Tag Archives: body horror

Francis Bacon scares me

Tonight I was reading about Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, and the painting itself really, deeply started to creep me out. It’s not hard to see why: Bacon fucks with Velázquez’s classicism, tearing the composition apart with those rippling vertical lines. With its open mouth, the once-papal figure looks terrified, as if it’s being torn apart. It’s very dynamic, yet very ghostly. It’s a pleasant reminder that horror in visual art is not confined to film.

It’s also not surprising that Bacon’s nightmarish, agony-stricken canvases would have echoes in later cinematic horrors. Famously, a shot of a corpse suspended from a cage in The Silence of the Lambs was based on Bacon’s Figure with Meat. The Screaming Pope is also strikingly similar to the poster for David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The works of both Bacon and Cronenberg are heavily concerned with the pliability and deformation of human flesh, a topic that’s inherently a source of horror. Death to Velázquez, long live the new flesh?


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Uzumaki: Spirals and Sanity

[The following was written by both us as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like spiral patterns in an otherwise normal room.]


I first saw Uzumaki several years ago when I was deep in my anime/Japanese culture phase; I watched any Japanese film I happened upon and this was one of them. My best friend and I had no clue what the movie was trying to say or do but it freaked us out and we liked that. I saw it a few more times after that, enough times for it to be nestled warmly in the back of my brain as one of my favorite strange films. Watching it again as an older, much more intelligent person than my12-year-old self I am, delightfully and frustratingly enough, left with the same questions I had then.

Uzumaki tells the tale of the small town Kurouzu, its inhabitants, and the dark infestation slowly plaguing them. The town seems off from the start; green filters give the town and its denizens an eerie, sickly look and no one really acts natural or at ease. The film sets up an odd kind of wackiness, bordering  on dark comedy.

SURPRISE! Silly, creepy stalker! Odd, weirdly funny moments like this create an unsettled atmosphere, setting the stage for the weirdness to come. And come it does. We first see signs of (more extreme) weirdness in the form of Shuichi’s, one of our main characters, father filming snails, or more specifically the spiral shapes of their shells. Shuichi confides in Kirie, our final girl, that his father has been exhibiting this kind of odd behavior for awhile and has acquired a disturbingly large collection of spiral-shaped items. After his father’s (very spirally) suicide, this vortex-sickness seeps into the rest of the town.

Something that I found myself continually struck with was the obliviousness and nonchalance exhibited by some of the characters: as the crematorium’s smoke creates an ominous black spiral in the sky that curls down into the depths of Dragonfly Pond, one girl looks on impassively, stating, “It spirals like that when they cremate someone…” During a news report on the bizarre happenings of the town, a reporter matter-of-factly comments on the suicides, deaths, and people-transforming-into-snail phenomena. Kirie herself is infuriatingly unaware of the seriousness of the situation despite the fact that she’s witnessed horror after horror. The only sane man it seems is Shuichi, who from the very start, even before the terror starts really manifesting itself, tells Kirie that he wants them to leave. But as the unease and terror mounts, as the bodies start to pile (and twist) up, no one makes the move to get the hell out until it’s way too late.

Along this same vein, the few people who do try to figure out what is going on either end up caught by the spiral and dead or their information goes nowhere. There is an awesome research-montage that gives us literally not one answer. It implies some things but leaves us no closer to any answer about what the origin of the spiral obsession is. Is it the town itself? Is it one person (perhaps Shuichi’s father?) who has contaminated the rest? How are these people turning into huge snails? What the fuck is going on? And the ending leaves us completely unsatisfied. What happened to Kirie? She has to be alive in some way; she’s telling the story, as evidenced by the opening and closing shots:

Uzumaki is a strange creature in both concept and execution. The idea of a town under some sinister influence is not new, but it’s very rare for the villain to be so abstract and have no discernible origin. In the film, there is no master spiral, no madman run amok. Just a very strange town with a very strange disease.


I’d only ever heard little tidbits about this film (aside from the fact that the title meant “spiral”) so I was mostly blind going in. My first impression was one of overwhelming weirdness: the opening scenes of this film take for granted that the audience will expect a Japanese horror movie to be weird. As Ashley discussed, we’re placed into a very grotesque, absurd world even before the blatant “horror” aspect of the film comes into play.

Kirie’s state of constant disorientation, Yamaguchi’s obnoxious behavior (and the confusing angles from which it’s photographed), and then the obsession consuming Shuchi’s father from the first second we see him onscreen – it all works to establish a baseline tolerance for weirdness in this movie, which makes it that much easier to make the leap over when things get really weird. In retrospect, it makes you feel like maybe something was wrong with the townspeople all along, and maybe it was only a matter of time before their little quirks spiraled into the abyss of psychosis.

Why spirals, anyway? While talking about this movie, Ashley and I mulled over comparisons from the movie The Birds to the graphic novel Black Hole. But Uzumaki (even if it doesn’t quite match those works’ terrifying heights) brings something new to the table: its “enemy,” if you can call it that, is so intangible, so omnipresent, and so inexplicable. I’ll even go out on a limb and compare it to a movie Ashley and I recently saw, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning The White Ribbon, which is a world away from J-horror.

Yet they do have similarities: in both films, you can’t definitively trace the source of the violence. In Uzumaki, it’s never resolved what sparked the outbreak, the curious quasi-disease that afflicts the town, person by person. And in both films, the contagion is rife with potential purposes, meanings, and outcomes, all of which remain tantalizingly undetermined. In The White Ribbon, this leads to question after question. Did the same evil that affected the children lead to Nazism? Did it come from their puritanical upbringings, from the brutal authority of their fathers, or were they intrinsically cruel?

In Uzumaki, we can similarly wonder why and how this had to happen. Apparently, Junji Ito’s original manga spells out that it’s caused by a spiral shrine buried underground, but even this doesn’t really clear up what end is served by the bizarre symptoms and self-destructive actions exhibited by the townsfolk. Who does it benefit? What consciousness would have willed this plague into existence? The answers are just out of reach, and the only person who might find them dies in a car crash toward the end of the movie without tying up any of the mysteries.

But after all, it’s much more fun to observe everyone’s responses to the unthinkable catastrophe engulfing them. The film’s attitude toward its characters is well-balanced, alternating between initial sympathy for the horrors they’re experiencing, and then a more detached, humorous view as they fail to keep up with the accelerating disasters. This even devolves into open mockery as Kirie’s reactions – like clinging to Shuichi and restating her undying love – show that she’s in the wrong kind of movie. She fancies herself a romantic heroine, but in the increasingly distorted universe of body horror that is Uzumaki, there’s no place for sentiment. Only insanity, or else an absurd acceptance that death (or far worse) is right around the corner.

Another little point of comparison for Uzumaki: John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. I have yet to see Prince of Darkness, but I noticed a lot of parallels with The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness. The books of Sutter Cane and the madness/mutations they cause are much more literal, straightforward, and less interesting than the spirals of Uzumaki, but all these films share the common theme of characters encountering virulent forces which will probably destroy mankind.

The grim ending – where the maddening power of the spirals appears to be spreading and spreading – is especially interesting when you look at the middle portion of Uzumaki. Before the parade of grisly suicides, accidents, and dismemberments that precede Shuichi’s demise, the townsfolk try to cope with the onslaught as best they can. Shuichi’s spirophobic mother is hospitalized; they get over his father’s death and the ensuing spiral of ashes; and kids keep going to school despite the occasional snail-like deformity or out-of-control spiral hair.

One moral to take away from the film (other than “We’ll all turn into spirals and die someday”) is how easy it is for people to accept very sick situations if they’re imposed very gradually, just like the story of the boiling frog. Sure, they’ll note the incredibly fucked-up events surrounding them, but then they’ll go on with their lives. Shuichi twice says that he wants to leave town, but each time he and Kirie find some excuse for staying. On this level, I think, Uzumaki is not just perversely WTF, but also at times wickedly funny.

It takes the subgenre of horror movies wherein small towns are infested with some form of evil, then twists it out to the furthest possible extreme, until it has shades of cunning self-parody. For the most part, it’s a pretty flawed movie that sometimes feels like it’s only grasping for shock value, but at these moments it contains visible horror genius.

So all in all I feel like Uzumaki is a mixed bag. It’s certainly frightening – the words “washing machine” and “corpse” should be enough to confirm that – and this works effectively with its own sick brand of Japanese humor. It doesn’t hand out any satisfying answers, but still keeps you from wondering, Then what was the point? It’s a very queer bird of a movie, and more or less defines the phrase “not for all tastes,” but to the horror fan it offers a very dark vision of spirally chaos encroaching on an already weird world. And snail-people. More than enough snail-people.

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My Favorite Movies: Freaks

Olga Baclanova becomes the "Feathered Hen"

I was recently inspired (largely by Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series) to start a weekly series of posts devoted to what constitute “my favorite movies.” This is a multi-purpose idea: to probe into why, exactly, I consider these movies my favorites; to explore the difference between personal taste and objective quality; and to just see how much I can extract meaningwise from the movies in question. I’ve jotted down a little list of possibilities to start from, but I plan it to be pretty fluid and, like Ebert’s series, a “collection” rather than an limited or exclusive list of any kind.

And so, I figured, what better movie to start out with than one that’s much-beloved by myself and others, but generally neglected in official “best ever” lists, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)? I first encountered the film maybe 5-6 years ago (on TCM, of course), launching me into an obsession with Browning’s work. I’d long been familiar with Dracula (1931), but soon watched collaborations with Lon Chaney, Sr. like The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). While Freaks may not be as culturally omnipresent as Dracula nor as emotionally focused as The Unknown, it’s nonetheless a totally one of a kind film and probably, in the end, Browning’s most notorious.

Freaks occupies several interesting borderlands. It’s a mix of narrative (a romance/revenge storyline) and spectacle, tapping into the average viewer’s anthropological voyeurism. I’d compare it to Tabu, which was made one year earlier by master of melodrama F.W. Murnau and pioneering documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, in the way it drapes spectatorship into foreign lifestyles around a fairly simple plot. It also sits in the space between mainstream Hollywood productions and exploitation cinema: produced by MGM (and originally slated to star Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow), it nonetheless has more in common – in terms of subject matter and presentation with its low-budget, independent brethren than it does with, say, Grand Hotel. One sign of this affiliation is the fact that Freaks was exhibited nationwide by Dwain Esper (director of Sex Madness, among others) in the years after it was roundly condemned by mainstream authorities.

The title screen of Freaks

Indeed, when it came out, Freaks received as vicious a response as The Rite of Spring or L’Âge d’or: people fainted, shrieked, even miscarried, and Browning’s career was pretty much ended (though he did manage to direct two more horror classics, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll). All of this just added to its reputation when, 30 or so years later, Freaks was revived as one of the original, most-appreciated cult films, which is where it sits today. So why the uproar and outrage? Maybe the clearest reason is this: Freaks is nothing if not transgressive. The title itself suggests that everything about the movie is outside the norm, and vehemently different. It’s a movie intended to shock and surprise as much as anything out of exploitation or John Waters; you can see it even in the carnival barker’s introduction. Superficially, he’s referring to the deformed Cleopatra, but ultimately, he’s talking about the movie as a whole.

So what kinds of difference, transgression, and line-crossing do we have in Freaks? First, there’s Hans, the midget, who loves the “big woman,” Cleopatra, setting up the film’s main conflict. There’s the freak community existing within a world that rejects them. A Frenchman condemns a group of young freaks as “monsters” even as Madame Tetrallini, herself physically normal, defends and mothers them. Repeatedly, the film bumps up against a fear of physical abnormality, and a fear of compromising bodily integrity – a current that runs throughout pretty much of all of western horror fiction, from Frankenstein to Lon Chaney, from the career of David Cronenberg to a large number of urban legends, and more. It’s a fear that serves as Freaks‘ main subject, making the film both in your face and ahead of its time, a forefather of the body horror subgenre.

An easy way to discuss the film’s encounters with difference might be to look at all the heterosexual pairings that populate it: there’s Hans and Frieda, the midgets who are a romantic couple here, despite being played by Harry and Daisy Earles, real-life siblings. Hans loves Cleopatra, the beautiful acrobat, who is conspiring and making love behind Hans’ back with Hercules, the strongman. I see Cleopatra and Hercules, with their mythological namesakes, as being just as freakish as Hans and Frieda – but instead of having “not enough” (i.e., in terms of height), they have “too much”: they are the super- woman and man, on display because of their excess of feminine and masculine qualities. A third couple is seen in Phroso and Venus, both played by recognizable MGM character actors (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams), who are the film’s representations of physical normality, yet tolerant of the abnormality that surrounds them.

"A loving cup!"

Other couples abound in the periphery: we see Angelo Rossitto (the dwarf) and Frances O’Connor (the armless girl) eating together in a trailer; the stuttering, emasculated Roscoe married to Daisy, a Siamese twin; and the bearded woman and the human skeleton, who have a child together. In a very interesting twist on this pattern, the film has Josephine Joseph, ostensibly half-man and half-woman, split right down the middle. S/he brings to my mind the theory espoused by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium of a world originally populated by four-legged, four-armed creatures who were broken apart into two-person heterosexual couples. In one of the film’s many perverse subplots, Josephine Joseph is a couple unto him/herself – s/he hits on Hercules, only to be rejected, and later gazes on in sexual frustration as Hercules embraces Cleopatra. It’s symptomatic of the film’s many ambivalences that one minor character finds him/herself inherently crossing gender boundaries.

Freaks, then, brings the viewer across one line after another through its characters, many of whom are uncategorizable both in physical and sexual terms. (Another example is Schlitze, a male pinhead who is dressed and referred to as female.) The prejudice they face from the “normal” world makes the film, I think, a very durable metaphor: the impossibility of a freak/normal marriage between Hans and Cleopatra echoes miscegenation fears, and on a broader level the film’s conflict can apply to anyone who has ever felt rejected or dehumanized for any reason, just as the film itself was rejected upon first release. Like the freak shows it depicts (although curiously, only fractions of any performances are ever seen) and like the exploitation cinema that claimed it, Freaks has always been sideshow (or underground) entertainment smelling of sawdust and spilled beer. This lack of respectability, coupled with the film’s insistence on transgression, gives it much of its cult credibility. (What’s cool about seeing a movie “they” are encouraging you to see? Incidentally, Freaks was banned for decades, like A Clockwork Orange, in England.)

Thus, Freaks itself as a film manages to match the “forbidden” qualities of its own subject matter – a depiction of taboo violations becomes a taboo in itself. I’m sure semiotics could have a field day with that. Just mentioning Freaks is a sign of outsider qualities, as with the Ramones’ “We accept her! We accept her!” in the song “Pinhead,” or Bill Griffith’s long-running, enigmatic comic strip “Zippy the Pinhead.” (There’s just something about being a pinhead, it appears, that succinctly signifies exclusion in a way that “dwarf” or “legless boy” doesn’t.) I think it’d be worthwhile to examine in some more depth the infamous “Wedding Feast” scene.

It’s strange that, although generally considered a horror film, Freaks contains little explicit horror beyond the physical identities of its actors. However, everything about the wedding feast is so bizarre and so foreign that it constitutes “horror” just as much as any violent assault or intrusion of the supernatural. While the human skeleton plays no particular tune on the harmonica (creating a strange but merrily circus-appropriate backdrop), two otherwise absent characters demonstrate sword-swallowing and fire-eating, which amounts to a pair of filmed circus performances. Then, under the leadership of Angeleno the dwarf, the freaks prepare Cleopatra “a loving cup”: an enormous goblet of champagne from which one freak after another drinks in succession; meanwhile, Josephine Joseph and others strike up a surreal refrain of “We accept her, gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us…” What makes this most effective as horror, I think, is how naturally the freaks join into the nonsense verse “gooble gobble.” Consider an earlier exchange between Angeleno and Frances O’Connor, the armless girl, with regard to Cleopatra:

Angeleno: Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us.

Frances: You’re right. She don’t know us. But she’ll find out.

All of these subtle hints at the extremity of the freaks’ sense of togetherness are, of course, proven true in the grisly climax, and they suggest something the movie never shows us outright – the unwritten, unspoken code of the freaks and their concealed knowledge that an attack on one of them will be treated as an attack on all. In this regard, the wedding feast is an inversion of the climax; together, the two rituals show the family of freaks while at the heights of celebration and at the depths of revenge.

Freaks is a roughly-made movie, I admit. It stars professional performers, but they often fail as actors, as with the living torso Prince Randian’s single but inaudible line, “Is there anything I can do in the act, bro?” The editing is patchy, some scenes go on too long, and the movie’s been through so many versions in its storied history that it’s hard to identify a definitive version. (E.g., some have a tacked-on prologue, while others have a tacked-on ending.) But as with much of Browning’s career, the way the material is presented is subservient to what‘s being presented: an ensemble cast full of genuine physical abnormality. Freaks‘ sheer audacity is what lets it live on in infamy while most of the more-accepted films of 1932 have since been forgotten. Carefully treading the line between understanding and exploiting, it’s compelling and enjoyable in its violations of our basic beliefs about the human form. And the fear inspired by this violation makes it a horror classic. Positioned brazenly on the outside of everything, Freaks is one of my favorite movies.

"Offend one, and you offend them all."


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Black holes and alien bodies

I enjoy exploring the curious intersections of art and sexuality, so I had a delightful treat recently reading Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole (Pantheon Books, 2005). The plot is fairly simple: “suburban Seattle, the mid-1970s,” as the jacket informs us, where in addition to the ordinary trials of high school – an unrequited crush on the “total fox” in biology, or dealing with parents and social rejection – a number of teenagers must also cope with a sexually-transmitted disease (referred to only as “the bug”) that causes physical mutations – some major (e.g., a barely human facial appearance) and some minor (tadpole-like appendages forming around your waist).

© Charles Burns

© Charles Burns

But despite this premise, which smacks of horror right out of John Carpenter or David Cronenberg, the difficulties that follow are mostly based on other people’s reactions to just having the bug, or the altered self-images that result. I kept waiting for the worsening mutations, the degeneration, where the human characters turn into monstrous abominations, but it never happens – Burns keeps the status of “monster” completely determined by the victims and their peers. For the most part, the bug is regarded as casually as, say, acne or pregnancy, as it becomes a cause of stigmatization, but doesn’t seem to provoke any reactions from the adult world (indeed, authority figures in Black Hole remain virtually unseen, outside of very brief interactions with the main characters’ parents). Just as in Peanuts, where you always ask, “Where are their parents?” and the only sounds adults make seems to be “mwa-mwa-mwa,” here the teenagers are seen as totally disconnected from the rest of the world – emotionally, geographically (much of the action takes place in the woods and a nearby house whose owners are on vacation), and with time, biologically.

So the bug is primarily used as a metaphor, but it creates this very vivid backdrop of horror against which the relationships between characters are set. This fits right in with Burns’ distinctive style, which you may well have seen before: very ink-heavy, sometimes almost looking like a negative image, with razor-like lines separating the dark and light. His human beings, and the world around them, look very realistic, yet there’s a strong vein of surrealism underlying everything, as tree branches easily metamorphose into reptilian tendrils, or match sticks become flimsy and begin to resemble sperm. It’s possible that this continuity between hard and soft, plant and animal, could be viewed as a guide for the way that reality eases its way into dark fantasy, or one body transforms into another. (Burns frequently lines up panels using a sort of shot/reverse shot technique, causing halves of separate faces to merge, like the two women at the climax of Bergman’s Persona.) I’m reminded of the woodcuts of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, and how simply one thing turns into another.

Metamorphosis II by M.C. Escher

And after all, what is adolescence if not a period of metamorphosis, a human cocoon to endure the transition from larva to butterfly, from child to adult. Chris Rhodes, one of the two characters whose viewpoint dominates the book, starts shedding her skin like a snake (serpents are a frequent motif, which suits the loss-of-sexual-innocence theme); she also keeps wanting to go back, undo the poor decisions that led to her getting the bug, return to her parents’ house, to her childhood – one of the last lines of the book is, “No. Not yet. I’m not ready yet,” and this desperation describes both an unprepared teenager and a mutated outsider struggling with the question of whether to re-enter society, or stay forever on the outskirts.

Ultimately, the plot of Black Hole is like a controlled experiment in epidemiology, subjecting a group of teenagers to a disease and seeing both how it spreads and what it does to their lives. The main character, more or less, is Keith Pearson, who lusts after Chris and enjoys smoking pot with his friends in a place called “Planet Xeno,” not far from where the bug-infected kids have their cook outs. (Xeno means “strange,” and as another place outside of adult control, it shows how the characters are aliens even before being mutated.) As sexual desire and fulfillment proliferate, the bug spreads over the course of the book, just like in Tom Lehrer’s hilarious VD ditty “I Got It From Agnes“.

It’s exacerbated by the presence of Eliza, dubbed “the Lizard Queen” by her housemates, a perpetually stoned artist. Her paintings come right out of the nightmare imagery (including, most significantly, a human figure tied between two trees, a hand over its genitalia) that crowd characters’ brief visions, as well as the margins of the book. In real life, these visions are manifested as ghoulish little sculptures hung throughout the woods, made of dissected dolls and gnawed-on chicken bones, and altogether these bizarre, recurring images reinforce how everything normal (the characters’ bodies and lives) is being subtly changed into something alien and dysfunctional. Instead of relying on the physical changes to carry the book into darker territory, though, Burns lets the resulting emotional changes (dissatisfaction with home life, high school, and each other) pick up where the physical leaves off, spiraling (like the repeated corkscrews and serpents) into a watery abyss, possibly even the black hole of the title.

In its narrative and visuals, Black Hole is a very tightly structured book that gives few obvious answers. One of its clearest ideas, though, comes in a flashback toward the end:

We had to watch these lame movies about human reproduction… [they] were always so safe and clean… Everything simplified down to diagrams and animated cartoons… Microscopic pictures of sperm cells swarming around a giant egg… The weird part about those movies was that they never showed you the real thing… The actual sex part. Fucking.

In the end, the characters have to deal with the disparity between the sterile, body-less picture of sex they’re taught in bio 101 (or else learn from things like this) and the gruesome realities they experience. So, more or less, they have to endure the same as every teenager. Except they get mutations.

As should be obvious, I highly recommend Black Hole; check it out if you can find a copy!

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