If you ever wanted to listen to the God of Hellfire and I blathering away about various topics of interest to weirdos everywhere, you, my friends, are in luck. We have started a podcast called 13 O’Clock, which will feature subjects ranging from supposedly real paranormal cases to unsolved historical mysteries to bizarre religious cults to creepy serial killers to horror movies and everything in between. Some of the episodes will be just us, some of them will have awesome guests like parapsychologists, writers, musicians of a darker nature, and so forth.
On our inaugural episode, we discuss the tragic case of Doris Bither, whose alleged poltergeist attacks were the basis of the 1982 film The Entity; and on the second half, we delve into one of our favorite topics, conspiracy theories and hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining.
Listen to the audio-only version right here, and if you want some relevant visuals to go along with our musings, then I also made a pretty YouTube video version, which you may watch right here.
As you can see, I’m returning at long last to my “Creepiest Movie Scenes” series, but with a slight twist. While I usually like to discuss films with that eerie, unsettling supernatural vibe that I love so much (such as The Haunting, The Tenant, or Don’t Look Now), today I want to go more visceral, and descend into the kind of creepy that encompasses disgust, intense discomfort, and perhaps a hint of exploitation.
The so-called “rape-revenge” subgenre reached its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the two films I want to talk about are probably the most cited and controversial examples of this type of cinema. I have to say right out of the gate that rape is one of the most stomach-turning things for me to watch on film or hear about in real life; merely hearing someone talk about it (either in a movie or in meatspace) makes my skin crawl with revulsion more than anything else, whether the victim is man, woman, or child. For this reason, these two movies were probably the most difficult films I ever sat through, but ultimately, I found the experience of them bizarrely rewarding, and I will do my best to articulate why.
Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman, 1978) and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (aka Angel of Vengeance, 1981) were both dogged with criticism from the moment they were released, and both were either heavily edited or outright banned in several countries; I Spit On Your Grave in particular is banned from sale to this day in Ireland (according to Wikipedia) and is only available in severely cut versions elsewhere. The overriding justification for these bans, then as now, was that the films “glorified” violence against women. While I would agree that many films in the rape-revenge genre do indeed use rape solely as a means of titillation, thus making them guilty of accusations of glorification, I would argue that these two films pretty clearly do the exact opposite, and have been unfairly lumped in with lesser, more exploitative examples of the genre. I’d also like to point out here that films that supposedly glorify violence against men are rarely subjected to the same treatment, and while some may point to misguided feminism as the reason for this, I would argue that banning films containing explicit sexual violence against women is actually an inversion of the very idea of feminism, as it still plays into the antiquated view of women as lesser beings who are unable to protect themselves or take action to right the violence visited upon them.
Here’s the thing that I find strange. In my humble estimation, both of these films possess so-called “male perspective” counterparts: I consider I Spit On Your Grave to be a woman-centric version of Deliverance, for example, while I would put Ms. 45 on a similar plane as, say, Death Wish. Both Deliverance and Death Wish, you’ll note, are pretty universally lauded by critics, so I’m always left wondering why, when the sexual violence and later revenge is perpetrated against and subsequently by a woman, critics seem to suddenly and utterly lose their shit. Roger Ebert, whose opinions I mostly agreed with, famously called I Spit On Your Grave “a vile bag of garbage…without a shred of artistic distinction,” and along with his then-partner Gene Siskel, named it the worst film ever made. When I read about the initial critical reaction to both of these films, I have to say that I’m completely puzzled. Did these dudes watch the same movies I did? Because it seems to me that they entirely missed the point. Some critics have rightly reconsidered their earlier opinions in later years, which is something I’m happy to see, but both movies are still generally looked askance at in “serious” film-critic circles.
I would be the first to admit that there is a paper-thin line between simply portraying rape on screen and glamorizing it, but for my money, neither I Spit On Your Grave nor Ms. 45 glamorized the crimes in the least, and in fact, I would argue that both films portrayed the rapes in such a horrific manner that viewers could not help but identify and empathize with their female protagonists. The brutally drawn-out rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave in particular were so awful that they gave me nightmares for weeks, and I would argue that this is exactly what they should do, if the film is portraying the crime responsibly. Real rape is not sexy or glamorous; it is low and odious and degrading, and that is exactly what the scene depicted, in grueling, unrelenting detail. It had no harrowing background music, it had no flattering camera angles or arty lighting. It was simply a long, flatly presented, almost unendurably ugly portrayal of four men using a blameless woman in the most repugnant, objectifying way possible (even denigrating her personhood further by destroying the manuscript she’d been working on), and then leaving her for dead. I feel that it is far more artistically justifiable to portray rape as disgusting and vile—that is to say, realistically—rather than glossing over it and thus lessening its revolting impact. As I implied earlier, the rape of Ned Beatty’s character in Deliverance was depicted in a very similar way to the rape of Camille Keaton’s character in I Spit On Your Grave, but for whatever reason, Deliverance is considered a cultural and artistic milestone, while I Spit On Your Grave (and Ms. 45, to a lesser extent) is relegated to cult, “video nasty” status, even though the outcomes of both films were almost exactly the same. While I’m not going to argue that I Spit On Your Grave was an artistically better film than Deliverance, because that would just be stupid, I still have to wonder about the vitriol that was hurled at the former when similar criticisms could be leveled at the latter. The only significant difference that I can see was the gender (and, it must be said, attractiveness) of the victim(s).
There is also, of course, another more subtle difference that may hint at the reasons for the disparity in critical reception. In both I Spit On Your Grave and Ms. 45, the victimized women ultimately end up using the purported “weakness” that made them victims in the first place—their femininity—as weapons of revenge against their attackers. In I Spit On Your Grave, Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) uses the promise of willing sex to lure her rapists back into her clutches with the aim of murdering them one by one (in a memorable instance slicing off a man’s penis while giving him a handjob in a bathtub). I actually liked this aspect of the film very much, as during her attack, the rapists accuse Jennifer of essentially “asking for it” by traipsing around her very secluded cabin in “revealing” clothing (like, y’know, a bathing suit when she went swimming) and “flirting” with them and leading them on (by, y’know, being polite to them when she came into town for groceries). So I found it particularly gratifying that Jennifer had the presence of mind to use these very accusations (which are still depressingly common in real-life rape cases) to her advantage when it came time for payback.
Likewise, in Ms. 45, the mute Thana (Zoë Tamerlis Lund), who was the victim of two savage rapes in one day, eventually reinvents herself as an overtly sexualized nun who then goes on a man-hunting shooting spree. Is this the aspect of these films that made (largely male) critics so uncomfortable, that their unexamined feelings about women as passive sexual receptacles for their own desires could possibly be used against them by the very objects of those desires? I’m not entirely sure, but honestly, I don’t see much difference between the dudes in Deliverance wasting the rednecks in revenge for Ned Beatty’s rape and Camille Keaton emasculating and killing her attackers in justifiable revenge for what they did to her. And in much the same way as viewers were meant to sympathize with and cheer on the city boys of Deliverance as they enacted some backwoods justice on the agents of their degradation, I feel that I Spit On Your Grave pretty obviously wanted you to sympathize with and cheer on Jennifer as she took out the trash in the exact same way. And sure, I will admit that Ms. 45 is perhaps more problematic in this regard, since Thana took things a tad overboard and began blowing away more-or-less innocent men who had not directly victimized her, I will say that her actions were clearly mitigated in the film’s narrative somewhat, as she was portrayed as not entirely stable from the get-go, and thus her trauma-induced push into full-on murder mode was made completely understandable and even relatable to viewers, as even some of her more “innocent” victims had objectified her in more subtle ways.
Would I go so far as to call these two films “feminist?” I think I would, in the sense that the protagonists of both films used a trauma perpetrated against them as a spur to find their power and drive them to action. It’s clear to me that both directors were purposely making films with a point of view sympathetic to their female protagonists, one that got inside the heads of the characters and made the viewer understand events through their eyes. While I did have a problem, as I mentioned earlier, with Thana’s somewhat indiscriminate killings in Ms. 45, and I was also slightly uncomfortable with Jennifer’s killing of the mentally retarded rapist (who had only raped her at the urging of his irredeemable fuckwit cohorts, even though he was astute enough to know what he was doing was wrong), in the end any sense of discomfort I felt was overridden by my ultimate satisfaction at the deserved outcome for the bad guys. I would have experienced the same gleeful sense of righteous justice had the perpetrator been a man avenging similar wrongs done against him, and that is the entire point that I felt a lot of critics missed. While I’m of the opinion that attitudes toward women in film have improved somewhat since these films were released, it disturbs me that they haven’t changed as much as I feel they should have (as the internet-fueled “controversy” about Mad Max: Fury Road made starkly clear). In that sense, I feel that both I Spit On Your Grave and Ms. 45 were important cinematic experiments that highlighted some of the more problematic aspects of the way women characters were viewed by using the very tropes of the exploitation film against themselves. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’d be interested to hear other perspectives, if anyone would care to share them.
And with that, I will bring another long-winded and scattershot post to a close. Until next time, Goddess out.
I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of the movie I’m featuring today, which is the phenomenal British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It was recommended to me by a friend on Facebook, and over the weekend I sat down and spent a chilling two hours with it, marveling at its atmospheric mood and incredible psychological depth. It’s not a horror movie per se, but it is an intensely disturbing, absorbing thriller that garnered gobs and gobs of accolades when it came out back in 1964, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination for lead Kim Stanley. She lost to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, which is a terrible shame, though not all that surprising, frankly. Don’t get me wrong, I love Julie Andrews, but I definitely think Kim Stanley got robbed in this case. Her portrayal of a mentally unstable spirit medium was so nuanced and eerie that I found myself completely enthralled by the way her character came across as so sweet and harmless on the surface, while a manipulative, dark insanity lurked just beneath. Incidentally, if you’d like to watch for yourself, here you go, and if you’d like to read further, be warned that there will be spoilers:
The plot basically details a completely batshit scheme that working-class medium Myra Savage concocts to get attention and notoriety for her supposed psychic abilities. The film remains ambiguous about whether her abilities are real, but she clearly believes that they are, and that her stillborn son Arthur is acting as her spirit guide at the weekly séances she holds in their home. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know how much I love this type of ambiguity in films, and it’s especially good here; while we become unshakably certain over the course of the film that Myra is quite insane, we’re never entirely sure whether her mediumship is a cause or an effect of her insanity.
Using her cowed, milquetoast husband Billy (played by Richard Attenborough) to do her dirty work, Myra kidnaps (or “borrows,” as she insists on calling it) the daughter of a very wealthy, connected couple and ransoms the child for £25,000. Initially, Myra and Billy don’t plan to hurt the child or even keep the ransom money; their intentions are far more convoluted and insidious than that, and it’s implied that they’ve been refining the details for years. In a nutshell, they plan to keep the child and the ransom money hidden until Myra has made contact with the child’s parents and the police, whereupon she will claim that she has received messages from beyond that tell her where the child and the money can be found. She is sure that this will make a name for her throughout the land, and she hopes the news of her success will lead to fame and riches down the line.
As should be obvious from the type of film this is, the plan ultimately doesn’t go the way it was supposed to, and slowly sprouts ever more disturbing tendrils as Myra’s fragile hold on sanity begins to crumble away. Because the film doesn’t make clear from the beginning what the specifics of Myra’s plan are, and doesn’t explicitly lay out how she begins to subtly change the details as the story progresses, it’s a rather gripping watch; the tension keeps escalating as the viewer wonders what exactly the endgame is, and what exactly will go wrong.
The creepiest thing about this film, I thought, was the interplay between Myra and Billy, and the unspoken dynamic between them that made the presumably decent but weak-willed Billy go along with his wife’s obviously delusional ideas without too much complaint. Myra does not browbeat Billy into doing her will; she does not threaten him. Their relationship is such that she does not need to; she is able to convince him through the sheer force of her seemingly reasonable wheedling, and her slow escalation of requests that ultimately leave Billy in the same position as that fabled frog in boiling water. He obviously loves her dearly, and because he does, he has accepted that she sees him as nothing more than a tool to facilitate her own desires. In this way, Billy is quite a tragic character, subsuming his own identity and moral compass in deference to hers. At one point Myra tells him that the kidnapping of the child is simply a means to an end for them; no one is going to be hurt, she points out, and they won’t even be keeping the parents’ money, so what harm is there? “You agree with the end, don’t you?” she asks him in her soft, sweet voice, and when he assents, she follows with the seemingly logical conclusion, “Well, then you must agree with the means.” The great thing about this is that from their interactions, the viewer can really feel the weight of the years of their marriage behind them, of how her manipulation of Billy and his passive acceptance of it are simply par for the course. It is only at the very end of the film, when Myra has taken things one step too far, that Billy finally nuts up and blows the whistle on her, at which point she has lost her marbles to such a degree that she is no longer able to protest.
The scenes with Myra interacting with the kidnapped child are also pretty unsettling, as it’s clear that Myra views the girl in the exact same way she views Billy: As a thing that will get her the results she wants. She is never cruel to the child at all, but she is chillingly indifferent and detached, both when she speaks to her and when she speaks about her. That’s the great strength of Kim Stanley’s performance; the viewer is drawn in by her seemingly demure, motherly exterior and only slowly starts to realize that Myra is a sociopathic monster. It’s a fantastic study in the banality of evil.
Aside from the stellar characterization and almost unbearable suspense, the film also looks gorgeous, with lovely, atmospheric shots of candlelit faces around a séance table, or spooky houses reflected in puddles of rainwater. As I said before, it’s not strictly a horror film, but its look and subject matter definitely put it in the same league with the great ghost stories and thrillers of the period, and I would recommend it for any fans of either genre; it’s just a shame it’s not better known.
Stay tuned for more good stuff later in the week, and until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
Welcome to the second installment of my new “Scary Silents” series! In the last post, we watched the Swedish-Danish witchcraft classic Häxan, and today we’re continuing the Swede theme with the spooky 1921 drama The Phantom Carriage (known in Swedish as Körkarlen), directed by and starring Victor Sjöström. This is really a beautiful film, with innovative ghost effects for the day and a surprisingly modern narrative structure, and it was a major influence on Ingmar Bergman, no less. It’s not strictly a horror film, I suppose, more like a ghostly morality play, but close enough, I figure. Let the Phantom Phun begin! If you’d like to watch along, here you go:
We open on a deathbed, so you know right away we’re in tragic Swedish movie mode. Edit, a Salvation Army sister, is dying of galloping consumption, which I take to mean that the disease is pummeling her into submission with its terrible cloven hooves. She is attended by her mother and another sister who I guess is her friend. Everyone looks very dour, as you would in this situation. The dying Edit is bizarrely insistent that a man named David Holm be summoned to her side before she dies. The movie doesn’t tell us who this is, or what the relationship between him and Edit is, but the two women at the deathbed seem kinda cheesed off by her request. Mom even says she wants the dying girl all to herself (WTF, Mom) and not to go get the mystery guy, but Edit insists, so the friend toddles off to find the dude. Dying people are so bossy, you guys.
Friend first meets up with a male friend named Gustavsson, and sends him off to the bar to look for David Holm, because evidently everyone in town knows that David Holm is a raging drunk who rarely vacates his barstool. Then she goes to a shack which turns out to be Casa de Holm, and seems to waltz right in without knocking. There’s a miserable, exhausted-looking woman in there, presiding over two sleeping children. It comes to light that this is Mrs. Holm, and the friend brings her along to Edit’s place, presumably leaving the two children alone in the shack in the middle of the night, because Swedish kids scoff at your unneeded adult supervision. When they get back to Edit’s, the friend says that Gustavsson is out looking for David, but that meanwhile she has brought the chipper Mrs. Holm as a consolation prize. Mrs. Holm hovers over Edit’s bed with her hands clawing towards her face like she’s about to do some evil spell on her or suck out her soul through her nasal cavities, but Edit just says, “Poor Mrs. Holm!” and kisses her all over her sad, sad face, after which Mrs. Holm collapses on her chest and the ladies have a good Swedish cry. At this point I’ll admit that I have not the slightest inkling what in the Scandinavian Hëll is going on, but perhaps soon all will become clear.
Meanwhile, the perpetually schnockered David is sitting in a cemetery drinking with two of his grizzled buddies. He glances at the clock tower and sees that it’s twenty minutes to midnight, and exposits that it’s New Year’s Eve, a very significant night. He jokes that he hopes his drinking buddies aren’t afraid of ghosts, because y’know how annoyed dead people get when you sit over their graves drinking and don’t pour one on the ground for the homies. Then he begins telling a story (which is shown in flashback) about his friend Georges and the legend that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve is cursed to drive Death’s carriage for a year and collect all the souls of the people who die subsequently. I’m not sure how this system would work with the different time zones and what not, but maybe Death has franchised out the whole carriage business and has many representatives collecting souls in varying locations, like a bunch of spectral middle managers. There are some effectively creepy scenes of a man in a hooded cloak driving his black carriage transparently through the streets. He stops before a house in which a pinched rich man with a striking resemblance to Peter Cushing sits at his desk and decides all this wealth and comfort is for the birds, man, before shooting himself with a teeny pistol. Phantom Carriage Driver ghosts through the door and sees the dead man on the floor, gives a take-this-job-and-shove-it sigh, and crouches down to bodily heft the man’s soul from out of his prone body, probably wondering if the man’s soul had been hitting the Häagen Dazs or something, because DAMN. There’s also a cool, evocative shot of the carriage moving through the ocean, picking up the deceased victim of an overturned boat that’s floating dejectedly in the waves. So then David’s back with his drinking buddies, and warning them that even if they were planning on it, no one better die tonight or they’ll be stuck driving the death carriage and no one wants that, right? Dying any other time is totally cool, tho.
Then we’re back with Edit and her mom, and Edit is still being Miss Terminal Pesky-Pants about why David isn’t there yet. Why she needs to see this lush so urgently is anyone’s guess, but maybe she just wants one last whiff of stale whiskey breath filtered through a scraggly gray beard before she dies. I’m not gonna judge. In the next shot, Gustavsson spots the three drunketeers in the cemetery and tells David that Edit is dying, and hadn’t he better hasten along and see her? David’s all HA HA NOPE and Gustavsson gives him a “screw you too, dickbag” look before storming off. David’s friends are all NOT COOL BRO, YOU SHOULD GO and David’s all FUCK THAT HO, I GOT DRINKIN’ TO DO and then he points at the clock, which shows that it’s like two minutes to midnight. A scuffle ensues as the friends attempt to correct David’s douchehattery through violence, and predictably, David is killed when one of the friends gets a tad overzealous vis-a-vis busting a glass bottle across his fool head. Realizing their tragic overstepping of boundaries, they nope the fuck out of the cemetery, leaving David lying there in a pool of blood and liquor stank.
Right on cue, here comes the Phantom Carriage, and the driver is probably going all SWEET, I’M AUDI, HERE’S NEXT YEAR’S SUCKER, and David’s soul half-rises out of his body and you can just tell by his face that he’s all AWWWW SHIT. I have to say that the carriage does look pretty eerie and awesome, especially for 1921. The driver of the carriage, who of course is David’s friend Georges from the flashback story, pulls back his hood and David’s all DAAAAAAAAMN, I’M FUCKED and Georges is all BRO, THAT YOU? IMMA COME DOWN OFF THIS THING and he sits on a gravestone next to David and is all like, DUDE THIS SUCKS, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S YOU and David’s all I KNOW, RIGHT, WHAT ARE THE ODDS and then SO, YOU GONNA PUT ME IN YOUR CART OR WHAT and Georges is like BITCH, YOU KNOW BETTER THAN THAT, YOU’RE ON THE HOOK FOR THIS SHIT NOW. He also mentions that not only does David now have to pilot the death wagon, but oh yeah, also that there’s gonna be some Scrooge-type action where he’ll have to spend the next year reliving all the assholey shit he did throughout his life, so there’s another fun perk of the job. To this end, Georges says that he blames himself for David’s death, in a way, since he was the one that lured David into the drunken debauchery that saw him neglecting his family and generally turning into a useless garbage person.
Georges shows a magic flashback of David when he was a younger man, all set with a promising career and a fetching wife who cooked yummy stews at picnics and adorable children who frolicked naked in lakes and picked wildflowers and did adorable Swedish kid things. I admit this scene kinda confused me, because at first I thought the older guy was supposed to be David, and that he had a son in his twenties or something, but then I guess the younger guy is supposed to be him. Right? Who’s the older guy, then? And why does his wife look old enough to be his mom? I don’t understand the Swedish family dynamic, apparently. Then the idyllic family picture fades out and there’s David and his drinking buddies sitting in the same field looking like hobos, laughing and drinking and smoking cigars and playing harmonicas, like you do. Then there’s David’s wife Anna in their ramshackle house, holding one of the kids and stirring a much less happy stew with her free hand, looking all FML. Teenage David staggers in drunk and starts shoving everybody around, like a tool. Oh wait, maybe this is David’s son, and David took him out and got him hammered, because then Anna picks up the little kids and goes outside, and there’s one of the drinking buddies in the street standing over a sloshed, passed-out motherfucker, who is presumably David. Anna’s all FUCK THIS SHIT and she stands there rolling her eyes so hard she can probably see her cerebral cortex. The kids look all pitiful, and stare at their dad with eyes that seem to be shooting shame-lasers.
Then it looks like David is in the pokey, and rightly so, I reckon. A guy in a tux and a French Foreign Legion lookin’ dude with an epic mustache look gravely at David, and then lead him out of his cell and show him into the cell next door, which contains David’s son, looking all tweaked out and undead. DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE, DAVID? DO YOU??? David is bugging out, and the tuxedo man keeps telling him shit, but I don’t know what it is, because for some reason, at this point, whoever did the English subtitles for the version I watched was all FUCK IT, YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, NON-SWEDISH SPEAKERS, so I guess now I can just make up my own dialogue. So David’s all, DAMN, THAT’S SOME CIRRHOSIS YOU GOT THERE, BOY, MY BAD and the son’s looking up at his dad all pleading and sweaty, and David’s all WELL, THAT’S ENOUGH REALITY FOR TODAY and goes back to his cell. The subtitles kinda come back, so I can say for sure that tuxedo man says SEE, DON’T YOU FEEL LIKE A SHITHEEL and David’s all YEAH, GOT ME RIGHT IN THE FEELS and then the subtitles abscond again, but it looks like David is making some kind of proclamation about getting his shit together, but because this is a flashback you know what a steaming pile all of that is.
David gets outta the hoosegow and goes skipping merrily back to his apartment, but the door is locked and no one answers his knocks. He grabs the key from under the mat and goes charging into the place, only to find that—shocker—Anna has taken off and left him. He has the audacity to look surprised about this development, for why would any woman in her right mind abandon such a prize husband? He goes to the neighbor and is all WHERE THE HELL DID MY FAMILY GO and the neighbor is like DUDE, ARE YOU RETARDED OR SOMETHING and then he’s gesticulating at the neighbor lady and she is giving him some super intense shade and just looking at him like she’d like to punch him right in the danglies. Then, to add insult to injury, another neighbor lady comes up and gestures to him like OH, IS THIS THE ASSHOLE and the first neighbor lady is like YOU KNOW IT, SISTER, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT and the power of their combined condescension drives him right back into his empty apartment, where he can still hear them laughing at him out in the hallway. And then, because he is a man, he’s all I THOUGHT I WOULD JUST COME BACK AND EVERYTHING WOULD BE PEACHY KEEN, FUCK ALL BITCHES FOREVER and then he goes to whine about it on some MRA forum somewhere (okay, not really). The ladies continue to laugh and laugh, and he’s all huffing and puffing and probably thinking I’LL SHOW EVERYONE, GODDAMMIT, I’M GONNA WIN THE GOLD MEDAL AT THE DRINKING OLYMPICS, THEN YOU’LL ALL BE SORRY, but all he does is throw his little parcel of stuff on the floor and take a swig of water out of the sink faucet. Go for the gusto, David.
Then we’re back with spirit-David and spirit-Georges on the gravestone. They talk for a long time, but there are no subtitles again, so I’m just gonna assume they’re discussing how the Swedish bikini team is looking this year. When the subtitles return, there’s another flashback, and I’m able to discern that Georges was the one who sent David to the Salvation Army station to get help for his drankin’ and general fucktardiness, and aha, here we see where the stories of David and Edit intersect. IT ALL MAKES SENSE TO ME NOW. There’s Edit, looking all spry before the consumption galloped on her, and there’s the friend from her bedside at the beginning of the movie, whose name is Maria I think. Fun fact: The Swedish word for Salvation Army Station is “slumstation,” so make of that what you will.
David leans on the doorbell, and the girls are reluctant to open the door because it’s really late at night and they’re there alone, but they finally do and David lurches drunkenly at them. Friend is all LET’S NOT LET THIS CREEP IN HERE but Edit is all COME IN, MY POOR CHILD, so in he staggers. They offer him food, but he’s all FUCK YOUR FOOD, BITCHES and they’re all BUT YOU CAME HERE, SO…? They then offer him a bed and he’s all K, I’LL TAKE THAT and falls into a stupor. Edit notices that his coat is ripped, so she goes to mend it, even though the friend is still kinda like WHY DID WE LET THIS SHITHEAD IN, I CAN’T EVEN. Edit prays for David, and stays up all night fixing his coat, and then we discover that the bum’s filthy, cootie-addled outerwear is what gave her the consumption that would eventually kill her. Fuckin’ David, man. Even his germs are assholes. When he wakes up the next morning, he notices that his coat is good as new, and for some reason is a total douchenozzle about it, tearing off all the pockets and buttons, all I HAD IT JUST THE WAY I WANTED IT, WHY YOU GO AND FUCK IT UP LIKE THAT. Classy. Edit, instead of bashing his face in with a shovel, is all zen about it and tells him that since she had prayed for him, she wants him to come back and visit on New Year’s Eve, perhaps to see if God has seen fit to straighten his stupid ass out. He’s all WHATEVS, I GOT YOUR GOD RIGHT HERE and makes his dickheady way off into the night.
Back at the gravestone, spirit-Georges is all SEE WHAT A FUCKER YOU WERE and spirit-David is like I’M NOT THAT BAD AM I and Georges is like HATE TO BREAK IT TO YOU, BRO, GET YOUR ASS UP ON THAT CARRIAGE SEAT and David’s all NUH UH, IMMA GO BACK IN MY BODY, WATCH THIS ACTION and his spirit lies back down in the corpse while Georges looks at him like YOU FUCKIN’ EEDJIT, YOU CAN’T DO THAT and puts his hood back on like I’M TOO OLD AND TOO DEAD FOR THIS BULLSHIT, MAN. David keeps trying to get out of it, and Georges is all like THEM’S THE RULES, and then spirit-David then gets all belligerent and throws down with spirit-Georges. GHOST FIGHT, Y’ALL. Georges ties him up with invisible string, because that’s how he rolls, and puts his trussed-up ass in the carriage, probably thinking I CAN’T BELIEVE I HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THIS SHIT ON MY LAST DAY ON THE JOB, FUCK THE AFTERLIFE SO HARD.
In the next part, Georges has brought the death carriage to Edit’s house and dragged David’s ghost ass inside. No one can see Georges except Edit, and she’s all like, WHUT, DEATH IS HERE ALREADY, THAT DOUCHEBAG DAVID HASN’T EVEN COME YET and ghost-David cowers on the floor, properly shamed. It doesn’t appear that Edit can see David, because she tells Death-Georges that she can’t face the Lawd until she knows what happened to the asshole (I think; the subtitles are spotty again). Death-Georges says he’ll grant her a reprieve, because I guess he can do that.
Then there’s another flashback to Edit in a bar trying to talk some sense into David, who is shockingly getting drunk with his friends once again. She shows him something on a piece of paper, which he crumples up with a sneer, even though she is still smiling into his stupid, horrible face. Then he throws the crumpled up paper at her, and smirks like he’s the funniest motherfucker ever. Edit then douses him with alcohol and sets him alight, coolly lighting a cigarette off his burning flesh while he screams in agony. Oh wait, that doesn’t happen. She just huffs off and finds her Salvation Army friend and they wander off. Then the wife of one of the other drinkers at David’s table comes in and tries to drag him off, and everyone in the bar is like OH SHIT, IT’S ON, and David tells him to stop being so pussywhipped and sit his ass down. Then the wife gets all up in David’s grill, accusing him of turning her husband into a bum, and then Edit comes over and tries to intervene again. The guy slumps his shoulders and leaves with his wife, and David laughs at him and pours another drink. The other drinking buddy is also receptive to Edit’s message, and he looks lovingly at her as she tries to persuade him to give up the demon drink and get his life sorted out. He takes one of her flyers, which is for a Salvation Army rally, and he’s totally gonna go, and David’s all like YEAH, GO AND GET SAVED, SUCKA, IMMA SIT HERE BY MYSELF AND BE THE MOST AWESOME DRUNK I CAN BE, and proceeds to do exactly that.
Cut to the rally, where turns out David has showed up after all, looking a tad sheepish. His drinking buddy goes up to the pulpit with Edit to pray and all that, and David laughs like hell at him because he can’t just be cool and supportive of his friend’s new lifestyle, oh no, he has to turn the fucknugget knob all the way up to eleven. David’s wife is also there, and she has a look on her face like I CANNOT BELIEVE I LET THAT ASSCLOWN TOUCH MY LADY PARTS, and all the other people in the meeting are yelling at David and telling him to pipe the fuck down. Edit marches straight back to where David is sitting and gives him a death glare. The party slowly breaks up, and we see that a man who is the spitting image of Charles Darwin is also in attendance, so good for him for evolving out of his alcoholism (I know, boooooo).
Before he leaves, David has to get that one last punch on his asshole card by accosting a clearly ill woman who is coughing pitifully against a wall. Edit comes up and tells him to knock it off, and David tells her that he’s leaving town. Edit says he can’t do that because she still wants to help him, although honestly all I’d like to help David do at this point is get crushed under the wheels of a bus. So then David fucks off, and his wife approaches Edit. The two women go off into a room to discuss what a useless turd her husband is. Anna’s all YUP, I LEFT HIS ASS and Edit seems all sad about this instead of being all YEAH, HIGH FIVE, GIRL. Edit’s all YOU NEED TO TAKE HIM BACK and Anna’s all WTF ARE YOU SMOKING, but then she relents under Edit’s do-gooder onslaught and agrees to saddle herself with David’s sorry ass again, though the look on her face is all PLEASE GOD KILL ME NOW. Edit arranges the meeting, and David comes into the room. Edit’s all SURPRISE, ANNA’S BACK and Anna’s all, UM, HI…? And Edit’s all IMMA LEAVE THESE TWO LOVEBIRDS ALONE, BOW CHICKA WOW.
Then comes the next part, where Edit is in bed and the friend is reading to her. So it looks like that consumption has galloped in at last, and perhaps Edit realizes now that no good deed goes unpunished…? But no, she’s still all Pollyanna about everything, and it’s a little infuriating. Next we see Anna sewing in the house and drunk-ass David coming home and kicking the door open and glaring at his wife like he’s gonna knock her the fuck out. He hovers creepily over his sleeping children and Anna’s all DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE and then he starts flicking their noses and coughing his consumption cooties all over them, because he is literally worse than Hitler. He takes his shiny-ass pants into the next room; meanwhile Anna locks him in there (HOORAY!), packs up the children and gets ready to bail. David breaks the door open with an axe, screaming HEEEEEEEERE’S JOHNNY (not really), and before he even gets all the way through, Anna has passed out on the floor, leaving her children at their father’s mercy. For some reason, David feels kinda bad about the fainting thing, and brings his wife some water. She wakes up and gives him a look like he’s some dogshit she scraped off her shoe. He’s all NOT SO EASY TO TAKE OFF THIS TIME, HO and she’s all WTF, WHEN ARE YOU JUST GONNA BE A PERSON.
And then we’re back in the present, with dying Edit telling Ghost-Georges that she never should have brought David and Anna back together, but that she loved David so much and just wanted to help him. David busts out of his ghost-restraints and approaches the bed. Edit sees him and is all YAY, YOU’RE HERE, SHAME ABOUT THE DEATH THO, and the last thing she does before she dies is to say that she releases him from his prison. Wait, does this mean he doesn’t have to drive the death-carriage now? How does that work? Is there a loophole we never got told about? And does Georges get fucked in the ass now vis-a-vis driving the carriage for another whole year? So many questions, you guys.
The next scene shows Georges and David on the carriage seat, and Georges is saying DUDE, IF I COULD TELL HUMANS ONE THING, YO and then there’s something about a New Year’s prayer asking God not to kill their asses until they’ve grown the fuck up. Which is something I can get behind. Georges then pulls the carriage up to Casa de Holm, and David’s all WTF NO ONE GONNA DIE HERE and Georges is all SHOWS WHAT YOU KNOW, DIPSHIT, and then they go in and see that Anna is all I AM SO DONE and is fixing to ice her kids before taking herself out of this vale of tears. Fuckin’ tragic, is what it is, and it’s all David’s fault. Ghost-David starts freaking, telling Georges to do something, but Georges is all NOPE, HANDS ARE TIED, BITCH, PLUS YOU GOTTA WATCH IT HAPPEN, SUCKS TO BE YOU. David continues his meltdown, wondering if he should pray to God or Jesus (both? Maybe throw Krishna and Ahura Mazda and Zeus in there too for good measure?), and then he’s all OH MAN, I WAS SUCH A PIECE OF SHIT and Georges and everyone watching is like, DUH, TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH.
And then, because this was getting too depressing even for the Swedish, it turns out that David wasn’t even dead after all! He wakes up on the gravestone and goes tear-assing back to his house in time to stop his wife from that whole murder-suicide thing she was so looking forward to. So it was all a dream, or something? David tells Anna that he was at Sister Edit’s bedside when she died and that he promised to be a good dude now, but Anna is all YOU SUCK, SISTER MARIA SAID YOU NEVER SHOWED UP, so I guess he did dream all of that. But then David starts to cry, and Anna is all MAYBE YOU’RE NOT SO BAD AFTER ALL and then David tries to start a pity party by saying that he wants to be good but no one believes him and that’s why he’s crying. And I’m all, are you for real? And even Anna is like, well, considering your past behavior, y’know, but I guess you’re really crying, so I’m convinced you’re not a fuckbucket anymore. The very last scene is of David doing that New Year’s prayer that Georges talked about, with his weeping wife’s head in his lap. So yay, I guess? I’m skeptical that this all worked out all right, to be honest. I need to see the sequel where David falls off the wagon yet again, gets killed for real when he’s run over by a carriage (because irony), then is sent to Hell to polish the Devil’s knob for all eternity. Meanwhile, Anna gets a makeover, moves to Tahiti with her kids, takes up watercolor painting and marries a sexy lesbian fan dancer who treats her like a queen and gives her lots of sex and money and diamonds and they live happily ever after. I WANT TO BELIEVE.
Well. I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather verbose deconstruction of The Phantom Carriage, and if you liked it, I hope you’ll keep a lookout for new movies in the series when I post them. Until next time, Goddess out.
As I promised in my last post on the classic silent film Häxan, I am going to continue my more general “Creepy Scenes” series in addition to my new silent films one. To that end, this post will return to the horror of the 1970s, which is probably my favorite decade for horror films. And though I will be discussing a film, I’m actually more interested here in the book and the changes that were made from page to screen. There will be lots of spoilers, so you have been duly warned.
I had been wanting to read Thomas Tryon’s HarvestHome for quite a while, but had somehow never gotten around to it. I adored his 1972 book The Other, and the film adaptation of it is one of my favorite horror films of the decade. A few weeks ago, I was reading a post in a horror Facebook group where people were recommending books that had really frightened them, but didn’t get the attention they deserved. One person recommended HarvestHome, and so reminded, I went immediately to Amazon and bought a used paperback copy for two bucks.
Much like The Other, Harvest Home is a marvelous read, getting under your skin in a way that few books do. In brief, it tells the story of a family from New York City (artist Ned Constantine, his wife Beth, and teenage daughter Kate) who decide to give up their fast-paced city life and get back to the land in the tiny rural New England town of Cornwall Coombe, an agricultural community seemingly (and charmingly) suspended in time. Obviously, because this is a horror novel, the idyllic surface of the community hides a horrific secret that very slowly becomes apparent over the course of the story. Much like The Wicker Man or Stephen King’s “The Children of the Corn,” Harvest Home effectively wrings terror from the clash of ancient earth-worshipping paganism with modern sensibilities.
When I was about three-quarters of the way through the book, I began to wonder if there’d ever been a film adaptation of it. Since I hadn’t heard of one, I assumed that even if one had been made, then there was no way it was up to the caliber of The Other. But a quick search of YouTube brought up a four-hour miniseries that had been made in 1978. I initially wanted to finish the book before watching the film so as not to spoil the ending, but I admit my curiosity got the better of me, and one evening last week I sat down and watched the whole four hours in one sitting. If you’re so inclined, you can watch it too, right here:
I finished the book this afternoon, and even though I do wish I had waited to finish it before watching the miniseries, the impact of the book’s ending wasn’t really dulled by knowing roughly what was going to happen; it was still pretty horrific. There were several changes made from the book to the miniseries, obviously, and while I understand why most of them were made, I feel the effectiveness of the miniseries was severely undercut by not following the tone and characterization of the novel.
Though the miniseries seemed to have mostly positive reviews on IMDB, I found it to be profoundly disappointing. There were a lot of well-known actors in it for the time (Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune, a young Rosanna Arquette as Kate, Rene Auberjonois as Jack Stump, a very young Tracey Gold as Missy Penrose), and it had some effective scenes, but it suffered from overblown acting performances and that slightly “off,” late 1970s TV movie sensibility, where everything seemed ridiculously dramatic, and all the conflict painfully forced. None of the characters or the town were portrayed as I had imagined them while I was reading, and the tone of the miniseries held none of the subtly increasing dread of the book. I also found the miniseries difficult to follow; had I not read most of the book before watching it, I think I might have been lost, and turned it off in frustration. A lot of things were left out, or inadequately explained, or, conversely, over-explained. It wasn’t terrible by any means, but I have to say that I’m sort of bummed out that I watched it, because now my experience of the book will be tainted by the movie, and that’s sort of a shame.
One of the things that bothered me the most, and I guess this is a problem with a lot of films adapted from great books, is that much of the subtlety of the book was abandoned in order to make the movie “scarier” or more dramatic. In this case, the changes had exactly the opposite effect. One of the most frightening things about the book is its insidiousness; the horror creeps up on the protagonists (and the reader) so slowly and so inconspicuously that when it does come, it’s tremendously shocking, even though you’ve been expecting it all along. Tryon was a master at this, by the way; his skill in weaving a hypnotic spell around his characters and readers and then pulling the rug out from beneath them is extraordinary. I was just as seduced by the town of Cornwall Coombe as the characters were, and just as horrified when it all went to shit. I felt betrayed just as surely as the characters were, and that is the genius of Tryon’s writing. As I said, that was the most frightening thing about the book. Cornwall Coombe seemed so nice. And not in a fakey, Stepford, something-creepy-is-going-on-here kind of way, but in a genuine, salt-of-the-earth, these-are-really-good-people kind of way. Nothing seemed sinister at all, nothing really seemed off. The people of Cornwall Coombe welcomed the Constantine family in their stoic, New-England-farmers sort of way, they made friends with them, they helped them out, seemingly out of the goodness of their hearts. Sure, there were a few strange things going on, as there are in any small town; those crazy Soakes moonshiners out in the woods, for example, or that grave outside the churchyard fence, or the aggressive attempted mate-poaching of town slut Tamar Penrose, or the prophesying of her mentally challenged daughter Missy. But all of this could be attributed to the quaint, backwards ways of a simple agricultural people who had been doing things the way their ancestors did, unchanging through the centuries. None of it even hinted at the terrifying realities lurking beneath the surface, of how bad things would ultimately get.
By contrast, the TV miniseries made the town seem weird right from the beginning, with lots of significant glances and dialogue that was just too glaringly obvious in its insistence that CORNWALL COOMBE IS A BAD, SCARY PLACE. I understand this to an extent; obviously, when you’re adapting a 400-page novel to a four-hour film, you have to speed up the pacing to get everything in. But I felt like it just didn’t work. The characters seemed too broad and silly, too stereotypical to be effective. Bette Davis made a great Widow, but she was clearly up to something from the start; there was nothing of the kindly, selfless, lovable old woman from the book who is very slowly and shockingly revealed to be evil.
I also had a big problem with the main character of Ned Constantine (whose name was inexplicably changed to Nick in the movie), both individually and in context of his relationship with his wife Beth. In the novel, the entire story is told from Ned’s point of view, and you grow to like him a lot as a person, or at least I did. He’s a good man; he messes up a couple times, sure, but you feel for him, and it seems like his heart is in the right place. He loves his wife dearly, and though some marital problems in the past are subtly hinted at, you get the idea that the pair are not only intensely in love with one another, but are also genuine best friends with abiding respect for one another as people. In the novel, Ned is just as enchanted with Cornwall Coombe as his family is, becomes close friends with several of the villagers, and spends many happy hours drawing and painting residents and landscapes alike. He doesn’t really realize the extent of the horror until very late in the book, and his downfall is therefore terrible and tragic.
By contrast, Nick in the movie seems like a raging asshole from the start, who snaps at Beth pretty much constantly and seems dead set on keeping his snarky distance from the backwards rubes in the Coombe. His relationship with the townsfolk is based on arrogant condescension and outrage; he even summons and berates the constable when he finds the old skull in the woods (which doesn’t happen in the book, where he seems more content to let sleeping dogs lie). As in the novel, he becomes curious about the “suicide” of Grace Everdeen fourteen years before, but unlike in the novel, he decides to write a salacious, tell-all book about it against the wishes of his wife and the other residents, and makes a nuisance of himself asking the townsfolk uncomfortable questions about her death. In the novel, Ned was writing no such book, and in fact was not seeking to exploit the people of the Coombe at all; sure, he was selling some of the paintings he did there to a gallery back in New York, but he was doing just as many paintings for the residents simply because he wanted to, or to give them as gifts. Ned’s loving relationship with his wife and the town in general make the inevitable betrayal of the townsfolk when he finds out their secrets that much more profound. In the movie, Nick was such a cock that I didn’t feel bad at all when his inevitable end came; in fact, I admit I welcomed it, because it felt deserved. That was probably not what the filmmakers intended.
In addition, the character of Beth was portrayed in the film as a neurotic, therapy-dependent harpy who is easily sucked into the traditions of the town and turns on her husband almost immediately. In the book, Beth is a strong, reflective, intelligent woman who seems to have her shit together and loves her husband despite his minor failings. She only really turns against him at the very end, and perhaps understandably so, from her point of view. I just didn’t like the way the movie made their relationship far more contentious than it was in the book, seemingly for the sake of cheap drama. For example, in the book, when Beth tells Ned that she wants another baby, he is nervous and uncertain, of course, but receptive to the idea, and genuinely pleased when she tells him that she’s pregnant. In the movie, she tells him her wishes for a child and he screams at her that there’s no fucking way (not in those words, but y’know). He does apologize when she (seemingly) gets pregnant, but still, the stench of his assholishness lingers.
There were some other niggling changes that bothered me quite a bit. Missy Penrose, the prophesying child, is a terrifying figure in the book, with her creepy pronouncements, her creepier corn doll, and the way all the townsfolk seem to look to this profoundly retarded but “special” child for guidance. When Ned happens to spy upon the ritual of her inserting her hands into the bleeding guts of a newly slaughtered lamb and then laying her bloody hands upon the cheeks of the chosen Young Lord, it’s a seriously chilling moment. In the movie, Tracey Gold’s awkward and overdone performance turns Missy into a shrieking joke.
In the movie, neighbor Robert is simply blind, with white eyes; in the novel, his eyes have been totally removed, which has far more horrifying implications in the context of the story. Likewise, Ned’s fate at the end of the movie is that he’s simply been blinded as well, but in the book, his tongue is also removed (as Jack Stump’s was, providing some nice continuity).
I was also kind of surprised that one of the most shocking scenes in the book was partly left out. In the movie, Nick gets ragingly drunk at the husking bee and runs off after he pisses off the townsfolk by pulling his daughter out of the dance. Ending up in a stream, he is approached and seduced by Tamar. Angered by her aggressive advances and his helpless lust, he lamely attempts to drown her, but does not succeed. She tells no one about this. However, in the book, that scene plays out a bit differently. Ned, who has discovered the town’s betrayal but has so far not really acted upon his discoveries, has an argument with his wife after she doesn’t believe his accusations against the people of the Coombe. He wanders off to the woods, totally sober and in broad daylight, and ends up swimming in the stream. He is approached by Tamar, who begins to work her feminine charms. He loathes her because he knows now that she is the one who not only murdered Grace, but removed Jack’s tongue, but he is equally repulsed by his own uncontrollable lust for her. He wants to kill her, and forces her down in the mud, where he brutally rapes her, wanting to obliterate her with his sexuality. It’s a horrifying scene, because violent rape is PROFOUNDLY out of character for him, but it’s scary precisely because it demonstrates how thoroughly the town has affected him and trapped him, and how powerful is the pagan feminine force working through Tamar. He realizes during the rape that he cannot kill Tamar, and that she has triumphed over him because he has given her exactly what she wanted. She subsequently tells the Widow of the rape, Ned’s wife finds out, and thus his ultimate fate is sealed. I suppose it’s understandable that a TV movie wouldn’t want to show a brutal rape, and now that I think about it, the rape wouldn’t have had the same impact in the movie since Nick was such a jerk that a rape wouldn’t have been out of character for him. In the book, I was astounded by the turn of events; in the movie I just would have been, “Eh, par for the course, I suppose.”
I realize I went on and on, but in brief, I can’t really recommend the miniseries. Read the book instead; it’s phenomenal. And until next time, Goddess out.
Since I’m always looking for ways to keep this blog as fresh as a livid corpse, I’ve lately been casting about for ideas on a new series to supplement my “Creepy Scenes” one (which will continue, don’t fret). Just two days ago, I had a moment of kismet when I ran across a Cracked article titled “9 Terrifying Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame,” and just like that, the fabled witchlight switched on in my head. So without further delay, I’d like to introduce a new series here on Goddess of Hellfire, “Scary Silents.”
I’ve always had a fascination with the very earliest days of cinema, particularly as it relates to horror film. There’s something so enthralling about the films that were made when the medium was brand new, when all the possibilities were first becoming apparent. There were limitations, sure, but oftentimes, limitations can be the spur to mad creativity, and that was certainly the case in many of the earliest movies in the horror genre. These films, many of them now nearing (or surpassing) a century old, have such a pleasingly otherworldly feel, with their shuddering camera work, their luminous black and white tableaus, and their broad theatricality. Watching the best of them, it’s easy to imagine that they seeped in from some other, creepier dimension, one of flickering lamplight and mystery. Obviously, some of the effects are crude by today’s standards, and much of the acting is necessarily exaggerated due to lack of spoken dialogue, but to me, that only contributes to their eerie charm. And some of them, particularly the non-American ones, contain some pretty shocking imagery for the time.
As is my wont, I’d like to discuss some of the slightly lesser-known films in the silent film oeuvre. Yes, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera, and Un Chien Andalou are fantastic, but they already get a ton of ink and bandwidth, so I probably won’t discuss them here (although I may change my mind about that, who knows). I would like to focus mainly on excellent examples of the genre that perhaps haven’t been so widely seen and discussed.
To that end, in this first post I want to talk about the 1922 Swedish-Danish co-production Häxan, known in English as The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages. If you’re curious, there was a Criterion Collection version that came out in 2001, or if you’re impatient like me, you can watch the whole thing (with English subtitles) right here:
The film is structured in four parts, and was actually conceived as a documentary. Writer/director Benjamin Christensen had done a two-year study of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, and sought to bring his knowledge to new audiences. For that reason, the first part of the film (comprising about fourteen minutes of runtime) is basically a short summary of both the history of witchcraft and the perceptions of Hell and the solar system common in the Middle Ages. This section of the film is illustrated with stills of woodcuts that will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of medieval witch legends, which I would assume is most people reading this blog. Bunch of sickos, all of ya. *kisses*
Anyway, it’s the second part where Häxan becomes more like a traditional film, with short vignettes reenacting various aspects of witchcraft in the medieval period, and then a longer story in the middle that dramatizes one particular case of an accused witch being brought before the Inquisition. This middle section is the best part, chock full of curses and flying ointments and torture and old crones mixing potions by moonlight from pieces of corpses pulled from the gallows, and anyone who’s read my novel Red Menace knows how much I love all this kind of old-school witchery stuff.
About 15 minutes in, a witch pulls a grody corpse hand out of a pile of straw and pulls off a finger, sniffing it experimentally. Weird, but you do you, babe. She then pronounces that the thief’s corpse had been too long on the gallows, and that the old, stinky finger isn’t gonna be any good for the brew. She soldiers on, though, throwing frogs and snakes and other unidentifiable things into her pot.
A woman then comes to the witch for a concoction that will melt the heart of her beloved, a fat monk who is later revealed, in a shocking plot twist, to be one of the main Inquisitors. The witch makes a delicious potion of cat feces and dove hearts. But then the woman wants the stronger stuff, so the witch gives her a potion boiled with a male sparrow, which evidently makes it like EXTREME love potion. Also, as a kinda two-for-one deal, the witch gives the woman an ointment that will let her and the object of her affections fly through the air and make kissy-face among the clouds. There are some broadly comic moments as the woman imagines the porcine monk taking the potion and then chasing her around a table and out into the woods before macking the hell out of her.
Things get REALLY interesting in later vignettes when the Devil (played by the director himself) shows up and starts pulling all kinds of evil shenanigans. “The Devil is everywhere and takes all shapes,” a title card informs us after his scary ass has popped up in a monastery and begun screwing with the chubby monks therein.
There are some really lovely silhouette shots of a naked woman walking zombie-like across a moor after being called by the Devil. One of my favorite scenes included one where the Devil comes to the window of a sleeping couple and begins banging on the shutters to call the wife to him, going all GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE, HO with his big clawed hands. Delightful.
One particularly cool sequence occurs when the Devil summons his minion, a poor woman named Apelone, into her “dream castle” where he showers her with money and a sumptuous feast, then begins to claw his way through the wooden door. The stop-motion animation here is great, and the little Devil figure, with his creepy beaked face, is super well done. Very Lynchian, this part.
In the longest segment of the film, there is a family gathered around the bed of Martin, a printer who has suddenly fallen ill. One of the male relatives wafts a ladle of hot lead over the sick man, and then drops the lead into a bucket of cold water, since the shape the lead takes will determine whether the man’s illness was caused by witchcraft, obviously. The guy pulls the lead shape out and is all OH SHIT, Y’ALL, THAT’S A BEWITCHING ALL RIGHT, and the gathered women are like AWWWW, HELL NO. The printer’s wife, Anna, gives food to an old beggar woman who comes in, and the old woman stuffs gruel in her face like a pig and totally blows a snot rocket on the floor and also has the evil eye, so the lady calls in the Inquisition, yo, since this beggar woman is clearly the agent of the bewitchin’. Family members throw the old woman in a bag (with one of the older female relatives making a particularly amusing YEAH, GET HER!!! gesture) and take her away.
The next bit, we cut to the Inquisition in progress, where the ancient old woman (Maria the Weaver is her name) is getting her torture on while the gathered monks swig wine and harangue her to CONFESS, CONFESS! At first she denies any witchy doings, but then the pain is too much for her and she’s all OKAY, FINE, I BIRTHED THE DEVIL’S BABIES, YOU HAPPY NOW and yes, they are happy, because now Maria is gonna confess all kinds of scandalous shit that the monks get to listen to and write down for later, masturbatory perusal. Maria starts telling the monks about all the witchery, and there are extended flashback sequences of a sabbath. The scenes of the witches flying are pretty cool, I gotta say. There are more beautiful shots with the witches flying across the sky in the background while the silhouetted devil orgy goes on in the foreground. The imagery of the witches’ sabbath is really gorgeous and unsettling, especially the weird skeleton-horse thing that lopes into the frame at one point, and the potion that one of the witches drops a dead baby in. There’s dancing and some (tasteful) nudity, and ladies making out with demons and doing jigs all over a cross on the ground. The monks are listening to this raptly, all WTF THIS IS KINDA HOT YOU GUYS. Maria tells them about the Devil-butt-kissing ritual, and the monks laugh and laugh like twelve year old boys.
Through some plot contrivance, the comely printer’s wife also ends up accused of witchcraft, because payback is a bitch. I think it happened because the youngest Inquisitor had the hots for her, so the other monks assumed she had bewitched him. For his sinful thoughts, the littlest Inquisitor gets a whippin’, and when the whippermonk stops, the younger guy is kinda like WHY DID YOU STOP I WAS TOTALLY INTO THAT. You know those monks are total freaks.
One of the monks tells Anna he will let her free if she shows him one of them there witchy spells, and I’m all DON’T DO IT, GIRL, IT’S A TRAP, even though of course she’s not really a witch and can’t do magic, so what the hell am I even saying. The monk then tells her that her baby will be alone in the world without her, and then the monks actually bring the baby to the prison to show her, because monks are just the worst. Meanwhile the other monks are listening in, waiting for her to do the spell for the first dude so they can later testify that she’s a sorceress for real. See? Trap. CALLED IT. So then she starts telling them how to make thunder out of the water, because y’know, baby and freedom, and then the main monk pokes his fat face through the window and is all like GOTCHA, GONNA BURN YOU ALIVE TOMORROW, LOL and Anna is all YOU MOTHERFUCKERS and starts beating on the one monk in the cell with her, as you would, so she gets hauled off too. Cut to all the monks packing up their shit and moving on to the next town, because their work here is done (that work being torturing the shit out of innocent women and getting their sadistic jollies, obviously).
The next chapter is kind of an overview of witch confessions, torture equipment, and so forth, and opens with a creepy image of a door flanked by two people wearing scary pig heads.
And then all these other people in scary animal heads come shuffling out of the door and to be honest it kinda freaked me out. This bit’s kinda uncomfortable, because even though they don’t show anyone getting tortured for real, they do show actual people in the contraptions and show how they worked with a very matter-of-fact, “like so” kinda vibe. “One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew,” the director says in a title card, and then there’s footage of a laughing young woman wearing the thing while the hand of someone off camera begins tightening it. And suddenly her laughing mouth starts looking more like YOOOOWWWWCCCCCHHHH!!! “I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady in less than a minute,” the next title card reads. Very droll, Mr. Director.
Then there’s a nun putting on a spiked belt as a weird sort of self-flagellation, then there’s a whole convent of nuns running around like lunatics. And then the Devil’s back, wagging his tongue at another nun.
The Devil reaches into a box and pulls out what looks like a big spiked dildo and hands it to the nun and she takes it from him, looking horrified, before the cut. In the next scene we see that it’s a knife, and I guess the Devil wants her to stab someone with it, but she’s all GET THEE BEHIND ME and flings the knife away, only to have the Devil pop up behind her and brain her with a club. This is kind of a weird movie, if you hadn’t noticed.
She gets up off the floor, all flummoxed, and the Devil cracks open the door and gestures to her, so she picks up the knife and zombies her way after him, lookin’ all pop-eyed and crazy. She goes to the altar and with the devil’s encouragement, pulls out one of them Jesus crackers and goes to stab it while Jesus appears all like NOOOO, DON’T DO IT, MY CHILD, but I guess she does because then all the other nuns file in and find her all zonked out and they look in her hand at the wafer and they’re all like SISTER CECELIA’S IN LEAGUE WITH THE DARK ONE, Y’ALL and the nuns freak out and scatter. Then Sister gets up and starts lurching toward them, and the Mother Superior is giving her a piece of her mind vis-a-vis consorting with evil, and the sister sticks her tongue out at the Mother. And then all the nuns start dancing around and laughing, because I guess the Devil got them too through the power of the nunly raspberry, and the Devil wags his tongue and happily surveys his handiwork. In the next scene, another nun kipes the baby Jesus statue off the altar and carries it to the Inquisitors and tells them they need to burn her at the stake tout suite because the Devil is making her do some bad shit. She then spits on the baby Jesus and screams that the Devil is RIGHT IN THE ROOM, YOU GUYS. Fade to black.
The last chapter is sort of from a modern perspective, with the director pointing out that poor old women were usually the innocent victims of these medieval wackos, and then enumerating all the ways a woman could “stand out” back then and get the fingers of the Inquisition pointed at her. Like here’s a woman with a hunchback, or who is blind in one eye, or otherwise looks kinda fucked up or diseased. And then the director says, via title card, that we shouldn’t think that the Devil is only consigned to the past, because the actress who played the old witch Maria in the film once told him that the Devil was real, and that she’d seen him at her bedside.
But he says that now we know that all of the so-called symptoms of witchcraft were simply physical or mental ailments, and he has an actress portray a few of these ailments as examples, including pyromania, sleepwalking, hysteria, and the like. It then goes into a discussion of witch’s marks, and shows a naked and prone woman on an altar with the devil’s claws touching her back in various places. Then there’s those Inquisitors, leering at a topless woman while poking at her for signs of those “insensitive” areas. Contrast that with the next scene, which shows a modern doctor poking at a woman’s back, understanding that such areas on the body are completely normal and merely a symptom of that good old feminine complaint of “hysteria.” (This WAS almost 100 years ago, y’all; they weren’t THAT modern.)
And then it’s kinda weird, because one of the doctors says something to the mother of the patient about “Y’know, it would be a shame if your daughter’s hysteria made her have a run-in with the police” (WTF) and then the title card says, “Poor little hysterical witch! In the Middle Ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.” I can’t really tell if the director was actually feeling pity with the women, or if he’s just being a sarcastic douche. That’s one of the downsides of silent movies, I guess; you can’t hear people’s tone of voice, and the text in silent movies doesn’t have emoticons.
Then, inexplicably, there’s a scene of a woman in a jewelry store totally pulling a klepto while the jeweler’s back is turned. So I guess that’s what the law thing was all about. The jeweler peeps in the ring box and is all HEY, THERE WAS ANOTHER RING HERE and the chick’s all I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU MEAN, WHAT ARE YOU ACCUSING ME OF, SIRRAH? Jeweler’s all, INTO MY OFFICE MISSY OR I’M CALLING THE FIVE-O, so she sheepishly goes into the office and hands over the ring she swiped. And then the jeweler’s all GIVE ME YOUR CARD IMMA CALL YOUR MOM even though the woman is like forty. The woman begs him not to contact her family, or else she will be “forcibly detained,” which doesn’t sound too good, and wait, weren’t there witches and devils and stuff just a few minutes ago? This is taking a turn into crazy town.
Anyway, she tells him she’s not well, and that her behavior is seemingly caused by something outside herself, and I suppose we’re just trying to draw parallels between the treatment of mentally ill women in the modern day as opposed to the days of the Iron Maiden, but it’s still a bit odd. And then the woman is like YEAH, I’M BROKEN, AND LOOK, HERE’S SOME OTHER SHIT I STOLE, I’M SO CRAZY, and probably showing your other pilferings to a guy you just tried to steal from isn’t the brightest idea, but she’s arguing for her life, you guys. Then she pulls out the pity card by saying that her husband died in the war and she hasn’t been the same since. And it totally works! See, we have compassion nowadays, not like those bloodthirsty medieval fuckers, and the jeweler lets her skate. I admit I actually did feel bad for her, so good on ya, jeweler guy.
At the very end, there’s a little recap of the medieval view on Hell and such, and the implication that it’s awesome we don’t really believe any of that silly shit anymore. He says there are no more witches on broomsticks, and then there’s a shot of a smiling woman piloting a biplane. YEAH, GIRL POWER! But wait, he says! Superstition is still rampant! There are still tarot readers and crystal ball gazers galore! We no longer burn the old and poor, but don’t the poor still suffer? Are we really that different? No, Mr. Director, we are not. Food for thought, my minions. Food for thought.
And because happy endings are not very Swedish and all, the final shot is of bodies burning alive at the stake, so that’s nice. I also enjoyed the ending title card that simply said, “SLUT” (which is Swedish for “end” or “out,” but don’t spoil my juvenile fun).
One of the main underlying themes of a lot of these blog posts is an examination of why particular moments in horror film, literature or music made a lasting impression on me while others did not. Why, for example, was I terrified by the bubbling cauldron sound at the beginning of “The Monster Mash”? Or the schlocky scene in My Bloody Valentine where the homicidal miner pops out of the closet with the pickaxe? Or the part in Fright Night where Amy reveals her horribly wide terror-mouth? I still have no idea, but it’s been fun reliving all this stuff from my wayward youth and trying to find some kind of perspective on it, or contemplating the threads that might tie all these disparate things together.
The next scene I want to discuss is another one of those that, for whatever reason, has stuck with me for 35 years, even though I don’t remember much about the rest of the film. The scene itself was only a couple of minutes long, but I can still vividly remember the heart-stopping shudder that traveled through my body the first time I saw it, and further recall how I studiously covered my eyes during the scene on subsequent re-watches of the movie.
Before I get to the main feature, allow me another short commercial break. I still have a Patreon campaign going to fund my writing work, and there are lots of neat rewards just for pledging a few bucks a month, so check it out, won’t you? Thank you. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
John Badham’s version of the classic Dracula (1979), starring Frank Langella as the titular Count, came out around the same time as a few other vampire films, notably Werner Herzog’s elegant remake of Nosferatu. Badham’s adaptation wasn’t horribly reviewed, but apparently audiences were experiencing some vampire fatigue, and it only did so-so business at the box office. I was only seven when it was released in theaters, so I didn’t catch it until it ran on television a year or two later; in fact, I’m fairly sure it was the first of the major Dracula film adaptations I ever saw, even before the more-famous Bela Lugosi and Hammer versions.
Like the 1931 Bela Lugosi film, Badham’s Dracula was based on the stage play rather than the novel, and followed a lot of the tropes of the Universal version. For example, Dracula is portrayed as a seductive, romantic figure rather than a ratlike monster as in the book, and the entire first part of the novel (where Harker is kept prisoner in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle) is scuttled, allowing the movie to start with the Count’s arrival on English shores. Something the Badham film does that I thought was odd, though, is that it reverses the characters of Lucy and Mina; Mina is the first one attacked and vampified by Dracula, for example, while Lucy is Harker’s fiancée, and is attacked later but ultimately saved when the vampire is staked. The film also portrays Mina as the daughter of Van Helsing and Lucy as the daughter of Dr. Seward. These changes don’t ruin the story or anything, but they also don’t really add to it, so I’m not sure why they were made. Perhaps because some characters were eliminated for brevity (like poor old Quincey Morris, who hardly ever gets a part in these adaptations), the screenwriter thought it would increase the drama and emotional coherence of the characters to make them all related somehow, but I’m just speculating about that. Still doesn’t explain why Lucy and Mina were reversed, but whatever.
As I said, I don’t remember a great deal about the film as a whole; I remember enjoying it, and being quite taken with Langella’s graceful performance as the Count, but even though I saw the movie several times when I was about nine years old, very little of it made a lasting impression. Except for that one, very brief scene.
If my quick Google search is any indication, I’m not the only one that has had this scene burned into my memory for more than three decades. I’m not entirely sure why the scene is so memorable; it could be simply because in the context of the film, it is so shockingly unexpected. This version of Dracula, after all, was marketed more as a supernatural romance than a horror film, and played rather like a staid English parlor drama (with fangs). There was little to no gore that I remember, and nothing that was outright frightening. But then this happens:
The lovely Mina (Jan Francis) has been exsanguinated by the foxy Count one night while her friend Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is out tramping it up with Jonathan (Trevor Eve). It makes me feel weird to even type that, you guys. It’s like they were cheating or something, what with the character reversal and all. Though now that I think about it, how great would a Mina/Lucy catfight scene have been? Anyway. The next morning, Mina is pale and gasping for breath, and dies as a horrified (and guilty) Lucy looks on. Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance) has no idea what could have killed Mina, and summons Dad Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) to help solve the mystery.
No slouch, Van Helsing immediately jumps to the most obvious conclusion, that eine nosferatu is running loose in the vicinity. As an aside, though, this is Van Helsing we’re talking about. He probably blames a vampire every time one of his socks disappears from the washing machine. Sure, he was correct in this case, but even a stopped clock, yadda yadda.
Anyhoo, Seward and Van Helsing visit Mina’s new grave in the cemetery, and find that her coffin is not only empty, but contains a ragged hole where she presumably dug herself out. The hole leads underground into some old mining tunnels, and they crawl down there to investigate, pretty sure of what they’re going to find. As they peer into the darkness, visions of the beautiful Mina probably uppermost in their minds…
…they begin to hear a shuffling sound coming toward them. They raise their lamps or candles (I can’t exactly remember which, and can’t find the scene on YouTube to check), and there, emerging from the darkness, is this horror, reaching for them and begging for a kiss:
This shit scared me SO BAD, you guys. And in this sense maybe it was a sound storytelling idea to make Mina Van Helsing’s daughter, because the tragedy of the scene is very apparent here, and underscores the horror with great effectiveness. The figure of the undead Mina is terrifying but also heartbreakingly pitiful, and the viewer really feels it when Van Helsing has to put down the monster his daughter has become. The rest of the film isn’t nearly as powerful, but that one scene is a stunner.
Keep watching this space for more of my horror-related wanderings, and news on my upcoming poltergeist book! Until then, Goddess out.