My 2014 novel The Five Poisons is now available on Kindle for $2.99! And this concludes my Kindle project; I’m not doing a Kindle version of The Tenebrist because it’s all graphically designed and shit and you really need to see it in print to appreciate it, so nyah. But other than that, have at it, ebook peeps!
If you’ve done even a cursory reading of my other blog posts in this series, you’ll know that the films and scenes I tend to write about are not focused so much on shock or gore as they are on conveying a sense of deep, lingering unease. I feel that movies and scenes that can accomplish this feat successfully are much rarer, for instilling a lasting dread in a viewer is always going to be far more difficult than simply making them jump in their seats or showing them something that turns their stomach. As I mentioned before, I’m not going to belittle horror films that take the easy way out; I’ve enjoyed a great many of them, after all. But my favorite horror is always going to be predicated upon that tightening noose of apprehension, that eerie, nightmarish imagery that sticks with you for sometimes years afterward, that subtly creeping menace that makes you almost regret ever even watching the thing in the first place.
As a case study, I now present a discussion of what I feel is one of the finest horror films of the 1970s. It’s a critically adored piece of filmmaking, but I definitely feel that it sometimes gets short shrift in the “popular” culture of horror films. Part of this may be due to the fact that it’s British, and perhaps more restrained and adult-oriented than the usual horror fare; in fact, it could almost be classified as an “art film.” Part of it may be due to its fractured, confusing narrative and its obsessive repetition of themes. Whatever the reason, though, I hope that those of you who have never seen it will sit down in a darkened room and give it a chance, because I guarantee that you will be in for a truly unsettling experience. One caveat, though: if you’re going to watch it, you might want to wait to read my recap until afterward, because I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. With that warning, let’s continue, shall we?
1973’s Don’t Look Now was based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca and The Birds, both of which, of course, were adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock) and was directed by Nicholas Roeg, an idiosyncratic filmmaker known for such works as Performance, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the Roald Dahl adaptation The Witches. Roeg’s signature directorial style (and also his visual style, as he started out in the biz as a cinematographer) is all over Don’t Look Now, from the disjointed plot construction to the recurring instances of symbolism. It’s definitely a film that rewards multiple viewings and reveals hidden layers with each rewatch.
In brief, Don’t Look Now is the story of a married couple, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who are grief-stricken after the accidental drowning death of their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams). To help deal with their loss, John accepts a job restoring an old cathedral in Venice, and the couple move from England to Italy in order to get away from their painful memories.
But naturally, things never work out that simply in a horror film. They have only been in Venice for a short time before Laura is approached by two sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic, in a restaurant bathroom. The psychic tells Laura that her daughter is with her and is happy, even describing the distinctive red raincoat Christine was wearing when she drowned. Laura is overjoyed at the news and believes unreservedly, but John is far more skeptical, and gently tries to discourage Laura’s “fancies.”
However, it soon becomes clear that something untoward is going on, no matter how skeptical John may be. Not only is there a murderer running loose around Venice, but John begins seeing fleeting glimpses of what appears to be a child in a red raincoat around the city. Laura, still heartened by the psychic’s pronouncement, agrees to go to a seance held by the two sisters, at which they tell her that her dead daughter has informed them that John is in danger. John gets angry at all of this psychic nonsense, and he and his wife have a blistering argument where much of their resentments about their daughter’s death come to the fore.
The next morning, they receive a phone call. It turns out that the couple’s son, who is at a boarding school back in England, has been injured in a fall. Laura immediately leaves Italy to tend to him, while John stays behind. Strangely, though, John sees his just-departed wife later that very same day. She is dressed in mourning and standing on a funeral boat in the canal, along with the two weird sisters. He passes her in another boat, and calls to her, though she doesn’t seem to hear him. Confused by her presence when she is supposed to be in England, and concerned about the murders happening around the city, he calls the police and reports her missing. Suspicious police decide to have John tailed instead, as he combs the city for any sign of his wife or the sisters he saw her with. Then, in a moment of clarity, he calls his son’s boarding school and is informed that Laura is there, and had arrived precisely when she should have, judging from the time she left Italy. Severely confused now, John informs the police that his wife is fine and not missing after all. Then later, in the street, he sees the red-clad figure again and chases after it. It should go without saying in a movie like this, but it doesn’t end well.
Director Roeg is a master at fostering a bizarre sense of dislocation in the viewer, but also at wrenching a cloying sense of menace out of every frame in this film. He does this through means both obvious and insidious. First of all, whenever Italian is spoken in the film, Roeg chose not to subtitle it, so that a non-speaker watching the film would feel just as adrift and confused as the characters. Secondly, he plays heavily on the theme of precognition, refusing to make clear whether what we are seeing on screen is happening in the present, the past, or the future, and deliberately chops up the narrative so that it is presented to us in a largely non-linear way. Thirdly, he uses several recurring motifs as portents of disaster: water, glass breaking, the color red, falling objects and people, the sense that “nothing is as it seems.” There is a constant sense of being stared at by hostile-seeming bystanders, there are subtle references to the murders which are never explicitly shown, and just an overall sense of displacement that contributes to the feelings of loss and relationship breakdown that the characters are experiencing. Roeg also makes great use of the dark, gothic back alleys of Venice to ramp up the creepy factor.
Several scenes stick out, but there are really only two that I’d like to briefly discuss. And before you get your hopes up, no, one of them isn’t the VERY explicit sex scene that caused so much controversy when this film came out in 1973. I may discuss it one of these days if I ever do a series on oddly hot moments that inexplicably turned up in horror films, but for now, let’s keep to the scary. Sorry, horndogs. 🙂
The opening scene is fantastic in establishing many of the themes explored in the film. The family is still in England at this point, and the daughter is not yet dead. Christine, in fact, is playing out in the yard in her red raincoat, while her brother idly rides his bicycle not far away. Inside the house, John and Laura are sitting before the fire. Laura is poring through a book looking for the answer to a question Christine asked her about frozen bodies of water (there’s one of those motifs), while John is looking through slides of the cathedral he is going to be restoring. In one of the shots, he notices a red-hooded figure seated in a pew before a stained glass window. He looks at the slide through a magnifying glass, and suddenly we see what looks like a red arm extending from the figure, though closer examination reveals that it is a tendril of blood, eerily working its way across the slide. The sight of the blood gives John a moment of precognitive dread, and he bolts from the house and out into the yard. Unfortunately, he is too late to save Christine, and is reduced to dragging her lifeless body from the pond and howling in agonized grief.
The second scene I’d like to focus on is the final one, in which all of the director’s leitmotifs culminate in one of the most unsettling sequences in horror cinema. John has seen that elusive red-hooded figure again as he is walking in the street, and begins to chase after it. The blind psychic, of course, has had a vision that John is in mortal danger, and Laura, who has returned from England, begins to run after him. He follows the figure up a spiral staircase to the tower of a cathedral. Laura cannot get in, and is reduced to reaching through the locked gates and yelling for him. John opens a door, and sees the little red-hooded figure standing against the wall, with its back to him. He thinks he hears it crying, and he tells it that he’s a friend, that he won’t hurt it. “Come on,” he says, encouragingly. There is another shot of Laura reaching through the wrought iron gate and calling for him, and then a flashback of the photographic slide with the red-hooded figure sitting in the pew. And then, the red-hooded figure turns around, y’all.
Not a pretty little blonde-haired girl at all, is it? No, it is a disturbingly wizened little woman. She approaches John, shaking her head, and then there are intercut shots of the blind psychic screaming, of the Baxters’ son running across their yard in England, of John embracing a stone gargoyle. “Wait,” says John, and then the tiny, terrifying woman, who in case you hadn’t figured it out is actually the serial killer running loose around Venice, pulls a cleaver from her pocket and thunks John right in the neck. There is a confusing array of images encompassing the past and present: John falling backward, Laura screaming, John holding his dead daughter in the pond, Christine’s red ball, John holding his wife’s hand in a restaurant, a mermaid brooch one of the sisters had been wearing. It’s all set to the discordant sound of church bells clanging. John’s life essentially flashes before his eyes as he lies there and bleeds out upon the floor.
And thus John, who spent the entire film discounting the existence of precognition (even though he experienced it himself just before Christine’s death), has had his second vision fulfilled, even though at the time he wasn’t aware that it was a vision: when he inexplicably saw Laura and the two sisters on the funeral boat, he was seeing the future, and seeing his wife mourning HIS death, not their daughter’s. A fantastically crafted film all around, and one the Goddess enthusiastically recommends.
Until next time, Goddess out.
Witches are badass, let’s just agree on that right out of the gate. Especially the old, scary, haggy ones that mix potions by moonlight and smooch the devil’s butt and turn people into toads and shit. They are the ultimate expression of unlimited female power, a fantasy representation of the point at which a woman no longer gives a fuck, refuses to put up with anyone’s crap, and decides to just plague her enemies with suppurating boils. Despite witches’ obvious excellence, however, I feel as though they’re a sort of under-utilized baddie in recent horror movies. I briefly survey the horror landscape and see it littered with countless shambling zombies, vampires both sparkly and otherwise, and big bad werewolves, but witches…not so much, especially if you’re discounting “sexy” witches and Wiccans, which I am because they aren’t scary. I was actually so distraught by the lack of old-school witchy shenanigans in recent horror that I decided to make a small, insignificant contribution toward their little image problem by writing a novel called Red Menace (out October 1st) that features some of that wicked witchcraft that I love so much and never see enough of. There are withered old crones! Spells! Glamours! Also, some serial murder, if you’re into that! Okay, plug over, let’s get on with today’s scene!
Let’s talk about Dario “Italian Hitchcock” Argento, shall we? Specifically, let’s talk about him when he was still collaborating with Daria Nicolodi and making beautiful, surreal, violent, and kick-ass horror and giallo films, and let’s not talk about his more recent output because it just makes me sad (do not think of The Card Player, repeat, DO NOT THINK OF THE CARD PLAYER). Back in that mythical time known as “the day,” Argento couldn’t put a foot wrong: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Opera, Tenebrae…all fantastic shit. But because I opened with witches, you guys know what movie I’m gonna be talking about, right? Of course you do.
Suspiria (1977) was the first film in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, loosely based upon Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis. The other two films were the excellent Inferno (1980) and the massively disappointing Mother of Tears (2007). Basically, the mythology behind the trilogy is that of three dreadful witches (Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum) who get up to all sorts of worldwide evil from their bases in Rome, Freiburg, and New York; the films sort of take the mythos in three different directions, though, so they actually stand very well as individual movies. Suspiria is the nightmarish tale of an American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who travels to an elite dance school in Freiburg, Germany and slowly discovers that it’s a front for an evil coven of witches, headed by the terrifying Helena Markos, the Mother of Sighs.
First off, I have to say that Suspiria is probably one of the world’s most beautiful films to look at. Argento not only shot the spectacular set in super-saturated hues and utilized special lenses and light filters, but he also used the same unusual Technicolor process that was used for The Wizard of Oz. Every frame of the film is like a strikingly composed light painting of a particularly gruesome fairy tale, with stark shadows and garish shafts of red, blue, green, and yellow light falling across the baroque and hyper-violent murder tableaus. I mean, just check out some of these stills:
I mean, that is so splendid that it’s almost ridiculous. Fun personal fact: in the house I used to live in, I took great care in decorating the whole space in a Suspiria theme. Every room was painted a different, dark, saturated color, and all the doors were painted black with red art-nouveau-style insets, just like in the movie. It looked wicked cool, and even though I had to leave the house behind, I still have fond memories of my one and only attempt at free-reign interior design.
Anyway, on to the scene. There are actually two scenes from Suspiria that are usually called out on various “scariest scene” lists, both of which are suitably amazing. The first is that tense, dynamite opener where Suzy is first arriving at the school in a torrential downpour, intercut with the grisly murder of expelled student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén). The other scene, fittingly, is the closing one, where Suzy finally confronts the ghastly figure of Helena Markos (as well as the reanimated corpse of murdered student Sarah, played by Stefania Casini) and kills her with a beautiful, glass peacock-feather spike. Italian killings are clearly far more elegant and aesthetically pleasing than other kinds of killings, you see.
But true to the spirit of this blog series, I’d like to discuss a lesser-recognized scene that had that subtle, unsettling vibe that I’m so fond of, particularly as it appears in a film as over-the-top operatic as this one. In the scene, the catty ballet students have just been subjected to a literal rain of maggots in their respective quarters, which is probably like the last thing you’d expect to happen at one of the most snooty and elitist ballet schools on the planet. The teachers and staff (read: witches, you guys, they’re all witches) are all like, NBD, there was just some rotten food stored in boxes up in the attic or something, that’s all, and the maggots just squirmed out through the cracks in the ceiling and kinda ruined everyone’s day. It’s all cool, tho.
While the students’ rooms are being de-grubbed, the staff set up an impromptu dorm in the practice hall, with rows and rows of fold-out beds, and the girls and boys separated by high white curtains. All the women are getting into their beds and trying to make the best of things, saying it’ll be just like camp. One of the heads of the academy, the sternly efficient Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), walks through the dorm to make sure everyone is comfortable. One of the students asks if the teachers will all be sleeping in the dorm too, to which Madame Blanc replies that all of them certainly will be, except for the directress, of course. Then Madame asks if it’s all right if she turns the lights out. She disappears behind one of the curtained walls, and immediately the whole space is plunged into a saturated, blood-red dimness, like a photographic darkroom.
There is some banter and chicanery, as one of the male students climbs up to say hello from the other side of the curtain, and then the students settle into bed and begin gossiping and arguing until one of the girls tells them to put a sock in it so they can all get some sleep. Then there’s a creepy panning shot across the dark red dorm, and on the soundtrack are the eerie sounds of sighs and wails and screams, threaded through an ominous prog-rock beat (provided by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin). We can see shadowed silhouettes of presumed staff members sleeping on the other side of the curtain, filtered through that intense red light. Then we close in on a silhouette of one empty bed. A weird shadow approaches the bed and sits down on it. It appears to be a woman, but something about her is…off. She almost looks bald, for one thing, and as she lies back on the bed, the silhouette of her body through her nightgown looks like a skeleton, almost like an x-ray. The background music gets louder and weirder (and I have to say that I absolutely love Goblin’s score for this film, which actually doesn’t seem as though it would work, but does, beautifully). We see Suzy and Sarah lying in their beds side by side, and behind them is that creepy-ass silhouette on the other side of the curtain. Then we start to hear this weird, rattling wheeze.
Sarah sits up in bed, listening, then whips her head around to look at the silhouette behind them. There’s a shot of Sarah from the other side, as though someone is peeking through the curtain at her. She shakes Suzy and asks if she’s awake. “Do you hear that snoring?” Sarah asks. “It’s weird.” And indeed, it is very weird and intensely unnerving. The chest of the silhouette rises and falls in time with the rasping horror-noise. Sarah gets out of bed and kneels next to Suzy’s bed so she can whisper to her. “They lied to us,” Sarah says. “The directress is here. That’s her, the one who’s snoring.” She points back toward the sheet. “How do you know?” Suzy whispers. “Last year, for a while,” Sarah explains, “I lived in one of the guest rooms. The ones at the top of the stairs. One night, I heard someone come in very late, and get into bed in the room next to mine.” As she’s saying this, in a creepy whisper, she’s looking around the room and Suzy is just staring ahead, wide-eyed and obviously frightened. “And then…I heard this weird…kind of snoring. I tell you it was so weird I never forgot it. Listen! Do you hear that whistle? It’s…exactly…the…same.” Then she says, “The next morning, Madame Blanc told me that the directress had spent a few hours at the school, and had checked in the room next to mine. So you see, I know that’s the directress. She’s here. She’s theeeeeeere,” Sarah hisses, peering over her shoulder at the silhouette. “Right…behind…that…sheet.” And then there is a closeup of the head of the silhouette, and then another creepy wheeze, and then fade to black.
At this point in the film, we only know the directress by reputation, and are not yet really aware that she is indeed the powerful witch Mater Suspiriorum. Even so, you know something is going on with that scary-ass woman behind the sheet, and the scene is perhaps even more affecting, given what we don’t yet know about her. Coming about halfway through the film, it’s a fantastic tension-building scene, laden with mystery and foreboding. Had Argento continued to make movies in this particular and distinctive style, instead of losing his mojo somewhere around 1996, just think of the further masterpieces he could have produced as he grew as an artist. Alas, that’s not how the cauldron bubbled, but at least we’ll always have Suspiria.
Once again, Goddess out.
Allow me to briefly expound upon my love of haunted house movies. They are, bar none, my go-to genre of horror film, and my list of favorites includes many stellar examples: The Haunting, The Others, The Changeling, The Innocents, The Shining, The House by the Cemetery, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Ghost Story, The Legend of Hell House. There is just something so inherently nasty about the haunted house story. Your house, after all, is where you sleep, where you get naked, where you’re the most vulnerable, where you’re supposed to be able to relax and live your life safe from the prying eyes of the public. When this feeling of safety is subverted by a haunting, you feel doubly violated, as you have nowhere to go to escape the terror; it has literally invaded the place where you live. The haunted house film, when done well, gives the viewer a sense of claustrophobia and unease that cannot be matched by any other subgenre. Intense atmosphere can be wrenched from every shot of a darkened hallway, a locked door, a dusty basement or attic. Our houses are our outer shells, and when they turn on us, the results can be horrifying.
One of my favorite haunted house films of the 1970s, and one that typifies the “house as living entity” trope apparent in many films of the period, is 1976’s Burnt Offerings. Based on Robert Marasco’s novel and directed by Dan Curtis (well known as the creator of the 1960s vampire soap, “Dark Shadows”), the film tells the story of a married couple, Ben and Marian Rolf (Oliver Reed and Karen Black) who rent a gorgeous neo-classical mansion for the summer, along with their 12-year-old son David (Lee Montgomery) and Ben’s delightfully sassy aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis). The beginning of the film sees the couple arriving at the house, unable to believe that this enormous estate is the same one offered for a “reasonable” price in the ad they answered. The first person they meet is the obligatory toothless hick caretaker, Walker, and shortly afterward they come face to face with the owners of the house, the weirdly intense brother and sister team of Arnold and Roz Allardyce (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart). The siblings offer the Rolfs the unheard-of rental price of $900 for the entire summer, provided the Rolfs are “the right people.” Ben is skeptical, thinking the whole situation is too good to be true, and monumentally freaked out by the Allardyces’ strange way of talking about the house as if it’s alive. The viewer is pretty much on Ben’s side too, at this point, since we have already seen Arnold watching hungrily out the window as David falls and cuts his leg as he’s playing in the garden. We have also seen that one of the dead plants in the greenhouse has developed a new, young shoot.
Marian, however, has no reservations at all about renting the place, as she has already been seduced by its beautiful interior, full of shining wood, sparkling chandeliers, priceless antiques, and creepy old photos in ornate frames. Her enthusiasm is hardly dampened at all when the siblings throw in one final “catch”: their 85-year-old mother will be staying in the house with the Rolfs. The Allardyces insist that their mother will be no trouble at all, that she never leaves her room and that they will probably never even see her. All they ask is that Marian make a tray of food three times a day and leave it on the table in their mother’s sitting room. Ben is extremely put out by this condition of their rental (what if the old woman dies on their watch, he rather reasonably points out to his wife), but he finally gives in when he sees how much Marian loves the house. They move in on July 1st, planning to stay until Labor Day.
From there, little things conspire to make the house seem creepier and creepier. Marian begins to spend all her time cleaning and fixing the house up, and insists that no one is allowed into Mother Allardyce’s quarters but her. Ben and David find an old cemetery on the grounds, in which all the graves are Allardyces, but none of the death dates is more recent than 1890. Ben also finds a mysterious pair of broken spectacles at the bottom of the swimming pool. The trays of food that Marian dutifully leaves for the mother are never eaten, and the old woman never responds to Marian’s knocks. Marian herself slowly begins to dress more primly, as if she is from the era when the house was built. She also takes to mooning around for hours in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room, listening to an antique music box and staring longingly at the old woman’s collection of photographs. Her hair is also slowly beginning to turn gray.
As the tension builds, the weirdness gets weirder: while horsing around in the pool, Ben succumbs to an uncontrollable bloodlust and almost drowns his son. Marian notices that certain things around the house and grounds seem to be regenerating themselves. The windows and doors in David’s room close and lock, and the gas heater somehow turns on and almost kills him. The formerly perky Aunt Elizabeth begins to quickly decline from some mysterious ailment, and eventually dies.
And then, there’s Ben’s nightmare.
The night after almost drowning his son in the pool, Ben has a dream, filmed in spooky black and white, of himself as a little boy attending his mother’s funeral. In this nightmare, there is an unsettling figure of a lanky chauffeur, clad in a black uniform and dark glasses, lurking around the outer edges of the funeral party, and standing by the door of an old-fashioned black car to usher Ben inside. Ben gets into the car, and then the chauffeur’s creepily smiling face appears in the car window. The chauffeur is so eerie looking that one wonders if it was an actual person that Ben remembers from the funeral, or just a product of his subconscious. In either case, what the hell is that freaky-looking chauffeur smiling at?
As if the dream scene wasn’t bad enough, there comes a chilling sequence later in the film where Ben, who has been out working in the garden, is taking a break, sitting on the grass and drinking a beer. Suddenly, he sees the grille of a car approaching through the trees. It’s the same black car from his nightmare. It comes ever so slowly up the drive, and Ben is just sitting there watching it, shaking like a leaf. The car stops several yards away, and the chauffeur’s pale face can be seen through the window, watching Ben with that horrible smile. Ben loses his shit and covers his eyes, and when he looks up again, the car is gone.
The third appearance of the chauffeur is also a cracker. Ben is sitting with his dying aunt one night and hears a car pulling up outside. Creeping to the window, he sees the telltale black car coming around the drive. He wigs out and backs slowly away from the window back toward Elizabeth’s bed. Both Ben and a nearly incoherent Elizabeth begin to hear a noise at the door, as of someone trying to get in. Then there’s a close-up of the door, and then a loud bang as the door opens, then there’s that damn chauffeur in the doorway, grinning, his eyes invisible behind his dark glasses. There’s a full-length shot of him standing on the threshold, a shot of Elizabeth screaming, and then the chauffeur pushes a coffin into the room toward the camera, and everything goes black. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
I’d like to add here, on a personal note, that the first time I saw this film was when I was about thirteen. I was at a slumber party at an old mansion owned by the wealthy parents of a friend of mine. This house was straight out of a movie itself, with a giant sweeping marble staircase, crystal chandeliers, back staircases for servants, and endless twisting hallways leading to rooms upon rooms. I had never seen such a house in real life, and it was probably not the best environment to see Burnt Offerings in, for as soon as the chauffeur made his first appearance, I and all the other girls at the slumber party were scrambling to hide under the blankets on the sofa or hightail it out of the room. The house around us just seemed a little too similar to what we were seeing on the screen, and we could all imagine glancing behind us and seeing that smiling motherfucker standing in the doorway and pushing a coffin at us. It’s a memory that’s stayed with me for almost thirty years.
As for the rest of the film, as you can probably guess, things don’t go well for the Rolf family. Spoiler alert: everybody, including the kid, dies in various horrid ways, except for Marian, who becomes the formerly non-existent Mrs. Allardyce in the end, a living embodiment of the house.
When I was doing research for this recap, I noticed that reviews of the film were very mixed, as many filmgoers felt the ending was too obviously telegraphed, but I’ve always found that the atmospheric creepiness of the journey makes up for any pedestrian aspects to the plotting or theme. One also has to take into consideration that many aspects of the film that seem old hat to people nowadays weren’t quite the clichés they are now, and in fact, some themes in this film were quite original, but later co-opted for later films in a similar line. I also really think the acting is terrific; Karen Black is always great, and Oliver Reed is splendid, especially in scenes featuring the fun, smart-ass bickering between Ben and Elizabeth. So if you’re in the market for a classic slice of 1970s haunted house eerieness, you could certainly do worse than Burnt Offerings. The book is great too, by the way, and with that, I’ll bid you pleasant, chauffeur-free dreams.
Children are often frightened by inexplicable things. When I was but a wee goddess, for example, I was sent into paroxysms of terror by the bubbling cauldron sound effect at the beginning of the song “The Monster Mash,” and to this day I still have no idea why. Without fail, whenever the song came on the radio around Halloween, I would bolt from the room, trembling, with my hands clamped over my ears. Similarly, I have very vivid memories of a large, papier-mâché dragon mask made by my uncle sometime in the late 1970s. He kept it in his bedroom at my grandfather’s old house (which was a huge, dark, mysterious pile whose corridors and overgrown gardens still feature in many of my dreams), and I absolutely refused to go upstairs the entire time the mask was there. After all, It might have been watching me with those horribly blank eyeholes, and planning to gobble me up. The mask made such an impression, in fact, that many years later I used it as the basis for a short story called “Heartworms” (which can be found in my 2011 book The Associated Villainies, if you’d care to read it).
On the other hand, a great deal of ostensibly “children’s” entertainment is purposely made to be straight-up nightmare fuel, from the days of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the more modern frights dished out by the likes of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and the Harry Potter series. Most kids absolutely love to be scared, or at least I did when I was that age, as I rented age-inappropriate slasher flicks from our local video store and checked out every Alfred Hitchcock horror anthology from the library that I could get my sticky little fingers on. Often, when you see or read your childhood terrors again as an adult, you’re sort of shocked that kids turn out as relatively normal as they do, having processed images like that when their brains were still not fully formed (there’s also that corollary of “Why the hell did my parents let me watch/read that, for fuck’s sake?”). Think of the witch’s transformation scene from Disney’s Snow White, for instance, or the Heffalumps and Woozles from Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day, or the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence from Fantasia. Think of Augra and the creepy Skeksis from The Dark Crystal, or the “Wembley and the Terrible Tunnel” episode of “Fraggle Rock.” When you really stop to think about it, a startling amount of children’s entertainment from my era is chock full of horrors, from the poor little cartoon shoe getting slowly lowered into the Dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the nightmare scene in The Brave Little Toaster to the boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to pretty much the entirety of Watership Down. I don’t really have any definitive theories as to why writers and filmmakers often go so dark with material that is supposedly meant for children. It may be because, as creative people, they remember all too well how new and real everything feels when you’re a kid; scary things are ten times scarier and tend to stick with you for years in a way they fail to do as you get older. Adult filmmakers know very well that they’re terrifying the pants off the rugrats, but I don’t think they’re doing it out of sadistic glee. Quite the contrary, I feel that it’s a tremendous gesture of respect toward children, a way to say, “I know what I’m putting on the screen in front of you is scary, much scarier than it would be if you were a grown-up. But I also know that you’re strong enough to handle it.”
There were many, many cartoons that left an indelible imprint on my young and fragile psyche, but I’d like to discuss this particular one, simply because for many years I thought I had maybe imagined it. I remember seeing it several times on HBO or Cinemax somewhere around 1978 or 1979, but then not seeing it again for many, many years. Every now and then, a memory of a scene would drift through my consciousness, and I would ask whoever I happened to be with at the time if they knew what cartoon I was talking about. None of them did, and I began to feel as though the whole thing had been a fever dream. But then came the advent of the internet, and at last I was able to confirm that yes, it was a real animated movie, and yes, of course you can now watch the entire thing on YouTube. Big high five to the 21st century.
Jakku to Mame no Ki, better known by its English-language title, Jack and the Beanstalk, was a 1974 Japanese attempt at replicating a more Western, Disney-style musical animated film. It was directed by Gisaburö Sugii, and was of course based on the well-known fairy tale, though because it was Japanese, it seemed like it couldn’t help but go off in some fairly strange directions.
There’s the standard fairy-tale opener of Jack buying some magic beans and climbing up the subsequent stalk, and there is a giant involved, but here’s where things get sort of weird. The first person Jack meets when he gets to the castle in the clouds at the top of the beanstalk is Princess Margaret, a big-eyed, pointy-haired beauty who seems ever-so-slightly out of it. She’s very wispy and serene, floating around on little cloud puffs and humming contentedly to herself. She takes Jack into the seemingly deserted castle and shows him a glowering portrait of a giant, hulking brute named Tulip, who she is going to be marrying the next day. She is clearly blissfully happy about this development, swirling around the empty castle rooms like a super mellow hippie chick on a massive dose of E, but Jack just seems wigged out by the whole situation. His unease only grows when he is introduced to the giant’s mother, an Evil Queen/Maleficent/Cruella DeVil simulacrum named Madame Hecuba, who has a scrawny, terrifying face, huge evil eyes, and a creepy-as-fuck old-hag voice. She can also move things around just by waving her hands, so you know she’s no one to trifle with, although at first she seems rather hospitable, if a tad menacing. Madame Hecuba sends Margaret to her room to “fix her makeup” (we find out later that the witch is using a drug that comes out of a powder compact to control Margaret and get her to marry Tulip so that Madame Hecuba can be queen and run the Land of the Clouds after she offs the princess) and then takes Jack up to the dining hall. They walk through the darkened, cavernous hallways with the weirdly patterned floors, and then they get into an elevator that takes them up to the long, eerie dining room. There, the witch feeds Jack a soup that knocks him out, and then she greedily stashes him in a pot for later eating, gloating the whole time that it’s been twenty long years since she was last able to feast on human flesh.
The scene I’d like to focus on is the wedding scene between Tulip and Margaret, because it’s sort of trippily disturbing in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate when I was seeing it as a child. We see the stupid, apelike Tulip getting spiffy in his wedding clothes, and then we see Madame Hecuba industriously cutting something or other out of sheets of white paper. There’s a shot of Margaret in her wedding dress, sitting in front of the mirror in her room, totally spaced out and not moving. In the next shot, we see that Madame Hecuba has actually been cutting out life-sized and square-headed paper people, with only slits for eyes and no other facial features, and now she’s draping them lovingly over the pews in the wedding chapel. Did I mention that Hecuba is singing a totally weird song while all this is going on, complete with witchy cackling and lyrics about how she can’t stop laughing because she knows her terrible scheme is coming to fruition? Yeah. Japan. Anyway, Tulip lumbers in in his ridiculous suit, and then Hecuba raises her arms, and all the paper people stand up like reverse dominoes. She spreads her arms again and all the paper people dutifully sit down.
The witch then goes to Margaret’s quarters. Margaret stands up when she enters, as if on cue, but doesn’t look at her or speak. Hecuba tells Margaret that her bridegroom is waiting, and that all the guests are assembled in the chapel, and that Margaret mustn’t keep everyone waiting. The drugged Margaret follows the witch out of the open-air room without saying a word. Then, there is the sound of wedding bells from the tower, and a slow pan down the exterior walls of the castle. Meanwhile, Jack and his dog have found the treasure room, where there are a group of mice in fancy dress crying about the impending wedding (these are the people who rightfully lived in the castle until Hecuba turned them into rodents, you see). Jack threatens a talking harp with an axe to get info about how to break the spell that Margaret is under so he can save her. The harp finally caves and gives the standard answer that the spell can be broken by a kiss from a “brave” man.
Next, we hear those dissonant wedding bells, sounding more like grim funeral tolls, and there’s a green-tinted shot of Tulip walking down the aisle with a very tiny and clearly benumbed Margaret sitting on his arm (the implications of which weirded me out even as a child). Then the priest, who is also a paper person but actually has a freaky-looking mouth that looks like a pulsating butthole in addition to the triangular slit-eyes, begins singing a really unsettling wedding song (that has some bizarre Klaus Nomi moments) as the bride and groom approach. Madame Hecuba is standing at the back of the chapel, her hands clenched in front of her in gleeful anticipation, an evil grin on her face. Margaret slides off the giant’s arm and stands in front of him, only coming up to his enormous crotch (ewwwww). Everything is still colored a sickly looking green, and the paper priest is still singing. The paper people in the pews stand up, and there’s a panning shot of their empty, triangular eyeholes. There’s Tulip again, looking adoringly down at his bride, and there’s Margaret, looking totally slack and unreactive, and then there’s Madame Hecuba’s hungry visage. The screen goes red, and we see Hecuba’s fantasy, where she is dressed in queenly raiment and uses her wand to turn Tulip into a rat. A moment later, the screen goes yellow and we see what is presumably Tulip’s fantasy, he and Margaret swinging on an enormous wedding bell. Then everything’s green again. “He loves her,” Hecuba hisses over a shot of Tulip gazing lovingly down at Margaret. “She loves him,” Hecuba says over another shot of Margaret looking like a zombie. “The perfect match!” she cackles, and then the paper priest, still singing, starts kinda rising in the air, with his little paper bible held in one paper-strip hand. Then all the paper people in the pews are waving around in time with the music, and then everything in the chapel starts lurching and waving, and everything’s green and sort of seasick-looking, and Hecuba keeps insisting in her horrible voice, speaking telepathically to Margaret, “Say that you love him! Say that you love him!” And it’s all very psychedelic and unsettling, and it was kinda freaking me out again as I watched it for this recap, but then the whole wedding comes to a screeching halt when Jack comes crashing in through a stained-glass window to kiss the bride and break the spell. After a harrowing chase around the castle during which Tulip causes easily one hundred million dollars worth of damage, the day is saved.
Oh, and did I also mention that suddenly Hecuba has fangs, Tulip can Hulk out to like ten times his size and wears boxer shorts with hearts on them, and that when Tulip finally gets sick of Hecuba’s shit and steps on her, it turns out that she’s mechanical? Yeah. Japan.
I have to say that even as an adult, I still adore this cartoon. The animation is somewhat shoddy, even for the time, and some of the dubbing work (particularly the voice of Jack) is a bit goofball, as happens with a lot of Japanese imports. But there’s just something about the whole eerie atmosphere of it that still gives me a pleasant little shiver. When I originally saw it, I had no idea that it was a dubbed Japanese film, so perhaps that contributed to the otherworldly vibe it gave off that kid-me found so off-putting and appealing at the same time. The music is also weirdly great, and there’s just such an early-70s acid-trip patina coating the whole experience that I can’t help but be captivated all over again anytime I watch it.
Until next time, Goddess out.
I know, I know. I did say, in my previous piece on The Tenant, that I was going to try to avoid discussing the better-known horror fare as much as possible, and yet here I am, sorta already breaking that rule. My justification for what follows is two-fold: Firstly, I love this damn scene and I still vividly remembered it years after first seeing the film; and secondly, it’s not usually one of the scenes that people single out as being the scariest in the movie.
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) is a horror behemoth that not only spawned fifty squintillion sequels and spinoffs, but also established one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. There probably isn’t a horror fan alive who hasn’t seen it. While the merits of the sequels can (and have been) debated to death—and I for one tend to be one of those people who feels that most of them, while good films, veered too far into self-parody to be effectively frightening—I think it’s pretty much universally accepted that the original was one of the scariest horror films of the 80s.
The scenes that fans and reviewers tend to point to when they talk about “scary parts” are usually the more splashy ones (in both senses of the word), like the blood geyser that erupts when Johnny Depp is sucked into his bed (during the Miss Nude America pageant, no less), or Tina’s gorily and gloriously airborne murder. Another popular choice is Freddy’s appearance in Tina’s dream, his shadowed figure approaching through the alley, his freakishly long arms causing his finger-blades to scrape unsettlingly across the walls. These are all great options, but the one I want to feature is much less ostentatious, since as I keep repeating, the creepiest scenes for me are ones that are predicated on suggestion and atmosphere.
Main protagonist Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is sitting in her English class, wearing a tragic combo of pale pink sweater-vest and high-waisted beige slacks (ahh, the eighties). Since her terrible dreams have been keeping her up nights, she’s understandably a mite drowsy. She struggles to keep her eyes open as the teacher drones on, and then as a student gets up in front of the class and begins to read from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
She blinks sleepily, but for a moment we don’t realize that she has dozed off. And then things start to get weird. She happens to glance to her right and sees that her murdered friend Tina is standing in the doorway of the classroom, ensconced in a bloody body bag. Tina’s hand reaches out inside the plastic. “Help me,” she says. And then Nancy turns back to survey the classroom, perhaps to check if anyone else is seeing this crazy shit. The boy is still standing at the front of the class reading Julius Caesar, but now he is staring straight at Nancy and reading in a flat, menacing whisper.
The first time I heard that whisper, I honestly got goosebumps, because for whatever reason, one of the things that disturbs me the most in films is when a character inexplicably starts speaking in a different voice. Incidentally, other examples of similar movie scenes that had the same chilling effect on my psyche were Danny’s croaking “Redrum” getting suddenly higher-pitched in The Shining, the Judge’s normal voice jumping into screeching cartoon mode in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the little old woman talking in the voice of Nicole Kidman’s daughter in The Others. I realize that this is a particular bête noire of mine, so readers’ mileage may vary, but for my money, the boy in Nightmare On Elm Street reading Shakespeare in the slow, hissing whisper is easily the most unnerving part of that scene, and for me it added a nice little fillip of terror.
Moving on, Nancy looks back at the doorway. Bodybag Tina is gone, but there’s still a big ol’ blood puddle on the floor to mark her presence. Nancy gets up from her seat and goes into the empty hallway. There’s a wide blood trail allllll the way down the hall, and at the end of it, there’s Tina lying in her body bag. Her feet are raised as though an invisible person is holding them up, and then she is dragged slowly out of the frame.
The entire scene is five minutes long, but it’s really only these first two minutes that are effectively scary. Once Nancy runs around the corner and crashes into the snotty hall monitor in the telltale striped sweater, and then descends into the boiler room where she confronts Freddy, big as life and oozing with green chest-goo, the frightening part of the scene has already happened. The little details of the buildup are what make the scene eerie for me; after that, it’s just a comedown from the high.
Stephen King, in his excellent 1980 non-fiction book Danse Macabre (which I read so many times that its pages eventually fell out) describes this principle with the following example: Say you have a scene where the protagonist is walking down a dark, creepy hallway toward a closed door. He knows there is something behind that door, and the viewer knows it too. The tension builds as the protagonist gets closer and closer to the door. Eventually, he gets to the end of the hallway and opens the door, but once the door is opened, the terror is basically dissolved. King imagines that a ten-foot bug is behind the door. The viewer might jump or scream when he sees the bug, but King argues that this is actually a sign of relief. “Oh, it’s a ten-foot bug,” the viewer may think. “That’s pretty bad, but I thought it would be a HUNDRED-foot bug.” What the viewer imagines is behind the door is always going to be much, much worse than what is actually there. Another relevant and obvious analogy would be a roller coaster; the scariest part of the ride is the slow ascent to the top of that first drop. Once you go over the hill, you can deal with the consequence and enjoy yourself, but the ride, while exhilarating, isn’t really scary anymore.
King then went into a discussion about how various horror writers and filmmakers had dealt with this principle in their work, and how effective they had been. Is it better to never show your monster? Only show it vaguely, so its true form is never really grasped? Or should you simply go balls to the wall and slap that bitch up on the screen and into everyone’s face in as unexpected a manner as possible? Readers of this blog should know where I stand on the issue (hint: somewhere between the first and second of those things), but I’m curious to hear different perspectives, if anyone would care to share them.
I may or may not be posting more of these in the next few days; I’m on vacation until after Labor Day, and the God of Hellfire and I are having an out-of-town guest who will need to be entertained, so I may not have as much time to do writeups. But whatever happens, the series will continue in due time. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you guys are enjoying the posts. Goddess out.