Craven Images

I’ve been slowly working my way through Wes Craven’s oeuvre of films because I thought he would be a good example to teach with of a horror auteur. And whilst so far there have been a fair number of stinking moments, there are a lot of interesting signatures that I’ve been picking up. There was a moment where I pondered that with showing Wes Craven’s New Nightmare as my auteur exemplar and Last House on the Left as controversy film, I should add Vampire in Brooklyn as the vampire film and maybe The People Under the Stairs to explore what horror is.

But you can get too much Craven.

I have to be careful about the original Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream tetralogy, because I’m teaching slasher films on my Popular Genres and Popular Culture module and there’s potentially student overlap next year. But in going through the material on slasher as feminist genre, I pondered if something needed updating (and ironically, I was teaching this the same day as materials on the monstrous-feminine in the horror module).

I don’t really buy slasher as feminist. I think there’s too much pleasure to be taken in the sexualised sadism against the female characters. The Final Girl is subjected to an extended ordeal. On the other hand, I can see the appeal of a screen character being more than just a victim. In the monstrous-feminine class I showed the softporn opening sequence of the original Carrie, and again I’ve heard arguments about this film’s feminist potential. But when there’s a male director filming a male scriptwriter’s adaptation of a male author’s novel,  I’m not sure how the female perspective can get into it in any entirely convincing way. (Some of the students seem not to be able to acknowledge that the full frontal nudity of the young women in the sequence might be sexualising and objectifying — even as the centra lingers in sift focus and Carrie soaps her body… Or see that this is problematic.)

So somewhere I came across the idea where the slasher  was an index of male anxieties about the role of women. I suspect I read this – but you might want to see Halloween as a response to second wave feminism. I suspect we can then trace the subgenre through reactions to new men and new lads and the antifeminist backlash and Scream is somehow in a conversation with third wave feminism. I’ve yet to sit down and trace this in any detail. Given who the victims of the slasher are, the ostensible villain is acting as the avatar of surplus repression.

Meanwhile, I rewatched Cursed and watched My Soul to Take. The former I suspect is an attempt to do for the werewolf subgenre what Scream did for the slasher. Whilst it has its moments, it obeys the first rule of virtually all werewolf movies I’ve seen: the werewolf will be a dog’s breakfast. The latter film  is a cousin to the slasher — sixteen years before the main plot some guy killed his wife and his psychiatrist and a cop or two and tried to kill the people in the ambulance and may or may not have died himself. It’s a series of set pieces and they barely make sense. He might be barking (but not in a werewolf way); he might be possessed. In the present day, the seven kids born on the same day as he died hold a ritual to face the monster, and one of them dies. 

The teenager of colour, obviously.

Although there’s also visually impaired African American.

Indeed, the teens are killed off one by one, with the twist that it may well be cute little malcontent shy geek Bug who is responsible. Who you think wouldn’t kill a fly. Or it might be his best friend Alex, who is bullied by a stepfather in a one-off scene that might well have been added late on for all I know.

My initial reaction is that it’s largely mindless by the numbers pap, although it passes ninety minutes or so.

It’s perhaps a bit early to think about this film in terms of fourth wave feminism, but I suspect here we have an example of the geek male as hero and a way of tracing the shifting patterns of hegemonic masculinity. Intriguing though Max Thieriot’s performance is — and he has to ventriloquise other characters — I think we’ve already seen the geek hero in a purer form in Jessie Eisenberg in Cursed. And whilst I need to rewatch the film at some point to focus on what Emily Meade’s character is up to, Cursed reminds me of what an interesting actor Christina Ricci appears to be. At some point though, I will need to go and look (again) at the late slasher films to see what they get up to in terms of masculinity and the flatter your audience ploy of putting the geek centre stage. 

Although, of course, in the slasher the most interesting male character tends to be the slasher “him”self.

The Dead Woman in the Attic

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

One of the songs that Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) want to play at their forty-fifth anniversary party is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. And it seems likely to — it’s filmed in a perpetually semi-foggy Norfolk, Geoff (and latterly Kate) sneak out for cigarettes and that might be a tear or two.

Theirs seems a happy marriage. Kate is a retired teacher, we learn from a tell-don’t-show conversation with her postie, Geoff is a former factory worker, slowly falling apart, whose heart condition caused their fortieth anniversary celebration to be cancelled. They have few photos of themselves and no children — but several dogs.

Then comes the bombshell. Fifty years ago, Geoff had pretended to be married to Katya, a German woman two years older than him, on a holiday in the Swiss mountains. She had fallen into a crevasse and her body has only just been found.

Kate notes that it is ridiculous to be jealous of a woman who died before they met. But still.

Indeed. Still.

Kate clearly feels haunted by Geoff’s ex (and Kate/Katya are so close as names), as the house becomes increasingly creaking and full of drafts. How much of their lives together were dependent on her not being Katya? Did they not have children because of this? And have far has Geoff been thinking of her? The mementos are in the attic — how often has he been with them? How often has he been with her? Had they slept together? Was she pregnant?

Haigh lets the camera rest on the two of them, lingering, letting us soak up the atmosphere. One or other will slide out of shot or come into view, forcing us to read faces (and sometimes silences). It’s all about reading the reaction.

Part of you may well think that she should just get over herself — why should someone he knew before her make her jealous? But, still. Did she have no boyfriends before him? But, still.

Both actors come with histories — La Caduta degli dei (The Damned, Luchino Visconti, 1969)), Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)) and Max mon amour (Nagisa Oshima, 1986) for her, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and Last Orders (Fred Schepisi, 2001) for him — and apparently he’s Corporal Jonesy in the Dad’s Army Film. I associate a certain iciness yet sexuality with her (a Nicole Kidman with talent) and a melancholia with him. The actors, bravely, give us a sex scene — which we are initially teased over by the director as the bedroom door closes — and a lot of film history has flowed under the bridge for it.

I was struck by a certain amount of Katherine Mansfield-ness about the narrative — which turns out to be based on a short story. Her epiphanies are never as earth changing as Joyce’s and always seem a little out of reach — an infinity glimpsed, a set of footsteps over your grave, something learned but immediately forgotten. What shall we do now? What shall we do?

Kate needs her exorcism — but there seems to have been a lie at the heart of their marriage that its forty-five years cannot erase. The trust is gone and yet they might be closer than ever. Her friend Lena (Geraldine James) has tried to reassure her, how it is with women and how it is with men, and there has been a life, they have had a life (with photographs) … But, still.

Haunting.

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.

Alice Doesn’t Sleep Here Anymore

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Stephen Hopkins, 1989)

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… By now we’re onto a new generation of teens — Alice (Lisa Wilcox) has been handed the baton — and since the opening sequence is a blue-tinted* sex scene with Dan (Dan Hassel) you can do your own double entendres. You’d think this would mark her for death and when she jumps in the shower that seems to be her fate, only she becomes part of a more complicated dream sequence.

There’s this thing in Jacques Lacan about being between two deaths and the impossibility of the second death. It’s a variant on what is called the death drive, although the death instinct is a better translation. Nature, according to Sade according to Lacan, demands a total anihilation. Everything must return to dust. Lacan discusses Antigone, who is bricked up alive for the crime of burying her dead brother when this was expressly forbidden (and also she’s being made to carry the can for her dad Oedipus’ shenanigans). Bro had not had the proper rites read and thus his soul cannot rest — he needs the right rites. Antigone is a kind of Schrödinger’s heroine.

Think of all those horror films when characters have been buried alive or put to death with some kind of curse or rite. Some idiot comes along and reads the rite and brings them back — the undead being then seeks revenge. The only way to sort things is out — having read the wrong rites — read the right rites, right? But you never know when someone else will come along and read them again.

So here, as the cast point out twice, Freddy Krueger has murdered children and been burnt alive, without a proper burial. His spirit cannot rest and seeks revenge until the rites are read — in Part III. Of course, Jason the dog comes along and pisses on the corpse — writing being much the same as pissing*** — and brings him back until the rites are read again in the form of the climax to Part IV. But that second death remains impossible. Freddy continues to go after Alice’s friends in baroque ways and has Dan in his sights.

Of course, he’s not the only one unshrived. Agnes Krueger, his nun mother, had been raped by lunatics at the asylum and sought peace through the end of her son in Part III. We see her haunting — even though we’ve also seen a gravestone. There is still unfinished business clearly. The mother — a distant relation of Mrs Vorhees, one assumes — is now the double to Alice as the latter finds herself pregnant with, presumably, Dan’s child. Paradoxically this makes her safer, as Freddy is using her foetus’s dreams to come back. Abortion is rejected as an option, however. Meanwhile, in dreams, Dan/Freddy seem to merge and the transformation of Freddy from bogeyman to father figure continues. (The following year, of course, Edward Scissorhands emerges as tragic hero.)

Theory aside, the film is visually impressive — with some of the dream sequences channelling M.C. Escher. The comic geek Mark Grey (Joe Seeley) seems to have reacted to nominative determinism by wearing rainbows — which one might assume was indexical of his sexuality, but for his desire for supposed potential supermodel Greta (Erika Anderson). Before we can say, “beard”, we can admire the transition from live action to comic books, but the duel rapidly turns silly. But then, of course, most of this is about the spectacle.

[I’ll paste in the Lacan reference later]

Notes

* Or white/gold.**

** This “joke” will make little sense sooner or later. It’s something about a dress and colour perception.

*** Especially when snow is involved. Cf. the excuse “I’m writing my name in Narnia.”

Heteronormativity Strikes Back

The politics of such films as Near Dark, The Silence of the Lambs, Hellraiser (I, II, and III), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula may be understood in part as emblematic of capital’s ongoing attempts at refurbishing its democratic facade by acknowledging the cynicism of the population while simultaneously emphasizing an ersatz liberalism, and by making use of a variety of progressive discourses current in academe that inevitably appear transmuted within the commercial entertainment industry.
Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television,  21(3), p. 100.

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part II: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)

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… A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) postdates the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises and adds a degree of the supernatural or fantastical which is not in the other franchises in the same way.*

Craven didn’t want to work on a sequel so we have a new director depicting a new family who have moved into the Thompsons’ house, including a teenaged boy, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton). The slasher film tends to have a female protagonist — although it can take a while for her to act — on the one hand resisting the Mulveyan male gaze structures of identification, on the other hand feeding a male sadistic gaze for violent spectacle. But here — although we do sort of get a Final Girl — there’s a male protagonist who is a Jesse.

Coughs.

Freddy Krueger is clearly an equal opportunity sadist, as happy to play with Jesse as he was with Nancy; the temperature rises in the Walsh household, their pet birds pay homage to Hitchcock, a party catches fire and a swimming pool boils. Krueger increasingly seems to be an uncontrolled id, his sadism clearly sexualised. The worrying thing for Jesse is his increasing sense that he is Freddy, that he is causing the murders.

The big set piece of the film is a nocturnal wander or dream where Jesse ends up at the town’s gay bar (with a large lesbian clientele) and bumps into the bullying Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Schneider then forces him to run laps of the gym and take a shower; meanwhile the coach is attacked by a load of balls in his office, dragged to the shower by skipping ropes, strung up and slashed to death. Jesse finds Freddy’s glove on his hand. What is Jesse’s dark secret?

The whole is homoerotic, seasoned with BDSM and homosexual panic, with Jesse clearly as a confused teen. Frederik Dhaenens suggests that “the film deconstructs how heteronormativity
disciplines individuals who experience same-sex desires, [but] it depends upon its audiences to read this film in terms of queer resistance. Furthermore, by victimizing the potentially gay boy, it reinstates the heterosexual male as the real hero” (p. 110). Perhaps this is being over generous to the film — of the three non-normative characters one is a sadist who preys on boys, one is a serial killer and one is a teen who may be killing people or fantasising about doing so. Certainly the plot rescues the latter from the horrors of homosexuality — in the early years of the HIV crisis homosexuality is equated with death even more than usual.
Note

* As I watch/rewatch the rest, we’ll see how true this is.

Sources

Frederik Dhaenens (2013) “The Fantastic Queer: Reading Gay Representations in Torchwood and True Blood as Articulations of Queer Resistance”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 30(2).

Christopher Sharrett (1993) “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture”, Journal of Popular Film & Television, 21(3).

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).