Oh, the Horror! …of Childhood?
Published on October 30th, 2011 | by Rebecca A. Brown1
by Rebecca A. Brown
For T.S. Eliot and his disciples, April is the cruelest month. For a reformed goth-girl from the Pacific Northwest residing in the Lone Star State, October is crueler than April. Specifically, October’s weather is the culprit. I yearn for slate-colored clouds, 60 degree days, and my slimming black leather jacket, yet the terrifying Texas sun instantly dashes these desires. My arsenal of weapons to battle this predictably upsetting event—perpetual sunshine—is highly varied. I listen to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Tinderbox” and “Juju”; I eat hearty soups at least twice a week, while cranking my air-conditioning up, ensuring that the apartment reaches a blissful 73 degrees. But horror films are my most potent weapons. I screen them from the start of the month to its conclusion, as if by doing so, I can evoke the spirit of fall and Halloween for 31 days and nights.
This year, as I began to wonder whether I should consume my October horror in the form of monsters, ghosts, haunted houses, adaptation, or fashion, a whiteboard of nine “Halloween films” at my favorite espresso spot gave me additional food for thought. My baristas placed the film “Trick ‘r Treat” (2007), with its cleverly interlocking stories of adolescent terror, female gothic transformations and pumpkins gone awry, at the top of their list. They cited “Sex and the City” (2008) and “Sex and the City 2″ (2010) as number five, insisting that Liza Minnelli’s performance in the second film constituted one of the most horrifying cinematic moments they’d endured in years.
My baristas’ list, in short, demonstrates that the horrific, fear-inducing, shocking, and nightmarish is highly subjective, shaped so often by our personal experiences, and, of course, always subject to social, political and cultural change. (My ideal Texas horror film depicts the following scenario: families huddled around rusted air-conditioning units in an apocalyptic landscape, waging dusky battles at the Alamo against mutant geckos, laser-eyed cockroaches, and a horde of zombies led by Kris Kristofferson; Robert Rodriguez would, obviously, direct). Horror films offer us escape (from the nightly news); they also offer us the pleasures of being scared shitless in a safe environment, the opportunity to (safely) confront our most fearsome nightmares (flying cockroaches), and the chance to suddenly realize that places, people, objects and scenarios we’ve never feared can, in fact, become terrifying (clowns).
Yet, this is only a starting point for thinking about horror films, a starting point that the anti-social duo (Paul Anthony Johnson and I), both lovers of Halloween and horror films, enjoy debating, especially at this time of the year. This article emerged from one such series of exchanges. Rather than continue the cyberspace discussion alone, we wanted to share our ideas with a larger audience; in doing so, we found ourselves returning to childhood. Thus, we seek (here) to engage in a dialogue that is both nostalgic and contemporary—which horror films we revere from our youth, which ones we gravitate towards now, which ones eternally sustain us—so that we can ultimately consider what kinds of horrors children bring to this genre and what the “horror” in the term horror film might mean in 2011. As you read, we hope that you will remember a Halloween flick that you’d like to dig out of your creepy cellar or attic, indulge yourself in a little escape from the terrors that consume your days and nights, and share with us your favorite cinematic horrors—from the past or the present.
Part 1: The Poetry and Danger of “The Curse of the Cat People”
By Paul Anthony Johnson
It began, as these things usually do, in childhood. Every Saturday night, starting from before I can even remember, my father and I would watch whatever horror movie happened to be on TV that evening. For us, the early ’80s were the era Before Video (the momentous arrival of our first VCR didn’t come until ’86, such were the fringe benefits of growing up moderately poor), when the viewer’s pleasure was always at the whim of local and national broadcasters. But the early ’80s were something of a golden age in that regard, since in the years before the FCC lifted restrictions on the amount of broadcast time that could be allotted to advertisements (and thus ushered in the age of the infomercial), airing old horror movies seemed like as good a way to sell aluminum siding as any. So my father and I usually had the chance to choose between two or three different programs every Saturday, from Rowland V. Lee’s “Son of Frankenstein” on Channel 30 to Roger Corman’s “Pit and the Pendulum” on Channel 47 (God Save UHF) to a bowdlerized version of Barbara Peeters’s “Humanoids from the Deep” airing somewhere on basic cable, all hosted by some bored local weatherman or dinner theater ham who had raided a consignment shop and was now parading around as a count or a doctor or a commander.
I suppose my tastes were slightly unusual for a brat of my generation in that I always had a slight preference for the classic stuff, the monochrome wonders from Universal or RKO or, more rarely, MGM, that provided the foundations for everything the genre would become thereafter. The Universal Monster cycle and Val Lewton produced horrors made regular appearances on the broadcast itinerary, so I was familiar with each by the time I was five. I won’t claim that my tastes were so preternatural that I adored the Val Lewton movies above all (I suffered the impatient child’s lament of persistently wondering, “Where, oh where are the monsters?”) and of course it wasn’t until I hit puberty that I could fully appreciate the psychosexual undercurrents that defined the terror at the heart of much of the Lewton-produced movies. But “Curse of the Cat People” was always an exception. Perhaps because it was a child’s tale, and a tale of an anti-social, painfully shy child at that, I felt an immediate attachment to the film as a kid, an attachment that perhaps accounts for why the film continues to move me, making it an autumn perennial in my viewing habits.
Of course, many would object to my Halloween choice. After all, it’s only marginally a horror film, and for many not really a horror film at all. The estimable William K. Everson, in “Classics of the Horror Film” (1975), lamented that the title “tried to pass off a fairy story as a horror yarn” and in “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies” (1973), Denis Gifford wrote that the film was “a brilliant piece of supernatural cinema, but a long way from horror.” But I’d argue it belongs to an honorable genre tradition, alongside Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive” and Philip Ridley’s “The Reflecting Skin,” of movies about the hold the macabre often has over the minds of impressionable children. As such, it has powerful things to say about the genre and its allure, and makes for an ideal entryway for thinking and celebrating horror cinema this Halloween.
Saddled with a pulpy title forced on him by RKO studio chiefs (bless their vulgar little mercenary hearts), Lewton developed the film with screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, and assigned directing duties initially to Gunther Von Fritsch and then to Robert Wise (accounts differ on what led to Von Fritsch’s dismissal – depending on the source, he was either fired for falling behind schedule or left because he was drafted). The film picks up seven years after the events of Cat People, with Oliver and Alice Reed (Kent Smith and Jane Randolph), now married and with a six year-old daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). Amy spends most of her time lost in her own imagination, ignored or misunderstood by her parents, teachers, and fellow children. Depending on how one chooses to read the film, Amy either conjures or hallucinates her father’s long-dead ex-wife, Irena (Simone Simon), who quickly becomes the child’s most cherished companion. Amy’s wanderings eventually lead her to an old mansion (a set leftover from Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons”), reported to be haunted, where she meets Julia (Julia Dean), a retired actress preoccupied with the lost glory of her acting years, and her embittered daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), who spends her days caring for a mother who rejects and mocks her at every opportunity. In the film’s chaotic climax, Amy, devastated by her father’s angry reaction upon learning of her imaginary friend, runs away to the mansion during a wintry night, where she finds herself a potential victim of Julia and Barbara’s wrecked, poisonous relationship.
The script peppers the film with quick little asides that perpetually hint at something cruel and alienating about the adult world. Even the relationship between Amy’s parents alternates between coolness and passive-aggressive derision. My favorite bit in this vein comes when Oliver, played once again as a stolid bore (in the first film, Irena’s affection for Oliver always seemed partly explicable as a young smart young woman cursed with libidinal lycanthropy deciding, “Well, if I absolutely have to not sleep with someone, I might as well not sleep with this kindly dope”), looks at Amy’s school paintings and opines “Well, shows imagination anyhow,” to which his wife replies, “I wonder if you don’t resent that.” (Oliver gives no signs of noticing the remark.) As a consequence, Amy’s desire to turn away from the material world to a stranger, darker yet more compassionate one of her imagination, always seems like a smart survival strategy. The central monster role in this film isn’t occupied by Irena, or even by the resentful Barbara, but by Amy, whose isolation and resourcefulness confuses and scares nearly everybody around her. The horror genre in the classical Hollywood era was always about creatures cut off from the rest of the human race, and Whale’s Frankenstein monster and even Larry Talbot in “The Wolf Man” are moving precisely because they’re speak to everyone’s leftover adolescent persecution complex. It’s the crucial point of empathy that inspired Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive” and it’s Bodeen and Lewton’s ability to express the haunting dimension of childhood imagination that makes “Curse of the Cat People” so powerfully affecting.
The film expertly conveys “the poetry and dangers of childhood” (to borrow James Agee’s eloquent description of the film) partly through the careful juxtaposition of a rather limited number of sets, from the Reeds’ numbingly tasteful house, to the eerie, baroque interior of the mansion inhabited by Julia and Barbara, to the stagey but effectively lush backyard where Amy spends most of her time with Irena. Each location has its own peculiar menace and promise, and part of the b-movie genius at work here is that the forced minimalism grants every set the time to achieve its own special character. People seem defined by the rooms they inhabit, whether it’s Amy’s luminous bedroom, all billowing curtains and mysterious shadows, or Oliver’s workroom, all matter of fact and utilitarian. The world resembles its prisoners.
The Lewton cycle used abstract evocations of the world to delineate dream-like spaces, where the world’s inhabitants have been reduced to the deranged, wounded occupants of the Lewton films. In “Curse of the Cat People,” that abstraction proves especially evocative of a child’s view of the world, a world that dances between the idyllic and the nightmarish, though elsewhere in the genre’s history this was a habit that often proved entirely suffocating, as in William Cameron Menzies’s thematically similar “Invaders from Mars” (1953), in which the world reveals itself to be feverishly hostile at every turn, as a boy sees every adult as a potential tormentor.
Lewton’s penchant for literary and artistic references outlines a world that exists beyond Amy’s imagination while simultaneously shading our understanding of the power and threat of that imagination, as the film relies on references to Goya’s “Don Manuel Osorio” and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “The Unseen Playmate” to embellish attitudes and feelings toward childhood. The casual culture of Lewton’s films makes them intriguingly affected and touchingly anachronistic, guided by the belief that employing a Donne quotation to round off a tale of madness and murder could prove somehow redemptive. “Curse of the Cat People” ultimately maintains confidence in the idea that people’s ability to connect to one another will save them, and it’s marked by a humanist faith that art can function as a great leveler, though doubts linger in the margins, as not everyone can be saved from oblivion.
The film forges ahead to the finish without clearly resolving some of its more urgent emotional threads, particular regarding poor, isolated Barbara, who we last see reentering her mother’s house to persist in a life of loneliness and heartbreak. Barbara terrifies because she seems to offer a possible future for Amy, as she’s similarly cut off from parental affection, and trapped in a world that largely ignores her. That Amy’s other major identification figure happens to be a ghost of a woman who, in the film’s accounting of things, went insane, murdered a man, and then committed suicide, doesn’t offer much in the way of comfort either. But Lewton’s approach usually leads us to side with the potential monsters, those so wounded and traumatized by a world turned against them that madness and malice appear to be rational reactions to the world (it’s no accident that purest, most despicable evil in the Lewton cycle comes in the form of Boris Karloff’s character in “Bedlam” (1946), an asylum’s head physician who’s in charge of treating/victimizing the mentally ill). After all, who wants to live sanely and effectively in a world where the principle agent of authority and reason is someone as dull as Kent Smith? For a child, or an adult for that matter, estranged from normality and attracted to varieties of the macabre, the idea that dysfunction, confusion, delirium, and morbidity are all healthy outcomes of a life lived in opposition to the Kent Smiths of the world (whatever their swell intentions and last act attempts at sympathy) is powerfully self-ennobling.
Horror movies always return to the allure of monsters as representatives of something mythic and redemptive, a way out of the threat of the banal adult world. But the psychological turn horror took in the 1960s, beginning with “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom,” pointed toward something tragic and destructive in that hope, as both Norman Bates and Mark Lewis are above all wounded offspring, turned dangerous by time and circumstance. The dividing line that cuts the horror genre in two can be understood as the turn away from any hope for reconnection, or any promise that the monstrous and mythic might save us from the cruelties of the world. All the great horror figures of the 60s and beyond, from Romero’s ghouls to Leatherface to Sadako were new kinds of monstrous children, inarticulate beings cut off from the world and from understanding who had been reduced only to a primal instinct to destroy the world in the most savage ways possible. To return to “Curse of the Cat People” is to return to a fragile moment when an intelligent person could still take the promise of salvation seriously.
Why We Fear White Nightgowns, Dark Hallways and Birthday Cake
By Rebecca Brown
Two horror films define my youth: “Poltergeist” (1982) and “Aliens” (1986). The first scared me to death until I was a late teen. Prior to seeing it, I never thought that the tree outside my window might seek to eat me one night. Like so many of my friends, this film also spawned an irrational fear I’ve never been able to shake off: clowns. On the rare occasions when I see these terrible beings in parades or at Halloween parties, I quickly run away (undoubtedly my parents are either chuckling over this line or feeling immensely guilty). Since I didn’t grow up in suburbia, and we certainly didn’t have a swimming pool, there was little need to fear that my house was built on a cemetery. But what caused me the most grief in viewing this film was poor Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), victimized by evil and separated from her parents (O’Rourke’s very unfortunate early death literalized this separation for me in later years). When she talks to her mother through the television, I always became anxiety stricken, as this scene resonated with my first recurring nightmare: being separated from my mother in a department store. Carol Anne’s plight, though, deepened my understanding of separation anxiety: what could be worse than being separated from one’s parents while still inhabiting the same space as them?
In contrast, “Aliens,” a sci-fi horror film, did not scare me nearly so much, probably because I couldn’t really identify with Newt (Carrie Henn). This had nothing to do with my lack of space travel. Rather, I couldn’t garner much sympathy for Newt since I didn’t witness much of her traumatization. However, I found it deeply pleasurable to watch all the marginalized characters wage bloody, sweaty, messy battles to their deaths or near deaths–Bishop, Vasquez, Ripley, and even Hicks, once he’s blinded. Sigourney Weaver oscillating between and eventually merging the roles of warrior and mother, and of course her stunning final battle against a gigantic, vicious alien (a mother herself, and a rather gorgeous one at that), were always deeply satisfying for me as a young girl, and certainly gave me a feeling of catharsis that was lacked by the ending of “Poltergeist.” Even though Carol Anne is reunited with her family, this reunion was too brief for me to feel reassured; although “Aliens” never shows the space travelers arriving home, I somehow knew that with Ripley alive, they’d make it (despite what the sequels would have you believe).
Given these youthful horror obsessions, it’s not surprising that my favorite horror film of October 2011 is Freddie Francis’s “Nightmare” (1964) (the second film on a DVD I obtained for “The Kiss of the Vampire” (1963)). While some of the best-known Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s are monster oriented–Frankenstein, mummies, werewolves— “Nightmare” signals its difference from these by turning monstrosity into a human venture. “Nightmare” has become such an obsession that it even derailed my initial focus for this article: I was going to highlight the nostalgic kitschiness of three Hammer vampire films, starting with “Horror of Dracula” (1958). I wanted to wax poetic about garish colors foregrounded in bizarrely well-lit European mansions, castles, and monasteries that evoke a delightfully disorienting (re)constructed past. I wanted to gush over Christopher Lee’s enchanting, red-eyed Count and Peter Cushing’s terrifying velvet vest and jacket ensemble. Lee and Cushing provide endless entertainment as the former menaces elder men, mute boys, and women and the latter saves women and empowers young men to drive stakes into the hearts of monsters. The sheer camp factor in these films frequently negates these films’ misogynistic undertones, at least for me. In stark contrast, “Nightmare” allows its female characters to victimize men as if to protest their treatment in other Hammer films and/or to make its indebtedness to “Psycho” (1960) and “Diabolique” (1955) that much more explicit. Moreover, it includes neither Lee nor Cushing, and trades garish colors for a stylish black and white palette.
In Francis’s film, seventeen-year-old Janet Freeman (Jennie Linden) suffers from horrific nightmares at her boarding school as a result of a traumatic childhood event: her mother stabbed her father to death on her eleventh birthday. Although she did not witness the killing, as a flashback shows us, the pre-teen confronted her father’s bloodied prone body and her maniacal mother still clutching the phallic instrument of destruction. Janet, clearly neither a free-man or free-woman in any physical or emotional sense, is sent home to her guardian’s house (High Towers), accompanied by her teacher Mary (Brenda Bruce). After Mary leaves, Janet remains under the watchful eye of faux nurse Grace Maddox (Moira Redmond), and the maternal housekeeper, Mrs. Gibbs. Here, a mysterious woman in a long, white gown begins to haunt Janet, who already fears that she has inherited her mother’s insanity. Despite the stern conviction of every parental-esque authority figure, the persecuting presence of the woman in white sends her over the edge. On her 17th birthday, Janet stabs her guardian’s (Henry’s) wife—a mirror image of the mysterious woman in white, here wearing all black—in the presence of Henry himself, the doctor who has been treating her, a psychiatric specialist from London, Grace, and Mrs. Gibbs.
Following on from this bloody event, the film dramatically shifts perspective to reveal that Janet has been systematically driven insane by a joint conspiracy between Henry and Grace, the latter posing as the woman in white, convincing wig, mask, and gown at her disposal. After Janet’s lock-up in an asylum, we join Henry and Grace on their honeymoon, in a chalet-esque hotel; the murderous duo assumes they’ve committed the perfect crime. However, Grace’s suspicions of Henry’s infidelity begin to drive them apart. At this point in the film, a series of fairly predictable yet brilliantly paced events unfold: Henry and Grace return to High Towers; their marriage dissolves as Grace becomes increasingly paranoid and begins to see the woman in white; and finally, Grace becomes so convinced that Henry has liberated Janet from the asylum to drive her insane that she stabs Henry (with a knife, in bed). Yet, in a surprising final twist (for myself at least), we discover that Janet has not escaped from her asylum to torment Grace; the maid, seemingly innocent and almost mute, is not the culprit. Rather, Mrs. Gibbs, John (the driver), and Mary have puppeteered this conspiracy.
One of the primary reasons I enjoyed this film was the house. High Towers is a misnomer as the edifice possesses no towers. Rather, its undecorative, stoney exterior gives it the impression of a giant crypt (indeed, the fact that all three murders occur there cements this idea). The interior provides a constricting, over-decorated contrast to the exterior. This interior has so many high backed dark wood chairs, useless knickknacks, and paintings on the walls that it’s consistently dark inside, even during the day. Add the clever use of light and darkness to create lady in white shadows in the long, dark hallways that Janet and Grace navigate, and the tension becomes occasionally unbearable as the two women wander from bedroom to bedroom, actively seeking out the vehicle of their persecution. In this sense, “Nightmare” capitalizes on viewers’ expectations of horror films’ spooky interiors already established, for instance, in Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” (1961), (expectations that will be revised by the end of the decade with “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)). Bly, in “The Innocents”, is an enormous English country estate complete with a gigantic mansion. The ceilings reach heavenly heights, and while decorations abound, there’s space to breathe; even the sparsely decorated governess/children’s rooms gain space through the perpetually open windows. Bly is a house that becomes creepy in part due to its excess space, highlighted in several scenes by cinematography that emphasizes white tones over black. High Towers, however, is creepy due to the lower ceilings, consistently closed windows, and smaller scale of its structure; it supposedly has “grounds” but we never see them, more than likely due to Hammer budget constraints. Bly’s often agoraphobic effects highlight Miss Gidden’s (Deborah Kerr’s) insistence that her wards are possessed by dead spirits (her madness takes an external referent, external because with one or two exceptions, these spirits haunt the outside and the roof of the house); High Tower’s claustrophobic effects are sinisterly employed to emphasize the breakdown of Grace and Janet’s psyches (with attendant internal referents, in the form of the woman/women in white wandering down the hallways).
“The Innocents” and “Nightmare” further connect in their depictions of female madness. Janet, like the other women in white, undermines the virginal undertones of the color white. Instead, this pure color becomes associated with women’s ghostliness (marginalization via insanity) even from the film’s opening scene when Janet finds herself walking down the dark passageways of the asylum in which her mother is confined; she’s wearing a white nightgown and when her mother steps out of the shadows, she’s also wearing a white gown. Both of these women kill in white; even Grace, who seems only wear a whitish nightgown with a black lacy robe over it towards the end of the film, kills in her bedroom attire (Grace’s combination of black and white seems fitting due to her sinning). The images of bloodied male bodies lying in bed (at the beginning and end) victimized by knife-wielding women (Janet’s mother and Grace) offers a counterpoint to Christopher Lee’s Dracula in “The Horror of Dracula” and “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave”; the Count menaces young women in their bedrooms, frequently prone, waiting for his knife-like teeth to penetrate them. Dracula’s scenes are erotic (even more so when his cape cloaks the actual blood-drinking); women stabbing men with knives in bed, is not. Instead, it recalls revenge fantasies. Even when Janet stabs Henry’s wife, which is particularly shocking because she kills a woman rather than a man, it plays like a rash act of vengeance.
Janet’s bizarre longing for High Towers (bizarre since it was the site of her childhood trauma), results from her taboo obsession with Henry, played by a dashingly sexy David Knight, an American actor with a highly convincing English accent. Henry’s appearance in the film is withheld for one-third of its running time; call it a half-time Orson Welles effect a la “The Third Man” (1949). While Henry’s first appearance may not be as breath-taking as Welles’, Francis cleverly teases the viewer; we hear Henry’s voice, overlapping with frightened Janet cowering in bed and then the film cuts to the backside of his head as he converses with Janet’s doctor. As he completes the statement “merely highly strung”, he turns his head, thereby arresting the heart of every female viewer in 1964 who suddenly wished for a rich guardian to defend her sanity. When Henry visits Janet in her bedroom, though, something delightfully sinister occurs: he attempts to kiss her forehead, but she swiftly maneuvers her head, locking her lips onto his. After disentangling himself, Janet clutches Henry’s arm in bed, grilling his whereabouts like a jealous mistress; Henry swiftly dismisses himself under the auspices of his sick wife and promises Janet he’ll take her to London soon if she gets better. The film remains delightfully silent on the relationship between guardian and ward, never revealing whether or not Henry (the executor of her parent’s house, High Towers) is a blood relation. In the second half of the film, David Knight utilizes his marvelous face to physically and psychically transform Henry alongside Grace into a domesticated gothic tyrant, whose greatest weapons, his grip on rationality and logic, his charm, and his ambivalent feelings for Grace, conspire to make him dashingly menacing. (A favorite shot: when Grace wanders upstairs seeking the woman in white; Henry’s face shifts from a look of concerned annoyance into a smug smirk).
Janet is coded as a teen whose emotional and social development was arrested at the age of 11. To this end, she’s treated like a large child by every authority figure and carries around an uncanny Howdy-Doody-esque doll, a doll, which becomes a vehicle of terror in its own right as its mysterious movement from room to room by unseen hands contributes to both Janet and Grace’s mental deterioration. (I shudder as I pen this line, having long thought that dolls are horrific creatures, and indeed, Janet is analogous to a doll). Aside from Janet’s quasi-romantic entanglement with Henry, the only other sign of her teenage status is her portable radio, since her body is consistently swathed in coats, robs, and seemingly chaste white nightgowns. Although my Hammer film viewing is relatively limited, from my understanding, it was atypical of the company to use a teenage protagonist, and in the case of the Dracula films, typically, the women were young but very “robust.” This contrast led me to several comparative speculations. Initially, I considered Janet as a strange counterpoint to James Dean and other socially rebellious teenagers of the 1950s, something along the lines of Dean’s utterance, “You’re tearing me apart!” (directed at his parents) turning into Janet’s literalized tearing of Henry’s wife apart (thereby enacting an extreme teenage fantasy, which takes on even more disquieting undertones when we consider that while Janet has never seen Henry’s wife, she’s already implied that she’d like to be his mistress). Taken within a different context, Janet poses an intriguing contrast to chilling children who know too much, not only in “The Innocents,” but also in “Village of the Damned” (1960); she too knows too much about her parents’ physical and mental demise, but her knowledge doesn’t become a menace to the adults surrounding her.
Janet can be considered in yet another light. For the first part of the film, Janet’s mother seems to join a long line of cinematic mothers who have either spawned bad/unstable children/teens/young adults or who are to blame for their children/teen’s/young adult’s voluminous issues. “Psycho” (1960) and “The Haunting” (1963) immediately come to mind, as does the latter film’s source novel, Shirley Jackson’s superb “The Haunting of Hill House.” However, “Nightmare” also cleverly undermines this motherly blame, nearly parodying it, by Grace and Henry’s conspiracy. Thus, the sins of the mother are not revisited on the female child.
Let me conclude these rambling thoughts on “Nightmare” by returning to the film’s finale. After Grace stabs Henry, she rushes down the stairs to phone the police. However, Mary halts her phone call. Within moments, Grace is surrounded, in triangulated fashion by Mary, John, and Mrs. Gibbs, each sinisterly stepping out of the hall’s darkness. Mary and John reveal their collective conspiracy against Grace and Henry; John even calls the asylum to show Grace that Janet did not escape, rather, John tapped her line, posing as an asylum worker. (A disembodied female voice calmly reassures us that “We expect a complete recovery in a couple of months”). Grace then turns away from the group, retreating to the corner by the stair-well with the bar-like railing; she chillingly laughs/screams hysterically, “why, why, why?” while John calls the police.
John, Mrs. Gibbs and Mary evince absolutely no guilt for Henry’s dead wife. All of their interest is in Janet, thereby making them the ultimate surrogate parents, those who, without any blood ties to the girl, can kill for her. Horror films (and even non-horror films) frequently underscore the seemingly natural connection between children and servants—both are marginalized within domestic spaces, falling under the watchful eyes of mothers and fathers—“Curse of the Cat People”, for instance, underscores this connection. But in horror and suspense films, servants frequently misbehave: Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” remains loyal to her dead mistress and torments her living mistress; Miss Jessel in “The Innocents” falls in love with Peter Quint and ultimately neglects her wards. “Nightmare” suggests that the “perfect servants,” Mrs. Gibbs, (who hovers in the confrontation scene like a malignant spirit), and John, (who speaks more in this scene than in any other), not only take an active, parental interest in their wards and rid the carpet of bloodstains, but also employ a third party to kill said employer and his co-conspirator for their morally unsavory ways. Certainly, Francis isn’t overthrowing the English class system in his film, but he is suggesting that a little healthy rebellion can overthrow the patriarchal rule of the household and set up the potential for Janet’s matriarchal rule to replace it. Finally, Mary becomes the ultimate empowered female schoolteacher, and this point is suitably appropriate for a contemporary gothic film, wherein Henry, the lawyer, has had a monopoly on rationality and knowledge (going so far as to tell Grace several times, as she casts irrational accusations at him, to “be reasonable.”). In the end, the female school teacher, herself a vessel of knowledge, demonstrates her maternal instincts, and simultaneously upstages the lawyer, whose dead body is displayed for us in the film’s final shot, alongside the evil spooky doll, and a phone receiver off the hook, dangling so we can hear the call to the police.
Despite the potential for Janet’s domestic rule, the film’s final shot reassures us, chillingly, that Janet can only return to a treacherously haunted, blood-soaked house; whether or not she can find a sense of homeliness there remains undecided.
Part 4: Dialogue of the Damned:
A Conversation about Horror and Halloween between Rebecca A. Brown and Paul Anthony Johnson
RAB: I was reading over your piece on “Curse of the Cat People” and came to the conclusion that Everson and Gifford missed the mark on their assessments of the movie–I think it’s the first horror film for children.
PAJ: You may be right. Though I might give that title to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
RAB: Ha! How about the first non-animated horror film for children?
PAJ: Perhaps. Although one of the reasons I wanted to write about the movie is because I think the attraction the horror genre often holds for young children tends to be an unexplored topic.
RAB: I can see that emerging in your remarks.
PAJ: I remember attending a revival screening of James Whale’s “Frankenstein” a few years back and noticing how many parents took their young kids, and how many kids fell in love with Boris Karloff’s child-killing monster. And as my comments indicate, I certainly trace my own affection for the genre to early childhood.
RAB: As I was reading what you wrote, I was thinking about the ways that monsters no longer seem to be for children.
PAJ: Ostensibly. But at least in the ’80s, every kid I knew adored slasher films, with special fondness for Freddy ‘mutilated child molester’ Krueger.
RAB: Freddy Krueger always struck me as more preteen than children in terms of appeal, but perhaps that’s because I wasn’t allowed to see it at home.
PAJ: Ah, the joys of having parents who put virtually no limits on what I could watch. A condition apparently shared by many of my playmates. I distinctly remember my 1st grade class once erupting into a collective celebration of “Return of the Living Dead,” which had recently aired on cable.
RAB: I was admiring the ways that “Curse of the Cat People” channeled the first 3 stanzas of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Unseen Playmate,” which is explicitly referenced in the film, but deterred from the last 2 stanzas. I also enjoyed the way that the film reinforced the connections between children and old people and children and servants–i.e. playing up the marginalized status of children and their affinity for others who are marginalized.
PAJ: I was hoping you’d have more to say about the Stevenson poem. It’s kind of a cliché to call the Lewton films ‘literate,’ but in the case of “Curse,” literary and artistic references are really foregrounded – Stevenson, Goya, Jungian children psychologists. I can’t imagine those references popping up in Paranormal Activity 12.
RAB: Don’t forget “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
PAJ: Right. That too. The film gets a lot of mileage out of its Terrytown setting.
RAB: I thought the opening was brilliant–sunlight, laughter, children, and then the teacher says, “oh yes, this is sleepy hollow.” My adult mind said, “Shit. No.” But the film stresses the child’s perspective so much that Sleepy Hollow only gets its scariness when the freaky old woman enacts her verbal and physical performance of the legend and when Amy crosses the bridge at night, in the snow.
On the subject of Stevenson, the poem is from “A Child’s Garden of Verses” (1885), and Lewton is clearly messing around with gardens and all their edenic, healing, peaceful undertones, and not just in The Secret Garden but in other children’s lit garden examples. Going back to Stevenson, the teacher only quotes the first stanza. The second stanza is “Nobody heard him and nobody saw, /His is a picture you never could draw But he’s sure to be present, abroad or at home, / When children are happy and playing at home.” I like the way Lewton/Bodeen engage with this stanza–no one can see Irena other than through her photographs, which they attempt to burn, and there’s the implication that she resists representation via her shadow appearance in Amy’s room the first time (by the way, Stevenson also has a great shadow poem in “A Child’s Garden of Verses”), and by the father’s inability to see her in the garden. The third stanza is even more explicitly played upon in the film, “He lies in the laurels, he runs in the grass, / He sings when you tinkle the musical glass; / Whene’er you are happy and cannot tell why, / The Friend of the Children is sure to be by!” I’m guessing Lewton didn’t have the school teacher quote this stanza because the audience would’ve just done a facepalm.
PAJ: That’s fantastic. And it’s very Lewton-esque to presume that the audience can supply the rest of the Stevenson poem (just like he presumes the audience will immediately recognize that Irena’s favorite painting was a Goya masterpiece often taken as a sardonic commentary on the fleeting nature of childhood innocence). The film’s very self-conscious in its evocation of those kinds of literary tropes, which is something that occasionally gives some critics pause. Manny Farber had reservations about Lewton precisely because he felt that Lewton was shoehorning his education into these simple horror fables.
RAB: I was definitely thinking about the Goya painting–I love how Robert Wise explicitly draws attention to the fact that it doesn’t fit.
PAJ: Yeah, the Goya is the only sign of intelligent life in that house, and it’s significant that it’s the only major thing the characters have held onto from Irena.
RAB: Lewton, though can’t play off the 4th stanza because it’s young boy undertones are too heavy (i.e. lines like “‘Tis he when you play w/ your soldiers of tin / That sides with the Frenchman and never can win”). The fourth stanza also starts out by addressing size: “He loves to be little, he hates to be big” (clearly that’s not Irena), and then “Tis he that inhabits the caves that you dig”–I’m sure something symbolic could be done with caves, but digging caves sounds like too much of a little boy activity. And hell yes on the home–it’s pretty boring, but there are some great contrasts, like when Amy’s room is swathed in shadows after her nightmare and then downstairs the adults are playing cards.
PAJ: Hmmm. Perhaps, though it’s interesting to note that some details apparently come from Lewton’s own boyhood memories, specifically the whole bit about trying to mail letters by putting them in the hollow of a tree. And yes, there’s a savage banality to that shot of the adults playing cards.
RAB: Ah, new fun details for me. I thought that was enchanting. So are horror films just too sure these days that audiences won’t “get it” if they do literary and other artistic references?
PAJ: There’s a great Phillip Lopate piece, collected in “Tenderly Totally Tragically,” which observes that where even run-of-the-mill genre films used to have obligatory references to literature, music, and art, contemporary films generally lack these references. I’m inclined to think the change has less to do with audiences (I’m not convinced that audiences are less knowledgeable than they were in the classical era, though pride in ignorance might be more common), than with filmmakers. Where screenwriters during the classical era tended to be imported from theatrical and literary circles, these days they come from UCLA or happen to be the offspring of some established Hollywood power broker. And certainly the perception that horror is an especially youth-oriented genre reinforces the tendency to avoid getting too highfalutin in one’s cultural references.
But it’s also worth remembering that even in their day, the Lewton films were singled out for being unusually literate, so I think in a lot of ways the array of references we’re picking out from “Curse” (and could pick out from other Lewton productions) is a special virtue of the Lewton cycle. These weren’t cases of genre films being unjustly ignored and savaged by critics of their day – James Agee loved the films (and had particular fondness for “Curse”), and though he had reservations, Manny Farber was an admirer as well.
RAB: I was also thinking that while “Scream” certainly isn’t one of my favorite horror films it is a fascinating film insofar as shifting references away from the literary back to the filmic, not only so that it can parody the genre but also as if to say that film itself constitutes a new vehicle of literacy.
PAJ: Yeah, the move toward cinema itself as the storehouse of relevant cultural knowledge is an important part of the story. Films of the classical era tended to be less referential simply because there was less film culture to reference.
Well, let’s move onto another horror film about adolescence, albeit somewhat more indirectly, the 1964 Hammer films release “Nightmare.” What led you to choose “Nightmare” in particular? It’s a fairly obscure film, mentioned only in passing in most genre reference books and even in books on Hammer films. It’s usually simply referenced as part of a cycle of psychological horror films Hammer produced in the mid-60s, along with such titles as “Scream of Fear” and “Paranoiac,” and was a reaction both to the success of “Psycho” and the box office disappointments of “Curse of the Werewolf” and “Phantom of the Opera” (which led to them reconsidering their dedication to just remaking Universal horror films). The only film in that cycle to really receive much in the way of commentary is Seth Holt’s “Scream of Fear.” So what made “Nightmare” a movie you felt obliged to cover this Halloween?
RAB: “Nightmare” was just so alluring because it overlapped with a lot of my current interests–young people, houses, women going mad–it’s a really tight little film (i.e., in terms of what it covers in all of 80 minutes) and the pacing was really exceptional for packing in all that it did. In short, it was a surprise for me on all fronts, especially since the “other film” on the two-film Hammer discs has, in the past, been a bit of a disappointment. It also kind of scared me–I realized that the scene where Grace tries to follow the woman in white was just eerie as hell because director Freddie Francis took away the non-diegetic sound and just focused on the diegetic sound–creepy as hell.
PAJ: It is an unusually well-directed film for Francis, who’s usually regarded as a great cinematographer and a mediocre director. My sense is that he got less engaged by directing as time went on, because his first two Hammer directing gigs, “Nightmare” and “Paranoiac,” are very stylish.
RAB: Also, I really enjoy being surprised when I’m watching all genres of film, but I like my surprises even more in horror, probably because there’s the feeling now that so many remakes indicate that few surprises are really left.
PAJ: Though “Nightmare” is fairly blatantly reworking formulas already set by “Diabolique” and “Psycho.”
RAB: Ha! It is, but there’s just something marvelous about transferring both “Diabolique” and “Psycho” onto British soil. Perhaps I just really love the film because it’s one of the best examples I can think of of channeling other films, but doing it in a not only stylish, but chilling way. Every five minutes of the film, I had a flash of another film or book it was channeling–it was all fairly endless and had no real beginning–I even had flashes of Losey’s “The Servant” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” when I saw it. I enjoy a rhizomatic viewing experience.
PAJ: How Deleuzian of you. The film was produced in late ’62 (though not released until ’64), before “The Servant,” but Losey had already worked at Hammer in ’61 with “These are the Damned.” Do you detect a New Wave influence in a film like “Nighmare”? I ask because the style of Losey’s films in the 60s clearly evolved under influence from seeing Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year in Marienbad,” and Nichols was of course clearly besotted with the British New Cinema movement, particularly its editing tics.
RAB: I had absolutely no idea until you said that. The Losey reference for me came in the rendering of domestic space–how completely fascinating that he worked for Hammer. New Wave influence in “Nightmare” . . . .hmmm. Not really–I could see the film as being transitional, though–on a New Wave brink.
PAJ: I wouldn’t claim that Freddie Francis was being directly influenced by the New Wave, though I think it’s possible that Seth Holt, who directed the film that kicked off the cycle, “Scream of Fear,” was, and Francis was clearly trying to echo Holt’s techniques in that film.
RAB: That’s interesting. I need to see “Scream of Fear.”
PAJ: I’m curious to hear your thoughts regarding the female characters in the film. Women are very prominent here, both as victims and as schemers. The focus on a young, female protagonist is unusual for a Hammer film (and partly a reflection of the fact, I suspect, that their most bankable star, Christopher Lee, was living in Switzerland to escape England’s onerous tax code in the year they produced “Nightmare”). Women rarely played anything more than damsel in distress roles in Hammer movies until the 1970s.
RAB: Janet gets to play the victimized Hammer girl (and the name Janet cracks me up—Janet Leigh in “Psycho” and then later Janet in “Rocky Horror”); however, Janet is also really unnerving because of that ridiculous doll she carries around and her “feelings” for Henry; so one of the things I love about her is that she doesn’t fit the mold in terms of the woman or child horror victim. She inhabits a delightfully liminal space. Grace I find more one dimensional, but I think her nervous breakdown is wonderfully impressive, and it’s a testament to her 1.5 dimensionality that she persecutes and kills her husband–I actually wasn’t expecting that at the end.
PAJ: In a lot ways, Janet reminds me of Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Repulsion,” and strangely I think the Polanski film plays as the ultimate culmination of the cycle of British psychological thrillers produced in the mid-60s, though ultimately taking things into much more disturbing and disorienting territory.
RAB: Catherine = Janet x 99.
PAJ: Do you see any parallels between Janet and Amy as isolated children/victims/potential monsters?
RAB: Actually, I did, very much–it was one of the first parallels between the films that I noticed. I didn’t get to talk about one of my favorite scenes–it’s the day after Janet has had her first nightmare and she’s isolated herself from the other girls at school, sitting alone with her trusty radio and doll, in a wintry landscape. Very sympathetic scene. There’s another great shot of her–I think it’s the second day in the house–also sitting alone, listening to her radio. And then there’s the fact that Janet is isolated from the other girls at school on her last night. This suggests that her nightmares or her presence are contagious.
What I thought was so neat about “Curse of the Cat People” was how much Amy got to leave her house to go outside–poor Janet. She gets no outside–even when she claims that she and Grace can go riding, we never see it because High Towers really isn’t an estate.
PAJ: I remember when I first saw the film eight years ago, I noted to myself how casually cruel the film was, to an extent I found the movie mildly off-putting. We get no psychological justification for the horrid behavior of our two villains toward Janet, and their villainy is a kind of assumed natural state of being for them. Which I don’t think would be odd except for the way Sangster shifts the perspective to them in the second half, and we find ourselves contemplating the pettiest irritations of a pair of monsters.
RAB: Yes, they are irritating as hell. Their verbal sparring inspired the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” connection.
PAJ: It was oddly daring for what was at heart just a routine Hammer thriller, though also in keeping both with the Clouzot influence and Sangster’s penchant for outrageously despicable protagonist (I’m thinking of Baron Frankenstein in “Curse of Frankenstein,” who could be a guide of moral mentor to David Knight’s character).
RAB: Moral mentor = hilarious.
PAJ: I want to end with a few lists: first, favorite adolescents in horror films.
RAB: Favorite adolescents: Oskar in “Let the Right One In.” Love that kid. There’s a nice connection between “Curse of the Cat People” and “Let the Right One In” –i.e., the child seeking friendship with a monster. There’s also a tenuous connection here to Janet in “Nightmare”–Grace isn’t exactly advertised as a friend, but a kind of companion, to keep the “child” company–she too, obviously, turns into a monster, thereby inverting the child/monster friendship connection. More favorites: Carol Anne (“Poltergeist”), Mike Myers (“Halloween), Miles & Flora – although more Miles than Flora (“The Innocents”). Damien always kind of annoyed me and so does Danny in “The Shining.” I’ve also never liked Regan in “The Exorcist.” I do love Rhoda in “The Bad Seed.”
PAJ: Regan is dull. I just re-watched “The Bad Seed” the other day. Lightning was too good for her. I wanted to see her get fed feet first into a wood chipper.
RAB: I have another great one – the evil little girl who kills lizards in “Deep Red” –adore her.
PAJ: Yeah. Actually, every creepy little kid in every Italian horror movie ever made for me. Like that poor little redhead in Fulci’s “The Beyond.”
RAB: True –Italian horror spawned spooky kids. Can I claim Teresa Wright in “Shadow of a Doubt”? Or does that not count?
PAJ: I’ll allow Teresa Wright.
RAB: Thanks. I also like the kids in “Night of the Hunter”–particularly the little girl because she’s so conflicted–clearly, she’s the one who truly apprehends the power of Robert Mitchum’s character.
PAJ: I would say for me Karen Cooper, the little girl in “Night of the Living Dead,” and Sadako, the vengeful spirit from the Japanese version of “Ring,” leap to mind as favorites.
RAB: The little girl in “Night of the Living Dead” is wonderful–eating her parents!!
PAJ: Young Victor Frankenstein in “Curse of Frankenstein” is marvelously condescending and rude. The monster baby from Larry Cohen’s “It’s Alive” is a favorite. And I love the baby in “Eraserhead.”
RAB: Monster babies are cute.
PAJ: Most encouraging trend in modern horror filmmaking?
RAB: Zombies. And an occasional willingness to be clever.
RAB: I like the occasional horror film that’s clever insofar as it keeps things evocatively scary in the 1970s style –one of the reasons why I liked the “My Bloody Valentine” remake. And, of course, while the “Scream” films didn’t do much for me, as per earlier the first one is clever insofar as it creates a palimpsest of horror film references. But what I like most in terms of cleverness is really the horror film that’s remaking something from the past and either gets into the spirit of former times or, like the “Piranha” remake, does something clever like casting Elizabeth Shue. There isn’t a lot of cleverness I see, and cleverness is clearly a counterpoint to me for gimmickiness, a la the Blair Witch Tragedy.
What about you?
PAJ: The most recent horror films that really excited me were “Pontypool” and “Let the Right One In,” both of which took old genre conventions and used them to say new things – “Pontypool” used the standard zombie narrative to think about language and communication, and with “Let the Right One In,” vampirism was an entry point for looking at childhood and nostalgia in fresh ways. I hope they augur a future where the genre is less self-referential, and where filmmakers are less invested in various kinds of shock gimmicks and more interested in using the genre as a way to explore real ideas in weird and perverse ways.
RAB: I do too. “Let the Right One In” is my favorite horror film of the past ten years. It’s also a brilliant adaptation. What I find interesting in what you pointed out is that most of our hope for the future lies in what other countries do with horror films.
PAJ: In terms of American filmmaking, the only signs of life I see are on television (and obviously this has been a common refrain among cinephiles regarding American cinema in general for about the last five years). I have some major reservations about “The Walking Dead,” but I’m excited to see where it goes and whether it opens the floodgates to more ambitious horror television.
RAB: I’m thinking also of “28 Days…” and “…Weeks Later”–i.e. other countries and zombies.
PAJ: For me, the late 90s/early aughts were all about J-Horror, so I don’t think American cinema has been the focal point of the best work in the genre for a while. Even the New French Extremism stuff, like “Martyrs” and “Inside,” though I haven’t cared much for the resulting films, is clearly doing weirder and smarter stuff than most of what’s happening in US cinema right at the moment.
Finally, what are you watching this Halloween?
RAB: “Halloween” and “Shaun of the Dead.” I was going to watch the original “Night of the Living Dead,” but I was so excited I watched it earlier this week. I love that film. What are you watching?
PAJ: A couple of annual traditions for me, “Halloween” (déjà vu) and “Creepshow,” along with at least one horror film I’ve never seen before, which will probably be Jean Rollin’s “Grapes of Death.” And if I have time, “Evil Dead 2” and Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath.”
RAB: Those are wonderful choices! I wish I had more time on Halloween so I could make it a triple feature, by adding “Deep Red,” which is my favorite giallo.
PAJ: Well, I’m going to sign off and wish you a very happy Halloween. It’s been a lot of fun.
RAB: Oh yes, it has been. Have a very happy Halloween–may evil books of the dead, boy-monsters in hockey masks, and scary giallo children fill your day and night.