an apartment, but the cunning control of the sound instils forces the viewer to also empathise in the finest nerves with Jack’s frustration with trying to chase a muse with the racket a young child can make. Kubrick makes you feel this aspect of his tale, to experience it, rather than be passively fed dialogue. It also establishes a visual pattern returned to in the finale, as the roving, pursuing camera fills in for the killer pursuing Danny through the maze proper. Even when the narrative seems to be spiralling into frenetic chaos, the visual language remains unerringly concise. The little sways of the camera tracking the swing of Jack’s axe. The jolting zooms that pick out terrible details and perverse exhibitions. The increasingly intimate views of his actors’ faces as they cave in to lunacy and distress, often with dramatically unusual angles. One example of this is a shot of Nicholson as Jack converses with Wendy through a doorway, filmed from below, a shot that turns him into a caged beast and also invites the viewer into conspiracy with Jack, like one of Richard III’s monologues, as he begins to grin at Wendy’s naive and forlorn expectations of easy escape. The rhythmic interpolations of that singular vision, the torrent of blood, the flash cuts to Danny’s frightened face as he experiences nightmarish terrors with his shining.
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Jack’s invocation to the spirits of the Overlook, uttered when he’s first seen in the hotel’s colossal function area called the Gold Room, with its chintzy splendour and gleaming, inviting bar, is, “I’d do anything for a drink – I’d give my goddamn soul for a glass of beer.” This line is almost parodic in its reduction of Jack’s moral and psychological collapse and enslavement to the Overlook to this singular formula, whilst also finally starting the process of nailing down Jack’s problem, his dry-drunk’s neurosis merely starved rather actively conquered. This is when Jack first glimpses the barman Lloyd (Joe Turkel), who seems at first like a fancy of the writer’s, suave and correct in his old-school aplomb, a character invented to match Jack’s remaking of himself as a worldly gentleman. He aids Jack in delivering verbal purgation of the motives that enforced his self-exile to the Overlook, not really an attempt to find creative fulfilment but instead an attempt to escape his alcoholism, and his guilt over losing his temper with Danny. Wendy proceeds through her days with a chipper, workaday front that is both entirely admirable and enabling of Jack’s instability.
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After their drive together to the hotel, Kubrick pointedly refuses to ever offer a scene where all three characters are seen together, except for a moment in which Jack is a quivering mess after a dreadful nightmare of murdering them and Danny wanders into frame sucking his thumb in the traumatised wake of being attacked by something. Hallorann fulfils the role of father gently coaxing Danny into communication and community. One key scene here involves no overt violence or action but generates a mood of intense disquiet, depicting Jack, moving in a state of intense distraction, slovenly, unshaven, balancing his son on his knee and making weak attempts to communicate with the boy. This scene might seem queasily familiar to anyone who ever grew up with a depressive or alcoholic parent – the spectacle of a parent, supposed figure of love and protection and unquestioning commitment, drifting away in a haze whose attempts to mollify a child are desperately unconvincing. Danny’s question in response to Jack’s agonising expressions of paternal interest is “You wouldn’t ever hurt mommy and me, would ya?”
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But the call of the Overlook is reverberating through Jack’s mind just as it rang out to Danny – come and play, forever and ever and ever. It’s a call that appeals more to a failed adult byproduct than to a wary and canny kid. Danny himself as already heard the call from the pair of twin girls, Grady’s daughters, who have appeared to him in the corridors, manifesting at the same time as the sight of their mangled and bloodied corpses. Danny’s capacity to weather such terrible glimpses depends on his ability to believe in them as mere illustrations rather than as true emanations. Jack instead interacts with them like a man stepping into private fantasies. Wendy’s stark, horrified reaction when she believes Jack might have roughed up Danny has the sorry effect of helping to drive him over the verge of the liminal as he stalks away into the depths of the hotel, arriving in the chintzy splendour of the Gold Room, where Lloyd converses with him in suave, correct old school aplomb, mollifying Jack’s fiscal anxieties and eventually appealing to his desire to be considered important. Lloyd suggests Jack is desperately important to a great project still unfolding at the Overlook. Later, re-entering the same space, Jack finds himself amidst a ritzy celebration of 1920s high life, replete with suited gentlemen and chicly clad flappers, and is bumped into by a waiter, whom Jack recognises quickly is Grady (Philip Stone). Grady protests ignorance of his real identity as Jack grills him about it in a mordantly red-painted bathroom, until the guise slips and Grady assures him with cold precision that he “corrected” his incorrigible family and encourages Jack to do the same with his, in defence of his post as the Caretaker, a role that has slipped any nominal bonds of merely earthly concern and become a post of cosmic significance within this time-space trap.
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Fittingly, considering such themes of type-casting and predestination, the casting imbues The Shining not simply with strong performances but with actors who are obliged to act out versions of parts they had before, or with whom Kubrick had history. Turkel had previously appeared in Paths of Glory (1957) playing a young and tragic soldier also sacrificed in the interests of a smooth-working machine. Stone, who had been in both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, had played a retainer shocked by the pathology of the Lyndon household who eventually played successful intervener. Here once more he plays major-domo to the interests of the great estate, although the role of intervener is passed on to Hallorann. Duvall had been the big-eyed, soulful lady of Robert Altman’s Americana fantasias in the previous ten years. Thrusting Nicholson, hero of 1970s naturalism, back into such the zone of his early roles has a mischievous aspect to it, especially as Kubrick picks up and amplifies the coal-black comedy and purposefully cartoonish aspects of a Corman film like The Raven (1963). Kubrick’s fascination for performances pitched right on the edge of overt stylisation reached an apogee here thanks to Nicholson and Duvall. Nicholson’s bravura incarnation of Jack has the quality of a piece of paternal play-acting Big Bad Wolf or Captain Hook constantly threatening to turn into authentically ferocious violence. The film’s moment of truth portrays exactly this pivot, as Jack slowly backs Wendy up a flight of stairs, taunting her with increasingly maniacal flourishes and threats whilst never quite losing the quality of someone enacting a great big joke. Wendy’s name, of course, sarcastically twisted to “Wendy, darling,” amplifies the pantomime connection.
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The Shining is, of course, in spite of its stature and pretensions, a haunted house tale. An old and noble adjunct of the horror genre, the haunted house tale can be both a realm of subtle, evocative frissons and outright bloodcurdling showmanship, of gently psychologised anxiety and spectacular manifestation. The Shining manages to describe the range between both these poles. In many haunted house films from earlier times, hauntings usually proved to be illusory, as in the various versions of The Cat and the Canary (1927, 1939, 1976), usually remaking this hoary trope as a vehicle for proving the antiseptic values of modernity. But a later movement, perhaps set in motion by Jack Clayton’s ponderously literate adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents (1961), saw the value of this trope as questions over the ambiguity of viewpoint became central, and the notion of a ready-made, coherent metaphor for the mind as a set of rooms never free of ghostly imprints of thought and memory. Examples of this mode came on through the 1960s and ‘70s, including Robert Wise’s take on Jackson, The Haunting (1963), Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1972), John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973), Dan Curtis’s Burnt Offerings (1976), Richard Loncraine’s Full Circle (1976), Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror, and Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980).
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What distinguishes The Shining over and above most of these? Kubrick’s fastidious film language is one part of it, of course, the methodical yet remorseless intensification of mood and story that calls to mind the title of that James story – the screws are constantly tightening. But another, telling point of discursion is that in most of those films, the supernatural is an active threat. In The Shining the haunting is entirely passive, only acting through a human avatar – although The Amityville Horror also hinged upon the fright factor of a seemingly decent father turning brutal. One aspect of King’s great success as a horror writer lies in his precise refusal of ambiguities in regards to his generic devices, his monstrosities and ghouls, for whilst embracing the metaphorical meaning of his ideas, King’s realisation of them, from satanic lawnmowers to a girl’s wrathful psychic powers, are perfectly literal. Evil when it breaks out in King’s writer has punishing corporeal and moral dimensions. King liked the theme of ordinary people falling under the power of forces from without – even the hapless dog in Cujo is a victim of this – whereas Kubrick sees it as welling from within. Part of the tensions between King’s story and Kubrick’s realisation of it lies in what feels like Kubrick’s attempts to impose a level of ambiguity about whether what we’re seeing is an actual supernatural event. Much that we see here could simply be a reality created by claustrophobia, isolation, a depressive addict’s sullen fantasising, and shared neurosis of the Torrances. It doesn’t entirely fit: there are too many events in the story that seem to confirm the actuality of the supernatural’s place in the tale, including Danny’s communication with Hallorann and Jack’s escape from the freezer Wendy locks him in after successfully knocking him out with a baseball bat.
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It might be impossible to ascertain whether Kubrick ever watched Bava’s films, and yet the points of accord are hard to ignore: as in Operazione Paura and Lisa e il Diavolo, places become infected with the diseases in the minds of the people who live in them, who then find themselves doomed to act out the pathologies locked into the environs about them (Kubrick’s affinities with Bava would again resurface notably in Eyes Wide Shut, 1999). One scene cut from the film directly quoted Operazione Paura, in which Jack picks up a ball tossed his way by a ghostly presence. The deliberate replacement of tension sourced in what will happen with tension rooted in the question of when and how, blended with the theme of Jack’s temptations towards illusory fulfilment of his psycho-sexual needs whilst exterminating actual loved-ones, is similarly close to Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970). Kubrick’s own preferred genre, if he had one, was the war film – six of his thirteen movies depict warfare to a significant degree. His fascination with martial subordination and ritualised violence is evinced here too; The Shining is a portrait of psychic warfare. It’s there in the way Jack is subordinated to the hotel’s programme in the same way the soldiers in Paths of Glory are enticed to destroy themselves and others to live up to a patriotic ideal, echoing General Mireau’s bullying-obliging his subordinate Dax to lead a hopeless and cynically motivated attack on the Ant Hill, and looking forward to the lengthy studies in indoctrination and terrorisation utilised in the training process examined in Full Metal Jacket (1987). As in Lolita (1962), The Shining is also the spectacle of a cultured and respectable being falling to pieces in the face of personal obsession. As in Barry Lyndon, it’s a portrait of a man being slowly crushed by the knowledge he has stepped into the lap of luxury whilst never quite possessing it. As in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, the onrush of calamity is viewed always with a cruelly comic grin, humans portrayed less as thinking, self-aware organisms than as momentary embodiments of various traits, from monstrous will to wretched decency.
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Hallorann, a weathered and worldly black man, is the cheeriest character in The Shining, a man who knows how to entertain a kid and keep customers satisfied, and leaves behind the heart of darkness that is the Overlook to go lounge in the sun and watch TV. He initiates Danny into a new community, one that obeys different rules to the rest of society, a world without words. Hallorann calls to mind the intimacy of sharing the shine with his mother, an intimacy to which the Torrance family never aspires. King ironically edited himself out of the ideal nuclear family of the new age in killing off his own avatar and leaving Wendy and Danny with Hallorann. Kubrick concentrates more on the punishing reaction of the offended white male ego, an aspect of The Shining that was prescriptive in the climate of 1980 when Reaganism was on the advance and which today feels all but acutely prophetic. “White man’s burden,” Jack mutters to Lloyd, and soon the film reaches a zenith of deadpan black-comedy grotesquerie as Grady baits Jack, who weeks earlier was probably a good little liberal, with the news that his son is calling in “a nigger” to stymie their designs. Torrance repeats these totemic words in hyperbolic distress, indicating the degree to which he’s fallen under the spell of the old hates written into the structure of the hotel.
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Kubrick rhymes and contrasts this sublimation by Jack of the ancient communal hates encoded in the Overlook’s timbers with the amusing sight of Hallorann in his hotel in the midst of black erotica, a touch that also says something about the two men as men, as Hallorann is a bachelor off enjoying his sojourn whilst Jack is entrapped with his family. Making Hallorann somewhat older than Jack and Wendy removed any hint of sexual threat, but Hallorann is still closer to an idealised figure of paternal care. After all, he’s the sort of guy who will drop everything, fly across country, and venture into a blizzard the moment he senses Danny and Wendy are in danger. Jack’s devolution meanwhile sees him increasingly bullying and abusing Wendy for placing her concerns for Danny ahead of his anointed place and responsibility as caretaker and litterateur. Jack’s brutal murder of Hallorann as soon as he arrives is Kubrick’s starkest deviation from his source. This might well have been made to offer at judicious dash of traditional horror in the story – it’s the only actual death in the film – but it also powerfully intensifies the film’s increasingly maniacal mood and sense of exposure. Danny and Wendy must save themselves, for no white (or black) knights are on the march. But it’s also plain in this sequence, in which Jack hides behind a pillar and springs out at Halloran as if to shout “Boo!” whilst slamming his axe into his chest, that there’s still a sick element of play to Jack’s homicidal rampage.
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The darkly comic streak of The Shining might be identified as Kubrick’s signalling to the audience he feels himself above the genre on some level, except that, as well as coherent with the rest of his oeuvre, the humour entwines with the fervency with which Kubrick delves into this little imaginative universe he and his great team of collaborators fashioned. The atmosphere of extreme isolation and immersion in the subliminal is knitted together by the strength of Kubrick’s images and his music cues. The note of child’s-play-turned-murder-party is still present even as Jack is hunting his son through the hedge maze, which becomes a subzero game of hide-and-seek with a shiny axe in the mix, and of course in the most famous moment in the film, his spittle-flecked, mad-eyed mockery of television’s appeal, “Here’s Johnny!” Meanwhile Kubrick goes to town in unleashing strange and tantalising visions, as when Wendy spies someone in an animal costume fellating a hotel guest, and another guest with a bloodied wound on his brow beaming at Wendy with a hearty greeting, “Great party, isn’t it?” Yeah, it’s a real lark. Such dioramas of the inexplicable are another facet of The Shining’s mystique, evincing episodes of teeming strangeness contained within the Overlook’s embrace without ever pausing to explain and explicate them, rather suggesting that what is glimpsed and spoken of throughout is only the tip of this uncanny iceberg. Hallorann’s ill-fated dash to the rescue does at least present to Wendy and Danny the means to escape in his snow tractor, whilst Jack, injured and dissolving into babbling lunacy, sits down in the maze, unable to find either Danny or his way out, and is glimpsed next as a frigid, icicle-fringed corpse. It’s a truly pathetic end for would-be artist-god’s designs. The last shot, on top of its mordant and haunting evocation of eternal entrapment and the dissolution of meaning in the face of time’s eddies, begs a certain sympathetic question: is Jack happier this way?

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1950s, Auteurs, British cinema, Horror/Eerie

Night of the Demon (1957)

aka Curse of the Demon

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Director: Jacques Tourneur

By Roderick Heath

Headlights, burning the night like eyes of a spectral beast, light the way along a country road at night, branches etched in slivers of brightness against vast darkness. The car arrives before a great old house, and its driver, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), meets with the house’s owner, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) in a state of clammy desperation. Harrington claims to have seen something, something terrifying enough to make the peerlessly rational researcher, who has been investigating Karswell and his cult worshipping black magic and old gods, come begging for his quarry’s aid in exchange for public apologies and repudiations. Karswell asks some seemingly calm and placatory questions, including about the fate of a scrap of parchment covered in runic symbols Karswell gave him. After learning the parchment was burned, Karswell assures Harrington that he should go home and leave everything to him. Harrington drives back home through the night. But as he’s pulling into his driveway, Harrington sees a spectral figure manifesting in the distance that drives him into a wild panic, causing him to crash his car into a power pole. The last thing Harrington sees as he twists up in the midst of power lines is a colossal, ferocious demon lurching over him and reaching down…

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This opening has fineness sufficient unto itself, a miniature essay in form and style in a horror movie – the war of inky blacks and dazzling whites and grey shades in between, the judicious glimpses of a monstrous being at large in the quiet embrace of the English country night, the layered ironies of soft-spoken gentlemen bringing down ruinous forces from beyond. Although director Jacques Tourneur was frustrated by having to show the demon in literal form, the way the film handles its appearance still stands, 60 years later, as perhaps the best and worthiest ever use of a special effect in a horror film, a ne plus ultra in genre spectacle – the strange apparition appearing vaguely in the distance, wreathed in smoke and fire, two massive legs astride the writhing, desperate Harrington, and then a great, looming close-up of the demon’s snarling visage and terrible clawed paw splayed to grip its prey and prize.

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Charles Bennett, who had been a top screenwriter for many years and is still perhaps best remembered for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock on projects like The 39 Steps (1935), laboured on penning an adaptation of M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” for many years, and harboured hopes of directing the completed script. Bennett couldn’t get any studio to back him in this until, agonisingly, just after he had signed over the script to producer Hal E. Chester, who then proceeded to amplify his frustration by rewriting it to better fit Chester’s idea of commercial interests. Chester nonetheless proved himself wise in one regard, when he turned to Tourneur, recommended to him by another producer, to handle this tale of gruelling anxiety. Tourneur had not made a horror film in 14 years, although it was the genre that had made his name working with RKO maestro Val Lewton. Tourneur and Lewton’s partnership had laid down a blueprint for a style of horror not only followed by Lewton’s other stable-mates Robert Wise and Mark Robson, but which made a subtle but pervasive impact on the genre as a whole. The duo’s clarion work Cat People (1942) even purportedly saved RKO from bankruptcy. After extending the series with I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943), Tourneur had been rewarded with a swift rise to handling larger-budgeted and more prestigious films, turning out excellent noir thrillers like Out Of The Past (1947) and Berlin Express (1948). Once Tourneur’s RKO contract expired he was free to pick and choose projects from different studios. But far from burnishing his reputation, the string of westerns and adventure movies he made throughout much of the 1950s are generally far less well-known than his foundational work.

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Tourneur and Lewton’s collaboration had been rooted in their mutual status as immigrants who had each followed famous elder relatives to the US for work. In Tourneur’s case, his director father Maurice Tourneur, and in Lewton’s his aunt, the silent screen star Alla Nazimova. Both men found accord in this sense of tension between their experiences and their lives in Hollywood, as well as a shared humanist outlook. But they also diverged as Lewton’s romantic rationality was pitted against Tourneur’s interests in the mystic, a division that ultimately synthesised a penchant for ambiguity in their approach to the creepy tales they were obliged to create. Tourneur’s visual palette, influenced by his father’s famous and innovative use of light in his films, was delicate yet firm in its gradations and depth of field, aiding him in his gift for creating a sequestered mood, a state of subtle alienation and isolation from the everyday world. This talent was most famously evinced in such scenes as the swimming pool sequence in Cat People, but Night of the Demon quickly offers a less spectacular, but equally vital example of this touch at work after its fanfare opening. Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) and colleague Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews), who don’t know each other in spite of their connection, frustrate each other as they fly over the Atlantic to London. The incidental meet-cute here is a bit arduous on the dramatic level, but also a model of mood control and audience conditioning: Tourneur evokes a hushed and somnolent corner of a noisy, zippy modern act, in flying aboard a propeller-driven passenger plane, introducing a story where the tension between the modern and ancient, seen and unseen, defines all. Joanna’s light, which annoys Holden, is an ironic beacon of wakeful vigilance where everyone else is trying to sleep, setting in motion the battle between her credulity as to the possibility of supernatural menace versus Holden’s conviction of its impossibility.

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Holden is heading to London to chair an academic conference of investigators into anthropology and folklore, at which Harrington intended to discredit Karswell, whose cult activities seem to have driven at least one member of the faithful to go mad and commit a murder. Both Joanna and Holden are met with the news of Harrington’s death upon touchdown, but Holden wastes no time in retracing Harrington’s steps in pursuit of Karswell. Trying to track down some of the research tomes Harrington had listed in his investigations, he goes to the British Museum’s reading room, but cannot find the book listed entitled The True Discoveries of the Witches and Demons. A stranger claims to overhear and offers to show Holden his copy. The stranger is Karswell, who introduces himself in affable manner and gives Holden a card as well as a bundle of his own papers accidentally toppled from his work desk. The card promises, “Allowed three days” in handwriting that vanishes without trace even to a chemist’s eye. Intrigued, Holden decides to accept Karswell’s invitation, taking Joanna, who visits his hotel room to warn him about her uncle’s slow-mounting dread before his untimely end. Holden thinks he has Karswell pegged as a “harmless faker” when he sees Karswell entertaining children as a clown and magician, so Karswell attempts to wipe the smugness from his face by taking credit for a vicious windstorm that suddenly descends and churns the party to chaos.

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Karswell claims success in translating portions of the encrypted True Discoveries and gained unique insight into and power over the supernatural world with it, power he has wielded to gain himself a flock of intensely credulous yokel followers, and enriching himself in the process. He also predicts Holden’s imminent death. The stage is set for an extended battle of wills between Holden and Karswell, the stiff-necked rationalist slowly whittled down to size as he finds himself dogged by mounting signs that something terrible really is now dogging his footsteps, manifesting in menacing sounds in his hotel corridors, fits of blurry vision and hallucination, pages vanishing from his diary after the date of his anticipated demise, and pursuit by a smoky apparition when he ventures alone through the woods neighbouring Karswell’s house. Joanna becomes convinced quickly that her father’s dread was based in something substantial; Holden resists her entreaties to pay heed to his example whilst also trying to romance her. Karswell’s elderly mother (Athene Seyler) also attempts to convince Holden he’s in danger, and invites him and Joanna to a session with a medium, Mr Meek (Reginald Beckwith). Meek seems to channel Harrington and his desperate implorations from beyond, but Holden is left more annoyed and sceptical than ever. Meanwhile Holden’s colleagues, O’Brien (Liam Redmond) and Kumar (Peter Elliott), are arranging to medically examine the mad cultist, Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), and use hypnosis and drugs to extricate the truth of what happened on the night of his supposed murder.

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Night of the Demon was released at almost the same time as Terence Fisher’s pivotal work for Hammer Films, Curse of Frankenstein, and like that film it reclaims the imagery of looming, destructive chimera from the world of science fiction and restores it to the embrace of horror’s darker, more intimately troubling world, announcing horror’s resurgence as a vital genre. At the same time, where Fisher’s gore-spiked, gothic fairytale approach was actually a jolt of harsh modernism, Tourneur’s film mediates two eras with intricacy and also some strain. Part of the power of the approach Tourneur and Lewton took in their horror trilogy was rooted in their exploration of the consequences of modern rationality with its weapons of science and psychology, grappling with old figurations for the understanding of the world. Their template refused to entirely demystify those figurations but more often fighting them to a draw in recognising that the cold light of reason never dispels the power of the irrational, even if it only lurks in the recesses of the mind. The possibility of supernatural action in Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie was mediated through the very real and immediate conspiracies of damaged and damaging people, whilst the storyline of The Leopard Man self-consciously invoked the notion of a human lunatic using a primal force, in this case an escaped wild animal, as a black alibi for his predations.

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Night of the Demon, by contrast, allowed Tourneur to step back into horror cinema by making that tension between the rational and irrational worldviews the basic matter of the drama. The story concerns the constant dialogue of belief and scepticism that is at the heart of so much of the genre. James’s stories were usually built around such a gap in understanding, mediated through James’ own scholarly habits, his fascination with dust-caked esoterica, transmitting through layers of media a sense of a world lost and just beyond grasping where the laws of the universe was understood in a different way. James’ approach, with his falsified testimonies and second-hand accounts, borrowed from and also augmented the epistolary style of writing, a mode with much in common with contemporary cinema’s love of found footage gimmickry, in terms of trying to convey a charge of verisimilitude. Night of the Demon doesn’t try to reproduce this layered effect, but Bennett did an expert job of transposing James’ story from a late Victorian setting into the mid-1950s. Perhaps, indeed, it found the setting it always demanded, the age of planes and atomic bombs and bright, sterile lights, amidst which the shadows sometimes seem all the darker, more abyssal and witholding. Holden’s conversations with O’Brien and Kumar, who are rather more metaphysically-minded than him and variously open to belief in the supernatural – Kumar in particular – see them engaging in jocular but weighty manner on the ways of understanding such phenomena. Kumar refuses a drink O’Brien offers, calling alcohol the “devil’s brew.” Later, when O’Brien jokingly notes the devil has something with his pleasant drink, Kumar notes “That’s when he’s most dangerous – when he’s being pleasant.” And of course, Karswell is the most pleasant gentleman around.

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The charm of the English ghost story, acknowledged early in the film when a local journalist wryly asks Holden to “go easy on our ghosts – we’re rather fond of them,” exudes from a land where the modern lives cheek by jowl with the works of unseen generations, moulded into the everyday habits of the land, dogging memories of ancient convictions and loyalties still infesting the edge of a world otherwise getting on with business. Many moments in Night of the Demon record the essence of this parochial style, particularly the riotously strange séance sequence in which Meek’s wife (Rosamund Greenwood) and Mrs Karswell sing the chirpy ditty “Cherry Ripe” to induce the right spiritual mood, seeing the medium begin to grunt and toss as he connects with the astral plane. Meek passes through a variety of possessions, including of a kindly Scottish gentleman and a small, frightened girl in search of her doll, before finally Harrington enters him and frantically tries to warn Holden and Joana about the demon even as he screams in terror at its looming presence. Holden shatters the mood, and Meek’s trance, by getting up and turning on the lights (“I feel sick.” “You’re not the only one.”) in a conscientious act of effrontery to the construction of credulity enforced by the showmanship of the séance. The film’s most vital performance is also the best conduit for this contrast of English eccentricity and the truly uncanny, in MacGinnis as Karswell.

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The Irish-born actor, once a rugged heroic type in films like Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1938) and Anthony Asquith’s We Dive At Dawn (1943), was balding and portly by the time this film came around, and so he slipped into the skin of this character to present conjure master and necromancer, patterned after that eternal fount for horror writes Aleister Crowley, not as sepulchral supervillain (a la Boris Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat, 1934) or suavely sinister man of the world (Charles Grey’s Mocata in The Devil Rides Out, 1967), but as a bluff and genial former performer who’s nice to kids and helpful even to mean, old scholars who want to persecute him. Truth be told, Karswell bears more likeness to L. Ron Hubbard than to Crowley, as entertainer turned religious leader, carefully feeding out fragments of his revelations gleaned from supposed ancient texts. Bennett and Tourneur seem to have noticed grounds for such a figure to flourish in an age increasingly wary and inclined to reject modernity’s apparent lack of order and calm.

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Karswell also anticipates Psycho’s (1960) Norman Bates as a figure of destruction lurking in a big, old house with his mother, one who could be seen as coded queer (though he seems to gain designs on Joanna eventually). But Psycho would announce the proper birth of the modern horror film with its knife-wielding serial killer as monster, Night of the Demon still has a foot in an atavistic world, its momma’s boy headcase bringing down death with justified conviction that he holds the secret reins of the world, whilst, of course, living with the risk they might be tugged from his grip. Karswell makes plain to his mother his way of thinking and his motivation for destroying Harrington and Holden – to protect the worldly and otherworldly success he’s obtained. MacGinnis is great fun as he veers through conversations with alternations of affability and tossed-off threat (“Unfortunately you won’t be able to explain away your death on the 28th of this month so easily, with my prediction of it at this moment,” he mentions airily whilst taking off his clown make-up). He manages to simultaneously imbue Karswell with a genuinely malevolent edge, shading his sweetly tempered voice into deeper, sterner intonations, fixing Holden with cold-blooded stares and triumphant smiles as he stands unmoved during the pulverising wind storm he conjures. MacGinnis also expertly traces Karswell’s undercurrent of genuine awe and trepidation, his all-too-credulous certainty that the terrors he can wield are dangerous, and his awareness of the basic law of magic, “nothing for nothing,” that every cause has an effect and every cup taken from the well must be refilled one way or another.

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Holden meanwhile visits some of Karswell’s followers, who seem to live in an entirely different epoch to him and everyone else, when he needs permission from Rand Hobart’s relations to treat him. These people subsist on a farm without any sign of technology, speak in ye-olde-isms, and seem sternly subservient to the old forces of the earth and beyond Karswell has facetiously mastered but they have adopted with iron belief. There’s an intriguing echo throughout Night of the Demon of one of Tourneur’s best-regarded, if least well-known films, Stars in My Crown (1950), as that film’s gentle and empathetic portrayal of a religious warrior trying to win over a rustic community gives way to a man of staunch disbelief confronting an enclave of septic holdouts from a radically different faith. Aptly, Holden’s attitude slowly reveals itself as every bit as monomaniacal as any religious fanatic’s, and sourced in a similar anxiety as to what mysteries an alternative world view open up. This dichotomous aspect is evinced as Holden expressly detests the sensation of being robbed of not only certitude but also forthright sovereignty by the possibility of the supernatural: “It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner – if this world is ruled by demons and monsters we may as well all give up right now.” To which Joanna ripostes that the existence of forces that cannot be repressed doesn’t necessarily mean being ruled by them. If the essence of the ’50s science fiction film had often been conjuring colossal fears to be defeated by the end, Night of the Demon pointedly refuses the notion that all anxieties can be so defeated, but also suggests the evil forces tend to consume those who invoke them.

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Without going too far out on a limb, it’s possible to regard Night of the Demon as a vital signpost in the souring in the postwar sensibility, counterpointing Curse of Frankenstein’s ruthless commentary on unhinged science conjuring monsters where none existed before. The feeling that Night of the Demon was pitched in part as something of a commentary on the waning scifi creed and flagship for horror is bolstered, as Holden is given explicitly Jungian attitudes linking the sightings of flying saucers with the many similar types of demons O’Brien keeps a collection of as evidence of the possibility the demon is real, branding them common archetypes. Holden himself is of the same species as the square-jawed, he-man scientists who could solve all the world’s problems in such films. Night of the Demon hinges on the observation that just because not all fears can be plumbed doesn’t mean they cannot be controlled or reckoned with. The object at the heart of the narrative, the paper inscribed with the mystic runes that serve as summons and beacon for the demon, is a blind tool of supernatural forces, capable of bringing down the demon’s wrath on anyone who holds it, a device that ultimately gives Holden his ticket to defeating Karswell.

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Night of the Demon has always been a knotty work to me. I’m often left with the feeling after watching it that with a few tweaks it could have been an unrivalled pinnacle of the genre, but a few vital elements consistently frustrate me. Some of this seems to stem from the tension between the three main contributors to its making, Bennett, Tourneur, and Chester, whose revisions to Bennett’s script resulted in a story flow that doesn’t always seem properly structured, and awkward switchbacks in the style and attitude of the characters, like Holden’s oilier efforts to romance Joanna. Clifton Parker’s often crashing score is another facet that annoys, as well as the frustratingly overpitched performances by the usually reliable Andrew and Cummins. That said, the mood of strained and brittle self-consciousness both actors exude accords with the slowly ratcheting, jump-at-shadows disquiet inherent in Holden’s plight. Moreover, Tourneur’s direction relentlessly accumulates signs of menace, pulling jolting moments out of his hat just as Karswell plucks puppies from his, like a famous moment when two small boys wearing creepy masks leap out from a tree, interrupting Karswell’s quietly menacing conversation with Holden: just two kids at play, but it comes with such perfectly unexpected jaggedness that it still startles after umpteen viewings. Less agreeably, Tourneur’s method here, revising the art of the “bus scare” he developed with Lewton that hinged on utilising jarring cues of sound that prick the audience’s susceptibility with false scares, also anticipates the modern reduction of horror cinema to a series a jumps induced by assaults with volume.

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The failure of the séance to convince Holden of his danger leads him to try breaking into Karswell’s manse to get a look at the True Discoveries. It proves an abortive mission, as Karswell senses his intrusion, and Holden is mauled by what seems like a terrible monster in the dark, but proves to be only a pet cat when the light is switched on – or, as Karswell mockingly suggests, a cat possessed by a guardian spirit to protect the house. Holden takes his obtuseness to a new level when he declares his determination to leave the way he came, treading back through the woods neighbouring the house in spite of Karswell’s appeals not to. But his journey becomes a magnificent opportunity for Tourneur to stretch his scaremongering sinews. Holden becomes increasingly jumpy and finally starts running in panic as mysterious footprints of an invisible fiend start pocking the ground, and a glowing ball of smoke seems to chase the panicky scientist through the aisles of skeletal trees and clinging bushes. There’s another echo of a recent scifi film here: the invisible “monster from the id” in Forbidden Planet (1956) left the same footprints, even though the structure of the scene is far closer to the scenes of phobic isolation and anxiety that had been a hallmark of the Lewton series. Like the opening, this sequence is an island of perfection, an ideal representation of a horror filmmaker’s art, conjuring conviction of threat from the most minimal of signs and hints, conveying the way the secure bastions of Holden’s mind are giving way before the spell of the dark.

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Tourneur’s irritation in being obliged to make the demon appear is entirely understandable in this regard, because it seems to diffuse the opacity he had laboured carefully to engender through such sequences. That said, just as the ball of fire that chases Holden could be a figment of his imagination, so, too, could the demon itself. The contradiction Tourneur doesn’t shy away from is the problem of knowing, whether the mind creates its demons or merely records them, and ponders if the difference is actually all that important. The modern medicine turned upon Hobart (a performance of incredible, sweat-sodden intensity from Wilde, who would later become well-known playing an amusingly different part on the TV show Porridge) excavates primal terror from the pathetic man who proves to avoided his own, ordained fate to die by the monster by passing the runes onto a fellow. Hobart imbues Holden with vital knowledge for avoiding his own fate, but at the cost of his own life, as Hobart hysterically attacks the doctor in thinking he’s trying to pass his own runes on, and hurls himself through a high window. Holden makes a dash to catch Karswell, forewarned by his mother about his travel plans, and catching him aboard a train with Joanna under his hypnotic control. Holden soon measures the level of Karswell’s fear of him, and when two policemen, tracking Karswell, ironically because of Holden’s complaint about him, barge into their compartment, Holden successfully returns the runes to Karswell under the guise of handing him his coat. The sorcerer immediately realises what has happened and is forced to chase after the parchment, which seems to have a life of its own, until it seems to spontaneously catch fire and burn by the railways tracks.

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Karswell finds himself caught between the demon and an oncoming train, a circumstance that allows Holden and Joanna a chance to withdraw from the scene with at least a sliver of ambiguity still in their minds – “Perhaps it’s best not to know,” Holden says, echoing the “they tampered in God’s domain” homily at the end of many a ’50s scifi film. But, of course, the film privileges the audience with Karswell’s viewpoint of a colossal monstrosity that picks him up and claws him with vicious, punitive disdain. The climax delivers a truly nightmarish image; the demon, viewed towering behind a speeding train, wreathed in smoke, Karswell’s body jangling upon its claws before being tossed lifelessly down to lie smoking and bedraggled upon the rails. Again, this moment is so spectacularly achieved I just can’t find it in me to condemn it. Today, most genre filmmakers would much rather have their monster even if they have no conviction about the supernatural or deep feeling about its metaphorical potency. These things have all become tropes now. Demystifying endings were, however, rather common back in the day in fare like the various versions of The Cat and the Canary and other films with their proto-Scooby Doo endings. At least Night of the Demon sustains a note of voluble dread from its manifestations. It might even have helped give it the potent effect it had on the resurging popularity of horror as a movie genre, as it imbues the film with a lively, gleefully ferocious aspect in hindsight. Night of the Demon, in spite of its faults, still stands as one of the truly great horror films.

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