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.
Hälsningar, minions! Today we’re delving into the surreal and arty waters of the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre, and even though I’m gonna try REALLY hard to not make any Swedish Chef jokes, I’m not going to promise anything, because y’all know how I roll.
Hour of the Wolf (or Vargtimmen in Swedish) was released in 1968, and is probably the closest thing to a straight horror movie that Bergman ever did. That said, it’s still miles away from a traditional horror flick of the era, being more like an intensely eerie, psychological mindfuck with some really, really disturbing imagery; essentially, it’s film as wide-awake nightmare. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of ambiguity and surrealism in horror, and here is one of the best examples I have yet seen; in execution and implication, it’s absolutely skin-crawling. It’s also fairly obvious that this film was a pretty big influence on David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and in its themes of spiraling madness it also bears something of a resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
The story concerns an artist, Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who is vacationing at a remote island cottage with his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullman). At the beginning of the movie, Alma is talking directly to the camera about the disappearance of her husband, as if she is being interviewed for a documentary. The remainder of the film is told in flashback; we see the bizarre disintegration of Johan’s mental state, and wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real.
What makes this film so unsettling is its resolute refusal to explain itself. Johan interacts with strange people as he walks around the island, and he seems to think that they are demons, even though Alma can see them too; and for most of the movie, they seem like real people, albeit really skeevy ones. Johan has drawn all of them in his sketchbook, though the viewer never sees the drawings, but only Alma’s horrified reactions to them. He also has names for them, like the Bird-Man, the Schoolmaster, and The Lady with a Hat (about whom Johan once tells Alma that you don’t want to be around when the lady takes the hat off, because the whole face comes off with it. NOPE).
At one stage, a man named Baron von Merkans invites Johan and Alma to his nearby castle for a party, and when they attend, it’s the trippiest get-together ever, as all the guests laugh bizarrely, yammer on about meaningless topics, and overpraise Johan’s art to a really uncomfortable degree. Everyone seems hostile and cruel, as though they’re mocking him, but no reason for this is apparent. One of the women at the party shows Johan and Alma her bedroom, in which hangs a huge portrait of a woman named Veronica Vogler, who was apparently Johan’s ex-lover, though it is never clarified if she was a real person, or another figment of Johan’s crumbling imagination.
Johan suffers terribly from insomnia, and Alma often stays awake with him in support. During the long nights, they have some extremely disturbing discussions. In one very eerie scene, Johan tells Alma about a trauma from his childhood in which he was locked up in a closet with what he thought was a small person who wanted to gnaw his toes off. He also confesses to a possibly fictitious incident some time before whereby he murdered a little boy while out fishing. During this conversation, he clarifies the meaning of the phrase “hour of the wolf,” which according to folklore is the hour in the middle of the night when most deaths and births take place. Much of the horror in the movie is conveyed in these weird conversations, though there are plenty of uncanny visuals to highlight the nightmarish narrative, like a man suddenly walking up a wall and across a ceiling, or a woman pulling off her face and popping her eyeballs into a wine glass.
If you’re getting the sense that this is a really bizarre, disjointed film, then you’re entirely correct, but its inexplicable strangeness is very, VERY effective in making this one of the most haunting and genuinely unnerving films I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot). The underlying themes of the film seem to tie in with the fine line between artistic genius and madness, with the power of deep-seated fears and shameful desires to unhinge the mind, and with the possibility that insanity may be contagious, as Alma wonders at the end whether her love for Johan caused her to share in his delusions. There is also a repeating motif of eating or biting—the demonic people that Johan sees are portrayed as something akin to vampires or birds of prey, and during the flashback scene where Johan is recounting his murder of the boy at the seashore, the boy bites him several times during the struggle. Indeed, the working title of the manuscript was “The Maneaters,” so perhaps there is some reference here to the way that fears and traumas, whether real or imagined, can eat away at one’s sanity.
All in all, not a film for everyone, obviously, but I found it an intense experience, so disquieting and ominous that it was sort of distressing to watch. Its slow pace and stark cinematography only added to the uncomfortable atmosphere. If you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of Bergman’s other films, or just like surrealistic horror in general, I would definitely recommend it, even though it legit creeped me the fuck out. In fact, I know I said I was gonna try not to, but I need a laugh after watching it, so here we go.
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 back to Scary Silents! Even though this series is relatively new, I’m already changing things up a tad, so I hope none of y’all mind. Yes, this is still a silent film I’m discussing, but it isn’t from the sanctioned “silent film era” (hence the reason I also cross-posted it in my “Creepy Scenes” category). It’s a notorious experimental film from 1991 called Begotten, directed by Edmund Elias Merhige, who was also responsible for the fantastic film Shadow of the Vampire (which of course focused on the making of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu). I became intrigued with Begotten because of its persistent appearance on pretty much every “Most Disturbing Films EVAR” list circulating on the internet, so being something of a masochist, I decided to check it out and write down my thoughts for posterity. If you would like to follow along, here is the linky-poo:
The first thing I gotta say is that this certainly does look like a legitimate silent film from the era. It’s filmed in very stark black and white, and the film stock is all grotty and the camera work shaky, so kudos for realism. There is also no sound other than the constant drone of crickets, and the occasional grunt. The first shot is a shack in the woods, and already I’m digging the whole look of the thing; it really conveys that creepy, otherworldly feel I look for in my old silent films. I have a creeping suspicion that the entire production is going to be intensely arty-farty, but I don’t have a huge problem with either arts or farts, so it’s all good.
Inside the shack is a man in an eerie Leatherfacey mask and a white robe. He has blood all down his front and he’s coughing up even more of the stuff as he shakes and twitches, so I’m guessing it isn’t really his day. From the Wikipedia entry, I’m led to understand that this is supposed to be God™, so I’m rolling with it and calling him that. He produces a straight razor and begins to disembowel himself, pretty enthusiastically, I thought. He’s pulling viscera out from between his ribs and just merrily hacking away, chucking organs on the floor all willy nilly and wiping blood on the walls, because fuck it, he’s God™ and he knows he’s not the one who’s gonna have to clean up the place. That’s what worshippers are for. And just as a final dick move, he poops himself a lot (I think; since the movie’s in black and white, poop and goopy organs look the same) and lets it splooge all over his feet and everything. OH MY GOD, GOD™, GET A DIAPER.
Then, from out of the mess of fabric and innards and fecal matter, a woman’s arm emerges, and the rest of the woman invariably follows. This is Mother Earth, and she’s wearing a black mask over her eyes like it’s Mardi Gras all up in here, and she can’t seem to keep her hands off her perky ta-tas. She wanders around for a bit, her head thrown back. Then, because why not, she begins giving DeadGod™ a handie. He jizzes on her tummy and she rubs it in like Oil of Olay, because the protein in semen is like REALLY good for stretch marks (claim not evaluated by the FDA). She then smooshes her man-battered hand into her impressively furry bush, making sure it gets alllllll up in there so that she may preggify her bad self with DeadGod’s™ SuperSperm™. Is anyone reminded here of The World According to Garp? Just me? Okay, moving on.
We next see a black coffin appearing at various points in an empty field, and then Mother Earth is standing next to the coffin, rubbing her preggo belly. There are some quickly-edited shots of what looks like blood on skin, and I think I saw a fetus hand in there, and then suddenly there’s a fully-grown man lying all bloody on the ground, and what looks like a janky umbilical cord connecting him to Mother Earth. She wanders off and leaves him there, all WELL, YOU’RE ALL GROWN UP NOW SO GO GET A JOB, and he’s all twitching and hyperventilating and looking like a victim of the Mount Vesuvius eruption, and I wonder if he’s gonna have abandonment issues from here on out. WTF MOM, NOT EVEN ONE SIP OF BREAST MILK? Mother Earth is super harsh, you guys.
And then there are a bunch of hooded men shown in shadow, and I guess they’re nomads because they look like they’re all laden down with merchandise from Pier One, and they come across the Son of God, and they’re all like HEY, FREE NAKED DUDE while he writhes around. They scoop him up and tie him with ropes (or maybe this is the umbilical cord, hard to tell) and bring him along on their nomadery, because maybe they’re bored out there wandering in the barren landscape or maybe they’re gonna eat him later, who knows. Son of God (henceforth SOG) doesn’t appear to be having too fun a time, convulsing his limbs and struggling and being all WHERE ARE YOU GUYS TAKING ME, SHIT’S NOT FUNNY ANYMORE and the nomads just drag him around like it ain’t no thang. SOG begins vomiting up organs or something, and the nomads are all FUCK YEAH and start collecting the stuff in their bags, and then, because they apparently can’t wait until he yaks up some more of his insides, they start pulling the goo right out of his midsection while he’s going SO I GUESS YOU GUYS AREN’T GONNA HELP ME THEN and they’re like NOPE, JUST GONNA SWIPE ALL YOUR INNARDS AND THEN PUT YOU IN A SLING AND DRAG YOU UP A CLIFF. THAT’S HOW WE ROLL.
They make a fire and drag him to it, because presumably this is like The Hills Have Eyes and they’re all cannibals too, because they really needed that last little push to cement their dickery. They stab the shit out of him while he writhes and vomits, and the nomads aren’t even fazed, man, they’re like WHATEVER, VOMIT JUST TENDERIZES THE MEAT and then they drag him around some more while a bunch of his meaty bits hang out his mouth, while the sun glares down, impassive.
Then he’s lying on the ground alone, still twitching but now all clean again, so I guess they didn’t barbecue him after all, and Mother Earth comes back and puts a collar on him and starts dragging him around too, because nothing like rubbing salt into the wound, right, MOM? SOG really hasn’t had the most pleasant introduction to the world, in case you hadn’t noticed.
The nomads, apparently peeved that someone made off with their toy, begin following, gesturing at her like GET THAT UPPITY WOMAN WHO TOOK OUR FREE NAKED MAN, BUT FIRST LET’S BASH THE MAN’S HEAD IN WITH A STICK WHEEEEE and then it looks like they punch him in the dick too, and then maybe pull it off, but the way the film is shot it’s kinda hard to tell. Sounds like something they would do, though. Fuckin’ nomads.
Then they gang rape Mother Earth, because of course they do, all the while beating on her with their sticks and just tearing her all up and jizzing on her by the gallon. This bit was actually kind of upsetting to watch; even though it’s not particularly gory because of the black and white and because it’s so shaky and grainy that it’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening, in a way that makes it worse because you can see enough of what’s going on to imagine the rest. The flashes of them just pounding the shit out of her labia with their big mace-like staffs (not a euphemism) especially had me going:
Then Mother Earth is lying there, and SOG is kneeling between her legs, so I guess he’s still alive despite the head-bashing, and I’m thinking OH, ARE YOU GONNA RAPE HER TOO? MIGHT AS WELL, EVERYONE ELSE HAD A GO, FUCKING HELL, but I guess he’s just mourning or something. Two nomads come and drag Mother Earth away from him while he’s all WHYYYYYYY.
And then it looks like they’re nailing her to a rock face while feeling her up some more because they’re just shameless, these nomads. Then they cut her into pieces, so that’s nice. They put the pieces into a big barrel that they’ve evidently brought along for that very purpose, so it’s good to know they were planning ahead, and at least had the wherewithal to stop by Home Depot on the way to the dismembering.
Then there’s a sunrise, and we see SOG still crawling around like a worm in the dirt, and because the nomads are nothing if not thorough, they scoop up SOG again, put him in a sack, and beat the stuffing out of him with a huge clown hammer and poke at him with sticks. It starts to rain, and there’s some waterfall action going on, then the nomads are stabbing and punching all the guts into the ground, because FUCK THOSE GUTS, and I mean, really, this all seems a bit like overkill at this point. Then I guess they’re planting the guts, and the next scene is of plants and flowers blooming. So everything worked out okay in the end, and only three beings had to be raped and eviscerated, but they’re like not even people, they’re just like representations, man, so no big. Circle of life, folks, nothing to see here. Good times.
So what was my final impression? The film is certainly nightmarish, that’s for sure, and seems to spring from some dark, primitive place of savagery miles removed from most people’s day-to-day lives. As a metaphor, it’s pretty brilliant, examining as it does the tortures that the earth and our gods go through to satisfy our human whims (or at least that’s what I understood the film to mean). I didn’t find the film particularly hard to watch, other than the rape scene (because rape scenes always give me the squicks), but that’s mostly because the shots were deliberately grainy and obscured, leaving most of the violence to the imagination. I think the horror comes more from the idea of what’s going on, rather than what the viewer can actually see. It was a strange experience for sure, and the imagery was rather haunting. I might actually give it another watch when I’m not distracted by office noises and having to stop it every few minutes to write this silly crap about it. Heh.
Please stay tuned for more Scary Silents! I will probably go back to the more traditional silent films for the next installment, but I wanted to do this one as an experiment because it was so highly recommended. Keep creepy, my friends, and until next time, 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.