Tag Archives: horror

What is one to do?

“I did write for a while in spite of them,” says the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “but it does exhaust me a good deal — having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.” Writing as a woman is a dangerous act. Gilman knew it, and I suspect Lucy Beatrice Malleson knew it, too. Malleson’s breakthrough as a writer came in her late twenties, when she began publishing mysteries under the pen name “Anthony Gilbert.” Ostensibly this was done to maintain her privacy and avoid the appearance of capitalizing on her uncle Miles’ recent fame. But it’s hard to imagine that the financial and professional advantages of a man’s name didn’t factor into this decision.

1941 saw the release of the “Anthony Gilbert” novel The Woman in Red. A few years later, under the auspices of Columbia Pictures, screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton adapted it into what director Joseph H. Lewis would later call “a damn near perfect script.” My Name Is Julia Ross premiered in November of 1945. The film opens in rain-soaked London, Malleson’s lifelong home. Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, an unmarried woman behind on her rent and desperate for a job. Tipped off by a newspaper ad, she nabs a plum secretarial position with a rich widow and her grown son. But overnight, this dream job becomes a nightmare: the family and their servants drug her, kidnap her, and install her in a locked bedroom at the rear of a country mansion overlooking the sea.

There, Julia’s assigned the name Marion Hughes along with a monogram-adorned wardrobe, both of which belonged to the son’s late wife. Her would-be employers crowd around her bedside, speaking to her in infantilizing tones: “You haven’t forgotten us again, have you, Marion?” asks the mother, played by Dame May Whitty, when Julia protests. “Please don’t excite yourself so. You’ll just bring on another attack.” The remainder of the film plays out as a tit-for-tat psychological game. Julia scribbles a plea and tries to smuggle it into the outside world; her tormentors tear it up. (“Correspondence is so often destroyed… that the film starts to appear contemptuous toward text,” wrote Joseph Jon Lanthier in 2013.) Julia smuggles her own body off of the mansion’s grounds, only for a well-meaning vicar to deliver her right back into the arms of her homicidal “husband” because he’s been told that she’s mentally ill.

In a twist that prefigures Vertigo, it turns out that the husband and mother-in-law have been planning to orchestrate Julia’s “suicide” as cover for an uxoricide that left Marion’s corpse drifting in the froth of the sea. In a twist that matches real life, it turns out that you can get virtually anyone to abet your conspiracy if you tell them a woman’s not in her right mind. Lewis repeatedly frames Foch in two shots next to characters—her “husband,” the groundskeeper, a young maid—who calmly, logically explain to her why she isn’t who she is. “You have a beautiful home, nice relations, pretty clothes. Everything a woman would want!” insists the maid. “You’re letting yourself be took up by illusions.” The title of the film becomes not merely a statement of fact, but a radical assertion of self.

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“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression, — a slight hysterical tendency, — what is one to do?” asks the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Like Julia Ross, she’s a prisoner who can gaze through a window out onto a vast estate. Like Julia Ross’s story, hers bears glimmers of Gothic horror. Both women are confined to haunted houses, but in place of ghosts, they’re bedeviled by interior design or noises in the night or the men who’ve been entrusted with their care. Of the two, Julia Ross is probably luckier, since she’s the target of an actual murder plot, and plots can be foiled. (A happy ending for “The Yellow Wallpaper” would require the full-on overturning of medical science.)

Latter-day critics tend to identify Julia Ross as film noir, no doubt influenced by the nature of Lewis’s subsequent output (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo); Burnett Guffey’s stark cinematography; and the villains’ involved criminal machinations. They’re not wrong, but that genre designation doesn’t paint the full picture, since Julia Ross lies at a three-way intersection between noir, melodrama, and horror. In his contribution to the new anthology Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade, academic Ian Olney writes that

Horror movies of the immediate postwar era reflect the greater independence and mobility women enjoyed as a result of their role during World War II… The male monsters in postwar horror represent the threat of women losing everything they had achieved during the war years and being forcibly restored to the domestic sphere; indeed, the home and women’s traditional place in it are the primary source of horror in these films.

Olney then uses this framework to analyze The Spiral Staircase, a film that shares with Julia Ross its old dark house setting and patrician psychopath. Although I’m wary about applying his schema to a wide swath of movies, it rings true with Julia Ross. The film’s heroine is a working-class woman swept up across class lines into a gilded cage. “My husband? …Mrs. Hughes?” she mutters, examining the wedding ring on her finger. She can’t comprehend the marital status that’s been inflicted on her. (The film’s depiction of marriage as a waking nightmare renders ambiguous its abrupt, single-shot denouement, in which Julia instantly accepts a proposal from the man who saves her. Is it earnestly happy, because this time it’s a choice? Her fiancé’s description of a wife—“combination secretary, nurse, companion, housekeeper”—is so off-putting that it inclines me to interpret the resolution as darkly ironic.)

Not unlike Mildred Pierce, which was released a couple months prior, Julia Ross speaks on “woman’s film” issues of romantic and economic dependence via genre-specific narrative motifs. Around the time it was entering theaters, Columbia ran a pair of ads in The Film Daily (dated November 13 and 23) that indicated, if nothing else, how the studio’s publicity department wanted exhibitors to understand their product. “Here is a ‘SLEEPER’ if ever there was one!” crows one tagline. Illustrations splashed across the ads recreate scenes from the film rich with traditional horror imagery: the shadow of a prowler’s hand stretching across Julia’s blanket; Julia cradling a black cat in her arms. One ad features a number of excerpts from positive reviews, which bandy about genre terms like “thriller,” “melodrama,” “mystery,” and “thrill-o-drama” (as well as adjectives like “tight-throated” and “corking good”). In the words of the Brooklyn Eagle, the film “keep[s] you on the edge of your seat,” and it does so as a means of getting at the truth and terror of women’s lives.

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“There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house,” says “The Yellow Wallpaper”s narrator. “I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.” As with Julia Ross, her husband fears that she’s “letting herself be took up by illusions.” She’s in danger of constructing her own reality, just as Julia has a personal narrative (“They’re holding me here by force”) that she asserts no matter how insistently her “family” may contradict it. For a woman to write, whether she’s writing a short story or a mystery novel or a note to the police or a diary of her rest cure, is to carve a record of her truth.

That’s what makes these two tales of feminine horror especially scary. If a woman can be disabused of her truth—if Julia consents to being Marion—then that truth is gone. Poof. Their husbands already have the power and the money, so if they come to dominate those rooms of one’s own inside their wives’ heads, then no more Julia. Her very self depends on that mere sliver of resistance. And while My Name Is Julia Ross may be a work of macabre fiction, Julia’s experiences are recapitulated in miniature every day: “it’s not a big deal”; “you’re too emotional”; “your body is public property.” Living as a woman is a dangerous act.

“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.”

“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.” —“The Yellow Wallpaper”

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Four Old Articles

In 2010-11, I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Paracinema. They only ever appeared in the publication’s print edition, so now that several years have passed I’ve finally opted to publish them online. I’ve only made minor tweaks for the sake of formatting, which means that the versions below preserve my often questionable prose and ideas, but I wanted to have a digital record of these pieces available.

Tell Your Children:

Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness and the Aesthetics of Exploitation

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[Originally published in Paracinema #10, Oct. 2010]

Between the end of World War I and the late 1950s, Hollywood had a dark secret. A sordid industry thrived in its shadow, unaffiliated with any major studio, less respectable even than the hacks of Poverty Row. Working on the cheap, auteurs of sleaze would churn out ostensibly educational films and crisscross the nation giving roadshow presentations, often restricting their audiences to men over 18. They were the purveyors of exploitation films.

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Scream and Scream Again

I wrote something about slasher movies! You can read it now on The Hooded Utilitarian. Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Phantasm, Child’s Play… all their sequels are under discussion. Their quirks, their staggering lapses in logic, and their (mostly vain) attempts to make that “kill, kill, kill” formula seem fresh again. Thanks to HU for publishing it!

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Tricks and Treats

It’s Halloween! The one day of the year when everyone concedes that candy and horror movies are the best things in life. Therefore, I give you some thoughts on what I’ve been watching lately…

The Paranormal Activity movies (2009-) fascinate me. They’re yet another annual horror franchise, low on ideas and high on jump scares. But since they’re shot in the “found footage” style that’s been so in vogue lately (blame 2007’s one-two punch of [REC] and Cloverfield), the PA movies actually look and sound a lot like austere art cinema. The long takes, the static camera, the ongoing obsession with documenting the mundane, the lack of non-diegetic music… they’re like Michael Haneke if he fast-forwarded through all the “boring parts.” They’re formalist horror, fixated on mise-en-scène but devoid of any real acting or dialogue. Does that make them perversely experimental, or just cynical and hollow? Maybe both.

Universal’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is catnip for a Bela Lugosi aficionado like me. You’ve got the “man of science” angst that afflicts Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle; the vanilla hero (Poe’s detective Dupin) who hunts the mad doctor; and of course the hero’s girlfriend, with whom Lugosi develops an intense erotic obsession. All the typical tropes that crop up in Our Favorite Hungarian’s movies. As usual, Lugosi—hamming it up with a unibrow and jack o’ lantern smile—steals the show, although he does have competition from Karl Freund’s silken cinematography and some surprisingly florid dialogue. (Sample line: “Think of what all those walls are hiding! Broken hopes, bodies, hearts. Absent dreams, starvation, madness. Crimes of the streets; tragedies of the river.”)

The titular landmass in Isle of the Dead (1945) is a liminal space, constructed from shadow and illusion. There, modernity wrestles with superstition for the soul of General Pherides, played with brittle gravitas by Boris Karloff. Although directed by Mark Robson, Isle of the Dead was produced and co-written by Val Lewton, meaning it’s one of his wartime horror movies—and as such, it shares much with his earlier films, like Cat People and The Ghost Ship (the latter also Robson-directed). Evil is again represented as nebulous and invisible; fear as the genesis of fascism; and statues as omnipresent totems. Furthermore, all three are suffused with noir atmosphere and homoeroticism. Perhaps my favorite technique specific to Isle of the Dead is its repetition: of the words “No one may leave” and “vorvolaka”; of water drip-drip-dripping on a prematurely sealed coffin. Such a stark and haunting film.

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A Real Good Thing

Wanna know what scares the shit out of me? “It’s a Good Life,” that Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy plays a 6-year-old with godlike powers. And it’s not just because of Mumy’s wild eyes when he howls “You’re a bad man!” nor the half-flaccid shadow of a jack-in-the-box that follows his cry, although the episode has many such bone-chilling images. It’s… well, the concept, the execution, the performances, the layers of built-in political/moral resonances packed into its lean 20 minutes. So much about this episode terrifies me on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

The realism. Like so much of The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life” doesn’t look like sci-fi or horror at all. It looks like conventional 1960s television. Everything about Peakesville and the Fremont household is emphatically normal; the only aberration is The Monster, Anthony. This is a common Cold War anxiety—of something wrong sprouting out of healthy American soil—manifested in the bluntest, most horrific way possible. It’s the flip side of Leave It to Beaver, with the Beave as a Lovecraftian abomination. The uncontrollable Anthony calls to mind the words Bob Dylan would sing just a few years later: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’…” or perhaps the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things”:

Look at your children

See their faces in golden rays

Don’t kid yourself they belong to you

They’re the start of a coming race

The mind games. Rod Serling’s writing here is razor-sharp, and every conversation with Anthony is like a game of Operation. The adults have to steer him, ever so gently, away from violence (at least, violence against them) and toward—well, not “goodness” exactly but toward some heavily compromised approximation of it. These exchanges are like supplicant prayers to an unbalanced and amoral god, a god who must always be appeased with the refrain of “real good thing,” a god ruled only by his own ego. “I hate anybody that doesn’t like me!” whines Anthony, and that’s his first and only commandment. His power so outstrips the scope of his comprehension or empathy. This is Old Testament theology filtered through the mind of a child.

The representation of trauma. As the episode begins, Peakesville is populated by survivors: the tight-knit community of sweaty, miserable adults who’ve curried Anthony’s favor thus far. (The timeline of Anthony’s reign is hazy; it feels like he’s been in control forever.) Through these adults, “It’s a Good Life” delineates the behavior patterns adopted by trauma victims in impossible situations. They try to decipher the ambiguous looks on Anthony’s face; they prioritize self-preservation above all else; they bargain with one another to stay on his good side. “You’ll tell him, won’t you, Ms. Fremont?” begs Bill, the pathetic delivery boy. “Tell him I brought the tomato soup ’cause I heard he liked it? Tell him I brought it, won’t you?” But as Ms. Fremont knows, these tactics are meaningless to the unpredictable Anthony. Either he likes you, or he doesn’t.

The climax. And in the case of Dan Hollis (Don Keefer), he doesn’t. Dan is irascible, increasingly hard-drinking, and on the outskirts of middle age. He’s in no mood to tolerate Anthony’s bullshit, especially on his birthday. Your birthday is supposed to be about you, a day to flaunt your ego, but in Peakesville every day is about indulging Anthony. So Dan snaps. Earlier in the episode, when Bill says “We love that boy,” a look of soul-shaking nausea flashes across his face. But Dan is the only one to take this revulsion at being reduced to a child’s plaything and whip it up into blind outrage. Everyone else grovels before Anthony with fear-induced sincerity; only Dan has the temerity to give him a sarcastic salute. It all comes down to one line, after Anthony puts the kibosh on playing Dan’s new record: “Nuts. Can’t even play my own record; I can’t even play Perry Como!”

If he can’t play Perry Como, life is not worth living. If he can’t play Perry Como, no risk is too great. (The great irony is that Como was a quintessentially Establishment performer, as safe as Kennedy-era pop culture got, yet in Peakesville he’s a Molotov cocktail.) Dan lashes out at Anthony, begging the others to follow his lead and “take a lamp or a bottle or something and end this!” And of course none of them do, because Anthony’s control is their “normal” now. Misery is the new default. They even have a tacit protocol in place so that when Dan gets transformed into that jack-in-the-box, Mr. Fremont reflexively asks that Anthony send it away to the cornfield. This 6-year-old tyrant is now their status quo: they know how to survive under him, but not how to rebel.

In “It’s a Good Life,” free will can be conditioned away. Children are not innately innocent. And the hell you live in must be described as a heaven, cognitive dissonance be damned. These are but a few of the macabre implications that leave me shuddering long after Rod Serling has signed off. (“No comment” being the only postscript he can muster.) Somewhere in my mind, the threat of Anthony is always lurking, and that’s a real good thing.

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Paradise Lost

Nothing else is quite like Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It’s a gothic horror story, showbiz satire, and pastiche-heavy musical that somehow fuses camp and pathos; a movie whose style I can only describe as “everything and the kitchen sink.” Phantom draws us into a parallel world, a warped vision of 1970s decadence that’s as hellish as it is seductive. And although De Palma’s manic visuals may lay the foundation for this world, it would all fall apart without the tragic heft of Paul Williams’ music.

Therefore, I’ve written an encomium to Williams’ Oscar-nominated score for The Film Experience. It’s hard to overstate how much Williams’ songs, which double as catchy pop ditties and incisive autocritiques, do for this movie. Not every song is a keeper—I’m lukewarm on “Special to Me” and “Life at Last”—but several of them (e.g. “Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye,” “Faust,” “The Hell of It”) are damn near sublime. They’re as pleasurable and eclectic as De Palma’s camera technique, each one flying off in its own lyrical directions but all of them rooted in the same Nixon-era cynicism. Frankly, they’re awesome.

A few more scattered thoughts on Phantom:

  • “The Hell of It” invariably calls to my mind “Movin’ Right Along,” which Williams wrote for The Muppet Movie. The pacing, structure, tune… really, everything but the subject matter.
  • In addition to De Palma’s usual Hitchcock homages (like a shower scene), Phantom contains probably my favorite Touch of Evil homage, which even uses a split screen to compound the tension.
  • Another of De Palma’s auteur trademarks that pervades Phantom: screens within screens (within screens). I recently caught up with Snake Eyes, and it’s startling how similarly the Paradise and the Atlantic City Arena function as panopticons. Every space lies under layers of surveillance.
  • Lastly: Phantom is cleft, up to its closing seconds, by a crowd/spotlight dichotomy. This visual motif recurs at the climax of my other favorite De Palma movie, Carrie. The spotlight translates to power, to an escape from anonymity, and of course to death.

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Picture Perfect

It was as if the painting had sweated a dew of blood.

This has to be one of the most infamous, gruesome images in horror film history. And rightly so! Congratulations go to painter Ivan Albright for creating this indelible bit of 1940s psychedelia. It is, of course, the titular objet d’art from The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), with Dorian’s iniquity embossed on its very surface.

I recently revisited the film so I could write about Angela Lansbury’s performance for The Film Experience, and I was shocked by how icy it becomes after her character commits suicide. Emphasis shifts from faces to furniture, with the camera gazing over mirrors, statuary, and tiled floors. Even the visage of Hurd Hatfield, who plays Dorian, acquires an inhuman sheen. The whole movie becomes a mausoleum, a final resting place for both portrait and subject.

A final note on Dorian Gray’s writer-director Albert Lewin: the man really had a thing for the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. (Also George Sanders, who starred in 3/7 of his films.) Observe the following, from Dorian Gray and Lewin’s later film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman:

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