I feel obliged to review [REC]2, if only because I gave its predecessor a day in court a couple of years ago. You might remember the story so far – a cameraman and a reporter are following the fire brigade on their nightly duties for a local TV documentary. The crew are sent to investigate what turns out to be the outbreak of a virus in an apartment block. Lots of quasi-zombie, flesh-chewing mayhem ensues as the authorities quarantine all the survivors, blocking all the exits and trapping them inside. Taking refuge in the top-floor flat, the camera team discover the true origins of the disease that is taking over the building.This time around, a SWAT time is infiltrating the building to locate and destroy the ongoing threat, and they quickly fall foul of the undead tenants ,who are still a bit angry.
It’s a horror film. It’s a battle-of-the-sexes drama. It’s a cabin-in-the-woods supernatural thriller. It’s shocking, controversial, provocative, explicit etc. Lars von Trier is just messing with you. Don’t get so worked up. He likes to poke (figurative) wild animals with (metaphorical) sticks to see what bites. Of course, the sense that he’s provoking his audiences shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss his movies out of hand – they clearly get a lot of attention, and so he must be pushing just the right combination of buttons to incite so much reaction. Since the film so deftly elicits a set of stock reactions, I thought I’d withhold my own thoughts on the film and instead invite you to build your own review to the film based on the multiple choices below. Save yourself some time, and your knees some jerking, and select your responses in each of the categories most commonly used to talk about Antichrist:
You can download a PDF version of this post here. In the PDF version, the layout and images are a little more carefully formatted and stable.
[This post is intended for readers who’ve already seen Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now: it contains major spoilers, and assumes knowledge of the plot. If you need a reminder of the story, try here. I wrote most of this while re-watching the film (trying to practice typing without looking at the keys!), so apologies if some of the prose is a bit scrappy. I’ve polished up some of it, but thought I’d leave most of it intact.]
Don’t Look Now is, when taken from one particular angle, a film about imperfect vision. It shows us a story of eyes deceived, beliefs challenged by visual evidence, even as the film itself conducts its own experiments in superhuman looking by conjoining separate spaces through graphic matches that suggest a world ordered not by random chance but by the interconnectedness of disparate phenomena. The tension between these two kinds of vision, the one flawed, partial and human, the other selective and authoritative, is one of the things that makes the film work and helps to structure its ambiguous play with superstition and clairvoyance.
It might seem like a film about mystery, but it’s all signposted from the first scene, where the kids play outside while the parents read and talk indoors. Various cinematic techniques are used to introduce the question of vision, and to make affective links between characters who might not otherwise be spatially connected. Above, you can see a pair of consecutive shots in which Laura (Julie Christie) puts her hand to her mouth, followed immediately by a cut to her daughter doing the same. In another example, little Christine throws a ball, and the next shot shows her mother catching a packet of cigarettes:
Matches-on-action are usually used to imply spatio-temporal continuity between separate shots of the same activity , but here the matches are between distinct locations. These seem like superficial matches to show the prelapsarian unity of the family, but the graphic matches are used at several points in the film to draw connections between various phenomena. The visual similarity of the red forms of spillage on the photograph and the drowned child’s coat (the red zones occupy roughly the same areas of the frame) sets up a portentous link between the two moments, a clue which John (Donald Sutherland) will spend the rest of the film refusing to acknowledge:
But if the connection between the church and Venice and the death of the child is meant to serve as a warning, then why is it built on similarity? The dwarf and the child are not the same, and it is a confusion between the two which will ultimately lead John into mortal danger. If the supernatural world is sending messages, then they are not clearly legible ones. Elsewhere, vision is portrayed as untrustworthy, partial and fragmented, with faces obscured or ambiguous figures glimpsed:
Julie Christie meets the two English women when one of them gets something in her eye (the other is blind): mirrored images in the bathroom fragment vision. This film is fascinated by the tricks eyes can play, or the beauty of certain effects: light playing on the canal connects to the rain falling on the pond, igniting a memory of the aftermath of Christine’s death. Through the figure of a blind psychic, the film entertains the possibility of a superior mode of sight that comes from sense experiences beyond the eyes.
Does the film want us to conclude that the woman really is psychic and having visions of death and the dead, and thus that it is Sutherland’s incomplete vision, his disbelief in the fact that his daughter is not there in Venice with them that leads him to be killed? Or does it let the viewers decide for themselves whether the premonitions are real? Actually, I suspect it makes it fairly clear that faith in biological sight is misplaced.
The pile-up of blurred lines between memory, premonition and present experience is the organising principle of the justly famous sex scene. Notable amongst movie sex for being a regenerative moment between a married couple as opposed to an inevitable plotpoint for a male hero and his designated shag, it also fits perfectly with the film’s visionary aesthetic. Beginning with tender foreplay, as the lovemaking escalates, it is intercut with flashforwards to shots of the couple dressing and remembering the sex. As the forward-looking shots become more frequent, they might be seen to take over, making the present action into flashbacks, or at least overlapping the temporal spaces and endowing each image with multiple indentities as present moments, memories or predictions and working them into an affective whole of conflated experiences. Perhaps this scene suggests a moment of closeness between the couple by allowing them a privileged, unified experience where the moment, its aniticipation and its memory all come together: it’s a shame that subsequently, they will judge these multi-temporal visions very differently.
If you’ve ever been to Venice and walked around without a map, you’ll know how perfectly cast it is as the backdrop for this story. Any stroll through the backstreets, particularly at night, can turn into a fiendish, circular journey where landmarks will seem to repeat in random order, canals will seem to move their position or reverse their direction. It’s eerie how easily Venetian pathways can mess with your sense of direction, your faith in your remembrances of space, place and time. Out of the holiday season, it’s a mournful, even morbid place, and the film exploits these qualities to the full by making it an architectural analogue of the characters’ mental and visual indecisions. The blind psychic, on the other hand, can navigate it with ease because the sounds are so acute, the echoes so instructive. It is vision, often the most trusted of the senses, that is portrayed as unreliable.
It’s a film about grief, but grieving doesn’t mean sitting around crying – for this couple it means considering and modifying their beliefs about death, time and memory. Laura hides her medication, favouring the clarity of natural vision over medically regulated perspective. John sees his wife’s supernatural beliefs as irrational; he describes her to the authorities as “not a well woman”, and it is this refusal to attribute visual evidence to something other than physical presence that leads him into danger: seeing something that looks like his daughter, he cannot connect the little figure in the red coat whose appearance has been previsualised and warned against. Ultimately, then, the film is reliant on John’s misperception, building up to a shock ending that is foreshadowed heavily in the opening scene and in every other glimpse of his killer-to-be.
The collage of momentous fragments of the opening scene is matched by the death-throes montage that unlocks its significances at the end: all the pieces of the puzzle find their connections to one another in a final spatio-temporal flurry of overlapping times and places, signs and omens. The visual trope of the graphic match, where dwarf and child are made to appear similar, coded by the vivid red macs they wear, even repeating the shot of each figure reflected in the surface of the water, tricks John into accepting that his daughter might be alive before his eyes. But these cannot be John’s vision, because he wasn’t there to see Christine reflected in the water – the film is repeating its own imagery, and giving equal significance to this kind of visual inference and to witnessed sightings, ensuring that seeing something firsthand is not given precedence over other kinds of knowledge and belief. John and has wife have shared similar experiences and interpreted them in very different ways. He sees a premonition of his own funeral but can’t believe that it isn’t evidence of Laura’s physical presence, and can’t accept that his senses might have deceived him. She blithely accepts the evidence of second sight, while he ignores all of the portents, and is punished for trying to believe his senses in the face of other forms of evidence.
You can download a PDF version of this post here. In the PDF version, the layout and images are a little more carefully formatted and stable.
- Review by Bryant Frazer at Deep-focus.com.
- Review by Sameer Padania at Kamera.
- Review, production stills and posters at Screenonline.
- Review by Damian Cannon.
- Brief Synopsis at Britmovie.
- Review at The Terror Trap.
- Brendan Dawes’ interesting experiment with distorting every frame of the film. Difficult to explain, good to look at.
- Review from The Observer by Philip French.
- A review, comparing the film to Donnie Darko, by Jon Ware at Warwick blogs.
- DVD discussion at DVD Times.
- Images of the original locations for the shoot from Reel Streets.
- More locations from Movie Locations.
- Nicolas Roeg talks to Channel 4 about the film.
- The Telegraph’s Must-have movies.
- Penguin study notes for Daphne du Maurier’s story. [PDF]
- Review at Antagony & Ecstasy.
- A planned remake was announced in 2005, but there hasn’t been much development, so hopefully it’s dropped off the slate altogether.
- Screenplay review at The Script Factory.
- Don’t Look Now in the BFI’s Top 100 Films chart.
- Biography of Nicolas Roeg at Screenonline.
- Member reviews at Green Cine.
- Extensive review at Pajiba by Ranylt Richildis.
- Donkey Punch director Olly Blackburn meets Nicolas Roeg for Time Out.
- Nicolas Roeg Interview at Screenonline.
- Interview with Roeg from SFX magazine, 1999.
After randomising James Whale’s Frankenstein, I couldn’t help but turn immediately to its sequel. I can’t watch one without reaching for the other. For a sequel that hinges on the contrivance of a “he’s-not-really-dead-after-all” get-out clause, it never feels like a cash-in, probably because it ups the ante and wittily reconfigures the tone and meaning of the original. From the lusty prologue that imagines Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester, who will also play the Bride, setting up a nice game with the author’s status as creator and created), to Whale’s obvious glee at being allowed to bring his British chums (Ernest Thesiger, Lanchester, Valerie Hobson (recently seen on this blog in Kind Hearts and Coronets) etc.) over to Hollywood to camp around in incredible sets, The Bride of Frankenstein develops the tragic figure of the monster even as it pumps the franchise full of comedy. I hope the randomised frames give us a glimpse of the Bride, and perhaps Thesiger’s wonderful Dr Pretorius (“I hope her bones are firm”), but the random number generator can be an erratic beast. This time out, it is giving me the following numbers: 27, 47 and 70. And that means I have to start with…
… the monster stuck on a mound of rock, surrounded by another in a series of angry mobs that will pursue him across innumerable sequels with their hive-mind bloodlust. The trees on either side of the monster pen him in, visually articulating his entrapment. The conveniently placed boulder is not a realistic touch, but it does mark the rock out as an opportune weapon: perhaps the audience is invited to side with the monster here, willing him to crush his assailants. The sore-thumb boulder is tempting in its prominence: come on, Karloff – it looks loose. Stop flapping that big hand around and give it a shove! The shadowy, grunting creature of the first film now becomes ever more victimised, and sympathies are tipped in his favour.
Bingo. Not quite the image I was hoping for. Ernest Thesiger looks like he’s been lit for a glamorous close up, the three-point lighting giving him a clearly defined outline and a shock of bright white hair. A good friend of director James Whale (I think they’d worked together on The Old Dark House, and he’s appeared with Boris Karloff in The Ghoul), Thesiger beat Claude Rains to this part: thank goodness. Rains would have made a much more serious and sinister Pretorius. Thesiger seems to perceive the baroque nuttiness of this film, and drifts through it with glorious ease. There are far more obvious ways to depict the arrogance of a mad scientist certain of the rightness of his actions than this, so it’s a blessing that he snipes instead of rants, grins instead of fumes. Here he is charming the newly socialised monster with booze, smokes (his newfound penchant for good cigars is a sign of his mastery of fire in a controlled form) and conversation. Faced with the beast that has inspired mobs-with-torches and screaming maidens, he doesn’t recoil or beg for his life, but smiles the smile of a concerned uncle.
I was so tempted to wait a couple of seconds and grab a picture of the Bride with her amazing sparrow face and electric hair, but honesty won out in the end and I’m left with the 70 minute-mark’s powerful image of the monster’s hand, about to grasp the lever that will blow up the castle and destroy him along with his reluctant dame. His firm assertion that “we belong dead”, and his decisive suicide makes this his ultimate rationalised act, the point at which he gains sufficient consciousness to ponder his own abjection and act to obliterate it. Finally, it is he who takes control of the mad machines in the laboratory; finally, it is he who gets to flip a switch. The close-up of the hand summarises this reclamation of agency beautifully. Unfortunately, this conclusion is arrived at only once his advances have been spurned by the Bride, whose sexual unavailability makes him realise the perversion of his existence: he can’t even get a date with a corpse.
For those who enjoyed the Jaws Randomised post, or those who hated it so much they’d love to see me crash and burn again, I’m taking another stab at formal analysis of three randomly selected frames from a movie, as instigated by Nick Rombes at Digital Poetics. Nick seems to be getting a lot of fascinating mileage out of it (look at how interesting he makes a forgettable film like About a Boy seem), and I’m quite taken with the technique, too. Today’s film, to keep it orthodox, is James Whale’s Frankenstein. The three frames must be chosen by computer. I use a random number generator to choose me three minute-marks from a DVD of the film, then discuss only the information I can glean from those images. So, let’s get started. Frankenstein is 67 minutes long according to my DVD edition, so I enter 1-67 into the generator, and I get: 36, 48 and 58. That sounds like the scenes will be bunched together, but I don’t know until I fire up the disc and start grabbing those frames, beginning with…
… this. I hope my luck stays this good; a wonderful shot encapsulating so well the conflict between the scientist and his unruly creation. It also affords us a good gawp at the stolid chunk of one of Universal’s massive, magnificent studio sets. This shot lasts for 40 seconds, with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, left) and Dr Waldman (Edward van Sloan, right) trapping the monster by luring him through the door: one of them will distract him while the other injects him with a heavy sedative. At this stage in the struggle, though, all three of them are poised, shoulders hunched, ready for the eruption of physical violence that is about to come. The monster’s cowering is odd: he’s easily more powerful, and has no real incentive to enter the room. His body is driven by a series of conflicting impulses, zapped into uncomprehending life by a bolt of lightning, twitching from attack to retreat, fear to fury, with lurching rapidity.
After making his escape, the monster has a brief idyllic interlude by a sparkling lake with Little Maria. He is imitating her, tossing flowers into the water and watching delightedly as they float on the surface. So far, he has only been seen in shadows, growling and pummeling stuff in the brick fortress of Frankenstein’s lab. To see him in broad daylight, outdoors and playing with flowers with a baby’s gurning grin on his face is quite a shock. It will be short-lived. Not until the sequel will he find a friend and manage to hang out in the open air without killing stuff.
On its release in 1931 in the US, the film was passed uncut by the federal censor, but several state censors could and frequently did cut out objectionable moments. For the 1937 re-release, Universal were forced to cut the conclusion of this scene, which was not restored until a 1985 restoration for TV broadcast: Karloff tosses Maria into the lake to see if she too can float like a flower (she can’t – she drowns), a simpleton’s mistake connecting objects and environments due to their basic similarities (Maria doesn’t look like a flower, but maybe the monster sees her like one, as delicate and pretty as the petals he holds in his hands) rather than distinguishing between animate and inanimate objects: he himself is trapped between life and death, so it makes sense that his actions should articulate that confused duality, that mortal category error.
No telling of the Frankenstein story would be complete without an angry mob thirsty for monster blood (except, of course, Mary Shelley’s original book…). That fierce and inexorable lateral movement across the frame depicts the unstoppable march of the crowd. Their torches are reflected in the water to double up the force of the flames that Karloff’s monster fears so much. Fire had been used to control him with fear. Now it will be used to burn him up. This proliferation of flames is a nice metaphor for mob mentality – each flame marks out one member of the crowd, but once fueled, it can spread independently without control, taking on a mad, ravenous life of its own. I’m not sure why the guys in the boat think they’re going to get there any quicker, but it does suggest that everyone is eager to get there by any available means and start torching someone.
I’ll tell you a secret: if you make the screen dark enough, the mind’s eye will read anything into it they want! We’re great ones for dark patches. … The horror addicts will populate the darkness with more horrors than all the horror writers in Hollywood could think of. (Val Lewton, Life magazine interview, 25th Feb 1946)
Now that the cinemas are packed full of dogs, it seems like a good time to revisit Jacques Tourneur‘s dreamy Freudfest, Cat People. My students are watching it this week, so I was reunited with it after a separation of over a decade. I was utterly beguiled by it once more, so this might eventually become one of those posts that I add to periodically. For now (I hope this blog hasn’t started to display traces of the haste in which it is often prepared…), I’d just like to focus on those “dark patches” noted by the film’s producer, Val Lewton, in the quotation above. Lewton and Tourneur use low-key lighting to create a chiaroscuro effect in many scenes of the film: that is to say, the lighting is arranged to emphasise the distinctions between darkness and light. Chiaroscuro, an Italian word literally meaning “light-dark”, can be an expressive effect that envelops important elements of the frame in a vignette of darkness, as in this 1768 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of my favourites (you can see the original in London’s National Gallery):
(Want a much closer look at this painting? Go here.)
The strong central light source shuts out the rest of the room, bringing the eye in to the intimate wonder of the scene of a scientific demonstration (one of Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle’s air pumps that creates a vacuum in the jar, thus suffocating the cockatoo). There’s a motif of literal “enlightenment” here, but also an air of trepidation about the unseen zones that are obscured by blackness. That may be a subjective response, but that is Lewton’s point – with the proper cues, a spectator can be encouraged to fill in the blanks with something frightening.
Cat People is the story of a relationship between Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian-born woman living in New York, and Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a construction designer who seduces and marries her. Irena is haunted by the legend of King John of Serbia, who supposedly slaughtered the country’s witches, represented in cat form on a statue she keeps in the centre of her apartment.
Irena believes she is descended from the wisest, wickedest witches who escaped from King John’s sword to the village where she was born. This imagined link to a devil-worshipping, un-Christian heritage makes her distinctly problematic when she is required to fit in with the need to assimilate with the romantic, cultural and spiritual expectations of her adopted homeland in the USA. The job for the film’s spectator is to decide whether or not this is all in Irena’s head, and whether the legend is just a cover for a psychosexual fear, a common-or-garden “frigidity“. We are given lots of teasing clues. In one shot, Irena seems to be scrutinised by cats above her head:
This is from the painting Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792) by Francisco de Goya. In the full version of the picture, you can see the keen-eyed cats (situated in the dark half of the image) staring at a magpie, while the birdcage to the right foreshadows the pet bird that Irena will later kill when she comes over all feline:
Cats get spooked every time Irena is near, showing off that sixth sense that animals always seem to have in scary movies, but we’d have to be fairly irrational to confirm Irena’s cat-woman condition on the evidence of a few raised kitty-hackles. Irena’s confinement indoors and in marriage, confirmed by images that imprison her within an oppressive mise-en-scene, cements the empathetic bond she believes she shares with the film’s many caged creatures.
Irena is thus surrounded by images that foreshadow her fate or point to her feline alter ego so often that we might conclude that these are accumulating influences that create an imaginary cat persona in her mind, weighing her down with illusions of a historically and culturally enforced identity that preserves her with the markers of an ancient nationality: in that sense, Cat People might be an elegant expression of the immigrant experience, as Reed tries to squeeze these influences out of her and turn her into an all-American (i.e. like Alice), sexually pliable bride. His lack of imagination and his distrust of Irena’s culture are signposted throughout. In his 1998 study of Tourneur’s work, Chris Fujiawara notes:
Oliver’s Americanness takes a variety of forms. At Sally Lund’s, a restaurant near his office, he eats nothing but apple pie whereas, at a meeting to discuss whether he should have Irena committed, Judd orders Roquefort and even Alice has ‘the Bavarian creme’. Oliver has never known any artists, and he has never been unhappy. Bodeen’s script has him quoting Keats to Alice in the first scene at the zoo, but this touch is eliminated from the final film, in which Oliver’s prosaic nature is unmitigated. His lack of imagination and his inability to believe in Irena’s experience of the supernatural render him as unable to help her as is Judd and make him the inadvertent cause of her destruction.
Reed has no empathy with her bride. To him, she is all charisma, an enigma, but he’s not interested in the possibility that there might be some reality behind it. When he can’t own (i.e. have sex with her) he loses interest and transfers his attentions back to the readily available Alice. So, Irena’s otherness, and her problems of reconciling her culture and her location make this partly, in Fujiawara’s words “a tragedy of displacement.”
Most strikingly perhaps, Tourneur generates a fearful atmosphere by using darkness to shrink the space around individual characters. This might involve a strong central light source that emphasises the dark zones on the periphery of the frame:
Or it might be a more subtle vignetting effect that encircles the figures, casting strong shadows that depict a dual identity or allow the darkness to impinge upon the light areas of the frame:
Fujiwara argues that these dark spaces at the edge of the frame create a space around the characters which extends into offscreen space and “merges into, and mirrors, the darkness surrounding the film audience.” Sometimes this is actual darkness, sometimes it is the figurative darkness of a sensed but unseen presence. Two sequences stand out. The first sees Alice walking home and apparently being followed by Irena. The shadowed areas of the shots gradually overpower the light, suggesting a menace closing in, but aligning Irena’s presence with the darkness itself.
The second sees Alice pursued by a presence she can barely set eyes on in the swimming pool of her YWCA building. Cutting between shots of Alice’s mounting fear and eerie shots of empty spaces (a stairwell, the ceiling, the sides of the pool), Tourneur creates tension from Irena’s absence. We know that she is in the building, but just as in the pursuit scene previously, during which her footsteps drop out of the soundtrack (maybe because she has changed her high heels for panther paws), the ellision of Irena from the image transforms her into a presence detected by the viewer’s imagination. She slips into the darkness, and even into the gaps between shots: where continuity editing usually synthesises the presence of an actress from disparate fragments of footage, here Irena’s presence is felt because it is expected, because the sequence of shots seems to suggest that she is moving around the room. But still she refuses to materialise; the only hint we get of her feline presence is a glimpse of a shadow which plays on the wall for a couple of seconds, actually a shadow made by Tourneur’s fist. J.P. Telotte has said of this absence that it “signals a black hole or vacant meaning in the physical realm which, in spite of man’s natural desire to fill it with consciousness and significance, persistently and troublingly remains open.”
The use of dark patches is not an entirely expressionistic device – the first time she takes Reed back to her apartment, she realises that she has forgotten to put the lights on (she finds comfort in the dark), and the shot where she undergoes hypnosis, and her face is isolated in a spotlight is shown to be not a visual representation of her psychological state, but a shot of a room with the lights off. The scare scene in the swimming pool is ended when Irena switches the lights on and dispels the shadows in an instant. Tourneur permits this oscillation between manipulated, expressive imagery and rationalised reality, perpetuating the spectator’s own hesitation in accepting that Irena’s condition might be a genuine curse.
Ed Gonazalez. “Whispers in a Distant Corridor: The Cinema of Jacques Tourneur.” Slant Magazine, 2002.
Jacques Tourneur biography at Screenonline.
1942 Variety review.
2006 Roger Ebert review.
Review at Noir of the Week.
Reviews and quotations at Celtoslavica.
[This paper was originally presented at the Film and History conference, Chicago, 31st October 2008. I’ve corrected some typos and rephrased some awkward sentences, but otherwise the version here is the same as the one delivered that day. It was written to be spoken and then discussed, so it probably doesn’t follow through on all its points in detail. You can find a fully revised and expanded version of this paper in the Spring 2010 issue of Film and History (if you have access to Project Muse, it’s available there).]
When I set out to write about Cloverfield, I thought it would make for an interesting case study to test the ideas outlined in my previous work on special effects; primarily that special effects act as self-conscious moments of technical display that offer entry-points for considering the constructed nature of film. Whatever sleights-of-hand they might use to cover their tracks, they are self-reflexive devices that draw attention to their own artifice and bring into play an entire meta-narrative about media technologies and illusionism. Here was a film that seemed to obfuscate all of its spectacular opportunities, delaying any clear view of its central special effect. It quickly became clear that the film’s obstructed views extend to the whole fabric of the movie, into its pre-publicity campaign and its framing narrative. I want to outline some of the ways I think the film uses this aesthetic of opacity to construct a critique of film’s pre-fabricated realisms.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Cloverfield is a film about a monster attack on Manhattan, directed by Matt Reeves but devised and produced by J.J. Abrams, creator of TVs Lost and Alias, two shows similarly built on their restricted narration. A large creature of unknown origin emerges, presumably from the sea, and rampages downtown, leaving tourist trail of destruction that takes in the Statue of Liberty, The Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park. The attack is shown from the point-of-view of a group of young adults who have been attending a party. One character aims to cross the city to rescue the girl to whom he wants to declare his love, believing her to in mortal danger.
So far, so generic. It follows a rather formulaic quest narrative, driven by a race to rescue a damsel in distress from a high tower and avoid getting killed by a fearsome beast. But Cloverfield dresses up its story in very modern formal attire. At the start, an onscreen title comes with a watermark stating that the film is the property of the U.S. Department of Defense:
The film then consists of the playback of a digital videotape, shot by an amateur cameraman during the monster attack and found in the rubble of Manhattan. What does the film show that the military need to study and to keep for themselves? Why is it being impounded and not sold to every news network in the world? This opening sets up a framework within which all subsequent images will be interpreted as significant proof of something – even as they are invited to “experience” the attack through one camera’s lens, the spectators are prompted to assume the position of investigators watching a piece of documentary evidence. For many viewers, that hunt for clues would have begun prior to actually watching the film. The 2008 release of Cloverfield was the culmination of a marketing campaign that built up anticipation through a series of absences.
It’s not unusual for a high-profile film to incite interest with the promise of spectacular sights that will only be fully revealed in return for the price of an entry ticket: this fits well with John Ellis’ notion of the “narrative image” from his book Visible Fictions, in which a poster, trailer and other promotional devices form a conglomerated, but incomplete picture which the film promises to resolve once you pay your admission fee. But Cloverfield doesn’t answer all the questions posed by its pre-publicity. And rather than providing marketing prompts that tell you how long you have to wait before you get to “see it all”, the final film doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of revelation.
This trailer appeared accompanying Michael Bay’s Transformers, appearing online, it’s more natural home perhaps, shortly afterwards. It was shot before any of the rest of the film. There had been no pre-publicity for the film aside from this, and the primary clue on the promotional crumb-trail was the release date 01-18-08, a code which also unlocked the film’s official website, revealing a slow leak of images, timestamped to prompt their assembly into a linear sequence. However, this official site, far from being an authoritative organ of “all you need to know”, was just one component of a viral marketing campaign whose scope I don’t have space to catalogue here, but which included MySpace pages for the main characters, and another rather irritating but fully-formed website for a fictional Japanese drink called Slusho, a drink mentioned in Alias, that at face value has nothing to do with the film, but became a source of cryptic clues and misdirection, some deliberate, some imagined.
In case you can’t read it from this image, the little jellyfish creature is saying “I’m so happy and full of Slusho that I might burst!”
Here are some snapshots from the groundswell of web-based discussion that grew up around the film. Though I can’t really detail everything in the viral campaign, I’ll just say that it exhibits several key qualities aside from the usual requirements that marketing should build anticipation, discussion and brand recognition. In this case the lack of clear guidance as to which pieces of evidence should be noted as canonical, and what should be discarded as a red herring, created a discursive environment where it was uncertain where the central authorised, organising framework lay. So, for instance, when this image appeared:
…someone reposted it, having photoshopped the two halves of the face together and confirmed that it was the same girl. It isn’t, but I found that several followers had done the same thing and reached the same conclusion.
I couldn’t find an example of the doctored image online, so I’ve tried my own mock-up of that pic (I don’t have photoshop!), and you can almost see what they were getting at. It kind of looks like one face if you squint at it the right way. But someone even managed to look closely enough to see a demonic face in the girls’ hair:
The important point here is that people were engaged with the marketing, looking closely at its components and literally trying to piece things together for themselves – they had taken the cue that this was a puzzle to be solved. What’s equally noticeable about this image is its deployment of a particularly cinematic trick – the emphasis on the eyeline match (the girls are clearly looking at something) sets up an ingrained expectation of a reverse shot that will reveal what it is that they’re looking at.
A more complete trailer was released closer to the film’s opening, showing a lot more footage, but still provoking debate over how it was to be understood. There was still no sign of the monster itself, which had to be imaginatively built up from a series of vestigial traces, such as the claw marks on the head of the Statue of Liberty. One of the most indicative events occurs when Marlene, who has recently been bitten by one of the parasites that fall from the central monster, is dragged aside by medics at the makeshift hospital. And remember that at this point people didn’t know how this shot fit into the final film, or that Marlene is one of the main characters.
She is taken into a quarantine tent which, brightly lit from within, casts a strong silhouette. She seems to swell up and explode in a bloody mess (though this moment is curtailed in the trailer, stopping just before she erupts). The shot happens so quickly that it’s difficult to work out what happened. I wish I knew which podcaster to credit for saying this was like a Rorschach inkblot shot (step forward and claim your credit); when it appeared online in the film’s trailer, obviously out of context, it incited speculation about the monster from people who couldn’t agree on what they were looking at. Blogger Tory Hargro, for instance, came to the conclusion that the Slusho drink was a key part of the story and connected in some way to the monster. Maybe it was causing people to burst.
This is an excellent case of apophenia, where, in the absence of a clear set of connected evidence, people infer or imagine patterns and links between disparate phenomena. We might even call this pareidolia, a type of apophenia in which a viewer might be made to see Jesus on a nacho, faces on the moon, or personalised psychic terrors in the Rorschach inkblot: sometimes people detect the deliberate placement of images where no such deliberation exists, or project onto it their own wish for clarity.
The effect is to destabilise the divisions between items which are actual intertexts and items which are accidental parts of that perceived pattern. This is not just about hyping the film – it feeds into the nature of the resulting feature: Cloverfield plays on fears of public emergency. This fear is always exacerbated when one feels oneself to be a helpless piece of a bigger, collapsing picture – hence the rush for comforting distance and perspective from centralised news networks. The monster movie genre stands in contrast to other types of horror film that might put the viewer in an identificatory position with someone who is single out for assault by a deranged individual; instead, it indulges the infectious terror of a chaotic stampede, escalating panic and the fear of being caught in the crossfire of the authorities sent to deal with the problem. The obfuscation and dispersal of the viral marketing campaign seems calibrated to simulate just such an environment of paranoid confusion, calling into question the accuracy of perception and the ability of visual representation in assisting the senses in achieving clarity.
Cloverfield passes its generic situations through the machinery of an amateur, found-footage aesthetic. This has its own distinct properties, but it is also differentiated from other Hollywood treatments of mass destruction.
Take the example of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. Its images of disaster are sublime and complete, immaculately composed for maximum spectacle from a safe distance. Aerial shots, some even from outer space, give the film an incredible level of omniscience, with the distance reducing the destruction to beautiful, depersonalised patterns of pixels. A film that is set up as a premonitory vision of natural catastrophe actually ends up as a rather comforting picture of resilience and indestructibility.
Through the masterful conjuring of images from positions of near-deific privilege, it suggests not the confusion, degradation, destruction of disaster, but its filmic counterpart, spectacular and forgettable. Cloverfield reinscribes disaster with the markers of chaos and confusion. It sacrifices the polyvocal or omniscient narration of the traditional blockbuster disaster movie – at no point are we given a cutaway to experts with a flowchart detailing their plans for repelling the threat and restoring normality – and promises a direct connection with the real through its aesthetic similarity to modes of recording which are routinely branded as authentic documents of events.
Cloverfield is a special effects movie. It uses a vast array of practical and digital effects to simulate its monster attack, but the computer-generated source of that destruction is barely seen. For the most part computer-generated imagery, privileges an aesthetic of perceptual realism, adhering to a “common-sense” verisimilitude where represented things will resemble their real world referents in a sympathetic respect for the laws of physics. This pushes a vision of the world that is comfortingly unified: anything, it implies, can be represented and revealed in gross detail. Cloverfield, by denying that revelation, puts forth a less stable vision where desire to see is rarely matched with the delivery of that image for inspection and assimilation with real experience.
As revealed in these frame grabs, the film’s imagery frequently threatens to slide into abstraction or collapse into incoherence, with blurs of light and colour replacing the recognisable shapes, symmetries and compositional patterns that ordinarily make narrative cinema “legible”. This is obviously not an expressionistic abstraction, but one which is calculated to imitate the tics and tropes of amateur shooting. It performs that style, and purchases authenticity by displaying a shaky camera that seems not to know where the next point of interest will be located, catching it too late or misframing it. The editing is jagged and sometimes abrupt, the sound overloaded from time to time (though we should note that the thunderous Surround Sound is a concession to entertainment over verisimilitude – there’s not a camera on Earth with built in mics capable of capturing such thumping bass), and there are numerous compression artifacts, pixilation and other technical flaws. All of these elements serve to authenticate the film as an accidental occurrence rather than a studio-produced, pre-visualised property.
Cloverfield is thus a really good illustration of Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s notion of the double logic that characterises digital media, exhibiting the qualities of immediacy and hypermediacy. Immediacy because it is designed to efface the traces of manufacture and give the spectator more direct access to the content, or the events depicted – thus we have long takes that appear to be unedited, situating the spectator in a continuous relationship with the characters. At the same time, it displays hypermediacy by bearing all the traces of mediation openly – the image might be time-stamped, the lens dirty or blood-splattered, the tape glitched. It’s crucial that you notice these technical facets, since it is through their presence that the film purchases its authenticity, but it is crucial that you suspend disbelief and attribute them to the diegetic equipment and crew, and not to the massive resources of 20th Century Fox. If discussions of digital media have sometimes seemed to predict a utopia of pixel-perfect, high-definition absolute vision, here is a film whose major points of interest are glimpsed, missed, obscured or misapprehended.
Thinking about that meta-narrative of media authenticity, Cloverfield is also a kind of mock-documentary: the events it depicts did not really happen, but it promises to portray those events as if they had really happened, in return for your agreement to engage with it as if it carried evidentiary force. Gregory Currie’s attempt to delineate the boundaries between fiction and documentary saw him attaching special significance to photographic “traces”, the evidence that what is represented refers directly to the subject of the documentary. As Jinhee Choi summarised in response: “Currie attempts to preserve epistemic privilege often attributed to documentaries by appealing to the indexicality of photographic images.” But the boundary between fiction and documentary is not as distinct as such a technical definition might suggest.
Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight argue that mock documentaries represent an assault on the privileged cultural status that is attached to the documentary form. While documentary films form a diverse body of work encompassing news footage, propaganda, educational films etc., they are given credit as a coherently objective way of observing and revealing truths about the world. They question the sense that stories and meanings emerge from “raw data”, and aim to show how they are constructed and narrated in formal manners equivalent to the ways in which fictional narratives are built:
“The claim that documentary can present a truthful and accurate portrayal of the social world is not only validated through the association of the camera with the instruments of science but also depends upon the cultural belief that the camera does not lie. This is predicated on two things: the first is concerned with the power of the photograph, and the second with the discourses of realism and naturalism. Together these provide the basis for our strong cultural assumptions about documentary, while also allowing issues of ideology to be side-stepped in our evaluations of the form.”
Alexandra Juhasz has argued that, by setting up a dialectic between fiction and documentary, during which we know that the subject is fake but we note that it is being voiced as if it were actual, the fake documentary foregrounds the formal attributes of the genre for investigation by its spectators:
“Its formative and visible lies mirror the necessary but usually hidden fabrications of ‘real’ documentaries, and force all these untruths to the surface, producing knowledge about the dishonesty of all documentaries, real and fake. In so doing, the text’s origins may be demystified, the spectator can be revived, and the visible world and the technologies that can record it are often revealed as coded discourse.”
“A fake documentary is received as more than a fiction film plus a documentary; the two systems refer to, critique and alter each other’s reception.”
The experience of realism is not a passive one. Images cannot be authenticated through appeals to the mechanical objectivity of the equipment, any more than they can be authenticated by stamping a Department of Defense watermark on it. The spectator is constantly checking the realist claims of visual media against a memory-bank of media intertexts and personal experiences. Cloverfield encapsulates this by emphasising the disparities between content and form, between the impossibility of the events it depicts and the uncanny resemblance of its form and style to the kinds of media we are accustomed to viewing as containers of factual information. A binary division between the actual and the non-actual might suggest that there is one set of cognitive processes that enables us to process the real world, and another that helps to understand and conceive of the represented domain, but this is not really the case. There is considerable overlap. We use the same cognitive processes to acquire knowledge and sift evidence when receiving visual media, assessing their truth claims on the basis of the plausibility of the content and the trustworthiness of the source. By effacing the traces of institutional mediation, by throwing away many of the opportunities for spectacular revelation (as seen in The Day After Tomorrow), the film plays upon that overlap.
It seems inevitable that Cloverfield is destined to be remembered as “a film for our times”, when sudden devastation can be visited upon major cities by an enemy that cannot be apprehended or clearly seen. A movie monster is a blatant, tangible, perceivable threat. It comprises all of its danger in the central point of its powerful body. It may reveal special powers, but it is still a single locus of danger. This is not asymmetric warfare. This is not an elusive, phantom enemy dispersed around the globe and nestling in vapourous zones of malicious ideology. It is a solid thing that can be destroyed with brute force. It might almost seem wishful to transform 9/11 into such a comprehensible event. But by concealing the monster and by confusing the nature of the events, Cloverfield reconstructs the mystique of its enemy within the fabric of its mise-en-scene. New York feels the mighty force of a monster from the ocean, but those who watch it can barely understand what, why, where and who.
Now, let’s be clear. I don’t think that Abrams and Reeves are political commentators aiming to shock people out of their media-induced torpor into a healthy mistrust of authority. I think they’re fan-boys having fun, but in their search for the effective way to scare people and their awareness that anticipation of horror is the most frightening part, and their awareness that ambiguity and internet buzz are effective ways to foster that anticipation, they ended up co-opting an aesthetic which gleans its power from a paradox – that the ubiquity of images and camera-eye-witness accounts does not make events easier to comprehend or come to terms with.
- Armstrong, Richard (2005) Understanding Realism. London: BFI.
- Bordwell, David (2008) ‘A Behemoth from the Dead Zone.’ Observations on Film Art. 25 January 2008. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1844 [Accessed 27/10/2008]
- Campbell, Christopher (2008) ‘The Exhibitionist: The Theatrical Inappropriateness of Cloverfield.’ Cinematical. 27 January 2008. http://www.cinematical.com/2008/01/27/the-exhibitionist-theatrical-inappropriateness-of-cloverfield/ [Accessed 27/10/2008]
- Noël Carroll (1990) The Philosophy of Horror. London: Routledge.
- Choi, Jinhee (2001) ‘A Reply to Gregory Currie on Documentaries.’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 59:3, 317-319.
- Currie, Gregory (1999) ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs.’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57:3, 285-297.
- Eskjær, Mikkel ‘Observing Movement and Time: Film Art and Observation’ in Anne Jerslev (ed.) Realism and ‘Reality’ in Film and Media. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 117-137.
- Grodal, Torben (1997) Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Juhasz, Alexandra & Jesse Lerner (2006) F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing. London: University of Minnesota Press.
- Roscoe, Jane & Craig Hight (2001) Faking It: Mock-dcoumentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Shaffer, Bill (2001) ‘Just Like a Movie: September 11 and the Terror of Moving Images.’ Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/symposium/schaffer.html [Accessed 2 September 2008]
- Thilk, Chris, ‘Movie Marketing Madness: Cloverfield. 17th January 2008. http://www.moviemarketingmadness.com/blog/2008/01/17/movie-marketing-madness-cloverfield/ [Accessed 22/10/2008]
- Wilson, Jake (2001) ‘Watching from a Distance: September 11 as Spectacle.’ Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/symposium/wilson.html [Accessed 2 September 2008]
- Žižek, Slavoj (2002) Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso.
I’ve been finishing off a conference paper on Cloverfield recently, focusing on the way it sets up and then obscures a series of opportunities for spectacular display (an aesthetic motif that extends to the opacity of its marketing tricks), and this has led me to seek out other films that squeeze a generic situation through the fixed template of a found-footage, citizen reporter approach. I might have dedicated a post to George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead if I didn’t consider it a complete misfire: although it is set up with the delicious premise of uploaded reportage on a zombie apocalypse, not for a single scene does it successfully simulate the chaotic mess of amateur shooting under the pressure of an unfolding crisis: it was even upstaged by The Zombie Diaries, released in 2006 and bearing the same narrational conceit. Romero’s zombie series, none of which seem to take place in the same story world (each film restarts the clock on the end of the Earth and never references previous undead uprisings), promised to provide a running commentary on contemporary societies, with the near-accidental civil rights outrages of Night of the Living Dead and the consumerist parody of Dawn of the Dead being particularly apt, so a critique of the current obsession with capturing anything, everything on camera seemed like the perfect choice for a walking-corpse make-over this time around. But it looked as though Romero couldn’t bear to sacrifice the explicit focus on close-up ripping flesh in exchange for the jerky and frantic style that goes with the territory in the latest wave of handicam horror films. It ended up looking pretty much like other recent zombie films, when you’d ideally like Romero to still be leading the pack, and even had the gall to resurrect (pun lazily intended) the regular canard of trying to make the audience feel guilty for their fascination with horror: “Are we really worth saving?” George, you’re not going to convince me that I deserve to die just because you show me a few rednecks who enjoy taking down people who are already dead – especially not after you’ve spent a whole series of movies telling us that the ones who are prepared to subdue their emotions and finish off the undead spectres of their loved ones are just doing what has to be done.
Anyway, this line of inquiry brought me round to REC, a film whose publicity campaign was especially careful in concealing its Spanish origins from English language audiences. The set-up is simple. A local news-crew, consisting of Angela and her cameraman Pablo (who is never seen in front of the lens), is following a fire-crew to capture their overnight routines for their magazine programme “While you’re sleeping.” Hoping to see some action, they get more than enough when a routine visit to a distressed resident in a tenement block sees them trapped inside the building when the authorities quarantine the area to contain an outbreak of an unknown infection that makes its subjects abnormally aggressive and just a bit more cannibalistic than the national average.
The simple beauty of the handheld horror film is that it pretty much writes itself according to generic conventions, but still feels a bit fresh due to the novel perspective. But it’s going to get stale quite quickly. Recent efforts in this direction, like a delayed reaction to the massive success of The Blair Witch Project and its rereleased forerunner The Last Broadcast are really just revisions of the pseudo-snuff, found-footage pretences of Cannibal Holocaust, the Guinea Pig movies (the second instalment of which Charlie Sheen famously reported to the FBI, believing it to be the real thing and thus giving it the best publicity its makers could ever have hoped for – the mind boggles at the thought of a movie too sordid for Charlie Sheen!) and probably the Faces of Death series, which mixed real death footage with staged carnage; the Faces of Death website, with a slick design to mark its 30th anniversary re-release, now features a series of explanations of which bits were fake, though it no longer seems to matter – there are plenty of people who will swear blind that those guys were really eating the brains of live monkeys in that Middle Eastern restaurant. What seems interesting to me is that once you blur the boundaries between documentary and reconstruction, you deplete the truth claims of each. And that’s probably a good thing – we should all be putting a critical distance between ourselves and the media that wants us to accept its content at face value. Anything that reminds you that the tics of factuality can be easily mimicked can only be productive on that front.
It should be no surprise that the caught-on-camera aesthetic has been mostly exploited by the makers of horror films: most horror films derive their effect from delaying the moment when you get a clear view of the threat, and having a situated camera operator, as opposed to an omniscient, distanced observer reporting the action can only accentuate that effect when handled correctly, if the shaking camera, oscillating focus and erratic framing is performed skilfully enough to suggest a photographer situated within the events and as much subject to danger as any of the other fictional characters. It is, of course, compulsory that whoever holds the camera will suffer a terrible fate. Film-makers just can’t seem to resist the temptation to overthrow the holder of the gaze and deliver the frightening illusion of an unhelmed movie, if only for a few moments. Also, the old horror film paradox of not wanting characters to enter the haunted house, but needing them to do so if the film is going to complete its required mission of showing you something horrific, finds a good home in films where the camera operator is not just your proxy onscreen, but an endangered figure within the story. It’s a perfect illustration of Bolter and Grusin’s notion of digital media’s double logic, whereby increases in immediacy (the mediating apparatus is seen to disappear, giving the spectator more direct access to the experience of the content) are matched by greater hypermediacy (the presence of the medium and its technical trappings are made more apparent). It is the film-makers who have carefully constructed the illusion of their own absence, attempting to make all of the film’s formal elements perform the style of another medium. It’s crucial that you notice these stylistic codes (shaky camera, jagged editing, overloaded sound, misframed subjects, compression artifacts), but that you attribute them to the diegetic equipment and crew rather than to the fully funded, unionised team that really put it together and hid the joins.
Another fear that connects REC to Cloverfield (which was released a few months afterwards) and Diary of the Dead is that of public emergency. If a majority of horror films have tried to give you the fright of being singled out and trapped by a murderous individual (see the Saw and Hostel films for the most starkly personalised killings of the genre’s recent resurgence), then these films play on the terror of escalating panic, of the chaotic stampede, and the ever-present danger of getting finished off and disappeared by the authorities sent to deal with the problem in the first place. The misdirection and obfuscation that characterised the Cloverfield viral marketing campaign was exactly calculated to create a good mock-up of that kind of paranoia and confusion. Unlike Cloverfield, REC does not build in a romantic quest to give structure and familiarity to its messy destruction – REC is not a story so much as a situation. Angela, the reporter who stays on camera for most of the running time, transforms from a keen but slightly jaded young woman (she’d clearly prefer to be covering a major news story instead of asking what firemen have for dinner) into a voracious newsgatherer, constantly exhorting her cameraman to “shoot everything.” Alongside the usual horror film questions about who will die next or what might have caused the outbreak is another narrative about whether or not the film will get made. Will they manage to get the shot and bring about a neatly tied up ending? These are ordinary narrative imperatives dressed up in the vestments of documentary, generic tropes masquerading as found footage.
SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. Don’t read on if you plan to see the film…
Although the film plays out like a standard-issue zombie movie, with a lethal infection gradually thinning out the cast, it reaches a higher pitch of suspense using a night-vision camera for a macabre finale. It turns out that the infection was started by Vatican-sanctioned experiments in curing possession (or has the Vatican mistaken a virulent infection for demonic possession and botched its attempts to stamp it out), and the last room in the apartment block still houses the first patient, a hideously emaciated, flesh-hungry screamer who provides a genuinely unsettling finish. It’s a chilling finale, shifting in a totally new direction, but the de rigeur killing off of the camera crew abruptly segues into an unwelcome Euro-metal closing theme that pisses on the hard-earned tension and pushes you out of the fiction with dismissive swiftness. The body horror of this sequence is achieved not through CGI or camera tricks, but by the wonders of the old-school freakshow tactic of making up actor Javier Borter, who suffers from Marfan Syndrome. The low-rent zombie effects that precede this moment don’t set up the expectation of one final horror, so it’s certainly a frightening sequence that tips the film sideways into Evil Dead territory, even having a voice on a reel-to-reel tape recorder that holds the diaries of an experiment gone horribly wrong. Like all the best spooky tales, it finishes on a flurry of death that provides closure (the mystery is pretty much solved, and there’s nobody left to die) at the same time as it leaves the evil unvanquished, the documentary unfinished. That’s what all these mock-doc horrors all have in common. The film never really gets finished…
Anyway, The Passion of the Crust (oh, I’m still chuckling about that one…) is not what I wanted to write about. I’ve been wading through the Child’s Play movies, a cycle of films that I had never seen before, despite being firmly within the range of their target age-group of clueless teens first time around. For those who’ve never had the pleasure, the five (so far – a remake and franchise reboot is rumoured to be in the early stages of production) Child’s Play films follow the fortunes of Chucky, a doll possessed with the spirit of a dead serial killer who desperately wants to quit the plastic body and find a fleshy one in which to be reborn. His attempts to perform the necessary voodoo ritual are always thwarted; despite his skill at offing the human obstacles to his progress with a variety of household implements, he just can’t seem to get his hands on Andy Barclay, the little boy who first receives the demon doll as a birthday gift.
Let me lay my cards on the table, although I don’t usually like to reduce my judgements to a qualitative assessment: the first three Child’s Play movies are rubbish. Derivative and predictable in their cycles of slashing, stabbing and jumping out of the shadows, tiresome in their dogged, unkillable persistence. Oh, and clunky in their execution, perfunctory in their plotting and scripting. The only point of research interest for me has been to notice the ways in which the films use puppets as figures of fear and recepticles of animist superstition. Chucky is able to get away with murder because he can always slip into “Barbie mode” (a witticism that is only cracked in the much sharper episode 4) and become inert, indistinguishable from an ordinary plastic plaything. Therefore, the films play on the doll’s loaded potential to spring into life at any moment, a simple jack-in-the-box fear generator that is endlessly replayed. In many sequences, Chucky is invested with a sense of life not just by the magic of animatronics that allow his facial features to contort with malice, snapping him out of the smiley congeniality of his factory settings, but by mediating his image through shot selections that are usually reserved for human characters in dialogue. For instance, the back-and-forth of this over-the-shoulder, shot/reverse shot sequence from Child’s Play 3 builds suspense over when Chucky will fulfil his side of the filmic bargain and enter the conversation with the barber who has yet to realise that the doll is alive and preparing to take a razor to his throat.
Cute. But the analogy of film with animistic power, the ability to endow inanimate objects with an impression of life, and the correlative use of puppetry as a shorthand for that power, is an interesting one to me at the moment, not least because it is so frequently invoked in horror films.
Everything changes with the final installments, Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky. Together, these two invigorate the franchise with greater visual invention, a sharper wit and an extreme level of self-reflexivity. Having attained full franchise-royalty status alongside cyclical slasher series such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th, the Chucky movies use their lofty position to look down on their previous efforts, and to try and shift the series to the heritage site of Universal horror. They thus join the ranks of the Scream, Nightmare and Gremlins films as franchises that become so self-referential that they end up chewing on their own tails. This interests me. Can a series of horror films not go for any length of time without getting self-conscious about its own naked repetititivity? Do they always need to turn inwards and act so “knowing”? Either way, the leap in quality from the stolid and ridiculous Child’s Play 3 to Bride of Chucky is quite remarkable. Bride may not reach the giddy heights of reinvention and frenetic genre-thrashing of Gremlins 2, but it fixes a lot of the series’ original problems by acknowledging the daftness of the diminutive doll’s deadly prowess and telling the tale from Chucky’s perspective instead of hiding him in shadows. Plus, the addition of Tiffany, his sweet but lethal partner undercuts Chucky’s primacy and gives him someone his own size to bicker with. Tiffany, in human form (Jennifer Tilly) is the first to turn Chucky’s dollhood against him by locking the little bastard in a cage and treating him like a naughty baby.
There’s a long tradition of horror films offering alternative visions of family relations, whether its the inbred rustic nutcase clan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Satan’s attempts at child-rearing in The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, or the abortive, cobbled-together union of The Bride of Frankenstein, which the fourth Chucky film repeatedly references (hey, you’ll even find clips from Bride of Chucky on the Bride of Frankenstein DVD, just to claim Chucky’s place in the heritage of the Universal monster cycles). With Bride and Seed of Chucky, the formation of a new family comes to the fore, with Tiffany reincarnated in doll form and later, their son (or is it daughter? They can’t figure out which, leading to another movie reference – is he/she to be named Glen or Glenda?) struggling with his sexual identity and descent from a family of serial killers.
This increased focus on family drama (I’m stretching that definition a little perhaps) is matched by the filmic syntax of human drama, giving the puppets close-ups and reverse-shots to align the spectator more thoroughly with their story, instead of hiding them in the shadows as pop-up monsters. It kills the fear, but it heightens the pleasure.
It’s not just the way the film insinuates itself into a nest of external reference points and self-mockery that allows Bride of Chucky to raise its game: the introduction of Ronny Yu (the man behind the delirious, insane and romantic Bride With White Hair films) as director, along with Crouching Tiger’s Peter Pau on cinematography duties adds a bit more verve to the imagery, with faster cutting, canted angles and extremes of blue-hued lighting. This is in stark contrast to the flat and perfunctory style of the earlier films – there can’t be many sequences less effective in horror film history than the protracted battle in a doll factory that drags out the end of Child’s Play 2: the bright uniformity of the strip-lighting throws away the golden opportunities for the hiding places and grotesqueries of the setting, and the leaden set-ups do nothing to make the conflict more dynamic. Ronny Yu at least has some form as an action director, and even if he can’t seem to do anything without hyperbolising the moment, at least it shows someone investing the franchise with some effort, care and attention by appearing to make aesthetic choices as opposed to just the most basically functional narrational ones.
Seed of Chucky is less successful, partly because it takes the self-referencing a little too far, but there is fun to be had. Jennifer Tilly plays herself as a self-absorbed, over-eating has-been (“I’m an Oscar nominee, for Christ’s sake, now I’m fucking a puppet”), appearing in a film about the alleged Chucky murders, allowing for one of those mise-en-abime shots where the camera pulls back to reveal that the scene we were watching is actually taking place on a studio set, giving us a good view of the cables that work the animatronic puppets. There’s a cameo from John Waters, a walking representative of the heritage of trash cinema (and apparently a big Chucky fan), the death of Britney Spears and a scene in which Chucky and Tiffany decapitate their own puppeteer. This latter piece of puppetic rebellion, with the proxy people rebelling against their status as objects on strings is, as I hope my project will eventually demonstrate, a recurrent motif throughout the history of puppetry. That kind of self-reflexivity, the ability to comment on the text from the position of one of its constitutive props, occupying that bordeline place as an animate/inanimate object, not quite in or out of the fictional world, is an embedded property of the puppet. Once Chucky acknowledges his status as a doll (not just a man temporarily trapped in a plastic body), he can come into his own and start performing his true function as the focus of the story and commentator on its construction. But more on that another day. I’m shocked enough that I just wrote a lengthy appreciation of a couple of films I expected nothing from, but maybe I was just pleasantly surprised that they weren’t as god-awful as previous form had led me to expect. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
What am I to make of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003)? It consists mostly of a couple (David and Katia) based in a motel but exploring the surrounding desert in their Hummer. They argue, buy an ice-cream, swim in the pool, have rough sex, fight in the street, kiss and make up, before being attacked in the desert. David is beaten and raped and, clearly more than a little unsettled by the experience, stabs Katia to death in the motel. The last shot is of David’s corpse sprawled in the desert while a traffic cop radios for help, trying in vain to convince headquarters to give a damn.
Dumont claims that the film is an experiment in building tension through a lack of dramatic action, and that the film’s sense of escalating menace is constructed in the spectator’s mind in response to the films longeurs. This is an interesting proposition, implying that we are so conditioned to expect violence to be encountered in the barren landscapes of America(n cinema) that its absence arouses suspicion, but it is rather disingenuous. If the film aims to document the quotidian minutiae of a couple, with all of their bickering, musing and sexual grappling before smashing it all sideways with random acts of unforeseen violence, then that mission is undermined by a series of portents and correspondences that pepper the film. While it is not obviously signposted that David will end up stabbing Katia to death, in retrospect the structured build-up to this conclusion is certainly in evidence.
Katia eventually charges out of the bathroom and leaves the motel room, at which point David grabs her arm to create the illusion that it is he who is throwing her out. When the scene is mirrored at the end of the film, David emerges with murderous purpose, issuing the scream that we have heard him give throughout the film – during sex, while being rammed from behind by an SUV, and finally while slaughtering his girlfriend.
The violent denouement is also foreshadowed by David’s aggression towards Katia throughout the film. Wild, grunting sex is one thing, but we see him hit her several times, and a shot of him creeping up on Katia in the pool is clearly designed to suggest the claim he wants to stake on her body. So, I don’t think I’m being a naive prude when I feel that this is not a picture of an everyday couple going about the typical couply routines, but a deliberate sequence of narrational cues building up a suggestive picture of a man waiting for an external influence to tip him over the edge into bloody madness.
I find his films engrossing and beautifully composed (yes, that’s a cop-out piece of mitigation, thanks), but I find myself instinctively reacting against Dumont’s sensationalism, and his suggestion that I need to see a violent movie in order to demythologise the artifice of the usual movie violence. But he shares with Michael Haneke an interest in everybody’s voyeuristic fascination in depictions of graphic violence. Everybody’s, that is, except for his own. His apparent nihilism is not ours, and his attempts to force spectators to construct their own terror and then torment themselves with it ignores his own role in engineering and administering it. Compare (OK, it maybe an unfair comparison, but indulge me here) this to Christian Mungiu’s masterful generation of terrifying suspense out of bureaucratic procedures in 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (2007), where the threat of discovery looms large but is never fully realised. Which deployment of spectatorial engagement is more productive and revealing: Mungiu’s depiction of how a repressive environment causes people to internalise systems of surveillance and police themselves, or Dumont’s cynical exercise in sex-n’-death button-pushing (with the added implication that you devised and pushed those buttons yourself)?