4. Horror, Death And The Eternal Afterlife Of An Artform
By the time cinema in Germany was reaching its original peak in the 1910’s and 1920’s, the Grand Guignol was considered antiquated, but the love of the macabre continued to flourish in new forms. The German’s, with their infatuation for symmetry (consider the many camera shots of stair cases in Weimar films), tricks inherited from the stage director Max Reinhardt’s, hastily created, but effective stage sets of an industry constrained by finance to producing films in Germany. There were many classics produced by somewhat minor directors, ‘The Student of Prague’ [1913/1926], ‘The Golem’ [1915/1920], ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ , to name a few, however there were two German directors of note that every film buff should be familiar with: F. W. Murnau [1888-1931], and Fritz Lang [1890-1976].
Lang’s body of Weimar work includes the first two ‘Dr. Mabuse’ films [1922/1933] about a criminal mastermind of (almost?) supernatural power. The science fiction horror masterpiece ‘Metropolis’ , also the film that so influenced rocket scientist Wernher von Braun [1912-1977] ‘Frau Im Mond’ , and the film that Peter Lorre claimed killed his acting career, the great and creepy ‘M’ , about a child serial killer. While F. W. Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’  remains a somewhat spooky portrayal of Bram Stoker’s [1847-1912] ‘Dracula’ , Stoker’s widow denied copyright for the movie, and had the prints of the film destroyed, luckily some copies survived of this masterpiece of the gothic, ‘Faust’  about the German magus, based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s [1749-1832] poem that along with Friedrich Nietzsche’s [1844-1900] ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’  had recently been common reading material for German troops in the trenches during the First World War. Murnau moved to the United States with the growing unrest in Germany along with the threat posed by the Nazis and made further memorable films ‘Sunrise’ , watched toward the end of the movie by Brad Pitt’s character in the film adaptation of ‘Interview with the Vampire’ , and ‘Tabu: A Story of the South Seas’ , Murnau’s last film before his premature death. The writers of this piece are as much admirers of the literary short horror story form as of the now antique German horror films of the early 20th century, these films were not created as ‘art films’ but rather intended for mass consumption, like the short stories published in the U.S.A. in pulp magazines like ‘Weird Tales’
Likewise we in Klondike are fond of ‘Universal’s Monsters’, created from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, for their bizarre gothic charm, particularly in the hands of director James Whale [1889-1957]. The violence of these pictures is incomparably tame next to recent contemporary horror fare, to think the scene in Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’  were the monster drowns the young girl was originally cut because it was considered too disturbing, should give pause for thought on the escalation of violence and its increasingly visceral nature, as if news reports from battlefronts around the world have blunted our emotional psyches, and dulled our sense of shock, and our ability to differentiate between reality and fiction. Other films produced by the studio were ‘Dracula’  starring Bela Lugosi [1882-1956] and directed by Todd Browning who would go on to direct the banned ‘Freaks’ , ‘The Mummy’  starring Boris Karloff [1887-1969] in the title role who was first seen playing the monster in ‘Frankenstein’.’The Invisible Man’  another James Whale directed film,, and yet another wonderfully quirky James Whale directed Frankenstein film ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ ’, with ‘Lon Chaney Jr. [1906-1973] making his debut in ‘The Wolf Man’ . The final truly memorable ‘Universal Monsters’ movie to be released was ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ .
There is of course the incomparable Vincent Price [1911-1993], the ham we couldn’t eat, who made some of his best films with director Roger Corman [Born 1926]. Starting with ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ , ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ , ‘Tales of Terror’ , ‘The Premature Burial’ , ‘Tower of London’ ,’The Raven’ , ‘The Haunted Palace’ , ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’ , and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ , many adaptations of Edgar Alan Poe’s short stories. Also Price took the leading role in the fabulously stylised and cultish Dr. Phibes movies ‘The abominable Dr. Phibes’  and, ‘Dr Phibes Rises again’ , directed by Robert Fuest [Born 1927]. What may have been frightening in the mid 1950’s when Hammer House of Horror inaugurated their two decade run of films giving gainful employment to horror favourites Peter Cushing [1913-1994] and Christopher Lee [1922-2015], had by the 1970’s dissolved into synthetic cheese when the original run of films came to an end. The best of which included ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ , ‘Dracula’ A.K.A. Horror of Dracula , ‘Curse of the Werewolf’  starring a young Oliver Reed, ‘The Plague of Zombies’ , and ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ , which is as much science fiction as it is horror, like the original American films ‘The Body Snatchers’ , ‘The Fly’ , and ‘The Blob’  before.
Is it a case of an escalating tolerance to terror, or an increasing inability to grasp black humour (see Andre Breton’s book ‘Black Humour’), in a case of mistaking humour for the merely sick. The line is certainly thin between the funny and the simply revolting. Being made to laugh when you do not wish to, can be a disturbing experience, like contemplating the empty void within and wondering how to fill it, before rushing to the shopping mall to fill one’s trolley with consumer goods, then returning home and vegetating in front of the television screen like the vacuous living dead zombie one hoped one wasn’t. How did the world go from the horrors of Auschwitz to the white picket fences of post war middle America? The smell of colonel Kurtz’s gardenias wafting into the house from the garden, while one caresses the ‘Blue Velvet’ of ones girlfriend’s prom dress, without being aware of the significance of these things. The silence of traumatised ex-soldiers. ‘Dickson of Dock Green’ in Britain, the friendly policeman and the sound of the ice-cream van, cricket on mown lawns of the ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’, and blue skies of ‘Victory’ above Broadcasting House. And all the while the bird twitching back and forth on its back on the window ledge outside the bedroom was alive, so the child prodded it with a pencil to help it to its feet… and its belly burst open spilling out a few hundred maggots. ‘Video Nasties’, are you still laughing at the horror?
So what happened in the genre to so alter the course of horror film and usher in the age of ‘Video Nasties’. 1968 seems to have been a pivotal year, director Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ made their cinema debuts. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ with its running thread of latent supernatural dread, compounded by Mia Farrow’s character increasingly being accused of paranoia due to her fears about her neighbours. As a study of descent into madness the film might have been brilliant if it wasn’t for the somewhat schlock ending to the film that confirms her convictions to have been true all along! A recent film that pulled off this psychological stunt with aplomb and was described by William Friedkin [Born 1935] (director of ‘The Exorcist’ ) no less, as one of the most frightening films he had ever seen is ‘The Babadook’ , surprisingly only given a 15 certificate in Britain.
The other notable film in 1968 was George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’, it was falsely believed for a time that the subtext of this film was a comment on ‘race relations’ although this misreading of the film may have caused Romero to apply subtext to his subsequent films. The casting of a black lead was merely done out of necessity. The uniqueness of Romero’s take on the tired zombie trope was to remove the supernatural voodoo element that had been present since the decidedly racist ‘White Zombie’  and to transform the cause into a viral epidemic. Again, Nietzsche proclaiming the ‘death of God’ was not an atheist in the traditional sense and Charles Darwin [1809-1882] was a religious man who wrestled with his conscience before publishing ‘On the Origin of Species’ . A complete lack of faith in not just God, but more over in an afterlife has been more than two centuries in the making. The average viewer of horror films probably watches them with little fear of the ‘eternal damnations of hell’, the supernatural to these fans of the genre is possibly simply fantasy to them, to be shrugged off. Rather it is the human threat which is paramount, the slashing, stabbing killer who brings in his murderous toolkit the anxiety of total annihilation.
It is not on moral grounds that I detest the majority of ‘Video Nasties’ but rather on grounds of their lack of visual artfulness. The only thing that redeems many of these films in any sense at all is most often the phenomenal soundtrack scores, many of which are avant-garde orchestral or electronic, possibly both, kin to library music or progressive in the rock sense. Director Jorge Grau’s [Born 1930] ‘The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue’  has an incredible score that was almost certainly an influence on Goblin’s score for the Dario Argento [Born 1940] film ‘Suspiria’ , possibly one of the most terrifying albums ever produced. Although the visuals of most ‘Video Nasties’ are dated by the fashion, decor, architecture, and the special effects of the time, if it is near impossible for visual art to transcend its time is the same true of music? Surely the highest, most plastic, fleeting, of art forms is immune to the criticisms directed at the visual arts, or is it also damned by the march of time, the even, constant beat of the metronome. When one listens to Bach is one projected back to the age of the baroque? Is one simply being subjected to the counter point? And if the baroque is limited by the constraints of counter point, then the Ancient Greeks must have been constrained within their time by the limits of the tetrachord. One must hear while one reads H. P. Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Music of Eric Zann’ in an eternally strange state of cosmic chaotic awareness, the sound of vacuous luminosity. Whereas Arnold Schoenberg’s [1874-1951] atonal music is simply the soundtrack to Expressionism dating itself by association, likewise Richard Wagner [1813-1883] lies chained up on the floor of the dungeon in Herman Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’ , “…a product of his time…” in the words of Mozart in the novel.
Jake (Iakovos)  and Dinos (Konstantinos)  Chapman’s art is the epitome of such a revised Romanticism, imminently nihilistic that it is. This connection to a certain past event, i.e. the revelations of Nazi atrocities in the closing weeks of the Second World War, and the liberation of death camps such as Auschwitz, like ‘Video Nasties’ Jake and Dinos Chapman’s art is ‘Post-Modern’ inflected as it is with Gothic Horror, but then Mary Shelly [1797-1857] was among the Romantics, and Victor Frankenstein’s castle was along the Rhine in Germany, the land of ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales’ , so Horror was always present, the ugly twin of Romanticism, locked in the attic or chained in the dungeon. It would seem this festering corpse of a movement simply refuses to die, but Romanticism with a capital ‘R’ is also romanticism with a small ‘r’, and if one kills off one, one kills off the other, it is an harlot and a rogue (see 2. Dualism, Holism & Love Within Space and Time: the ancient Greek words for love, ‘Philia’ and ‘Erds’). It would seem we have our answer to the nature of the beast in the dungeon, its time is here and now, it hypnotically beguiles then boasts of gross exploits behind ones back, it professes innocents with one face whilst slandering with the other, in short it is vice and it is as old as the name of Pandora, as is the Chapman’s art. As I have already stated it is NOT for moral reasons I reject the majority of ‘video nasties’ (every sane human knows to commit murder is wrong) but rather a question of taste (or questionable taste) after all if Lucifer has such ‘wealth and taste’ why does he surround himself with the ‘shit’ of Hell, and is bad art made relevant by dubious politics? It would seem that for some on the political left, having watched ‘Video Nasties’ on VHS tapes during the Thatcher administration is viewed as a ‘badge of honour’ before many were either banned or heavily edited, then given censorship ratings. Is it a ‘badge of honour’ or is it simply that some hide in the wings of Cronos, making an appearance when they believe it is appropriate to claim their dubious ‘moral’ victory. Why is it that these same self serving people claim kinship with those ‘beneath the underdog’? We now turn to ‘The Williams Report’ of 1979, with amendments 1981, to discover why censorship was deemed necessary in Britain.
The author of the report, Bernard Williams [1929-2003] was a moral philosopher and husband to the politician Shirley Williams [Born 1930], there now follows an outline of some of the preliminary findings of ‘The Williams Report on Obscenity and Film Censorship’ (published as: Bernard Williams – Obscenity and Film Censorship; 1979, 1981; Cambridge University Press). The 1973 ORC survey asked what the general public found indecent amongst three images, none of which would have been called into question at the time by the law. Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’, 7 percent found it indecent ; A costume sketch of a reclining nude for ‘Scheherazade’ by Leon Baskt, 30 percent found it indecent; The front cover to ‘Men Only’, 28 percent found it indecent. Further there was no consensus between opinion polls such as the 1973 ORC survey and the 1979 Gallup poll. It was found before ruling out this method for acquiring data that those questioned could be influenced by demeanour, environment etc. therefore supplying distorted answers to questions. Rather opinions were sought by specific interest groups who fielded written responses. The definition for the “deprave and corrupt” test as Bernard Williams calls it in the report was supplied by the famous case involving D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in 1961:
To ‘deprave’ means to make morally bad, to pervert, to debase or corrupt morally. To ‘corrupt’ means to render unsound or rotten, to destroy the moral purity or chastity of, to pervert or ruin a good quality, to debase, to defile.
The “indecent or obscene” test is considered more straight forward as it already had fixed dictionary definitions. The certificates used since 1970 were: “U” – passed for general exhibition; “A” – passed for general exhibition, but parents / guardians are advised that the film contains material they might prefer their children under fourteen not to see; “AA” – passed as suitable only to persons fourteen and over. When a programme includes an AA film, no person under fourteen may be permitted; “X” – passed as suitable only for exhibition to adults. When a programme includes an X film, no persons under eighteen may be admitted. The film ‘Manson’ was refused a certificate in the early 1970’s because the British Board of Film Censors believed it portrayed the Californian followers of Charles Manson in a “dangerously seductive way”. The 1971 films ‘Straw Dogs’, and ‘Clockwork Orange’ however were also given X certificates, as eventually was ‘The Language of Love’ (although it had been subject to unsuccessful proceedings for indecency and was originally denied a certificate in 1973). Films that failed to receive certificates at that time were Just Jaeckin’s ‘The Story of O’, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s [1922-1975] ‘Salo’, Nagisa Oshima’s [1932-2013] ‘Empire of the Senses (Ai No Corrida), and Louis Malle’s [1932-1995] ‘Pretty Baby’. The passing of Sam Peckinpah’s [1925-1984] ‘Straw Dogs’, Stanley Kubrick’s [1928-1999] ‘Clockwork Orange’, and although not mentioned in the report Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ brought the British Board of Film Censors under attack. The local government act 1972 passed licensing functions from County Councils to District Councils. However there was still criticism that such powers of censorship be held by local authorities. It was therefore the conviction of those involved in the ‘William’s Report on Obscenity and Film Censorship’ that the film censorship system needed to be reformed.
The main conclusions of the report come in the following three paragraphs. Because of the control over film content through censorship, there is rarely need for the law to act on charges of “obscenity and indecency“; there is prior restraint combined with extra-legal control. Is this necessary or desirable? There were few objections to this form of censorship, as cinemas are granted what can legally be shown with no criminal repercussions. The majority of countries in Western Europe at that time censored not just what children may see but also adults; the exceptions (at the time the report was written) being Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, that have no restrictions on what adults may view. It was believed by the report that prior censorship was necessary for a medium such as film that ‘penetrates’ deeper into society than theatre for instance. Extreme violence constitutes a problem in film that does not arise in printed literature. Reading a magazine, watching a live show and viewing a film are three disparate experiences. There should therefore be different standards of control for these separate activities. There were grounds therefore to accept pre-censorship of films. The argument was secured for some of the panel at least by the nature of the material that censorship presently interferes. For those that express liberal concerns about adult freedom to choose, the report panel were previously unaware of the sadistic nature of the material that some film makers were prepared to produce. “Films that exploit a taste for torture and violence do raise further, and disturbing questions.” As of the date of publication of the the report, there was no suggested evidence that demonstrated a convincing link between media violence and violence in society. However that was due to the poor experimental research at the time. It was believed by the report that it is better to exercise caution in the case of harmful activity (i.e. other than sex) and Dr. Guy Cumberbatch believed there should be restrictions on the portrayal of violence.
The following segment is quoted in its entirety from the report, it is not just the extremity of the violence but it’s very nature that impacted on the report:
“We found it extremely disturbing that highly explicit depictions of mutilation, savagery, menace and humiliation should be presented for the entertainment of an audience in a way that appeared to emphasise the pleasures of sadism. Indeed, some of the film sequences seemed to have no purpose or justification other than to reinforce or sell the idea that it can be highly pleasurable to inflict injury, pain or humiliation (often in a sexual context) on others. Film in our opinion is a uniquely powerful instrument: the close up, fast cutting, the sophistication of modern makeup and special effects techniques, the heightening effect of sound effects and music, all combine on the large screen to produce an impact that no other medium can create. It may be that this very graphically presented sadistic material serves only as a vivid object of fantasy, and does no harm at all. There is certainly no evidence to the contrary. But there is no conclusive evidence in favour of that belief, either, and in this connection it seems entirely sensible to be cautious. If displacement or abreaction theories could be shown to be true, that hold that the arousal of aggressive or sadistic reactions by fantasy material tends to displace those motivations from the real world and discharge them, then there would be an argument for showing these films (indeed for encouraging them). But we have not been convinced by any such theory, and in fact no expert witness has put such a theory to us, except in the most qualified form. This being so, we are more impressed by the consideration that the extreme vividness and immediacy of film may make it harder rather than easier for some who are attracted to sadistic material to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.” (B. Williams – Obscenity and film Censorship; 1979, 1981; Cambridge University Press. pp.194)
The report panel’s conclusion was that it was inconvenient to have a local system of censorship control, as producers, distributors and exhibitors find it commercially inconvenient to have certain films blocked in various pockets within the country. Local censorship was rejected by various societies including: the Free Church Federal Council, the Catholic Social Welfare Commission, the National Festival of Light, the Progressive League, the Police Federation, the National Council of Women, the British Youth Council, and the Law Society. It was believed that in a country as small as Britain, it would only take a short journey to a neighbouring district to watch a restricted film. However the cities of Bradford, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle Upon Tyne were Metropolitan authorities who joined the association of District Councils in stressing the importance of the local option. The local option was also supported by the British Board of Film Censors as it was believed by them that the local community would best understand what standards they wished to be maintained in their respective communities. This option it was believed would also allow for grass roots feeling in the country along the lines of local tastes and that central control from London was not desirable. However for reasons already stated, the efficacy of local censorship was rejected in favour of the nationwide approach. The Nationwide Festival of Light blamed the then present British Board of Film Censors for a breakdown in the control of films, that in the last ten years (from date of initial report) extreme violence and pornography in the cinema had touched “almost inconceivable depths“. Although the report’s panel did not necessarily agree with the Nationwide Festival of Light it was understood that the modest censorship exorcised by the British Board of Film Censors appeared to be folly in that it demanded minor inconsequential cuts in films. It wasn’t believed by the report that the British Board of Film Censors were unfit to continue the job of censorship. It was noted that the British Board of Film Censors was originally set up by the film industry and was an independent body, however bias on their part with respect to their preference for local censorship was dismissed by ‘The Williams Report’. It was a requirement of the panel that censorship be maintained. How would it be legally enforceable if it was left in the hands of an independent body with no recourse to local authority or government? Therefore it was the report panel’s verdict that a new centralised governmental board of censors should be set up to replace the then present system. The new body would be called the Film Examining Body.
It does not seem an unreasonable leap of judgement at that particular period of time, with the recent findings of ‘The Williams Report on Obscenity and Film Censorship’ to extend the findings to all ‘explicitly graphic material’ that is judged “indecent or obscene” and may “deprave and corrupt” the public. Material denied adults at the cinema, of an unregulated nature, unedited and uncertified found it’s way to VHS film tapes, which were readily available to minors. The directors of ‘Video Nasties’ that came of age around the game changing ‘The Exorcist’ of 1973 increasingly outbid each other in their attempts to shock viewers out of their ‘wits’, many of these films posses no subtext or metaphor, that is in the least recognisable and would possibly make them intellectually rewarding within their plots (many have either weak, inane or practically no plot at all). At best they can be said to portray a sly sense of black humour such as the movies of Wes Craven [1939-2015]. Again what within the horror genre is visually of artistic merit and what is simply gratuitous schlock of no conceivable value? As already noted much of the music is indeed ‘Artful’, strip the music of its visuals and many of the soundtracks lose their power, though not all of them. Many of the ‘Video Nasties’ were churned out on relatively low budgets. Many were made by directors whom specialised in the horror genre, who perhaps ventured out of the genre when conditions were right, but again, not all of them. Like so much ‘Art’ it seems to rest on the subjective taste of the individual, but is this really so?
The Nazis brought symmetry into disrepute, with their culturally exaggerated excess of it, in the process they vulgarised the essence of beauty. After the event of the Nazis, the ‘ugly twin’ was gradually allowed out of the attic and then given freedom of the house, then allowed out of the house, and now has the same freedoms as the ‘beautiful twin’, it is probably only a matter of time when one is mistaken for the other. In the case of these ‘hypothetical’ twins, the ‘beautiful twin’ is indeed morally uncorrupted, in a jaded society this is considered ‘dull, boring’ her symmetry of mind and spirit derided, where as the ‘ugly twin’ is morally depraved and is considered ‘thrilling, exciting’, her haphazard, twisted logic admired as intelligent. For how much longer can we escalate the visual depravity, for the time must eventually come when we reach a plateau, a time when watching close-ups of rotting, writhing, living corpses being devoured by a multitude of ravenous maggots sped up and slowed down with an endless sequence of rapid cuts, whilst young children urinate on them laughing to the sound-tracked score of cosmic chaos itself, streamed directly into every room of your house, will simply not be enough to satisfy the certain morbid lusts of “young Alex”!
We in Klondike admire John carpenter [Born 1948] and his all round artistic vision, creating the film scores to his movies ‘Dark Star’  a science fiction comedy and his directorial debut. ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ . ‘Halloween’  certainly didn’t introduce audiences to the ‘psycho killer’ (think, Michael Powell’s [1905-1990] ‘Peeping Tom’ [May,1960] and Alfred Hitchcock [1899-1980] ‘Psycho’ [September,1960]) however Michael Myers character, as featureless as his rubber mask breathed ‘new life’ into the genre, ‘The Fog’ , and ‘Escape from New York’  to name a few, with the aid of Alan Howarth [Born 1944], the music stands free of the visuals as interesting in itself. A horror director we truly admire here in Klondike is David Cronenberg [Born 1943] whom has largely used the composer Howard Shore for his movie scores, from his film debut ‘Stereo’ , through films such as the Stephen King adaptation ‘The Dead Zone’  and ‘Videodrome’  to ‘Dead Ringers’ , ‘Naked Lunch’ , ‘Crash’ , and ‘Exiztence’  Cronenberg has filled his films with intriguing metaphor and subtext, on a variety of subjects such as technology and disease, if only all horror cinema was this intelligent
One can not leave this subject without a nod to the Italians, Lucio Fulci [1927-1996] seems to have brought out the best in his musical collaborators, such as Walter Rizzati on the score for ‘The House by the Cemetery’ . Although it is Fabio Frizzi [Born 1951] who is probably the best known collaborator, and justly so, most notably scoring the soundtracks to ‘Zombi Flesh Eaters’ , ‘City of the Living Dead’ , and ‘The Beyond’ . It is without a doubt, that the greatest collaboration in Italian horror films was that between director Dario Argento and the progressive rock band Goblin, and the undoubted masterpiece they produced for the film ‘Suspiria’ . Complete with some of the creepiest vocals you will ever hear, this album runs (after you). ‘Suspiria’ is part of an incomplete trilogy, the other completed part being ‘Inferno’ . The plot is somewhat weak (although need I point out life doesn’t read like a novel, there really is no plot, unless of course you are a scheming psychopath), but Dario Argento takes style over substance to new levels. A young American dancer travels to Germany to complete her studies at a ballet school just outside the Black Forest. Soon two of her companions are murdered in the first gruesome but disturbingly beautifully choreographed scene, whilst she is gradually drawn into a witches coven. This film is indeed captivating, something as vicious as murder surely shouldn’t be admired for its beauty; yet somehow beautiful it is. The vacuous, nihilistic nature of the act, or worse yet, committed in a soul voided state of hate, the product should be vile, and the effect upon the viewer certainly disturbing. However it has admirers in people who don’t even necessarily like horror films on the whole. The only other films I can think of that could garner similar admiration for style, are Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’  based on the Aldous Huxley’s[1894-1963]] book ‘The Devils of Loudun’ , which although somewhat scary, I’m not sure it qualifies as a horror film. However Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ based on the Stephen King novel of the same name is a masterclass in film making, with its overstated stylishness (an attribute it shares with ‘The Devils’), Jack Nicholson’s [Born 1937] character’s descent into madness (Nicholson actually exercising his acting muscle for once), the large hotel retreat built on a Native American burial site and the young son Danny’s ability at extra sensory perception.
If hate and violence are somewhat vacuous it is surely disturbing to add to the mix beauty, although it gives the lie to the idea of beauty in the eye of the beholder, in any visual sense, is it art for art’s sake? Ask Leatherface and he might say if he was disposed to speak: “It is some cold comfort, that there is but one exit, and his name is Death!”
If the horror genre has a future it doesn’t seem to be willingly embraced by Hollywood. With its simplistically formulated – quiet, quiet, loud! Jump out your seat scares, so succinctly termed ‘cattle prod cinema‘ by Nigel Floyd and championed by film critic and horror aficionado Mark Kermode. Rather than an endless procession of ‘bus stop’ expectations, culminating in scenes of viscerally sadistic violence, it is hoped that certain directors might be leading the way to fertile imaginative ground; not necessarily new but like the psychology of the mind itself largely unknown. One that relies on the build up of existential dread. This form of the horror genre HAS existed before, sometimes in the guise of less successful films and notable early successes such as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, and memorably in Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’  and ‘The Wicker Man’  originally shown as a double bill. Both are fine examples of slowly driving the levels of terror to their horrific conclusions. British director Ben Wheatley’s [Born 1972] ‘Kill List’ , the earliest of the recent ghoulish resurrections of ‘Weird Psychological Horror’. A film following two hit men, Jay and Gal, some time after an undisclosed event in Kiev caused an assignment to go wrong. At a dinner party thrown by Jay’s wife, Gal’s latest girlfriend Fiona, a ‘human resources’ manager, carves a symbol on the back of Jay’s bathroom looking glass and mops up the blood he spilt in a shaving accident. Jay agrees to take on a new assignment he was previously reluctant to. The client is shadowy, cutting Jay’s and ‘his’ hand to effectively sign the contract in blood. The presentation of an increasing strangeness of magic and a somewhat surreal ending to a somewhat bizarre film make it reverberate in the mind sometime after viewing. Possibly even more disturbing is Wheatley’s ‘A Field in England’ , set during the English Civil War, about an alchemist’s assistant named Whitehead, fleeing a battle and the strict Commander Trower. A rough soldier by the name of Cutler kills Trower before he can catch Whitehead, and in turn Whitehead meets up with two other deserters, drunkard Jacob and mentally challenged Friend. Cutler entices the group with thoughts of an alehouse only to lead them to a field encircled by mushrooms. Cutler cooks some of the mushrooms and forces all but the compliant Whitehead to consume them. From a wooden pike in the field they haul up the Irishman O’Neill from the ground. O’Neill is a rival alchemist to Whitehead’s master and had stolen documents from him. He quickly asserts his authority over the group and tells the group of treasure in a nearby field, and the film continues in this vein gradually becoming stranger and more disturbing.
Another British director Peter Strickland and his second film ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ . Centered around a sound engineer Gilderoy, played by actor Toby Jones, who arrives at the Berberian Sound Studio to lay down the sound effects for a film that turns out to be much to his shock and disgust an Italian giallo movie called ‘The Equestrian Vortex’. Using various vegetables (remember Stevie Wonder’s ‘The Secret Life of Plants’?) to create sound effects for the film’s increasingly explicit scenes of violence. The studio employees become ever more aggressively hostile, and Gilderoy’s escalating disconnectedness from his environment lead to his mental deterioration, to the point where he imagines himself actually living out the plot of ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, whilst being now fluent in Italian! As already mentioned ‘The Babadook’  Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut, is a highly successful psychological horror story. The elements of the movie remind one of Terry Gilliam’s [Born 1940] somewhat scary ‘Jabberwocky’  film whose title was taken from the poem in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’  and one is somewhat reminded by the imaginative visuals of Expressionist cinema. Amelia Vanek (think of the Gothic novel ‘Vathek’) has to raise her son Samuel (surprising how often this particular name is used in these pictures!) single-handedly after the father dies in a car crash during Sam’s birth. Sam starts to display erratic behaviour: Insomnia and an ‘imaginary’ monster which he develops weapons to defend himself from. Soon after Sam asks Amelia to read to him from a pop-up book, due possibly to increased ‘paranoia’ Amelia rips up the book. However after an incident where another child is injured the book reapers on the doorstep reassembled and the existential dread increases from there on in.
American director Robert Eggers’ [Born 1983] brilliant debut ‘The Witch’ , set in 17th century New England, William and his family, wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin and son Caleb are banished from a Puritan plantation due to differences in interpretation of the New Testament. Katherine gives birth to a fifth child Samuel (lots of Samuels in these stories!), Thomasin is playing peekaboo with the child when he disappears. Revealed to have been kidnapped by a witch who crushed his body to a pulp to make a flying ointment (and there was me thinking witches used Fly Agaric “Aminita Muscaria” mushrooms!) Stranger, a talking goat called Black Philip that the children converse with who turns out to be a darkly handsome man. The failure of the crops possibly infected with Ergot could be the source of hallucinations. There is also ‘Get Out’ , although there is not the same psychological doubt as to the nature of reality in an hallucinatory way, instead dealing with racial issues in a nightmare scenario, Jordan Peele’s [Born 1979] directorial debut is about a black photographer Chris Washington who reluctantly agrees to meet the family of white girlfriend Rose Armitage, whose parents and brother make disturbing comments to Chris from the get go about black people; the blacks in the film are strangely compliant and the effect and mounting terror of the situation make for a satisfying if troubling movie.
If this ‘new’ breed of imaginative ‘Weird Psychological Horror’ and yes you heard correctly, it is horror, (just not what audiences are used to), takes hold, then the future of the genre is assured an intelligent audience. The other option is the continued use of ‘cattle prods’ to guide the sheep through the ‘slaughter house’!
© 2017 Grisly In Klondike / Psilowave All rights reserved
Part one of Grisly In Klondike’s Enchanting The Universe can be accessed here: 1. Order, Psyche, Insanity And Chaos
Part two of Grisly In Klondike’s Enchanting the Universe can be accessed here: 2. Dualism, Holism And The Psychology Of Love In Time And Space
Part three of Grisly In Klondike’s Enchanting the Universe can be accessed here: 3. Projecting Will In The Koinos Kosmos