To Tie Firmly

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020)

It may be, of course, that I read Rebecca years and years ago — I know I started it and I studied the opening paragraph, the dream of the Manderley mansion from years later, but I’m not sure I got much further. And when I bought two Du Maurier boxsets, I don’t think Rebecca was part of them. It took me a while to track down a copy — although naturally I found several since, as a battered paperback 1992 reprint got more battered as it got carried around.

The conceit should be familiar: lady’s companion Rebecca meets aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and the two have a whirlwind romance, before returning to the ancestral pad in … where we take to be Cornwall but it isn’t named in the book. The new bride finds life at Manderley difficult and the ghost of the dead Rebecca hangs over her, especially through the behaviour of housekeeper Mrs Danvers. A ball would be useful, perhaps, but Mrs Danvers persuades her to wear the same costume as Rebecca had and then it seems as if a wedge has been driven between the loving couple. Then a body is discovered in a sunken boat… Continue reading →

The Lighthouse Keeper’s World is Round

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)

A curious psychological horror, which begins in the Empire Marketing Board zone of Drifters and goes via Knife in the Water to A Field in England, with the Total Bollocks Overdrive cranked up to twelve and then cranked up further.

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The Dead Don’t Do Subtext

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch, 2019)

Jim Jarmusch is evidently one of those low budget indie auteur who both builds an ensemble around him and persuades A-List stars in search of artistic credibility to work for him (presumably for scale). A couple of years ago he cast the divine Tilda Swinton in a misjudged vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive and now he shifts to the zombie film to pastiche.

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Old Red Eyes is Back

Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005)

So the original plan was to watch a film that wasn’t work-related – Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) – but that started skipping and so I went back to the Wes Craven pile I’ve been working through and should have written up but haven’t. Of course, this is a late entry in the oeuvre and I need to check out whether this or Cursed (2005) came out first. These were his penultimate non-Scream franchise movies.

I’m interested in these as works of an auteur and so the point is I suppose that this is thriller rather than horror, although it has hints of the home invasion horror that Craven began with in The Last House on the Left (1972). Craven was arguably the director who introduced the supernatural into the slasher, but he didn’t need it here or in many of his early films. Unusually, too, there is no playing around with reality and fantasy, although comic relief receptionist Cynthia (Jayma Mays) is wandering through a nightmare shift.

So we have Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), a nervous flier on her way home to Miami from her grandmother’s funeral, making phone calls to an over protective dad, the great Brian marked-for-death Cox; you know it can’t end well. She strikes up a brief relationship with blue-eyed Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) – indeed the film could have been called blue eyes – who turns out to be part of a plot to kill deputy Homeland Security guy Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia). She must move him into a suite where he can be assassinated or her father gets it. Most of the film is in the claustrophobic confines of the plane.

So, relatively common for Craven, we have a female lead – although at first you wonder whether she couldn’t fight back a little more. The decks seem stacked against her, but that’s the way the plot works. She comes good in the end, although (spoiler) she is denied the pay off.

There is a political subtext – the evils of the Homeland security – but oddly the film comes down on the side of them and the villains are mostly unseen and ill-defined off screen machinators. Should we see it as a critique of the TSA that the characters are so able to move on and off of aeroplanes, even on a domestic flight? The earlier Craven would have had a bit sharper teeth, but this is Amblin after all.

The families are less ambivalent than usual – the Keefe family seem adorable and whilst Lisa’s parents are split up, daddy seems nice if overprotective. Again, earlier films have critiqued the family, and in the avenging family there is a question of whether eye for eye justice is justified.

The climax, despite a largely unnecessary return to the hotel, is at the family home, mid remodelled, and somewhere along the line there is the sense of the uncanny as the familiar and he forgotten. The place of refuge and safety turns into a trap – Lisa moves from locking out into locking in. The police, obviously, can’t help as usual, and justice has to be personal. Her weapons are improvised – whilst villains have guns and knives, she has chairs and fire extinguishers and hockey sticks but an inexplicable failure to kick anyone in the balls. And, as I say, patriarchy reasserts itself.

I’m glad I’ve ticked this off the list, but it’s a by the numbers slick thriller with some nice touches.

Making the Green One Red

Teaching across several modules brings about odd juxtapositions. And that is especially so of Laughing Matters and Horror.

This week, I was lecturing on the Comedy of Remarriage, using Stanley Cavell’s (problematic) Pursuits of Happiness, where (drawing on Northrop Frye) he discusses the green space that characters go to in romantic comedies to work through the chaotic phase of desires. Obviously this goes back at least as far as A Midsummers Night’s Dream and the forests around Athens, but it comes right up Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Montauk Beach. Cavell notes that in three or four of the comedies of remarriage he discusses the space is called Connecticut (“this locale is called Connecticut. Strictly speaking, in The Lady Eve the place is called ‘Conneckticut,’ and it is all but cited as a mythical location, since nobody is quite sure how you get there, or anyway how a lady gets there.” I’m assuming it was a location where people thought they could get quicky marriages just outside of New York.

Meanwhile, with a certain amount of trepidation, on the Horror module I showed The Last House on the Left as a video nasty, a film that was only passed uncut in the UK as recently as 2008. I suspect the three students that showed up found it tame… Robin Wood argues “The reason people find the violence in Last House so disturbing is not that there is so much of it, nor even that it is so relentlessly close and immediate in presentation. It is these three positions – the position of victim, the position of violator, the position of righteous  avenger – and the interconnections among them that Last House on the Left dramatizes.” Martin Barker suggests “The film puts us on the side of a sense of the characters’ failure. There is no hope in their world. There is no one in the film who can be our point of view”. To me one aspect of horror is what it makes “nice” people do (compare the end of Let the Right One In) and the estranging impact of the sound track.

The basic narrative is one about two (sexualised, drinking) teenagers who go to the city for a concert and are kidnapped by the quasi-family of criminaks they’ve attempted to score drugs off. The two are sexually assaulted and raped, with one killed and the other left for dead. And then, in a twist of fate that bekongs in Dickens or a fairy tale, the criminal’s end up with one of the teen’s parents and revenge is taken.

The parents live in Connecticut.

I’m not saying that The Last House on the Left is a romantic comedy but…

Just as Craven’s film disturbs with its comic relief, so there is a dark side to the romantic comedy. I suspect — it’s been a while since I studied the period — that some attention has been paid to the sexual politics of the seductions of Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention Titania. Someone, I think Laraine Porter but it might be Frances Grey, notes the gender imbalances of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, where women are more likely to be exposed to sexual violence in a period of sexual licentiousness and suspended rules. No must not be deconstructed.

But it brings me back again to a sense of how comedy can be subversive and conservative, horror can be subversive and conservative and comedy and horror are a flea’s bite apart.

Incredulity Towards Metanightmares

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher — the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… none of whom go to the cinema to see slasher films. Craven, finally, is allowed to visit his idea of a Pomo slasher and puts Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund and John Saxon at the heart of a movie about making an Elm Street style film, with a real Krueger going after the cast and crew. Alongside actors playing themselves, we have Craven as Craven and Robert Shaye as Robert Shaye and no doubt best boys playing best boys. As far as one can see, Langenkamp is better as Langenkamp than as Nancy, and Englund plays affable character actor troubled by nightmares.

Yes, it is clever and we have some more spectacular deaths, as well as further cameos from actors we probably last saw in the franchise. John Saxon as father figure melds into Thompson’s father and the original footage of A Nightmare on Elm Street is folded into the film. There is a sense of biting that hand that feeds them — dangerous with those metal nails — and possibly those actors would have gone to greater things than most of them did without the Elm Street resume. 

To the extent that Pomo is radical rather than neoconservative it is fun and interesting and at least foregrounds the cynicism of film franchises, but now the final girl is the final mother, kicking slasher butt because she is the lioness protecting her cub. We’ve neatly been prepared for the denouement by the telling of Hansel and Gretel, and the script plays into the generic  imperative of the open ending. 

There’s No Place Like Elm Street

“Welcome to Prime Time, bitch.”

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (Rachel Talalay, 1991)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… and every so often one has to find a new set of teens to slash and eventually decided that an origin myth is needed. Or another origin myth.

What’s new about this film? It’s directed by a woman. This shouldn’t be an issue but there aren’t a whole lot of female directors for some reason. There’s an unfortunate almost collision between the bitch allusion title screen and this being A Rachel Talalay Film. I’d noticed the b-word being thrown around in the previous film and the language here is sweary. Talalay had been production manager on the first two Nightmare films, went on to Tank Girl (1995) and has reached the giddy heights of directing two Doctor Who episodes.

So, all the teenage kids of those who killed Freddy being killed, Krueger has now gone after all the other teens in town, with only one left in Springfield (was the town named before? I’m not sure.) The last teenager is escaping by plane, John Doe (Shon Greenblatt, how about that for Renaissance self-fashioning) and finds himself sucked out through a hole in the roof before awaking in a house that is in midair á la Wizard of Oz. Never knowingly underplaying a reference, Krueger (Robert Englund) does his wacky witch impression. Doe, having left the house next to the Thompson’s, in knocked out and amnesiac on the outskirts of town. Just as the manner of the killings in inexplicable save in terms of spectacle, so his survival is inexplicable, although this lacks spectacle.

Doe is taken to that other space that ideology send those who have not fitted into bourgeois family, the children’s home, home to the hearing impaired Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan), the drug-using Spencer (Breckin Meyer) and the sexually-abused Tracy (Lezlie Dean). One of the case worker, Maggie (Lisa Zane), with nightmares of her own, takes Doe back into town with the three teens stowing away. It turns out that there are no teens in town — the children’s home has missed this somehow — and, even worse, Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold cameo.

Freddy is back, clearly, with thus four more potential victims, but it is a sign of the depths to which the series has sunk that Carlos being stalked without hearing aid is played for laughs rather than menace. Johnny Depp, cameoing from the first film, gets to do an anti drugs message, the height of hypocrisy on the part of the film on acknowledging its post-Craven conservatism. Back at the home, no one seems to have heard of the three teens and Yaphet Kotto brings a much needed gravitas to the film as someone who tries to control his dream.

Unmentioned in the earlier films, it now turns out that Freddie had a child who was taken away from him and is part of the reason he is behaving so badly. Talk about over determination. The answer is to travel into hell and 3D effects and bring him back into reality where he can be killed. But by now we know that that second death is impossible — any death is temporary when it suits the plot. Or the studio, for that matter. Watch this space for daddy’s return.

And What She Found There

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Renny Harlin, 1988)

Popular culture relies on repetition with difference and there is perhaps no subgenre that is quite so repetitive as the slasher – the crime in the past, the discrete/isolated setting, the gender ambiguous and curiously mobile villain and their double the gender ambiguous final girl, the increasing number of unmissed teen victims… except here one of them notices that they’re dropping like flies.

Of course this begins with spoilers — three of the original children of the parents that killed Freddy survive from Part III — Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), Joey (Rodney Eastman) and Kirsten (Tuesday Knight — replacing Patricia Arquette, who has presumably gone off to solve the civil rights problem) — and these three have to be removed for the plot to develop. I wonder if this was an inspiration for David Fincher and Alien3? Meanwhile Robert Englund gets pushed to top of the bill and given more lines. Here he is on the turn from evil villain to Arnie-style quipping antihero. He’s brought back to (un)life by a dog pissing on his skeleton — there’s an allegory there if you look for it. The dog is called Jason, because we can do intertextuality.

This is more clearly a 1980s film — big hair, pounding rock soundtrack, rap interjected into the closing credits, ray bans, nods to Jaws and motorbikes, as well as calls backs to the 1950s and a diner with a jukebox and Reefer Madness on the neighbourhood cinema. In the scripting corner we have to blame William Kotzwinkle — a novelist who had done an ET novelisation and sequel — Brian Helgeland, who is showing none of the talent you’d imagine would produce LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) and Scott Pierce (Jim and Ken Wheat, hiding under pseudonym). Apparently Helgelund wrote the script in a week. That long? They are clearly pushing the dream logic, as the characters’ deaths become more and more extreme. Kincaid is killed in the car graveyard where Krueger was buried, whereas Joey is drowned in his waterbed, seduced by a woman of his dreams, having not learnt from the seductive nurse monster of Part III.

There are plenty more teenagers Krueger can go after — an asthmatic moped rider, a sexy boy, a female weightlifter with big hair who turns into an insect… And then there’s Alice (Lisa Wilcox), Kirsten’s new best friend since she returned to the school from the asylum. Having watched or sensed her friends die, she finally fights back by breaking her way through the mirror; “Welcome to Wonderland!” cries Freddy, because by now we’re too brain dead to spot the reference. Having collected mementoes of her dead friends, she can imbibe all of their skills and fight back — and at last we have girl kicking demonic ass, in an anticipation of Buffy (whose filmic introduction was four years away). She (spoiler) wins…

… but the generic imperative wins out and we see a familiar reflection.

Lots of the teens here smoke — marking them for death — and there’s plenty of gratuitous nudity and more swearing here than the other films put together. Teens sneak out of upstairs bedrooms as if the film is parodying the genre. I suspect it is — clearly well enough to gain the highest box office of the sequence until Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003).

Oh, Cysp

Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)
Most years I show Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) as an example of a slasher film, but this year I noticed the likely date for a screening and it was only appropriate to show Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980).

Er, Friday the 13th.

Already the mould has become solidified – a range of teens, largely played by unknowns, are picked off one by one, leaving the final girl to fight back. On the one hand, this figure is a feminist rôle model as figure of identification, as active rather than passive, as complicating standard gender archetypes. On the other hand, she’s infantilised as a girl and her fight back extends the duration of the sadism directed at her.

The prologue here is the murder of a couple of teen fornicators at Camp Crystal Lake in 1958 by an unseen assailant, although the real fall is a drowned child from 1957. Two decades later – June 1979 or July 1980, although neither date is a full moon – Annie (Robbi Morgan) is hitchhiking her way to the reopening camp. This can’t end well, although there’s a neat bit when she misgenders a dog.

The real final girl is Alice, non-gendered at a push (Alice Cooper?), first seen chopping wood and doing DIY and resisting the advances of the slightly creepy Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer). Her fellow camp counsellors are killed off one-by-one, the women as spectacles-in-dying, the men more spectacles-as-corpses. Nobody sees nothing. But all the others had sex or drank or smoked – a young Kevin Bacon doing all three.

Should I be coy four decades on? Whereas in proto-slasher Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), the protagonist channels his mother, here the repetition-with-difference of popular culture sees the pattern reversed. Whereas in Halloween we see Michael Myers and see him seeing, here the slasher is kept offscreen. The film does not play fair – we neither have the thrill of deducing the villain and eliminating red herrings nor of watching a Columbo figure get their man. Is Christy a nod to Christie, she of Marple and Poirot and much more?

The opening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) references Richard Nixon in the soundtrack – a news broadcast – here a character describes someone as having the worst run of luck since Richard Nixon. Did Nixon have bad luck though? I think he was largely the architect of his own downfall.

A Plague on Both Your Tin Mines

The Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966)

The first zombie movie was released in 1968 – this must be true, as I heard this on the radio several times last year (and an article doesn’t quite say it ). So clearly I hallucinated this DVD of a 1966 film I encountered as I work my way through the Ultimate Hammer Boxset. (Although, let it be said, that this boxset is far from ultimate as boxsets go.)

There is a reasonably familiar horror/Hammer narrative. People from London travel to remote village full of suspicious locals and disturbing events. Rather than the bloodsucking vampires of the Dracula films, we have blooddraining zombie masters, and the incomers are a London-based doctor (André Morell) and his daughter (Diane Clare), responding to a letter from a local GP (Brook Williams) about a mysterious plague. Rather than a mittel-European village, surrounded by not even trying day-for-night filming, there’s a Cornish village. They are worried about incomers, just not necessarily about the right incomers.

The vampire narrative is easy to read in Marxist terms, indeed, Marx explicitly writes about capitalists sucking blood and surplus labour/profit being undead. “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” he writes in Capital, elsewhere he discusses “British industry, which, vampire like, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too.” Engels adds, “But here, too, necessity will force the working-men to abandon the remnants of a belief which, as they will more and more clearly perceive, serves only to make them weak and resigned to their fate, obedient and faithful to the vampire property-holding class.“

In Plague we have peasants being turned into zombified labourers through the manipulation of blood. Perhaps to maintain heteronormativity, it’s female rather than male blood being drained. The peasants as zombified slaves are counterparted by drummers from the Caribbean, with the kind of casual racism of Hammer’s She (Robert Day, 1965).

If the real villains of the piece are the squire (John Carson) and the huntsmen, the peasants seem disturbingly disposable – it’s the professional middle classes we’re meant to be concerned for. Indeed, just like Jonathan Harker in the original Dracula, although the doctor Sir James Forbes is closer in class to Dr Seward. We’re not even that bothered about the good local doctor’s wife, Alice Mary Tompson (Jacqueline Pearce), as we know she’s going to turn into Servalan.

It perhaps should be objected that if you want an efficient workforce in your tin mine, than a zombie workforce may not be the best choice. Such has struck me before – in the various cyberslave armies in new Doctor Who somewhat ad nauseam, although that itself possibly begins with the robomen in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (21 November 1964–26 December 1964).