Double Bill: Quatermass and the Pit (1967 – Roy Ward Baker) + Prince of Darkness (1987 – John Carpenter)

There’s a powerful idea of personal mythology that runs through my appetite for pop culture.  There are some movies and television shows that are engrained into my mind.  Cut me open, and I will bleed them.  Our vicarious thrill of horror movies – the desire to experience the terror of experiences that would traumatise us in the real world within the ‘safe’ setting of the cinema – seems burned into us from an early age.  It becomes an addiction; a thrill we hunger for again and again.

Nigel Kneale seems to have been the fix John Carpenter craved.  There was a constant thread of creeping dread that ran through his work that is reminiscent of Kneale’s own occupations.  Prince of Darkness seems to be the fulfilment of this obsession, such is its thematic bonds it shares with the adventures of Kneale’s most successful creation – Professor Bernard Quatermass.  Carpenter underlined this by naming one of his characters after that eponymous hero.  For whatever reason – and it’s quite likely that Kneale was still sulking after the Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982 – Tommy Lee Wallace) fiasco (Kneale was always a petulant artist) – it was a tribute rejected by the British writer.  But the horrible repercussions for humanity for meddling with an outside force (perhaps ‘demonic’) that has interfered in human evolution, and an exploration of the intertwined spheres of science and superstition, seem integral to both auteurs.

(Kneale himself had blended scientific enquiry with phantasmagoria in his acclaimed television play The Stone Tape (1972 – Peter Sasdy).  Whilst it is a masterpiece within its own form and builds to an eerily unpleasant ending, it never quite manages to escape the boundaries of seventies British television, all three-walled sets, multi camera set-ups and primitive video special effects.  It’s haunting in its own right, and powerfully evocative of the creepy British horror of M. R. James and old Doctor Who, but inherently anti-cinematic.  Which is not an implicit criticism – I preferred television when it was a distinct art-form in itself, rather than the indifferently filmed medium we endure nowadays.)

Despite the two films attempting to reconcile the separate spheres of faith and reason, they both admit the absolute existence of evil.  Now, whilst a rational explanation for its existence is presented (even if it is a hobgoblin from Mars), little consideration of the consequences of its existence are dealt with.  Modern aggressive rationalism (often as blind as faith can be) denies a reality of evil in the world, largely because operates from a westernised, privileged perspective.  Curiously, as we move further down the path of all-encompassing individualism, we often deny our responsibility for cruelty and ignorance, choosing to attribute it to social or personal dynamics beyond our control.  The existence of a real ‘demonic’ force could be seen to be the pinnacle of that instinct – an evil beyond our control.  In the worlds presented on the screen, we would be able to neglect any culpability in a malicious act.  Does that matter?  Emotionally, would a rational explanation for an evil act affect how we would respond to such cruelty?  Or would we feel the same?  It’s tempting to suggest that both universes would see an eventual dominance of faith-based belief systems, given the confidence with which they assert that good has ultimate dominion over bad.

(Despite my best efforts at rationality I remain convinced that ‘evil’ remains a useful word to use when discussing the world.  Too many children have been exposed to a darkness that causes them to lose a little of themselves.  Equally, our wilful neglect of animals – creatures, just like us that experience distress and agony – in order to satisfy our greed and ceaseless appetites, seems a distinctly evil act.)

There’s a generational shift between the two films.  Quatermass and the Pit is very much based on a wartime experience, whereas Prince of Darkness populates its cast with members of the successive generation.  These are the children who rejected the sacrifices of their parents in order to indulge in a more material world.  John Carpenter was firmly in this generation, though he (and amongst his contemporaries only George Romero shared in his convictions) was a genuine progressive.  His consistent approach to colourblind casting set him apart from, well let’s be honest, most of the filmmaking community till the present day.  Whilst Kneale was less able to present a varied range of experiences on screen, his consistently showed women to be the most industrious and imaginative members of his cast; women who often achieved this, despite the difficulties they faced in the workplace.  There is an empathy to both men’s writing that sets them apart from their contemporaries.

Watching Quatermass and the Pit is a more unnerving experience that watching the television serial upon which it is based.  Ultimately, the most chilling aspect of the cinema is the walk home at the end of the night.  In the shadows alongside the pavement, our minds cast fantasies that expand and enhance the myths we just saw on the screen.  It is the ability to scare ourselves through our own imaginations that demonstrates the utter effectiveness of storytelling.  Whilst John Carpenter wrote his script as a thematic exploration of Kneale’s concerns, it has always occurred to me that Prince of Darkness is in many ways a retread of his earlier work, The Fog (1980).  Both feature a large cast being threatened by a malevolent force that has been awakened in a traditional sanctuary.  However, Prince of Darkness has always been a more effective film in that it placed its plot in a single confined location, rather than the sprawling townscape of the earlier film (and it is to Carpenter’s great credit that he manages to balance narrative strands and define each member of his extensive cast within their placement in the building.)

For both films end with an act of hopelessness.  Like all discoveries, from the atom bomb to the death of god, the reality of the malicious force is something we can’t unlearn.  Its ultimate dominance of mankind is inevitable.  They speak to humankind’s enormous appetite for destruction.  Whilst Quatermass and the Pit seems initially to dwell within a more hopeful sixties, such was its vision of a successful space faring species, it seems to anticipate a more achievable reality.  That we, as species, are ultimately destined to destroy ourselves.  Either through our waste of the Earth’s natural resources, or the creation of our own redundancy through building a superior artificial intelligence, the reality appears to be that we as a species will never escape the confines of this planet.  Both films end with a defeat of the immediate threat, but accept that it is only a temporary respite.  Similarly, our destruction seems mutually assured.  Our complacency in the face of such certainty, speaks to our capacity for evil.

Double Bill: Personal Shopper (2016 – Olivier Assayas) + The Innocents (1961 – Jack Clayton)

I live with a ghost.  I mean, I don’t.  I’m fairly certain ghosts don’t exist.  But lights come on from time to time.  Cupboards open.  Blinds fall down.  A pair of scissors have gone missing.  It’s a fairly small, fairly sparse flat.  No one really comes over.  These things are true.  What possible explanation could there be for what is happening?

A few years ago, I woke up and saw a man sitting at the foot of my bed.  He was real.  And I was terrified.  But in the middle of the night, my brain kicked in.  I couldn’t move, not from fear, but because my body was naturally paralysed to prevent me from acting out my dreams (which generally consist of slightly more anxious versions of my real life – I have no real subconscious to speak of).  I saw a man because humans have a tendency to see images where there aren’t any – clouds that look like animals, lines and dots become faces.  And in the half-light, I realised that it was nothing.  And I congratulated myself, the clever little rationalist that I was and how I was able to explain away something that has fooled so many other people.

We all live with ghosts.  Ex-boyfriends, forgotten friends, dead parents haunt our every waking moment.  They are evoked in a familiar perfume worn by a passing stranger.  They are next to us when a certain song comes on the radio.  They come alive in our dreams.  I return again and again to the idea that cinema is the closest thing we have to memory – fragmented, simultaneously real and surreal, edited and highly rewritten.  It is the best thing we have to capture the experience of living with these ghosts.  That’s why at its most facile, it constantly returns to the trauma of dead wives and girlfriends; it seeks to capture the experience of attempting to get over an absence that once was filled.

Some films haunt you like those people.  They follow you around in the weeks after you’ve seen them.  They occupy your waking moments and dwell deep within your consciousness.  They become the ways in which we relate to the world.  They become part of our language of self-identification, part of our cultural mythology that imprints upon our personality.  We see them, in our minds when no one else can.

Both Personal Shopper and The Innocents have an interesting relationship with ghosts.  Whilst both films deal in a degree of magical realism – ghosts are real, they move through rooms and have a level of intrusion upon the material world – they somehow simultaneously introduce a level of doubt into the existence of the poltergeists.  It is possible to read both films from a rational perspective; the ‘hauntings’ are a product of Stewart and Kerr’s respective imaginations.  For us, the audience, it causes a deep level of engagement with the movie – it is impossible to be a passive observer.  We have to ask the question, is the camera subjective or objective?  Tellingly, the most direct manifestations of the phantoms are observed through windows; there is an additional invisible barrier between them and our lead characters, in much the same way that some barrier exists between them and us, the audience.  We are removed from their presence; we see only what we are allowed to see, and that is only in conditions in which there can be no rational explanations for the paranormal behaviours in the movies.  After all, we know no cat knocked over the glass in the kitchen.

(In both films there is an explicit intrusion of the phantasmagoria upon the real world – the aforementioned glass and scratches in Personal Shopper, and the tear drops in the classroom in The Innocents.  These manifestations appear to be an explicit admission that the ghost are ‘real’ – their presence cannot be explained away as hysteria.)

Traditionally, ghosts have been depicted as manifesting during periods of sexual unrest.  Puberty was seen as an anchor for the immaterial world.  Both Kerr and Stewart are coping with a level of sexual frustration in the films.  For Kerr, her vicar’s daughter character is deeply sexually repressed and subsequently inexperienced.  Her acceptance of the governess job stems from a silly crush on the uncle (a clearly vile man) who employs her (a fact that is made more explicit in the source material of The Turn of the Screw) and she reacts to the stories of her predecessor’s relationship with Quint (a relationship which is deliberately sadomasochistic) with a prudish mix of revulsion and fascination.  (Paul Schrader has made a career out of exploring this tension, largely found within himself.)

Stewart has a more complex sexuality in her performance.  She flirts with at least the imagery of bondage, and her sexual fantasies seem to stem from the appropriation of other’s lives and belongings – largely due to the illicit nature of these acts.  A clear manifestation of a spirit comes after her act of masturbation.  Stewart is becoming one of the great queer performers of cinema.  Whilst men are present within her world, they are directly presented as distant, unfulfilling and dangerous (properly dangerous, not teasingly dangerous).  She is capable of acting with her naked body in a completely non-sexualised way – a not insignificant feat – and her sex, seems largely an act of onanism.  Both Kerr and Stewart are operating in their films within the world of women; the male intrusion into these worlds does not end in any sense of fulfilment.

Clearly Stewart (and less so Kerr) are surviving as traumatised individuals.  It is effecting both their grips on reality (of which the ghosts may be a metaphorical representation).  For Stewart, this may explain why she is so reciprocative to the clearly dangerous texts she is receiving.  For Kerr, this may prove to be an explanation for her descent into the indecent assault at the end of the film.  After all, abuse is a learnt behaviour.

In Personal Shopper, Assayas uses fairly violent fades to black to signify the passing of time.  Clayton uses montage in his scene transitions, opening the world of Sheffield Park to us – a world that is teeming with wildlife.  The soundtrack is alive with buzzing and flapping and hissing, and this, combined with the imagery of beetles clambering out of cherubs, peculiarly removes us from the natural world and into something far more horrific.  Both directors were seeking to rise above the oppressive cinematic landscapes they were operating within.  Assayas has almost made a career of employing elements of genre onto more traditional French Arthouse, and Clayton sought to imbibe the traditional (and highly restrictive) British Costume Drama with a sense of the Southern Gothic.  They were both directors producing work that is a direct act of criticism; Personal Shopper is in several places a meditation on the act of watching films, and The Innocents works as interpretation of literary criticism (though Christopher Frayling has determined that the film is a closer version of a stage adaption of The Turn of the Screw, rather than the source novel.)  They are both wilfully hard films to categorise and define.

Quint is described as having ‘the devil’s own eye,’ in The Innocents.  Is that how we watch movies?  Are we taking pleasure from seeing the darkest explorations of human existence?  Are we revelling in trauma and abuse and the emotional degradation of our protagonists?  Do we enjoy the suffering of others a little too much?  Perhaps all these ghosts are there to remind us that we will carry these sufferings with us.  Perhaps they will anchor us to the material world…

Stewart

Double Bill: Cruising (1980 – William Friedkin) and Interior. Leather Bar (2013 – James Franco & Travis Matthews)

Cruising

“No human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.” Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter

 

I’ve had a number of those awkward conversations with friends recently where they tell me what is going on inside my own head.  I’m going to have a few more of those conversations over the remainder of the summer.  I’ve appeased them by agreeing with them, but I think on every occasion we’ve both known we don’t really understand each other.  Sometimes we’re barely speaking the same language.  There are parts of our lives that we don’t/can’t share with others.  Dark feelings and thoughts.  Painful memories.  Regrets.  Shame.  You can be married to someone for 45 years and see your partner as a stranger.

Continue reading “Double Bill: Cruising (1980 – William Friedkin) and Interior. Leather Bar (2013 – James Franco & Travis Matthews)”

Double Bill: Marnie (1964 – Alfred Hitchcock) & The Soft Skin (1964 – François Truffaut)

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In a few weeks time, Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut will be released.  It’s based on the cineaste bible that I have dipped into rather than read from cover to cover.  So I’m pleased, because now there’s a movie and I never have to bother!  Now I can appropriate David Fincher’s opinions and pass them off as my own.

Though on reflection of Fincher’s deep hatred of humanity…

Continue reading “Double Bill: Marnie (1964 – Alfred Hitchcock) & The Soft Skin (1964 – François Truffaut)”