Tag Archives: nightmare

In Heaven, Everything Is Fine

In Lynchland, though, it’s a different story altogether. That’s because this week’s entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is David Lynch’s bombshell of a first feature, Eraserhead (1977). If you only know one thing about Eraserhead and its imagery, it should be this: they’re gross and disturbing. In Lynch’s distorted vision of human relationships, sexual anxieties get literalized with all the oozing pus and foam you could ask for. It’s the kind of movie that makes me go, “Ew! Ew! No! Put down those scissors!” for like a solid minute. Compared to all those grotesque mutations, my choice for best shot is relatively innocuous:

At this point in the film, protagonist Henry Spencer’s wife Mary is all fed up with their mutant baby’s constant yammering, so she’s moved back in with her parents. With her away, Henry takes a chance on the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, and they start getting intimate… when the Beautiful Girl spots that icky, whining baby. On the most basic level, then, this shot is about how much of a turn-off babies (especially mutant babies) are. The second Henry’s paramour gets an eyeful of his weird-looking offspring, she goes back across the hall, and he remains sexually frustrated for the rest of the film.

It’s also very visually striking. Like the rest of Eraserhead, it’s shot with extremely low lighting and low contrast, so it’s hard to tell where Henry’s face ends and the Beautiful Girl’s face begins. It’s like we’re gazing down at a fleshy nocturnal landscape. (It also reminds me of René Magritte’s painting The Kiss.) These two distinctly unhappy people look for some pleasure by frantically groping and kissing one another—but in Eraserhead‘s sick world, it’s never that easy. It’s all too appropriate, in a film that represents sex as a disgusting ordeal of writhing and fluids, for this little tryst to end with the Beautiful Girl’s eyes bulging out in terror.

In Eraserhead, everything’s ever so slightly off-kilter, psychologically and visually. No one talks like real people, and nothing looks quite like its real-world analogue. This makes the tiny resemblances to real life that much scarier. In Henry and Mary’s dysfunctional relationship, in their screaming baby, in the depressing emptiness of their apartment, and in the utter gloominess of their environment, we can see little echoes of very real horrors and everyday problems.

In the image above (my second-favorite shot), the perpetually put-upon Henry raises his eyebrow; his misery is tinged, for once, with curiosity. In the background, Mary clings to a door while her father, the impotent patriarch, perches at the head of the table. (His face is obscured by Henry’s strange, massive hair.) This is Lynch’s perverse take on the nuclear family and their domestic milieu. This shot’s just barely canted, with the composition and the many shades of gray geared to indicate that something’s, well, off. Get out, Henry. Get out while you still can.

I’ll end with an illustration of Eraserhead‘s overwhelming ickiness, as Henry is enveloped by a metaphor for his own sexual anxieties. I have one word for this: YUCK.

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Demons and disability in Jacob’s Ladder

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about Adrian Lyne’s nightmarish horror movie Jacob’s Ladder (1990), starring Tim Robbins. I thought, and continue to think, that it’s an uneven movie whose meandering, occasionally saccharine plot threads are balanced out by all of the shocking, phantasmagoric imagery. Well, imagine my surprise when I was paging through a book of photographs in my American Studies class the other day, and happened across the inspiration for one of the most unforgettable images in all of Jacob’s Ladder!

Some background: this class is called “Extraordinary Bodies in American Culture,” and we were examining the photography of Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin in relation to early 20th century freak shows. The photograph in question is Witkin’s Indulgences Man with No Legs from 1976, collected in Gods of Earth and Heaven. You can see more of Witkin’s work in this blog or this official gallery, but be warned: it’s very, very NSFW, and contains distorted, sexualized, and grotesquely posed images of disabled people and corpses.

Sexualizing and distorting human bodies was pretty much Witkin’s stock-in-trade. It’s easy, therefore, to see why he was such a major influence on Ladder‘s hyperkinetic demons. Although much of his work was done within the past 30-40 years, it’s often so grainy, blurry, and scratched-up that it looks older – as if consigned to some ahistorical netherworld. He casually mixes costumes, gestures, and backdrops in his photographs to evoke disparate sectors of life: a single Witkin photo can suggest BDSM practices, police brutality, Renaissance paintings, carnival sideshows, archaic medical technology, and more.

Certainly Indulgences conjures up numerous eras and activities with its ambiguous, faceless subject. It also raises countless questions, starting with “Why is his face covered?” When coupled with the raised, boxlike structure he’s sitting on, it reminds me of kidnappings – an uncomfortable association, and probably one that Witkin’s aiming for. It’s also very dehumanizing, and this is a consistent feature of Witkin’s work: his disabled subjects are invariably masked, veiled, or facing away from the camera. It feels like Witkin uses disability to facilitate an otherworldly atmosphere.

As much as I respect the bold, confrontational spirit of his artistry, I find this manipulation of human bodies extremely problematic. It’s especially revealing to look at Jacob’s Ladder, where similar distortion effects are used in conjunction with rapid-fire editing in order to code disability and facelessness as hellish and frightening. This intersection of popular cinema with very marginal photography could prove a useful avenue for further research into the relationship between disability and horror; till then, I think I’ll try to not look at Witkin’s shudder-inducing photographs.

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Chutes and Ladders (and Demonic Hallucinations)

[This post is part of the 30 dAyS oF cRAzY blog-a-thon happening throughout September at Blog Cabins; you can also read it there.]

Strangely enough, the most obvious place to start with Adrian Lyne’s paranoid horror movie Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is with the ending. (Consider that your blanket spoiler warning.) Because for most of the moviegoing public, myself included, that infamous twist is the movie’s hook: “So it was all a dream!” But, as I was happy to discover when I watched it recently, there’s much more to that dream than just some icky hallucinations and mind-bending ambiguity. Those are present and accounted for, certainly, but the real delight of Jacob’s Ladder comes from seeing a daily routine infected with spurts of diabolical terror. It’s a very uneven, somewhat disjointed movie, to be sure, but it’s made extremely watchable through this scattered handful of wonderfully horrifying moments.

Jacob Singer, played by a scruffy-haired Tim Robbins, is a Vietnam vet and postal worker who’s dealing with some intense PTSD, as well as some back problems. He’s divorced from the mother of his children and is living with the loving, alluring Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña) in a New York City apartment. One day he falls asleep on the subway, has a nightmare about Vietnam, and when he wakes up, things don’t seem quite right. An old lady stares at him blankly when he asks if they passed his stop. A vaguely human thing is sprawled across two seats, its face covered and what looks like a charred penis wriggling between its legs. When he jumps off at the next stop, he can’t get above ground, and has to hop back across the tracks. Another train nearly mows him down; as it passes, a host of blurry phantoms leer down at him from the windows. Only after all this is he able to get back home for some steamy shower sex with Jezzie.

Taken by themselves, these few minutes could make a damn good short film. The subway scene is so creepily suggestive and so without context that it successfully drags the viewer into Jacob’s head. We’re now willing to buy into the figments of his imagination, because his hell is our hell. And his demons… well, they’re really fucking creepy. Lyne gives us quick flashes of the entities persecuting Jacob, but never enough to really get a visual handle on them. He doesn’t get the dignity of a personable, face-to-face attack; instead, they pop out from around corners and disappear before you can tell what, exactly, they are. You start wishing it were just some guy with a chainsaw, because Jacob’s enemies are so vague and ethereal that they could be anyone. Or no one.

The movie’s first act really fulfills the promise of those first few minutes, as Jacob sinks deeper and deeper into the film’s infernal vision of city life. In a way, it’s like a quieter, more subdued version of After Hours – one where Scorsese’s nighttime hysteria has been replaced by the painfully bright slog of mid-morning. Jacob’s persecution complex takes its toll on his job and his love life, and Jezzie’s rationalizations, blaming his fears on perfectly normal urban phenomena, just make everything worse. If this is normal, then what’s bad? Jacob goes to see his old doctor at the VA clinic, but a cranky receptionist can’t find his file. Then, in a truly disturbing moment that comes out of nowhere, her little cap falls off… revealing a little bony growth on her scalp! Eww!

But these freaky intrusions into Jacob’s boring everyday life can’t go on forever, alas, and we must start the slow, awkward transition into conspiracy theory/spiritual metaphor territory that dominates the film’s second half. You see, apparently Jacob’s old doctor died in a car explosion. This’ll have greater repercussions later, but first it’s time for a sexy, hallucination-filled party that ends with Jacob consumed by a life-threatening fever. In a strobe-lit dance floor sequence, we get indistinct visual intimations of seduction, metamorphosis, and demonic possession as Jacob watches Jezzie uneasily. Somewhere in their relationship is a juicy core of psychosexual anxiety that the movie doesn’t fully exploit. But we can’t worry about that now, because we’ve got some mindfucking to do.

And what a mindfuck! Inception has nothing to compare with the moment when Jacob wakes up next to his ex-wife and starts recounting the nightmare he just had… only for us to realize that he’s talking about the entire preceding movie. Has the future folded in on the past? Is each of his lives the other’s dream? Maybe. Maybe not. After saying good night to dead son Macaulay Culkin, though, Jacob wakes up and is back in his real real life (or maybe the real dream), being cared for by Jezzie. Got that? Good. Lyne moves between his realities with admirable versatility, but unlike, say, a David Lynch (as in Mullholland Dr.) or Luis Buñuel (take Belle de Jour), he doesn’t really have anything to do with them. They’re just there, being confusing for its own sake. It’s still good, mindfucky fun, but it’s done in the services of the film’s sappiest, most hackneyed subplot, which is pretty disappointing.

Soon thereafter, Jacob gets a blast from the past: an old Vietnam buddy is experiencing similar symptoms! They meet for drinks, only for that buddy to also fall victim to a car bomb. At the funeral, Jacob chats with the surviving members of his old platoon, and it turns out they’re all suffering these hallucinations. So before you can say “They did something to us in there, man,” they’re off to the offices of Jason Alexander, attorney-at-law, to file suit against the U.S. government. This part of the movie is basically The Deer Hunter meets The Manchurian Candidate, and the filmmakers have no problem with just recycling every cinematic cliché about the Vietnam War, with no new insights of their own. Some government thugs drag Jacob into their car, but it’s way less powerful than the paranoia that consumes the film’s first half, because it’s so much more concrete and, frankly, obvious. The horror of Jacob’s Ladder gets derailed by its own back story.

This becomes even clearer during the last great hallucination sequence, which is a doozy. After jumping out of a moving vehicle and getting mugged by a Salvation Army Santa Claus (admittedly a nice touch), he’s brought to the hospital and, the doctors say, needs to be brought downstairs to be X-rayed. But to get to the X-ray room, we have to take a little detour through Crazyland, followed by a quick shortcut through WTF City. All the mutilated, glassy-eyed cast-offs of humanity are creeping beside – or even hovering above – the stretcher as Jacob’s pushed further along the worst hospital corridor of all time. Then it turns into a slaughterhouse, and the stretcher bumps into some bloody hunks of meat. Then Jacob’s in a fucked-up operating room and is politely informed, “This is your home. You’re dead,” before an eyeless doctor sticks a syringe right into his forehead.

Don’t get me wrong; this is a fantastically executed scene that plays out like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on amphetamines. It’s also a horrific illustration of a hospital patient’s lack of agency. But it also highlights the failings of the movie around it. It gives you the impression that Jacob’s Ladder is more a series of horror set-pieces loosely linked by some plot buzzwords (haunting past, war trauma) than the Chinese box dream narrative it would purport to be. In other words, it’s more Shutter Island than Inception. Jacob is delivered from evil by his chiropractor, an angelic Danny Aiello, who monologues a lot of peculiarly on-the-nose advice at him and sends him on his way. Then we get another revelatory monologue, this time from a one-time drug maker/dealer who was recruited by military brass during ‘Nam to concoct a formula that could heighten aggression. Apparently it was this miracle drug, “the Ladder,” that caused Jacob’s comrades to turn on each other, and that explains his flashbacks!

How can an explanation be so thorough, and yet so dissatisfying? Maybe it’s the gratingly self-righteous way the ex-hippie delivers it. Or maybe it’s in how Jacob’s Ladder insists so strongly that it’s a Vietnam movie that it tricks itself out of being a really good movie, especially since the overarching government conspiracy ends being a moot point. No, it turns out Jacob just went through all this so he could make his peace with dead son Macaulay Culkin and resign himself to his own imminent death. And then he dies! Still in Vietnam! Maybe if his dream hadn’t been so sprinkled with red herrings, then the twist ending could give us an interesting new perspective on the rest of the movie. But let’s not dwell on the many disappointments of Jacob’s Ladder. Instead, let’s dwell on the great, creepy moments! Like that growling voice that says, “DREAM ON!” Or when Jezzie’s pupils get all big and she howls at him! Or those distorted faces looking out the back of that car! Those were seriously creepy.


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Women as animals: Kahlo and Cat People

The Little Deer by Frida Kahlo

This is a painting by Frida Kahlo from 1946 that I encountered in a book the other day. I think it’s very pretty and it raises a lot of interesting thoughts in my head. I guess the first few are thoughts like, Why is she a deer? as well as the inference that this is about herself being a victim. I love how she’s standing up straight, with a neutral expression on her face, bleeding. And how dead and ominous the forest and background look. I don’t have much insightful analysis to do here, but I wanted to incorporate this into a blog because this painting just struck me, as much as of Kahlo’s work has. Struck me in an unusual way, maybe in the part of me that feels sympathy, or the part that distinguishes between human beings and animals. The book I was reading mentioned that she paints herself as a male deer, with antlers and testicles. I don’t know too much about her biographically, but I wonder if she saw herself as some kind of gender outlaw. 9 arrows, piercing her flesh. Lost in the woods with a branch under her hooves. And that mesmerizing unibrow, always the most memorable element of Kahlo’s appearance. Who would shoot that many arrows into a deer like that, anyway? Maybe it’s a riff on St. Sebastian.

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna

According to Wikipedia, St. Sebastian has received the cultural status over the centuries of a gay/religious icon. Taking Kahlo’s own bisexuality into account, maybe this is significant. I don’t really know. All I know is, I saw this picture in a book and it struck me. A woman’s face – and not just any woman – on a deer pierced with arrows and bleeding. It’s a very eerie, even upsetting painting. She looks like she’s in pain but not begging for pity.

Aside from looking at random paintings, I haven’t been up to much intellectually speaking or otherwise. Classes are at end and we’re in that twilight season between scholastic pursuits and running off to be united with my distant lover. But here’s something worth discussing.

The film is Cat People (1942), the first work of producer & master of horror Val Lewton. I realized today that it’s probably one of my favorite movies and one of the best horror movies ever made. Once you’ve watched it, it has a grip on you (kind of like that painting above). And it’s probably no coincidence the two works I’m discussing today involve treading the line between human and beast. It’s fertile ground; it has been since the days of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and before that. But that’s a broad topic and I won’t go into it now. Cat People attains a sort of pulp horror perfection. It’s a cheap movie – in fact, that’s part of the point – that plays with lights and shadows, bouncing through the water of a public pool at night, or along a desolate street where a woman walks alone, and turns it into pure fear.

Much of this is courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, a cinematographer whose work went back and forth between horror (The Ghost Ship and the brilliant The Seventh Victim, other Lewton productions) and film noir (Cat People director Jacques Tourneur’s other masterpiece Out of the Past and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night); this flexibility on Musuraca’s part, I think, demonstrates the kinship between the noirs of the early ’40s and Lewton’s style of moody urban horror. Cat People could very well be a film noir. Except its femme fatale, big surprise, turns into a cat and mauls people. A few months ago, I wrote a review of the film for this issue of the Carl, and summarized the plot like so: “boy meets girl. Girl is afraid she’ll turn into a giant cat. Boy cheats on girl with other girl. Girl turns into giant cat (or does she?).” It’s a simple premise emerging from vague dreams of dark and foggy Serbia, whence the cursed heroine Irena emigrates. (Serbia here is as good as Transylvania or Latveria or fill in your random eastern European country.) And we start out with a beautiful picture of American heterosexual normalcy until, well, Irena’s secret inbred something starts to catch up with her. We’ve got the classic scene where a feline stranger in a Serbian restaraunt addresses Irena’s as “sister” and disappears. The film is so rich with quasi-Freudian psychosexual confusion, more than enough to match the haziness of the lighting.

I’m going to bed now (it is 4 am, after all), but I highly recommend you watch Cat People. I want to see it over and over again. It’s a subtle, fascinating, seriously scary movie and I love it. The monster is the most sympathetic character, played by the cute, vulnerable French actress Simone Simon (who played another kind of femme fatale in Renoir’s La Bête Humaine [1938]), lost and alone, beholden to the chaotic emotions and powers brewing inside her. If you’re interested, Cat People is currently on YouTube here (though the fuckers won’t let me embed). Watch and be drawn into the strange and frightening nightmare which Lewton, Tourneur, and Musuraca create, as it gradually enfolds Irena and carries her off.

And pleasant nightmares to you, too.

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