Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Law no more!" - Kindergarten Consciousness in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933)

Thanks to Criterion's fancy restoration, the ships and shipping in the pre-code horror Island of Lost Souls (1932)-- a film too long absent from DVD--have extra foggy resonance. Finally. My dream request that Criterion release this title at last has been answered. I feel like the dream king of a remote Skull-shaped island, who can see deep into the shadows of the studio jungle and make out the grim black beast faces that before were just vague smudges on a home-recorded (in1981, SLP mode) VHS-tape. What a difference! This time Criterion's burned all the streakiness out of her!

Director Earle C. Kenton eschewed mere stock footage rear screen projections for this lurid lost soul island, Paramount spared no expense, and the enormity of the ships and their lines and cables strung in the fog really hits you on Blu-ray. You can practically smell the salt-sprayed animals and you feel bad for them and anyone aboard who has to smell the wet fur and excrement. There are lovely shots of bright spot light and pitch deep black now coming through chiaroscuro latticework. Pond reflections of potential lovers dissolving back into DNA sequences ripe for halving; the subtle changes of distressed expression on Leila Hyam's face as the windows facing her at dinner teem with lewd, grinning, probably jacking-off donkey men; the character of Oran ("Him.. tell me... spill blood!") now standing out more from the foliage as every feature of his black on dark Caliban face restored with the Criterion glow, and every obscene pustule on Moreau's hopelessly phallic giant jungle plants glistens in the moonlight.

One would feel better about it all if the old man had some opiates or Ketamine on hand to knock out his animals before all the painful glandular surgery, but that would undo the grisly satisfaction of the ending. Still, there's a lot of pain in this movie. So beware! But humor too, of the jet black evil variety. Due to Laughton's fey, portly sadistic, aesthete elan, his Moreau becomes something like the younger brother of his other two main early 30s sadists: Cap'n Bligh in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935) and 'bullyin' Barrett in THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934). 

 Those mythic British connections are perhaps intended, as a satire of such types, the English sadist using (in this case science's) strict codes of conduct as tools for abuse (apparently England's brutal school system will teach you all about that). We learn from my old Scarlet Street editor David J. Skal in the extras that HG Welles meant the original version to be a kind of Swiftian meta-satire on the Victorian fad for social evolution and science and disregard for the suffering of lab animals, but my reading of the film this time harkened back way farther, as far back as ye can Goethe - to the Annunaki in the old tablets of the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia. Look at the picture below and tell me it doesn't look like this ancient god is inserting a pineal gland, our cosmic router, thus forever separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom. 

Him tell me... spill blood!

If you don't know your ancient alien theory: Lord Enki and other advanced race visitants came here and made humans from a mixture of their own  Annunaki genes and resident ape /animal DNA so that they could be taught to mine for gold which was then shipped off-world. Enki got soft on his critters and gave them some tips on the use of fire and language against strict orders. He even taught us to eat other things than meat, i.e. plants, which to eat and which to avoid and which to use for astral phone calls.

Maybe the end of most mad scientist movies-- when the monsters run amok and kill their maker-- are really a kind of very long-belated revenge against lord Enki for fucking us up - making us part god, part beast -a  hideous still-beating THING! We've been simmering all these eons in our ancestral memory, resentful of ever being dragged from our Edenic animal sleep and thrown into the cold logical light of reason, pain, spelling, kindergarten; being forced to walk on two legs instead of comfortable crawling, and all that other serpentine-mammalian hybrid consciousness duality - both herd animal and solo predator --all just to satisfy the morbid curiosity of a well-heeled reptilian alien madman who's angry at the world 'cuz he's too deep in the closet to have a sex life of his own.

Moreau could also be an early accidental ringer for J. Edgar Hoover (more on that to come)!

The big highlight in ISLAND is the climactic showdown between the two biggest hams of horror at that time: Bela Lugosi as the keeper of the law going against the whip-snapping Charles Laughton. Lugosi's ranting--after being beaten down, forced to endure untold hours of daily make-up application, brought to heel by bad deals from Universal and morphine addiction--brings several lifetimes worth of rage to bear; Laughton's hamming--no need for studio beat-downs when his homosexuality is beaten into the closet by the intolerant age itself--matches Lugoisi's floridity with a gradually eroding bed of fearlessness. 

It's a great moment in classic horror, worthy of any Karloff-Lugosi pairing. And perfectly cast. I can't see Karloff playing either Moreau or the teller of the law; he was never much of an ego-mad tantrum-raving screamer-- more like the creepy mellifluousness of his Satanist in THE BLACK CAT (1934)--and in the end this showdown is all about tantrums --the bratty older child reigning terror on the younger ones until they band together and wreak their vengeance. When we see the 'faithful dog' die to save his master, we're suddenly ashamed we've been dressing our pets up in little butler outfits all these years.

Another cool aspect of SOULS is its ahead-of-it's time approach to liberal empathy. Perhaps the fall from Eden wasn't the serpent's DNA-diddling after all but the sneering condemnation of a moral crusader like Richard Arlen. The outrage of his Mr. Parker towards the vivisection of these creatures makes him a kind of early representative for PETA. On learning Lota was once a panther, note Parker's choice of language: "These others I can maybe overlook, Moreau," he says, "but to make a woman, with a woman's suffering! That I can't forgive."

In other words, his empathetic response is manageable with the grunting, tough manly beasts, but a woman is, as Carol Clover noted, man's sensitive springboard, his mental frame for absorbing a more acute form of projected punishment via the masochistic gaze.

In other words, the gaze is a holy thing that must be guarded from trauma. It is itself feminine. Hence you can serve a bunch of pork, steak, and chicken at the craft services table during a film shoot, but if you kill a pig, chicken or cow onscreen you are 'cruel' and in violation of "the law" - What is the law? To protect the stomach of squeamish animal and woman lovers --are we not men? There's no way you can possibly kill a creature 'more' cruelly than at a freakin' stockyard or under a scientist's scalpel, so it's not the animal's suffering the laws protect but our own squeamish gaze. We want to be assured no suffering we see onscreen is ever real. If only Moreau had given vocal chords to the meat on the craft services table! Their ghostly yowls might haunt the entire world into veganism!  And what argument could Mr. Parker have then, that wouldn't make him sound like a hypocrite as he reaches for another plate of veal?

Of course while on his island--Moreau insists on it in his laws--everyone is a vegetarian, just like Hitler!

Final note: I generally don't groove on DVD menus, but the Criterion one sets a new awesome standard, expanding on the cover art, with overlaid medical drawings spliced together and music from the film playing over, cool and menacing.  Dig. I love it. DVD of the year.

Friday, October 28, 2011


Secret panels, stormy nights, dying heirs, hairy hands, Karloff, candles, lawyers; priceless mcguffins stolen from a dead man's watch pocket; maybe a coroner, woken up at this ungodly hour of the night; guys in ape suits for the medium shots, stock footage of a monkey for the close-ups; Bela Lugosi stuck playing a butler with barely any lines because the producers are worried about his morphine addiction; shrieking maids; bats; black cats; skulls on desks; conniving trophy wives everyone wants dead. What could be more Halloween-ish? It's the Old Dark House genre, basically forgotten today because there are no more old dark houses. Now they're either 'haunted' or long-since converted to apartments.

But if you've ever spent a weekend at a rich friend's mansion then you know how weird it can get: a late night trip to the bathroom after everyone else has gone to bed can be a terrifying, surreal nocturnal journey ala THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER river trip. The walls are so thick that if someone were screaming for help downstairs in the study you'd never even hear them, or be able to find them.

And no longer can eccentric millionaire uncles just caper down to Egypt and help themselves to whatever cursed, ancient artifacts they care to dig for. The colonialist yard sale is closed! But the films, thank Ra, remain open! Here's five I know like the back of m'hand, and the catacombs of m'mind: 

(1933) Dir. T. Hayes Hunter

British studio Gaumont's attempt to make a 1930s Universal horror reveals just how great Universal horrors were by contrast, especially when made with Karl Freund and James Whale nearby. At any rate, GHOUL used to exist only in fuzzy dupes (in this country at least) so it's nice there are finally coherent transfers/prints around, for the film is lovely and foggy and cozy as a cup of Earl Grey at a midnight foggy moor picnic which, as a few of the other entries here make clear, is not as easy to pull off as it seems. The all-star cast includes Ralph Richardson as a noisy parson (there must be a running joke in English dog-and-pony circles about nosy local vicars cycling from house to house to mooch drinks). Karloff stars and gets almost no lines as an eccentric, dying Egyptologist who spends 75,000 pounds on an emerald he thinks will bring him back from the dead. He's soon entombed to the strains of Wagner's immortal "Sigfried's Funeral March" but naturally the gem winds up bounced around the rest of the skulking cast, starting with Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorious!) as a worried Christian butler, and Cedrick Hardwicke as a grumpy Dickensian lawyer who employs rather elaborate strings of words like "I intend to grant myself the pleasure of calling on her this evening." They're all either looking for the emerald, stealing it from someone else, writing notes, stealing said notes in the fog, making peace with angry cousins, being strangled by Karloff (back from the dead and in search of his expensive emerald) or having sadomasochistic fantasies (how very British!)

The grand guignol moment is when Boris carves a bloody ankh symbol on his bony chest, cut from many prints, and skulks around nearly harming the ladies (he's really just after the gem and immortality) and the comic relief comes in the form of Katherine Harrison as the daft best friend of plucky heroine (Dorothy Hyson). Believe it or not, Anthony Bushell and Harold Huth steal the show as a bemused Arab and a square-jawed nephew, respectively, THE GHOUL would make a fine, weird double bill with the original MUMMY (1932), and possibly even stole its props. Alas, like so many British-Egyptian Museum horrors of the era all the supernatural elements must be conveniently explained away by film's end. One mustn't leave the queen's subjects thinking such things are true, you know... a gullible lot they are, I'm afraid, sir. That's not to say this jewel still isn't a little loose in its setting, sir! Pure 30s horror mood it is, with enough Worcester fog to carry it through if you lose track of who has the jewel, or where it's hid, or where everyone else is relative to everyone else on the grounds.

(1939) Dir. Elliot Nugent

My favorite Bob Hope movie! I've seen it 1,000 times! Dragging my canoe behind me! I taped it off 'Spotlight' in 1980 and, in some ways, I'm still watching it. It only came onto DVD recently, was never on VHS and hasn't been on TV ever, so if you don't remember it, there's a reason. The silent version is in public domain but who needs it when this one has Bob Hope in the perfect mix of romantic hero and scared goofball quipper as Wally Campbell. It was his first big role and his comedic timing is so sharp he actually heightens the suspense with his whistling in the dark style asides, double takes, and feints back and forth between courageous pose and truthful reveal of (understandable) fear; he puts all the other variations of this character to shame (and I mean you, Wallace Ford). He's also drawn a great leading lady in Paulette Godard, though it's clear that in the original she's a bit more frail and old-school kindness-of-strangers-dependent. Goddard seems way too modern to faint or drop a gun, and way too sane to believably be even remotely as out of her mind as her greedy relatives would like to believe. That's because the she's the sole heiress to her eccentric Uncle Cyrus Norman's bayou mansion, where an escaped maniac who calls himself 'The Cat' is prowling for victims, and where the disparate relatives are gathered for the midnight will reading, a cliche which really got its start with the play version of this, which underwrites not just this film but the entirety of the genre.

So much that could go so very wrong goes just as right instead in the hands of director Elliot Nugent. He keeps the shadows alive and makes sure a creepy wind sound accompanies the fine Enrst Toch score (which never gets cutesy, just creepy). The outdoors around the house is a big swampy fog-bound soundstage rather than drab outdoor footage, which earns it a high mark; the secret panel-to-the-small-garden-hut climax conjures the expressionist shadows of Cabinet of Caligari, replete with the maniac's dramatic posturing - very high mark. What a cast! George Zucco reads the will and is the first to get murdered; Gale Sondergaard is the Creole housekeeper in tune with the mysterious chimes and 'murmurs' of the old house; and nobody sings or titters like an imbecile, not even cousin Cecily and she has to hold her finger under her nose to keep from screaming. Top marks. It was such a perfect lightning bolt synergy of style, substance, and cast chemistry that Hope reunited with Sondergaard and Zucco when they played his Nazi pursuers three years later in My Favorite Blonde and he reunited one year later with Goddard in The Ghost Breakers which has more supernatural elements than Cat and is generally considered the better film, but man, I'll take them both. It's still early in his career enough that Hope doesn't know yet just how great he is, but Nugent does, and the atmosphere is electric. Dragging my canoe behind me!

(1932) Dir. Frank Strayer

This creaky Frank Strayer riff seems recorded on the kind of early sound equipment that was outmoded by 1930. The air is thick with burbling hiss like everyone is underwater (which I like). It's got most of the boxes filled:  big old dark house with a rich dead patriarch? Check.  The will read and an absentee girl heir (the compact Vera Reynolds) breezes in to collect the millions? Check. Ape in a cage in the basement? Check. Willie Best as a frightened chauffeur? Check. But we also get Mischa Auer as the illegitimate son of the old creep in the wheelchair and the maid, angry he's denied any of the family fortune after all the hours he's slaved for that old man. Not even hairy hands coming out of the wall can remedy the social injustice and animal cruelty (the ape, named Yogi, is a real ape instead of a guy in gorilla suit) that lingers in the air while the typical Cat and Canary will-reading resentment simmers and the camera keeps its static distance.

I know the Leonard Maltin review by heart: "Willie bests Mischa for laughs, but it's a close race." Lenny, you're my wheelchair-bound true father who taught me to write like a subliminal weisenheimer. Despite the unpleasant angles, the unconvincing stormy night-rattling-sheet metal makes it nice to fall asleep to as the sun comes up on another frosty November 1st, your blood levels of alcohol, ecstasy, nicotine, and sugar now dwindled to an early morning frost on the window shudder no amount of hot coffee can allay. Take it from me. "I have a premonition something's going to happen! Something horrible!" Vera says while the painting behind her slowly turns crooked so someone can spy on her. Her dumb boyfriend doctor (Rex Lease) tells her she needs something for her nerves, but then just kisses her. Dude! You should have got the tranquilizer! Then the old creep in the wheelchair tells her she should take one, too. And then the doctor goes to get her one after the ape hand incident and she still won't take it ("perhaps I won't need it"). Ugh.

Still in a movie this slow and strange it's the little things. "Nobody's going to steal their money," snarls bitter Mischa after his mom tells him to bolt the doors and windows. "It's not here." Best gets the last laugh: when he's on the floor panicking because the mouth on the polar bear rug has caught his slipper (he thinks it's "Mr. Yogurt") he seems about as afraid and engaged as if he's reading the script to himself while falling asleep. Vera is such an idiot she won't believe who the killer is, even when he's openly trying to kill her.

(1932) Dir. James Whale

The great 'lost' Universal horror of 1932. I longed to see it ever since I was a kid reading about it in my Creature Features guide, but it was all but lost thanks to the habit of destroying older versions when remakes came out (not that the remake resembled the original in anything but name/s). Then Kino came to the rescue via a restored, lone surviving print (discovered through the perseverance of Curtis Harrington), and co-star Gloria Stuart even did an audio commentary for the laserdisc.

I never had a laserdisc player, but James Cameron did, loved the commentary, and that's how she came to narrate Titanic! True story!

Not an old dark house movie, Old Dark House is not even really a horror movie or a comedy, but a James Whale movie. As such, it's a combination of many atmospheric, very British elements that don't come together until numerous viewings over decades help the various medicines buried in its flavor tapestry kick in. Getting older, we come to understand the 'that's fine stuff' rant by Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) to Gloria Stuart, and how it leads to her reflection like that of a skull in the mirror; or the resemblance Rebecca has to a photo of Queen Victoria by her mirror; the general nicety and British crust of Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) who "likes gin" (and would still be drinking it a few years later in Whale's Bride of Frankenstein), the way the alcohol passed around by the roaring hearth gives you a feel of being there and feeling the warmth of the cinematic image like that same fire; the honest romance between lost generation lad Melvyn Dougas and Bill's (Charles Laughton) traveling companion Perkins (Lillian Bond); their arrival like a daft breath of fresh working class air in the middle of a stiff dinner, lightening the rich yobbo dryness against which the merry Melvyn Douglas hurls himself like a kid fighting waves on the beach. Karloff as the mute butler portrays the end point of madness and the beginning point of savagery; Laughton becomes the backbone of Britain; the late inning introduction of Roderick Femm--played by the elderly real life old lady of the stage Elspeth Dudgeon --provides a welcome bit of contextualization, change of scene and foreshadowing. And then, in a rage Morgan releases Saul (Brember Willis- the hermit from Bride) who is hopelessly, violently insane... See it 30 times, 300, it's still not enough... my friend.

(1943) Dir. Sam Newfield

When I'm having a travel-induced panic attack, THE BLACK RAVEN is my go-to source of solace. I really respond to the cozy fireplaces, howling wind, torrential rain, muffled dialogue, and the sense of conspiratorial cool amongst the more criminal guests (they all sign the register as 'John Smith'). It all takes place--like the best old dark house films--over one 'dark and stormy' night, beginning as guests learn the bridge is washed out in their rain slashed cars and ending when the rain stops at dawn. Padding around the waterlogged cardboard sets in his robe and slippers, Zucco's great as the enigmatic retired criminal who now runs a small inn (named the Black Raven) just this side of the Canadian border. No actual ravens or border-crossings appear in this film--too rainy--but Glenn Strange is the idiot manservant and the wondrously dour Charles "Ming" Middleton is the clueless sheriff. A suitcase of embezzled cash results in murder; a corrupt politico tries to break up his daughter's newlywed marriage; and an escaped crook is out to settle an old score with Zucco. An eloping young couple try and stay out of the way. Make sure to get the best available edition as there's lots of crappy public domain editions wherein everything is too dark and muffled. (Roan Group's 'Black and Blue' set that includes Ulmer's Bluebeard and Bela's great, incoherent Black Dragons is the best so far, and highly recommended). Your mileage may vary, but for my dark and stormy night PRC 40s money, it's Black Raven all the way.

Special shout-out to Verdoux! - it seems to contain the same eerie alchemical magick as celluloid itself!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

White as a Sheet: BLACK MOON (1934) and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (2010)

Voodoo and witchcraft-related horror films often simmer with a whole gris-gris bag of subtext: gender, race, and psychology all percolating under a boilerplate plot and how much of it we detect depending on our own cultural and educational situation. As our nation/world gets collectively more sensitized, not noticing the drip over spilling out of that pot seems hard. We can't not roll our eyes as yet again a white man lands on a voodoo island for gold or research or to investigate shipwreck and a cute young half-caste (or white, but made up in bronzer to look dimly ethnic) woman from the village betrays the gods to be with him; they escape in a boat as the island erupts in flames and all the black monsters die except the grinning ferryman who is innocent in his naivete, who spirits them away where they can breed and uphold the status quo and in later years, the now retired white dude can go "Voodoo? Harumph!" when the kids ask him about it.

As for the woman, it's tricky but with a recipe set in Hollywood stone: if she's actually white (usually her parents were missionaries or crashed in a plane) they're happy ever after (though maybe she still uses some voodoo in the kitchen, ala Burn Witch Burn). If she's not 100% white, she must die to save him, and thus appease the gods/censors). If she does live, you must imagine Carl Denham lecturing at a feminist studies group: "She was a queen in her jungle world, but she threw it all away to follow a handsome stranger home to to his own lands, and here she is, barefoot and pregnant, for your own amusement!"

In a very few films however, someone clearly takes a stand against these tired/true rules, such as in the consciously progressive, often forgotten voodoo film from Columbia, BLACK MOON (1934). With its mix of horror-action and white man's burden-coded proto-feminism it just may be the least racist and sexist of all 1930s racist-sexist zombie movies --a kind of pre-Lewton Lewton where women understand the supernatural realms instinctively while the half asleep men try to keep it all buried via tactics like condescension, humiliation, beatings, and threats --none of which work a damn-- until the status quo boundaries have shrunk to noose size.

Keeping with the subjugation motif, Fay Wray gets second billing in MOON but is the most recognized name, having tangled with Kong on Skull Island the year before. However, on this particular forgotten island the white power over the ebony denizens is long established, thanks to a racist French sugar cane plantation owner (Arnold Korff). His young niece (Dorothy Burgess) left the island years ago for New York City and now wants to come visit. He doesn't want her to, lest it excite the natives. Living there as a kid, she apparently did some serious mystic bonding with the locals and now the drums are calling her to return, return, with her own young daughter in tow.

The voodoo scenes turn out to be surprisingly respectful of the tradition - and the drumming and singing is awesome, with day-for-night shots of glistening black bodies drumming and dancing, old wizened faces staring off into the distance, and lots of white plantation garb that may be more true to the mileu but lacks the exoticism wer'e hoping for. There's no 'real' night in these scenes, no Anton Grot or William Menzies-type set design to bring it all into a rarefied realm. And it's slow going in spots, and very odd. It never seems sure where it wants to go, only where it doesn't. They even bring in the under-sung Clarence Muse (see my ode to him here) as the charter boat captain who takes old Jack Holt to the island (he wants to make sure his girl is all right). Muse is worried about his own girl, a local who's become much too mixed up with the voodoo scene. The form a kind of interesting bond of equals, not unlike Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier in Paris Blues, just two normal American guys wondering what's got into their women. There's no nonsense like there would be if their characters were played by Willie Best and Bob Hope, for example, though they werent' too bad in and of itself compared to other teams.

But while it's applaudable on these levels, and it is spooky right from the opening with servants in the voodoo lady's New York City apartment, shuddering at the sound of Dorothy Burgess teaching her infant daughter to play voodoo drums, it never lasts: a strange man who works for the colonialist uncle shows up with the message he doesn't want Burgess to go to the island--the natives are too agitated. She says buzz off, and then he's killed on his way to see the husband to try and get him to nail her fins to de floor, so to speak. What's cool is we want her to go to the island, so the native skulkers are killing the messenger for our benefit. Thus, the natives are clearly the good guys up to a point, as we bristle at the idea these scowling white dudes are going to decide where Dorothy Burgess can and can't go.

But in the end of course they are right.

Aren't they always?

Lacking any kind of central figure to care about, aside from Wray and Muse (both minor figures in the film) makes the film a little too reliant on atmosphere and expectation. The ominousness builds up for the big ceremony but it's so 'respectful' when it comes it's a bit of an anticlimax. The kid's maid is killed early on when she keeps objecting to the child being given things like knives and voodoo dolls to play with, but we don't see the murder or even the body. Why? This is a horror movie, after all. Wray wires for Holt to come and take them home but the wire operator is killed before he can send it. At least we get to see the explosion.

Even so, we side with the voodoo crowd because we're waiting for something genuinely 'bad' to happen. They keep talking it up, until it can't possibly match our expectation. But we do like Holt's relationship with his little daughter. They have a genuine bond and he's not a simpering sort like dads in films today, but a rough and ready 70s dad type and she loves him for it.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 shares a lot of BLACK MOON's deep subtextual feminism. Here the dad is a self-satisfied liberal authoritarian pretending to be fun, hip, gentle family man but he scoffs at the supernatural while his wife and maid know better, which only makes him resentful and furious, forbidding any mention of supernatural goings-on in his presence, even firing the maid for daring to light incense in the house. What a dick!

Like its forerunner, PA2 was a huge hit in theaters, and like BLACK MOON has a great, prolonged set-up with only mild yield: the initial ghost attack looks enough like an ordinary break-in that it compels dad to install security cameras and as our subjects sleep through the night these security cam images--a ghostly lit pool with the cleaner snake slithering around the surface; the crib room with the German shepherd guardian (the dog's not much for supernatural detection, surprisingly; the big petit bourgeois living room--take on a creepy life of their own as our eyes nervously scour the banality in search of some uncanny element or movement. Andre Bazin would surely approve!

One reason the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films work as instant pop culture artifacts is their William Castle-ish utilitarianism - they are here to provide bonding moments of shock in the cinema on Saturday night, or to creep out couples on their couches, couples similar to the couples depicted. And that is all - they are obviously super cheap to make, and make far more than their more expensive competitors. But what they show is something new--the modern American family to itself as it really is, revealing the awful difference between how 'scary' we look on video vs. the pretty people we see in the mirror. The dad thinks he's a hilarious righteous sex machine but we see he's an asshole, etc. and then, watching himself on screen, so does he. These people are the American family that the sitcoms and TV want to portray, but don't have enough time. All the corpses the screenwriters can dredge up in the family garden pale in comparison to the unstoppable demonic ghost possession in the real time found footage usually edited out of TV shows. For eight hours or so every night most of us are in a sate of total unconsciousness. Who knows what's going on while we're asleep? It's creepy. That's what got us hooked in the first place with the first PA - a possessed sleeping girl standing motionless over her sleeping husband... hour after hour.

It's important in each example here that the endangered family be upper-middle class as success makes the dad 'dependent' on the prevailing reality and culture. He's got something to lose. He knows hungry young bucks are eyeing his spot. A white trash redneck sleeping in his pick-up truck has nothing to lose by embracing new paradigms and is thus way more likely to be down with the supernatural. But in the American upper middle class' unconscious, the uncanny is ghettoized so deep that when dad finally sees the tape and learns the truth he becomes a fractured, incoherent mess, worse than useless and ripe for possession. If such a possession was offered he'd snap at it, a chance to switch sides and affix his star to whatever's currently in charge, whatever overpowering force wants to supply the new paradigm, no matter, as long as he can still feel smug.

Just as BLACK MOON is not just about race oppression but gender oppression, each one a metaphor for the other, so too the PARANORMAL films are about superstition and rational thinking kicking each other into oblivion. When the rational left-brained know-it-all douche bag dad types are forced to confront the truth, forced to realize via the very rationalist tools of the skeptic-- security cameras-- that they can never completely protect their children, even in their own house--that their kids will always be exposed to danger, then not even the TV set can provide a respite, then dad is drained of all his false entitlement. And if he denies he ever even had any, his double negative shoots him in his own foot through his mouth.

Such a realization of complete powerlessness is the apocalypse of the American family and its one salvation. One thinks back to the "they're here" moment in POLTERGEIST, and if you compare the downward spiral from level-headedness to powerless tired mess of Craig T. Nelson as the dad in that film vs. the gone-to-pieces dad in PA2, all you can do is weep for the incredible dissolving father. The ghosts came through the TV static in that 1980 pre-cable film (when white noise static and station sign-offs still existed), but the PA films are made on and with digital --there is no more four AM shot of an American flag to signal the end of another broadcast day, no chance for static to sneak through and speak to us in its crackly 'popcorn' white noise languge. We have 900 channels of cable and it never, ever sleeps. It's not just ghosts we shut out, it's everything. All hail Shark Vacuum

Friday, October 21, 2011

Angels of Death: 10 Favorites

I love chicks that are truly crazy, not the faux bad-assedness of poseurs like Winona Ryder in Heathers (who express remorse for their murders as if mom and censor are waiting just off camera) but those who are truly liberated, in a way that terrifies even the bourgeois tenured profs who presume themselves beyond knee-jerk anti-feminist patriarchal reactions. It's payback time for the Inquisition with these devilish damsels on the screen.

People come to horror movies to see their deepest, unresolved, pre-empathic infantile anger expressed and cathartically exorcised. Bela Lugosi embodied this rage for my generation, the egomaniacal genius who scorned society and its unconscious banality appeared to us through the fuzzy UHF signal like an alien ruler. We rooted for him even unto the closing credit flames. In his honor I praise the chthonic bitchez in these films, for they stomp all over 'safe' characterizations and trust the audience not to start killing everyone the moment the film's over. They use their claws.

I only wish I could mention the great female killers from certain gialli, but that would be giving away the plots and I would never....

Yoko Mimimada
I need to see this film about a dozen more times before I'll be able to write about it, but whatever... it's paisley psychedelic strangeness with incessant, nerve-grating piano melody stopping and starting until it becomes torture. Minimada plays demonic doppelganger auntie to a gaggle of schoolgirls who are all devoured by her deadly... house. She's old and in a wheelchair but as the girls are consumed she becomes younger and more empowered until in a final showdown she's a picture perfect soap commercial model. This film may be too out there even for an 'enhanced' audience, but is the kind of thing you can freak out people of all ages with.

If you need to come down afterwards, try AUDITION!

Sue Lyon
Three things I'm crazy for: nurses, Sue Lyon, and mercy killing; all three are wrapped up in this piece where Lyon is a homicidal nurse who kills patients so they don't have to spend their lives crippled, old, or boring. Meanwhile a bunch of douchebags with tacky helmets, whips, and dune buggys pull some of the old surprise party ultra-violence on random families who are usually watching Clockwork Orange-related programming. You get the impression this Spanish director Eloy de la Iglesia really loves his Kubrick (Sue was, of course, Stanley's LOLITA). She's aged well and if doing cheap Italian horror movies to pay the bills was a common thing for American actresses of the era, she's younger than most all of them, and still hot, especially in white, and red.

The incredible Kimberly Lindbergs champions the film over at TCM's Movie Morlocks thus: making Sue Lyon his muse, Eloy de la Iglesia hijacks Kubrick’s LOLITA and leaves the audience questioning their voyeuristic relationship with the cinema and its effect on our own sexual impulses. Eloy de la Iglesia‘s Lolita isn’t a fictional ideal of feminine beauty or a hapless victim of the male ego and Sue Lyon seems to get a kick out of exploiting her character. By the end of MURDER IN A BLUE WORLD it becomes apparent that Stanley Kubrick’s films have been thoroughly deconstructed and put back together in such an unusual way that Sue Lyon is able to completely redefine her celebrated ’60s role.

Priscilla Lawson
People remember the monsters and Flash's wrestling tights from the brilliant original 1936 serial but not everyone remembers that at the core of all the derring-do was a hot love quadrangle: Ming's kinky daughter, Princess Aura, lusts uninhibitedly after the earth man, who stays true to Dale (Jean Rogers), the long-suffering earth woman who is desired by Ming (and Prince Baron longs for Aura). Dale is often thrown into very revealing gowns and pawed by hawk men and the a crab-clawed dragon monster while Aura arches her wicked eyebrows and pulls strings behind her father's throne like the Fah Lo Suee of Mongo. It was Princess Aura I had the hots for as a kid and Lawson is pretty solid and awfully kinky. I guess it was okay as far as the code was concerned to lust uninhibitedly in a 1930s serial if you never get your man.  If you can see the whole serial, see it. If you can't, see the edited together feature SPACE SOLDIERS. Either way, keep your eye on Priscilla at all times.

Allison Hayes
The best parts of this film are not even the hilarious underwater fights (slow motion with a bubble machine and blurry filter to hide the fact they're all shot on dry land under normal gravitational circumstance) but the scenes with Allison Hayes as the bitchy trophy wife of the rich fat cat big game gold hunt gambler Carl Denham x Capt. Kidd whatever come to these voodoo islands to dive for gold. In case you forgot, Hayes is the 50 FOOT WOMAN and a honey for the ages, always looking like she just slithered off the cover of a 1930s pulp magazine. And she turns into a zombie, in this film, and the idiot non-zombie people just won't even... well, let me turn you over to Day of the Woman's Britney-Jade Colangelo, who notes that Hayes, sports quite possibly the GREATEST bra that man has ever known. The hottest moment is when Hayes talks her fatcat boyfriend into insisting the handsome skipper (Gregg Palmer) kiss her! Right in front of him! Fatcat even has to insist!! G'head on Miss Allison! When she gets all zombiefied the film reaches it's big golden stretch (the lighting is almost Lewton-eque as she moves through the dark with her knife, above) but there's never a dull momnt along the way; see it back to back with Ed Wood's NIGHT OF THE GHOULS for yet another army of middle-aged-elderly extras marching through tight spaces as zombie avengers, but no one can compare with Hayes. 

Beatrice Dalle
"TROUBLE fulfills the promise of CAT PEOPLE, which told of a race of humans who would turn into black leopards after making love and could turn human again only after taking a life. However in Paul Schrader's 1982 version these killings were kind of tepid, with the panther striking while the victim is lolling around in a post-coitus haze. None of that waiting around for Denis! The way Dalle continues to obliviously whisper and coo in her now dead lovers' ears for example, links to her a real cat, toying with her prey long after its dead. Such scenes are few and far between (a similar one was apparently edited from later cuts of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT), they make producers uncomfortable because they threaten the safety of their model of the cinemagoer as one already dead and presumed therefore impervious to attack, as if the image and the eye are tectonic plates and the idea of cinema is to promise contact yet prevent any actual buckling. Dalle's sexuality buckles it and triggers a simulacratic melt-down; the covetous eye is torn out in a fit of enjoyment that transcends all textual boundaries. "(cont. reading here)

 Mariclare Costello
It's tough being a paranoid schizophrenic when everyone really is out to get you. This is what Jessica learns when she and her husband and some meathead move to an island off New England to get away from the big Apple's 70s crime. They find a squatter named Emily (Costello) living in their big manse, and are about to kick her out, but she's kind of cute and Meathead takes a shine to her. Jessica is just pumped that she didn't hallucinate Emily -- she really is there! And she plays the lute. And her picture is in an old frame in the attic dated in the 1800s. Uh oh... There's a really terrifying scene where Emily makes a pass at Jessica, and then kind of --- well, it's freaky, quiet, fucked up beyond rational thought, and awesome.

All the Ladies on the Isle
"Many critics label LaBute a misogynist but his remake of WICKER MAN allows him to portray plenty of very powerful, frightening, intelligent women going up against a coarse, unconscious, ineffectual male cop and that's the opposite of what a misogynist would do. A truly liberated, sexually aggressive, snarling female is one of the most terrifying creatures ever conceived of by - and I hesitate to say God because God is suddenly not even a "He" when they're around, and everything gets dark and scary and one's balls shrink and release hormones of queasy dread that hit us like an extra dose of gravity. And without the people of Summers' Isle kowtowing to his manly whims, Nic Cage's "A Child is Missing, damn you!" righteousness is revealed as the macho bullying it's always has been.  Cage here is like the sister's boorish boyfriend in REPULSION or the sleazy neighbor in CARNIVAL OF SOULS, only here he's outnumbered and roaring like an old pervert crushed to death under the headlights of a Russ Meyer supervixen. (Where the Wild Wicker Lieutenants Are, 1/7/10)

 Ruth Gordon
What Polanski dredges out of Ruth Gordon’s clown-cake make-upped old lady smile is an evil against which there is no rational defense if you've been socially conditioned --as a woman in the 20th century--to be nice and decent to friendly elderly neighbors. Since Minnie Castavet is old and perky and adorable there is no defense against her prying, manipulating, and ensnaring because according to the social doctrine old ladies must be obeyed while women Rosemary's age are treated like children too incompetent to know what's best for their own wombs.

Marki Bey

"It's great to be rooting for a murderous voodoo priestess and not have to worry she's going to develop a conscience or let love weaken her resolve for deadly reprisal-making via a series of comic book-style death traps involving zombie massages ("Treat me easy, easy,"), a severed chicken foot that hops around on a string (a peak AIP moment), voodoo dolls ("When the doll is enflamed you will pick up the knife and use it on yourself!"), leg cramps, and hungry pigs ("Hope they like white trash!"). When the 'good' guys are the zombies, the bad guys don't have a chance in hell... and I'm in psychotronic heaven. (9/9/10)

 Lesley Tapin
Sweet Lila Lee (Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith) escapes her creepy preacher foster parent and catches a midnight bus to Spookville in this low budget and all the more eerie for it thriller. If you ever used to catch those bizarre, faded color, cheap puppet and bad dubbing-infused German and Swedish 'kid's film' K. Gordon Murray imported on TV or in the local matinees in the 60s-70s then the threadbare theatricality of LEMORA will be like remembering a childhood nightmare. There's some vague lesbian resonance between the evil Lemora and Rainbeux as Lemora introduces her to a lot of weird perverse blood-drinking style shit, and I cannot reveal the awesome ending!

 For another great women in horror top ten, check out this from last February's Women in Horror Month.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Halloween Essential: THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942)

Straight horror was considered ill-timed during the war, but horror comedy was OK - get 'em laughing at the boogie man and the eggshells don't crunch quite so loud underfoot on the way home. If only an attempt by Columbia to mimic Arsenic and Old Lace, then a Broadway hit, THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU would be pedestrian fluff--and most critics dismiss it as just that---if the script didn't rock in a way so deadpan it take many viewings to truly savor. That means that you must come to terms with the shrill hamming of Larry Parks and "Miss Jeff" Donnell in the Brad and Janet roles. It's worth any effort to get both Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, bouncing off each other with perfect comedic timing. Clearly, we're meant to share their bemused disdain for Bill, the high-strung little pisher of a romantic lead (Parks). He's shipping out to war but first has to square up with flighty ex-wife, Winnie (Donnell) who just bought the crumbling old inn where mortgage-strapped Karloff is brewing atomic supermen in the basement and two old character actors round things out as the resident 'cook' and 'pigkeeper.'

Ever-angered at his own co-dependent need to save her (he thinks she's gullible), Parks' is like a high strung little wire--one of those shrimpy 4F guys Hollywood had to use to patch the holes left by all the A-1 recruits and draftees. It's clear Winnie does need saving (heavy clocks and sideboards nearly fall on her quite often) but she doesn't think so and regards Bill as a tiresome nuisance, though he eventually proves his worth. Visitors to the inn include two doubtful state troopers, a crazy 'human bomb' escaped Italian POW, and the always delightful Max Rosenblum as a powder puff salesman ("like what ya dab on ya kissa"). Lorre is the town magistrate, sheriff, and the notary public who arranges the deed to be signed over and eventually joins Karloff in his superman brewing (the failures are stored in a cold morgue room off to the side. Parks and Winnie set about the renovations, and hunting for possible shadiness and it's all so good, so right, you get the vibe you might remember from when dad's away for the weekend on business and mom lets you stay up extra late and makes popcorn.

If you've seen ARSENIC, the film version made two years after BOOGIE MAN, you know that Parks' equivalent would Cary Grant's Mortimer Brewster. Grant uses the same high voiced morality and exasperated protectiveness as an excuse for avoiding sex. Recall how Grant keeps his bride waiting at the cab while he tries to quickly send his homicidal aunts off to "Happydale," like they are the ones who need it. Parks at least seems to want to have sex at some point, and is willing to do the Bed, Bath, and Beyond route if that's what it takes to get there. Winnie has his number ("Bill," she asks romantically, "don't you ever get tired of yourself?") and it's all understandable because men were hard to find on the home front back in 1942. They better look 4F if not in uniform, and not get too lucky with all the single girls drifting around in zombie fugue states between the sexy bookstore girl in The Big Sleep and the tranced-out Monogram brides of Bela Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes and Voodoo Man. 

The catch is that, just like we root for Grant's crazy aunts in Old Lace, we root for Karloff and Lorre here way more than Parks. First the "gruesome twosome" spar with each other, old neighborhood enemies (Lorre owns the mortgage) but they then form a bond with Lorre helping Karloff turn passing salesmen into electro-powered supermen: "He will destroy Berlin! He will throttle Tokyo!" Meanwhile, the ghost of Unkus ("The last of the Mohicans!") keeps emitting unearthly yowls in the day-for-night exteriors, and a portly 'balletmaster' snoops around the grounds and deflecting knife attacks from the crazy old lady housekeeper with his whalebone corset.

The dialogue is deliciously archaic throughout, as if a drunken Vincent Price was mocking passages in some old Victorian novel. Someone had a good time writing this, and the actors ride that spirit. Lorre gets a great glint of mischief in his eyes and Karloff riffs on all his past and future mad scientist-cum-daffy but lovable old duffer roles.

There's lots of great little bits I love and can quote by heart: Lorre's kitten, which he carries in his coat ("she has an amazing affinity for crime and corruption!") and his easygoing way with handling all the magistrate duties required in this strange 'historic' town is consistent with the Norman Rockwell divided by Chas Adams political allegory of the moment, reflecting the way social order and governmental fixedness dissolve on the home front when the bulk of the brains and brawn are occupied elsewhere. Authority and energy streamline themselves, for survival's sake; capitalist money-grubbing is put on hold in favor of a kind of can-do socialism America shuns both before and after emergencies. At such times as war, petty tyrants can grab the throne and force true noblemen to turn outlaw and rob the rich and give to the poor in Sherwood. Or in this case, to help the war effort by taking 4F door-to-door salesmen and turning them into super soldiers!

Karloff and Lorre bring out the best in each other. One of the big tragedies of cinema is that Karloff wasn't released from his Broadway contract to do Capra's film version, though the rest of the cast all got to (west, that is). Karloff instead made this film, almost as consolation, once the show was over, and Raymond Massey stepped already into his shoes on ARSENIC, making all the jokes about "he he looks just like Karloff!" completely confusing -not that he did that bad a job, it's just that Karloff would have nailed it and no one would ever accuse anyone of looking 'just like Massey.' Not just for that reason but I prefer BOOGIE to the film version of ARSENIC. There's a lot less repetition and whinnying sexual anxiety and a lot more Lorre and Karloff. That means, in other words, more Halloween perfection, despite its relative sunniness (Capra got to use real night, and you can feel the difference). Put it on a double bill with Roger Corman's THE RAVEN and your Halloween shall be neither Karloff and Lorre-less no mit aus heiterkeit!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

SHINING Examples: Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror

Caught THE SHINING (1980) for the 18th or 10th or 100th time Tuesday (!) and noticed new things (!) as always--the vast disconnect between the members of the Torrance family; how badly each is trapped in their own unconscious minds' grips; how the Overlook's trans-dimensional gravity widens the space between them into uncrossable gulfs. I also realized how a post-structuralist malaise hangs over the Overlook, making even normal job interview blather cryptic and enriched with mantra-like repetitions which I have to assume are a meant as vain buffer against the madness of irrational experience. Of the entire cast, only Shelly Duvall's perky mom uses words in a direct, emotional manner, and everyone but Danny thinks she's a rube because of it. I also gleaned new insight into cabin fever and the archetypal meaning of the bathroom. So come with me, neighbor, I don't want to be alone. Trying to retrace steps is as dangerous as going forward.

Cabin Fever is something we know very little about since scientific inquiries into its nature are difficult. The presence of the scientific observer alone is enough to stop it from manifesting. Checking on an isolated subject's door with a questionaire in hand can either snap the subject out of it, or put the knocker at serious risk. This is because the condition infers a complete collapse of the social sphere. Without anyone to bring the subject back to a consensual reality, the sufferer can't tell the real from his imagination. The visitor can be misinterpreted as any kind of demons our unconscious can dredge up. Because the space of the hotel is so vast the Torrance family each falls into a separate madness. With no direct link to the social order present to keep them anchored--whether to each other, the social order or linear time/space--they dissolve into the archetypal time warp created by their own unconscious minds; like an iPod that must erase its current contents to connect with a new hard drive (they're not called 'torrents' for nothing!) Danny is erased from his body altogether, to be replaced by his talking finger, Tony. Jack--in his writerly determination to not be 'a dull boy'--is compelled to literally sever his family ties so he can escape into the past. Shelly's inability to get a 'normal' response from either of the Torrance males drives her into hysterics, and when even her ability to check in with the Rangers station for a dose of consensual social reality sanity is cut off, there's no new hard drive waiting to fill her memory. For whatever reason, her social connection won't erase, leaving her alone to witness the full horror of the Overlook.

Consider their example in light of the quintessential cabin fever victims: the Donner party (mentioned by Jack during the family's car ride) who spent months starving and shivering in clumsy brush sheds, buried under mountains of snow, weakened by frostbite and starvation, with only some human remains for food. Several of them lost any semblance of 'sanity' simply because the situation itself was without any 'anchor' of space/time and social strata. In such a situation, sanity becomes a burden, an anachronism. We can read the accounts of the survivors, but it was not a time wherein people waxed on about their mental states, unless they were novelists or well educated. 

In a way the relationship between Bowman and HAL in 2001 is reflected in THE SHINING, with its random markers "Tuesday" and "8:00 AM" indicating the complete breakdown and meaninglessness of time. There are no weekends in space, or at the Overlook, no intruding signifiers of social order for your madness to wriggle against. No alarm clocks. No recourse, except to kill any person whose reality might contradict your own.

Post-Structuralism - The second thing that stuck out this -nth viewing of THE SHINING was the constant repetition of 'tour guide' language: Jack and hotel staff (and later rangers via short wave radio) hide behind repetitive phrases ("sure looks like a lot of snow, over") and Jack especially clings to this repetition in his avoidance of any real commitment to his writing - his mantra of All Work and No Play make jack a dull boy functions as the endgame of a long string of repetitions heard throughout the film. Avoiding any genuine emotional connection to his family, Jack 'hides' in language, depending on his post-structuralist 'wit' for melting away the terror of any unsignified remainder that may come his way. But eventually, these mantras all fall by the wayside; they are feeble tools compared to the vast arsenal of symbolic language employed by the unconscious.

Note that the ghost bartender Lloyd (right) appears at Jack's big moment of crisis - when Shelly Duvall accuses him of hurting his son and Jack goes a little mad in outrage. Here he's wasted five months not having a single drink, out of some dorky fatherly guilt, and all for nothing as he's accused of hurting Danny anyway. His language finally breaks up a bit from the mantras and he mutters he'd sell his soul for a drink. There Lloyd is, without a word. Salvation and destruction all tied up in a single bargain. His statement "I would sell my soul for a drink," is perhaps the only 'true' thing he says, and as such constitutes a deal-done in the saying; the devil springs right up with full bottle service. Jack's eyes widen and bug out as he talks with Lloyd and the other ghosts, but he never dares ask anything like "are you real?" for that would risk sounding as square as his wife.

The Bathroom - Ground zero when it comes to realizing the drugs are kicking in. Check your dilated pupils in the mirror; freak out when you close the medicine cabinet and see a figure standing behind you, or a different background than the one you came in with; the toilet looms alien with its gaping porcelain maw of porcelain and swirling reflective light-off-the-small-square-tiles serpent scale vortices. This is the place of hair combing and judgment and bereavement, vows made to never drink tequila after wine, and last looks before you return to the merciless world of co-ed living. It is the place where coke moves from the tip of someone's car key into your nose, or you sneak cigarettes, or find the gun taped to the back of the old-fashioned toilet. We all surely know the 'boost' we may get when we break from our navigation of precarious social situations and retreat to the mirror of the bathroom to check our hair and psych ourselves for, and recover from, the million and one pressures, anxieties, and rewards, of social interaction. Here we are able to reconstitute our ego, a little mini-resurrection. The bathroom is where we go to delude and denude. We are allowed 'privacy' there, so can be naked without shame. And, as the hotel Overlook is so immensely private, the bathrooms in the film (there are two) are therefore double private, the haunted bath nook in room 237 is even a room within a room within a room, so triple private--so private that there is no difference between its reality and the realm of pure unconscious, and the tub is in a nook at the infinite point, for yet another layer--the mirror in the mirror room at the end of time in 2001. Time and language drift away in the solace of the gleaming fixtures and tiles, which correspond perfectly with our visualizations of the the drainage portal that lurks at the bottom of our souls, between our own unconscious and that of the universal collective, which is always waiting to back up the pipes and flood the room.

From top: Psycho2001, The Holy MountainTwin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Which came first, after all, the way bathroom tiles glisten in the light when you're tripping at 3:30 AM, or the reflection of your mind's eye temple and its sparking lights, each as large as the eye can wish to make out through the constantly rearranging serpentine points of definition? Small wonder that the bathroom is where all the scary business goes down in THE SHINING. For most Kubrick films, it is always, as it were, the same bathroom; the bathroom behind your eyes, or its eyes.  The black of your pupils in the mirror is the black of the 2001 obelisk and the blackness of the sink's drain, or Janet Leigh's dead eyes. It is the bathroom at the end of 2001 where Bowman hides from his older self; it's where Pyle shoots the sarge and himself in FULL METAL JACKET; it's where we see Nicole Kidman on the toilet while Tom adores his reflection in EYES WIDE SHUT. The colors in the Kubrick bathroom are always melting, the tiles always glistening like the skin of a giant slumbering serpent from the warped perspective of a fish-eye lens.

I've always felt if therapy wants to be truly effective it should take place in the bathroom. The room wherein the dancing dwarf speaks backwards in David Lynch's Twin Peaks is 'kind' of like this bathroom, a little less functional--like the outer lounge antechamber in swanky hotel ballroom bathrooms where you adjust your bow-tie at weddings and the dancing dwarf brushes your shoes and has a basket for tips and speaks in some indecipherable language. The beginning of Jodorowsky's THE HOLY MOUNTAIN takes place in a similar kind of bathroom/ tiled space, as the shaman shaves the heads of two women acolytes. This latter example evinces a superb understanding of the fantasmatic - with the hair shaving representing a complete identity melt (see also Kubrick's opening haircut sequence in FULL METAL JACKET) as an essential rite of passage when undertaking the trek to total self actualization and surrender.

In a Jungian analysis Jack's room 237 bathroom scene is something straight out of Hansel and Gretel - with the bathroom as the gingerbread house. Jack is a nervous but horny Hansel, the initial stern leggy sexiness of the female apparition is his candy. The breadcrumb trail in this case is the maze-like paths of the carpet and hallways that seem to pull him, like a magnet in slow dream time motion, towards the the woman, who is old witch and leggy candy rolled into a one-two switch. In Jung's lexicon, this old witch is the undernourished and most cranky shadow/anima, the 'wrathful deity' in the first bardo, the flip side of the peaceful deity / sexy young woman. Jack should have read the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

To get back to cabin fever, anyone who's been to the psychedelic mountain will surely have some chills of recognition in 237, for the room itself has cabin fever-- everything is slowed like clockwork and, without a 'majority' rule of perception to block the infinite with their tunnel vision reality, it's as if the Overlook is a galaxy and 237 bathroom is a black hole, through which one is drained into the pipes of Aboriginal 'dream-time.' One moves through the pipe and comes out of Marian Crane's open dilated pupil in PSYCHO, or out of the pistol barrel fired into the camera of Mick Jagger's brain at the end of PERFORMANCE. This small black hole slows down the world around it in an inescapable clockwork pentameter; hypnotic in its steady unwavering mechanical rhythm; it is the earth, the sun, and the wheels within wheels revolving in 2001's spaceships or Ezekiel's wheels in the sky. The drones on the soundtrack work to achieve this revolving sense of hypnosis, as does the slow, dreamlike movement of the camera and actors, the repetition of certain words over and over as a tool of hypnosis - "gimme the bat!" for example, becomes a mantra, as does 'redrum' and 'my responsibilities' and "Danny! Danny boy!"

Post-Post Structuralism - In my past viewings I've found her unbearable, but I came to respect and like Shelly Duvall's character this time around. After all, she does knock her husband out with a bat and then lock him in the pantry. She defends herself with a knife and eventually triumphs over him in every respect. She fucking kicks his ass! Her kid may be a nutcase and her husband a smartass but Shelly manages to keep some kind of grip on things even as she herself begins to see the apparitions. I was particularly aware of the wincing of the men over her gushing naivete during their initial tour, and it's that which clued me into the post-structuralist aspect: "This may be the biggest, most beautiful place I've ever been in!" she beams. The men wince at her guilelessness.  Jack would never admit the Overlook was the biggest place he'd ever seen, lest he look like a rube whose never left Denver--and in part that's why he got the job. But its Shelly's kind of uncomplicated normality that survives cabin fever, not Jack's cynical melting clock-style evasiveness.

You see, you see Jack plays the game wherein all language is double filtered, repeated and used as a distancing tool, a way of negotiating one's way through matters too vast and complex to adequately sum up. For those who operate in this 'adult code' any gushing or exclamatory phrase pollutes the bond that acknowledges the power of the unspoken and is therefore evidence of immaturity --the domain of the squares, i.e. the wives who don't get invited out to drinks or the kid who knows you're tripping at the art opening and has to tell everyone so you can't 'pass' for sane as you would like. "You know he's tripping, right?" - "Shut up Max, I don't want them to know," -- "why, are you ashamed?" But tripping you can't even process the word ashamed, it's only that your enhanced depth perception has now been pinned down to a mere drug signifier to which most people have only one response, to rapidly move their hands back and forth on either side of your head and say "you're going down a tunnel whoosh whooosh!"

For speech to be 'successful' as indicative of one's adult insider status -- too cool to care, as it were-- said speech must circumvent and sidestep and 'double-time' its actual meaning, and protect the sublime in fields of repetition and banality. (Max should have said "Did you know he's not tripping? Isn't that wild!") The words Ullman speaks to Jack during the interview, for example, he's clearly spoken before, but he trots them out like a favorite old horse around a familiar well-worn track. The past murders are mentioned with the 'customary' tact and Jack reacts in just the way one would ideally react, without real thought or emotional surplus. Compare his reactions to someone who attempts to be 'earnest' when faced with a similar situation, and you know I'm thinking here of the meetings between Barton Fink and Lipnick (read my thing on that thing here)

This strategy is also what enables Jack later to talk with Lloyd and later the bathroom attendant, Grady. Jack confronts these speechful specters with, if anything, a greater connection and directness than he has with his own family but basically the connection is the same in that it is deliberately clouded by 'hip' language. Ghost bartenders are much more sympathetic than hysterical wives or disturbed sons, at least in Jack's eyes. Effortlessly moving into a racist, classicist mode of thinking, Jack becomes the gentleman who is served, i.e. the upper class, of which until now he--like us--has obviously regarded with anxiety, since (unless we're part of this 'old money' class) most of us never 'see' this reality in our normal life, yet feel we deserve to live in it. When we're suddenly presented with the opportunity we balk. We want to go home and change, to buy a new dress, we start to panic. But in his delusional state Jack feels more than ready and clearly views his wife and son as the disposable dregs of his present, like Shelly Winters in A PLACE IN THE SUN, the sort of albatross of a broad who can't let a minute go by at Disneyland without having to say "isn't this fun, honey?" or "are you having a good time?," laboring under the idea that language will somehow encompass and exceed the event, will adequately mirror the vastness of direct experience. But Jack knows that by saying it she in effect robs it of the qualities she ascribes to it. Moms do this all the time, don't they? Honey? Don't they? Honey?

The only way saying something is great without making it less great is if the great thing has moved safely into the past - which is part of why the bourgeoisie prefers their artists long dead before they honor them. The artist was great but can never be great in that moment. (Jack is finally happy when he is 'already dead' and appears bottom center in the 1921 photo (above) his arms contorted like a Satanic puppet.

Jack triumphs because he never weakens in his mastery of repetition in language, he's like a horror icon version of Warhol. In repetition only does language prove an equal to direct experience, and only repetition can actually 'enhance' direct experience by hypnotizing the conscious mind into a state of strictly observational stasis. Approached via mantra, by removing one's focus from the realm of the symbolic, by repeating a single word over and over until it loses all meaning, the obscene dimensions of the real are suddenly exposed. Say it enough times in a row and even the word 'beauty' becomes a hideous, trumpet-like mass of snouts and tentacles. Better just wait in the bathroom until these tentacled noises have passed into rusty memory and silence removes your last few senses like barnacles and all tomorrow's parties are safely receded in the tide.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...