Horror Movie Homework: “The Haunting of Julia” (1977)

So I had pneumonia this fall and, as a result, as soon as I could keep my eyes open for more than 45 minutes at a time, I watched a lot of movies. One of them was The Haunting of Julia (also called Full Circle) with Mia Farrow and Keir Dullea as well as a lot of people with vaguely familiar faces most of whom turned out to be unfamiliar after all. Except for Tom Conti.

It’s based on a novel by Peter Straub who, for a moment, I had confused with Dean Koontz. Don’t ask me why; I was sick, okay? In case you’re like me and momentarily baffled, Straub wrote Black House and Talisman with Stephen King; Koontz…well, he didn’t; mostly I think of him as the dude who always has a golden retriever somewhere in the story.

Haunting is basically a one-woman show; if you don’t like looking at Mia Farrow, don’t watch this movie. It’s a very quiet, low-key little ghost story which is never quite a ghost story because you’re not entirely sure if the woman is being haunted (and if she is being haunted, who is actually doing the haunting), lost in her memories, going insane, finding out the awful history of her house, or some combination. It even seems at times as though she may be switching between each state separately. The poster I’ve used to illustrate this post is almost entirely misleading which is partially why I chose it; it makes the movie look like your pretty standard child haunt story which it really is not.

The catalyzing event for the whole thing is the death of Farrow and Dullea’s daughter by choking. It’s a rather horrible opening, made no less horrible by the quiet, clean filming that focuses on the girl slowly gagging to death. It’s implied although not shown that Farrow may have gone slightly batshit and, perhaps, cut her daughter’s throat in an attempt to remove the obstruction. The offending object is, in fact, a piece of Disney-bright green apple. You can make of that what you will.

Farrow then retires to or is put into a nursing home to recover from the event and, when her husband comes to take her home, prefers to dash into the street and escape from him and buy a completely fresh house for herself. There are definite signs of marital stress right from the beginning of the movie, but Dullea plays the husband throughout in a state of barely controlled rage that seems a little inexplicable. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel that he isn’t affected by the death of his daughter, if he’s relieved by it, if he wants to torment his wife by bringing her back to the old house, if he simply misses his wife and wants to go back to the old pattern (as much as he can)– He’s really not given enough screen time for any of this to become clear.

As time goes by, it becomes clear that something odd is happening around Farrow; it may be her memories of her daughter, it may be something connected with the house into which she has moved which proves to have a mysterious little girl of its own. As Farrow digs into the history of the house, the story of its little girl is partially unveiled and is really quite nasty. Part of this story seems very interested in the idea of what horrors children can commit — commit and get away with because they are children. It’s a shame this isn’t explored further since it’s a very interesting idea that doesn’t get a ton of play, at least not in my somewhat haphazard wanderings through the genre. Anyone with recommendations along this line, please! Leave me suggestions.

Since it seems that Farrow’s character is aiming to die one way or another from the time of her escape from the nursing home, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise when she manages to get there. The closing scene, though, is striking. It almost looks like something from a Polanski film, very clear, directed, but with a luminescence of color and light.

Anyway, if you’re getting over pneumonia, or have a rainy afternoon to while away, give it a shot.

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Horror Movie Homework: Paranormal Incident (2011)

So lets go with something completely random to get this thing off the ground again, shall we?

This is a terrible, terrible movie. Really just…bloody awful. I watched it because I have had pneumonia for a month and I was desperate and I couldn’t stay awake for more than about an hour. But, honestly, if you fall asleep for the last part of this movie, you’ve missed nothing. You could write the end of this movie in your sleep. Seriously.

Now, there are good movies in this ‘found footage,’ ‘paranormal investigators’ genre. Don’t laugh. Grave Encounters 2 is actually startlingly good following a completely run-of-the-mill first film. Believe it or not, 100 Ghost Street ( an Asylum film!) is highly watchable — right up until the last few minutes when it goes phut but up ’til then? Totally reasonable popcorn movie. Then there are story type-straddlers like Yellow Brick Road which is just a freakfest of the best and most terrifying kind.

But Paranormal Incident is good for something: it illustrates something that I’m going to call the ‘idiot ghost investigator’ phenomenon and is one of the reasons that, regardless of a lot of other factors, I stick with Supernatural.

Incident is the basic set up: six college students get themselves locked into the local haunted insane asylum to debunk or prove the ghost stories about the place. Lah-lah-lah…you can fill in the rest. On the first night, they set up all their gear — where do they get all this shit anyway? — and go about filming their little scenes for the final project. In a lot of these scenes they’re filming, they ask if ‘something’ is with them or if ‘someone’ is in this room, etc., etc.

On a couple of occasions, they get ‘answers’: thuds, bangs, closed doors, moans, whatever. And on each. And. Every. Occasion. They freak the fuck out and run the hell away.

I mean, what’s the point? You asked the goddamn thing to shut the door or open the window (fermez la porte! ouvrez la fenetre!) and it obligingly does it and, instead of saying ‘thanks’ and offering to split a soda, you scream, swear, and abandon ship? No wonder the ghosts want to pull your fucking faces off! It’s the equivalent of attending a party, asking someone to hand you a beer, and shrieking in her face when she does it. Would anyone hand you a second beer? No. Would anyone want you to stay at the damned party? No.

So I guess the upshot is that if you decide to take five of your best friends or five people you’ve never met before in your life or your estranged siblings and their significant others or whatever pack of horrors you prefer to go investigate the local abandoned asylum or hospital or mansion or jail or whatever happens to be near you: don’t ask the spirits to do things and then freak the fuck out when they do it. Because if you do, I will root for the spirits to kill you with your goddamned little handheld camera.

Horror Movie Homework: What Sound Does Fear Make?

When I first saw 30 Days of Night (in the theatre when it first came out in 2007), I really wasn’t into it. I told a friend later I felt I should’ve worn a splatterguard and a butcher’s apron — one of those big, head-to-toe jobs.

And then, for some reason, when it became available on Netflix, I thought, “Ah, what the hell,” and watched it again.

And loved it.

I’ve watched it a number of times since then and inflicted it on plenty of other people, including my wife and my father.

Recently, I came across a cheap copy of 30 Days of Night: Dark Days. I remember this being a direct-to-video release that came out relatively soon after the original movie. Obviously, the original cast members — those surviving, anyway — caught the smell of a loser before I did because there is not a single original survivor character — vamp or human — in the sequel.

Dark Days is really quite terrible in a number of ways but that’s not quite what I want to write about today. (Don’t worry — there’s another blog post about the terribleness coming.)

Instead, I want to write about a couple of the things that made the first movie so terrifying — both in the theatre and when I watched it later, in the safety and comfort of my apartment, cozily tucked up on my futon — and they’re things that the sequel lost, much to its detriment.

In the original movie, as those of you who have seen it doubtless remember, the vampires don’t speak English. They communicate through speech but they’re not comprehensible without subtitles. They’re not like Buffy vamps or Underworld vamps or Supernatural vamps or True Blood vamps or Anita Blake vamps or, god help us, Meyer vamps (typing that leaves a real bad taste in the mouth, let me tell you) — they’re a completely ‘other’ force and that comes through most clearly, for me anyway, in their shrieking, screeching, nails-on-a-blackboard, record-scratching language.

It’s not that they don’t talk or communicate or have a common language; they do, quite obviously, and even their servants (“blood junkies” or “blood bonded” in other universes if you’re not familiar with 30 Days…) understand it. There’s even a fascinating suggestion that a woman driven nearly to the end of her rope by blood loss and fear, used by the vampires as drag bait to bring out other humans hiding in the town, can almost understand what is being said to her before she’s killed.

Along with the weird, bird-like body language adapted to a greater or lesser extent by all the vampire performers, the non-language language is incredibly effective at making the vampires frightening, unhuman, inhuman, other. They’re only comprehensible to each other and what they say — as given to us by the subtitles — is made more difficult by the fact that we’re being given it translated. Knowing what they’re saying doesn’t serve to make them comprehensible or open up their story, making their devastating attack somehow understandable. Instead, the sound and the content underline the fact of their otherness, distancing them from the population they’re attacking. It isn’t that they don’t understand the humans; it’s that the humans — and by extension, the audience — are incapable of understanding them.

The human who does understand them — their blood junkie who precedes them into the town and does some preliminary destruction to isolate the community — is about as far gone as you can get and still be putting one foot down in front of the other. It’s a wonderful acting job by Ben Foster who manages to make the man terrifying and cringing and horrible all at once. He’s gone in another, terrible world of his own, completely removed from the humans around him who should be his natural allies against this force of nature with which he has ranged himself instead. Whatever he’s seeing, whatever world he’s moving through, is largely of his own creation and inside his own head and it is a motherfucking dark place. If anyone ever wants to do another 30 Days… movie, I’d suggest this guy’s story.

The sound of the vampire language is, I think, as key to their scare factor as the sounds made by the Predator (stolen quite effectively by a nifty little haunted house story called 100 Ghost Street). The popping, clicking, rattling, and snapping noises of the Predator are completely other. They’re akin to animal noises — or even the noises often attributed to Triffids in film versions of John Wyndham’s great dark novel. But they don’t make sense. They aren’t a code we can decipher. We can only listen for them and, as the story unfolds, learn to be afraid when we hear them.

The vampire language in 30 Days… is very similar. The shrieking screams are hideous to listen to just on aesthetic grounds: they’re not pleasing to the ear; they sound like the screams of a hawk or fox in full cry after prey and they have a similar effect in lifting the hairs on the backs of our necks and making us flush cold. There’s something in the range and tone of them that taps straight into an adrenal response because it reminds us we’re meat.

These vamps aren’t human.

If they ever were human it was a long time ago and we’re not going to be able to bring it back to them with pleading or argument and win ourselves pity or sympathy or even a headstart.

These are not philosophically nihilistic coffee-shop lurkers or goth kids on a spree or politically disaffected guerrillas with a mission. These are killers — they’re not mindless, not unorganized, not disconnected from each other, not unattached to each other. But they’re not attached to us except inasmuch as they need us to stay alive.

Dark Days has completely forgotten this. Its vamps speak English (bar one who is the least impressive vampire queen I think I’ve ever seen) and have lost their weirdly acrobatic body language. Instead, they’re more akin to Blade II-style vamps with a punk aesthetic and aggression rather than post-apocalyptic grunge and predatory instinct. It’s an entirely disappointing step in what starts out in 30 Days… as a promisingly rich and powerful, if bleak and lonely, world.

Horror Movie Homework: “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

1959 poster for “House on Haunted Hill,” with Vincent Price looking…quizzical.

I feel I owe this movie an apology for having seen its 1999 remake first. But it wasn’t really my fault; see, I was promised James Marsters and, as a diehard Spike fangirl, how could I pass up the opportunity? Someone should’ve told me he’s in the thing for all of forty-five fucking seconds!

In any case, it certainly isn’t the worst remake you’ll ever see — but the original has charms all its own.

I can’t say the set is really one of them. It seemed to me like a fairly standard Hollywood ‘haunted house’ — the external shots had more interest. The house looks sort of like someone crushed an Art Deco nightmare together with an Aztec temple and then sat on the whole thing to flatten it out. I have to say I think the location scouts for the remake had more fun with their find. There wasn’t a lot of threat with this set — there were creaking doors, pits of acid, strange hallways, odd room decorations — but nothing really outre or horrifying on its own terms without being explained or given meaning by the characters. Perhaps I’ve worked in too many historic houses to be bothered by long strips of ugly carpet!

As in all good horror movies, the tension comes from the characters — and here I have to say that the supporting cast really gives poor old Vincent Price a lot of work to do. The exception is Pritchard, the nervous, more or less drunken owner of the house. He’s the only one of the group to have been in the house before; his brother and a few other relations have been ‘offed’ by the ‘ghosts’ of the house. He’s spent a night in the house before — in fact, his is the opening narrative voice in the movie — and is coming back reluctantly due to the money promised by Frederick Loren to all the attendants of his little house party.

Pritchard struck me as an odd character. There’s no clear reason why he’s coming back — does he need the money that badly to risk life and sanity again? — or why he spends the night trying vainly and increasingly incoherently to warn the other characters but has clearly done nothing to arm himself. No little book of spells, no lucky charms, no crosses, no garlic, no nuthin’. He’s clear that the guns Price hands out as ‘party favors’ won’t help against the ghosts — full points there — but is more of a negative information source than a positive one. He announces doom loudly and regularly, but doesn’t seem to have any thought of escaping it. But he doesn’t have the feel of a character who’s just dragging himself back to face an inevitable doom — he’s got more life to him than that, but not much. Ruth Bridgers, too, is an underused character — increasingly unused, in fact, as the movie goes on — she almost entirely disappears after the midpoint!

Loren and his wife, Annabelle, create two of the half dozen or so genuinely frightening scenes in the movie with the subdued viciousness of their marital strife. In their first scene, it’s even a little hard to tell if they’re actually fighting or having a kind of dark Nick and Nora moment. As they get deeper into it, it becomes quite clear that this is no Charlesian love scene that will end with martinis and a treat for the puppy. There’s real hate there, the kind that has gone past heat and gone into ice and a kind of twisted affection: the person you loathe so much that you actually want them around you more so that you can torment them and watch them squirm. It’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s obvious where Famke Janssen and Geoffrey Rush got their inspiration.

The haunts themselves are…somewhat indeterminate. It’s never made clear if there actually are ghosts — most of the ‘hauntings’ are explicable by other means — or whether the house is simply vastly unlucky or the site of some very unhappy marriages. There certainly isn’t the handy explanation given in the remake of the house having once been your classic ‘insane asylum run by a mad, experimental doctor.’ It’s a good explanation, don’t get me wrong but — perhaps a bit overdone? Like the sacred burial ground site, it needs to be given a rest for a few seasons.

A couple of the ‘ghost’ scenes are extremely effective: Nora discovering the blind wife of the caretaker in the dark room is beautifully grotesque. The make-up — given that you see the elderly woman’s face for only a few seconds — is quite as good at giving the viewer a start as anything in the remake, possibly better. The appearance of the ‘hanged wife’ outside of Nora’s window with the rope winding its way from her throat to Nora’s feet is also excellent. Her pallid appearance against the storm clouds, trailing veils whipping about her, is a haunting straight out of Wilkie Collins.

Horror Movie Homework: Black Sunday (1960)

“La Maschera del Demonio [The Mask of the Demon” or “Black Sunday.”
This is the first Mario Bava film I’ve watched. I’ve read and heard a fair amount about the Italian mid-20th century film-maker and cinematographer but if anyone has some more specific titles to recommend — a good biography or critical appreciation, for example — I’d love to have a rec or two dropped in the comments.

There’s a reasonably good plot summary on Wikipedia, so I’m not going to bother with a huge long run-down. As a procedural note for how you may expect these posts to run, I generally find plot point-for-points pretty boring to read unless they’re done very well and I don’t have that much self-confidence to believe I do them really well. Still, spoilers (may) lurk herein. Read At Your Own Risk.

Overall, I didn’t think Sunday had much of a different look than a lot of Corman would-be gorefests like The Undead (1957) (best seen in its MST3K glory as far as I’m concerned: “If she wants a zipper, she can have a zipper, Mike!”) But there was something about the Bava film that did make it slightly easier to overlook the patently cardboard sets and piles of dry ice. The actors were certainly a good notch or two above the absolute best that Corman ever scraped together; the trademark “good doctor” (Checchi as Kruvajan) with his equally trademarked “romantic young companion” (Richardson as Gorobec) are actually rather engaging characters. You do feel a bit genuinely bad when the “good doctor” gets mickey-finned by the undead.

The feel of the movie is vivid, too; the long dresses of the princess, the tapestries in the castle, the heavy bedclothes, all combine to make the cardboard walls and plyboard beds a little easier to overlook.

The opening scene of the condemnation of the witch and her compatriot is genuinely creepy (if lacking a bit in explanation — I found myself wondering if I was watching a dubbed or otherwise edited version that had cut some necessary exposition, voice-over, or visual narration but the metadata on Netflix was so poor I couldn’t find out.) The devil’s mask nailed over the face and the witch’s final curse on her brother for condemning her is uneasy-making. The mask itself is more frightening from the inside than the outside but Bava — or someone on his crew — realised that as soon as the audience could picture to itself the inside of the mask — nails digging into eyes, forehead, cheekbones, mouth — the outside would become that much more horrific.

When the good doctor and his romantic companion discover the witch’s corpse in its sealed coffin in the ruined family vault, the mask is quite disturbing, the cobwebs and dust managing to convey age and abuse even through the black and white film. The destroyed face beneath — when the good doctor removes the mask as we all knew he would — is an even better touch since generally we’d expect a kind of Le Fanu ‘Carmilla’ approach here with the face being perfect and undecayed, the witch having been preserved by her Satanic powers. But, no, apparently Satan doesn’t given bonuses in this world: there she is, mummified, fallen in, and eyes destroyed.

I have to say, I was very impressed with the ‘witch recreating herself in the coffin’ sequence, particularly the regrowth of the eyes. Obviously the sequence had to happen since semi-decayed brides of Satan would be a bit of a giveaway lolloping about the place, but the eyes coming back was really good. Barbara Steele has a lot of fun with the dual role, chewing on every available bit of scenery as the risen witch and practically leaving the odor of sanctity visible in her wake as the young innocent girl.

Bava even makes a genuinely sad ending possible for a few minutes; it seems really likely that the witch has, even in death, triumphed and the young couple will be separated. Of course, we know this isn’t how it ends and those of us with long training in spooky stories know that the rules state that life energy stolen from the victim must be returned upon the death of the thief. But — just for a few minutes as Gorobec and the monk watch the witch burn, it seems possible that won’t happen.

Horror Movie Homework: The Dustbowl (2012)

Go with me on this one.

I don’t want to talk about the historicity of The Dustbowl or the view of the events of the ’20s and ’30s that it presented or why Burns talked to Survivor X instead of Survivor Y.

If you watched the documentary, you probably remember somewhere in the…third hour, I believe, when the discussion turned to the subsidies offered to farmers who were willing to have their stock destroyed or do the destroying themselves. I’m not interested in the correctness or not of this particular political choice; if nothing else, if you have nothing to feed the animals and they can’t find enough food for themselves, keeping them alive might well be considered a form of drawn-out cruelty.

What I’m interested in, though, are the stories the survivor interviewees told about watching their family’s stock be destroyed. Burns spoke to his usual dozen to fifteen folks, including historians and survivors, and many of the survivors told vivid stories of being children and remembering seeing their stock — often representing the major part of the  capital of the family — rounded up and shot. Stock were driven into pits or near shallow trenches so that burial would be easy for those who could not be taken to slaughterhouses. If you’ve ever seen HUD, you’ve probably got a pretty vivid vision of what this looks like already from the killing of the cattle with foot and mouth without even seeing the pictures and film Burns’ crew unearthed.

Each interviewee spoke of being made ‘sick’ or ‘horrified’ or ‘terrified’ by the cattle being driven into the pits, or driven together, and killed, sometimes by men with shotguns which must have made a noise you’d have to hear to believe.

And what fascinates me about this is that I anticipated — knowing what was coming next and knowing that most of the interviewees would have been children or young teenagers at the time — that they’d say, ‘Oh, I ran away’ or ‘I hid under the bed’ or ‘My sister and I went in the cellar’ or ‘My mother made us stay in the house.’ But not one person said this. They all remembered standing and watching, recounting the numb horror of the experience vividly for the camera decades later. Most even had larger context to offer: “I remember it broke my father’s heart” or “They wouldn’t even let us keep a calf for food.”

This thing was happening right in front of them, something that was not only intrinsically horrible — the noise, the dust, the blood must have been incredible — but meant a sea change in their lives, the way their family would live — or fail to live — from that point on, and they didn’t look away.

This is amazing to me on a number of levels. Most germane here is that this is something awful to watch and what do we all do with something horrible? We flinch. We duck or close our eyes or cover our eyes or look away. At least for a minute, sometimes for the entire event. How many of us have turned off the news or not clicked into a news story online because there’s coverage of one of the wars or a shooting or something ‘just too horrible to watch,’ or some picture that will be too terrible to look at. These kids didn’t — or at least their self-reporting indicates that they didn’t. Given that Burns and his crew didn’t look for corroborating narratives, that’s all we really have to go on: they say they watched, so we have to believe them. Personal memory or memory in general is a contested thing among historians; check out Alison Winter’s excellent Memory for more, but that’s not my point here.

So the question that arises for me here is what makes the dividing line between something so awful you have to look away and something so awful you have to watch? As a historian, yogini, and horror geek, I make a practice of watching. If there’s something that bothers me, I seek it out; I watch it more to watch my own reactions to it and explore them. And I’ve gotten totally blindsided by things, sometimes visual, sometimes textual.

There are things I can’t or won’t watch — well-done eye trauma, for example, is a deal-breaker for me — and I wonder what effect this kind of experience early on had on the dividing line for these folks.

I don’t think I have any particularly deep insight as a concluding thought for this but the question keeps recurring to me: What makes the difference between what you can’t watch and what you have to watch?

Horror Movie Homework

So this is the introduction to a series of posts I’ve been thinking about for awhile.

I started out as a rather peripatetic horror fan when I got into horror at all which was only recently. For a long time, I avoided the genre like the villagers avoid the castle on the crag.

Then I started realising that a lot of the authors I was enjoying — Joe Hill, for example, and Jonathan Mayberry; Cherie Priest and Mira Grant — were writing, not to put too fine a point on it, horror. And a few of the books I’d always liked — Dracula, for instance, and Lovecraft, Machen, Benson, even the one Henry James story I ever liked — were horror. Then I started reading Stephen King at the encouragement of a friend in grad school who thought I’d really like the Dark Tower ‘verse. She was right; I loved ’em. Then I started looking for cheap copies of other King novels and, along the way, found cheap copies of great stuff like The Monk and The Castle of Otranto and The Woman in White. Maybe not technically horror in the modern sense, but certainly related to its great-grandma.

Once I was willing to admit that, yes, Virginia, I am a horror fan, I was really undirected about it. I picked up what interested me when I thought of it and left the rest. Recently, this pattern has been irritating the historian side of my brain that wants to pick a starting point and find patterns and work in a systematic way and that sort of thing.

In order to appease the inner history geek while still having fun with the inner horror geek, then, I’ve been trying to pick up the odd horror ‘classic’ here and there as I can find cheap copies or as they float to the surface on Netflix insty. And I find I have lots of thoughts about them — perhaps even lots of feels for some of them — and thus the posts under this title: Horror Movie Homework.

I haven’t got a huge amount of disposable income to spend on DVDs or rentals so, for instance, I’ve been unable to get a copy of the original Halloween. Annoying but true. So I’m really at the mercy of Newbury Comics, the used section of Amazon (I know, I know, but groan quietly, please), and Netflix. For example, Netflix has just put up a few of Mario Bava’s films on insty and since I’ve just been reading about them and him in David Konow’s Reel Terror, they’ll probably be high on my list while I have access to them. And there’ll probably be things in here that shouldn’t, really, be homework for anyone — like Dark House which I watched the other night hoping it would be better than it was. (It wasn’t.) Or the remake of My Bloody Valentine; I really love the original but I also have a thing for Jensen Ackles, so the remake is on my list.

Anyway, my knowledge is neither encyclopedic nor exhaustive; I’m not a serious, be-spectacled, turtleneck-wearing film geek (is that even the cliche any more?); I just love me some fake blood. (I love it even more if it looks somewhere near to real. I’m convinced that most horror film-makers have never cut their fingers.)  So come on — I’ll be starting with something next week — maybe the original Amityville Horror, maybe the original My Bloody Valentine, or maybe Black Sunday: who knows?