Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Interview with Jon Towlson, Author of Subversive Horror Cinema

Horror cinema flourishes in times of ideological crisis and national trauma - the Great Depression, the Cold War, Thatcher-era Britain, the Vietnam War, Western society post-9/11; since the dawn of the silver screen, the genre has held a mirror up to society, throwing back a shocking reflection to provoke and perturb huddled masses in darkened rooms; who more often than not, may see nothing but the horror of reality itself staring back at them from the screen. Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, a fascinating, meticulously researched and compellingly written new book by Jon Towlson, argues that a succession of filmmakers working in horror - from James Whale to twisted twins Jen and Sylvia Soska - have used the genre, and the shock value it affords, to challenge the dominant ideologies of these times.

Jon recently took the time to have an in-depth chat with me about his new book, the subversive nature of horror cinema, and its uncanny reflection of society in times of political turmoil, socio-economic strife and civic unrest...

Let's start with the obvious question, Jon: What made you decide to embark on this project? Can you tell me about its genesis? From where did the idea originate and when did you begin working on it?

As a kid growing up in the 1970s I was always into horror, and the whole equation of horror cinema and politics seemed to impinge on me at an early age. I grew up in a town called Grantham, in the East-Midlands, which was the home town of Margaret Thatcher, and my family was English working class, so Thatcherism seemed very close to home, and it was a very political time. You couldn’t get away from it because it affected you so directly: the power cuts in the late 1970s, the Falklands War and the miners’ strikes. I remember coming home from school one evening and the lights going out, this would have been 1979. I was only about ten or eleven; my mum and dad and brother were at work, and I was alone in the house – this new house that we had just moved into – in the dark, scared witless, and waiting for the power to come back on or for someone to come home.

Scene from George Romero's The Crazies (1973)

Argentine soldiers captured at Green Goose during the Falklands War, 1982

Like a lot of fans my age, before internet and even video, my first exposure to horror movies was those late night double bills on BBC2. The film that really made a huge impact on me was The Crazies. It really disturbed me, but there was something about the idea of a society falling apart at the seams that I recognised because of what was going on around me at the time. Grantham didn’t have a cinema back then, so these working men’s clubs in the town would show films in 16mm projected on a pull-down screen in a backroom. I remember seeing The Towering Inferno, Rollerball, The Man with the Golden Gun, for the first time in these clubs. So, for me, cinema-going was directly tied in with working class culture. The first time I saw Dawn of the Dead was in one of these social clubs as a kid of about thirteen. It was a screening laid on for the kids of the workers of an agricultural firm in the town called Aveling-Barford that made dumper trucks and the like. It was a mind-blowing experience. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing because none of us had access to this kind of stuff. This was before home video. I remember my mate turning to me halfway through the tenement scene – when the zombie takes a bite out of the woman’s arm – and saying to me, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

UK Miners Strikes, 1984-5 

The next month the same firm showed Martin because the Dawn of the Dead screening had been such a success! It felt like we were seeing stuff that was normally forbidden. The experience of seeing these films in a hall on a 16mm projector as part of an audience of overexcited, overstimulated teenagers stayed with me. And then, of course, when video came in a couple of years later, all of the unregulated stuff was available briefly, so I got to see all the Nasties before they were banned. But the ones that really made an impact – again – are the ones I cover in the book. Last House On the Left, I saw when I was about fourteen, and it always stayed with me, even though, after the Video Recordings Act I didn’t get to see the film again for twenty years. Texas Chainsaw I first watched around about the same time, on video in a print that had been slightly cut by the distributor for release in the Greater London area. I managed to catch it again occasionally at the Scala in London’s Kings Cross, they’d show a scratchy old 16mm print, before it was eventually granted a certificate by the BBFC. So, just watching these banned films in the 80s and 90s felt like a politically subversive act in itself!

Talking about VHS, just to digress a little, I think a lot of the furore about Video Nasties was tied in with concerns about this new unregulated medium of home video, and not just in terms of the distribution of VHS, but also because, in the 1980s, affordable domestic video cameras came in and non-broadcast video, and people started to use video for citizen journalism. I was involved with a film and video workshop in York in the mid-1980s, and there were feminists there making videos protesting against nuclear weapons being deployed on Greenham Common, and leftwing environmentalists making videos, all part of a grassroots movement using the domestic videotape formats to promote dissenting political viewpoints. I remember the workshop distributing the Miners’ Campaign Tapes, which were shot by citizen journalists on domestic video cameras, which showed the police brutality against the striking miners from the other side of the picket line - stuff that wouldn’t make it to the nine o’clock news because it was too anti-police, anti-government.

UK Miners Strikes, 1984-5

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

So, this new medium of home video back in the 1980s, because it was egalitarian, made the authorities very nervous. Jumping forward a few years: I was teaching film at what is now known as the Arts University College, Bournemouth – quite a prestigious film school – Edgar Wright went there, so did Simon Beaufoy, who wrote The Full Monty. I started to teach a film class in horror and I showed the documentary, The American Nightmare – this was after discovering Robin Wood’s writing on the horror film – and it just blew me away, because it keyed into all of these film-going experiences that I’d had as a teenager in the 1980s. I started thinking about Wood’s Marxist readings of the horror film, and they really made sense to me, again because of my own experiences and background and political inclinations having been involved in the film workshop movement and seen these leftwing groups in action. After 9/11 it seemed like the horror genre had entered a new cycle and that those readings were still relevant.

You go right back to the early days of cinema and work your way through the decades to the present. Was it obvious to you which films to examine from each era? Without wishing to ask the obvious (again!) - why did you chose the films you did?

It’s funny because the book is 246 pages; if you open it exactly half-way at page 123 you’ll find The Crazies, so that film really is at the heart of it, of me wanting to write it. I would call The Crazies the quintessential subversive horror film in the sense of it being anti-authority, shockingly graphic, taboo-breaking, critical of the family and of a patriarchal militaristic society. First off, I knew I wanted to feature the apocalyptic horror films of the 1970s, from Night of the Living Dead to Dawn of the Dead (with Last House, Texas Chainsaw, Hills Have Eyes, Deathdream, Shivers, Blue Sunshine in between). I see this as a developing cycle, the golden age of subversive horror cinema, almost a countercultural movement in itself. Then it became a case of projecting backwards and forwards from there: what would be subversive in the 30s, 40s and 50s? And what would be subversive in the 80s, 90s, and up to this present decade? What’s interesting is that you find the same themes recurring in early horror cinema that are still being explored today. Val Lewton’s films are very anti-patriarchal, so are Pete Walker’s, and The Soskas’ American Mary, all in a similar way – they all talk about how the patriarchy destroys women. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is about mind control across the generations: The Sorcerers picked up the same theme decades later. So I chose the films really to show that you can trace a line through the decades and see that the concerns of the filmmakers who use horror for social criticism – whether it be James Whale in the 30s, Herman Cohen in the 50s, George Romero in the 70s, or Brian Yuzna in the 90s – remain essentially the same because capitalist society hasn’t really changed.

The Crazies (1973)

Deathdream (1972)

Which came first - the films you chose to examine, or the main countercultural events from each era you looked at? 

I tried to look at the dominant ideologies of each decade and how certain films and filmmakers challenged them. In the 1930s, for example, there was the Great Depression, of course, but eugenics was hugely popular and reached a peak of popularity in 1932; there was a huge eugenics conference in New York that year. Scientists were talking about the elimination of the ‘unfit’ through sterilization. One of the exhibits at the conference shows the patients of a New York hospital: these patients – including a Schlitze-like ‘pin head’ - look just like the cast of Freaks, made in the same year. At the same conference, scientists were talking about criminality being genetic and giving speeches about criminals having abnormal brains, just like Dr Waldman does in Frankenstein. We forget how topical these films actually were because a lot of these historical events are not widely known about or talked about; but when you place films like Freaks and Frankenstein or The Crazies (military planes carrying chemical and nuclear weapons actually did crash in the American mainland in the early 1970s) in their full historical context, meaning explodes out of them.

Tod Browning and his cast from Freaks (1932)

What is it about the films you cover in the book that you find so compelling and engaging, and why do you think these types of films provoke such critical analysis and garner the huge cult followings they do?

I think that these films work as allegory, and iconographically they key into their times. They evoke actual events on an image/sound level as well as on a thematic level. The rioting imagery in Night of the Living Dead is a case in point. That, of course, speaks to the racial riots going on in the 1960s, to the mass movement against Vietnam, and it seems topical to the time. The poster of Night of the Living Dead, as I point out in the book, evokes the front pages of news magazines like Time, only instead of showing rioters and looters attacking homes and businesses, it shows zombies. I think audiences, caught up in these historical events at the time, recognised this allegory on a subconscious level and were drawn to these films precisely because they offered an alternative, countercultural or subversive viewpoint that the mainstream media denied them. Nowadays, we are conscious of the subtext of these films and that makes them fascinating to us as a modern audience because they become like alternative history lessons. A film like The Crazies is still as relevant today because the problem of gun worship etc. hasn’t changed, in fact it might have gotten worse. Beyond that, I think we all despair for society sometimes, and these films tend to voice that feeling of despair, that fear that society is collapsing and that we, as individuals, are powerless to stop it.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

What is it about horror that enables filmmakers to engage with countercultural ideas? What do you think horror possesses as a genre that gives it the ability to comment on social issues such as class, race, gender, sexuality and politics in ways that other genres can’t? 

Central to horror is this notion of the monster and the monster’s relationship to normality. In the films I cover in the book, there is sympathy for the monster which is often portrayed as a social outcast. In horror the monster is often a projection of what society casts out as ‘Other’: ie. anyone who poses a threat to the dominant social order by virtue of their class, race, gender, sexuality and political beliefs. The monster therefore becomes a kind of countercultural figure, and the question becomes: who do you side with, normal society or the outcast monster? There’s an inherent tension because – by virtue of being cast out – the monster becomes a degenerate force. Kind of like a terrorist. We can’t condone the actions of a terrorist, but on the other hand we can sympathise, to an extent, with their plight or at least understand it. That’s why the genre is so fascinating in terms of its ability to put forward subversive ideas, because you can really push this sympathy with the monster. One of the key decisions that James Whale made on Frankenstein was to cast Karloff rather than Lugosi as the Monster because he felt Karloff would be more sympathetic to an audience, and sympathy with the monster who represents everything that was cast out and despised in the 1930s – working class unemployed men, homosexuals, even war veterans – was, I think, one of the reasons why the film was so successful: ordinary people during the Depression couldn’t help but identify with the Monster to a certain extent, as well as loathing it.

Frankenstein (1931)

Protesters in London during the Great Depression

Which films/filmmakers have had the greatest impact on you whilst working on this project? 

Of all the films in the book, I find Last House on the Left the most problematic because it’s all about the failure of counterculture. I find the early scenes with the two girls by the waterfall – the symbolic flowering of youth and youthful idealism – incredibly, profoundly moving. But the conclusion of the film – that progressive social change is bound to fail because we are all inherently violent, aggressive and competitive - I find that to be a reactionary message. It’s the same reactionary argument used to repudiate socialism – that socialism is impossible because human beings are naturally competitive, aggressive and violent. Of course, the counter-argument is that violence, competitiveness and aggression are triggered by the conditions of an unjust and oppressive society. Romero probably comes closer to expressing this counter-argument in his films than anyone else; his films talk about the need for co-operative social endeavour, for rejecting state-sanctioned violence, and for learning to co-exist with the part of ourselves that is ‘monstrous’, which is why I would say Dawn of the Dead is still probably the most progressive horror film ever made.

Last House on the Left (1972)

The foreword is by none other than Jeff Lieberman (writer/director of such cult classics as Squirm, Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn) – how did he become involved? 

I had written a piece on Jeff in the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies; Jeff read it and we started corresponding. I always felt that his work hadn’t been discussed much in academic circles, that his contribution to the development of the genre in the 1970s hadn’t been written about much, compared to that of Romero, Hooper, Craven et al, so I wanted to start a discussion about that by writing an article. Later, when I was working on the book I started thinking about who I wanted to write the foreword. The central argument of the book is that the subversive content of these films is put there deliberately by the filmmakers - it’s not simply an unconscious reflection of the times – these films are a direct challenge to the ideologies of their time. I remembered an interview with Jeff at the Monster’s Chat website where he said that he’d been attracted to the genre in the first place because horror is inherently subversive and allowed him to do and say things that he couldn’t do in other genres. So I asked him if he could expand on that in the foreword of my book. I couldn’t have asked for a better validation of my argument, as Jeff’s a real elder statesman of 1970s horror. I remember reading about him in those House of Hammer mags when I was ten years old, and he always seemed such a cool, hip figure, even then. I read the novelisations of Squirm and Blue Sunshine when I was at school.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book? 

Marshalling all the material into a coherent whole! I had ten years of notes and ideas, three or four years of intense research and a lifetime of thoughts on the subject. The first book outline I wrote was too sprawling and unfocused. For example, I originally planned a chapter each for Tod Browning and James Whale, instead of combining them into one chapter as I eventually did. I actually wrote the Browning chapter, and realised it was too rambling. So I had to make some tough decisions in terms of what to include and what to omit in order to give the book the focus it needed and to keep it to a publishable length; hence the Anti-Eugenics, Anti-Vietnam etc. chapter headings. I almost went too far in tightening it up – I was actually going to cut the chapter on Shivers, Blue Sunshine and Dawn of the Dead because it didn’t seem to fit into the new structure, but thankfully I came to my senses – how can you not include those films in a book on subversive horror?

Anti-Vietnam War Protesters, Washington

Still from Blue Sunshine (1978)

And the most rewarding? 

Discovering the films of Val Lewton. I had seen Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie a few years ago but they did nothing for me. I found them boring and incomprehensible! The chapter on Val Lewton wouldn’t be there, in fact, if it wasn’t for the publisher, McFarland. I wasn’t going to include any 1940s films, but they pointed out that if I was taking a decade-by-decade approach, leaving out the 1940s would seem strange. Reluctantly, I agreed to write something on Lewton challenging the homefront propaganda of the war, where women were told “‘keep the home fires burning’ while the men go off to fight, take jobs and become independent, but be prepared to give this independence up and return to being housewives as soon as the men come back from overseas.” I see this expressed in the torn, conflicted women in Lewton’s films and in the male characters who repress their anima – their feminine sides. The more I looked into Lewton the more rewarding it became. When I came to see his films as a body of work I was just blown away by them. Curse of the Cat People has become one of my favourite films of all time. As shocking as it may seem, some critics view horror as a juvenile and unworthy genre of cinema.

Curse of the Cat People (1944)

The Leopard Man (1943)

What is your response to those who dismiss horror cinema as a waste of time? 

In the same way that I came to appreciate Val Lewton, I’ve known people who start out with that position, that horror films are misogynistic rubbish, and then come to change their minds when they realised that there is more going on in the genre than they originally thought. When I was doing an MA in Independent Film in Southampton, I gave my lecturer a copy of Robin Wood’s book Hollywood, from Vietnam to Reagan and a copy of Romero’s Martin. She came back to me and said she had no idea that the genre could be so radical. Later, when I was a lecturer myself, I made my students sit through a season of 1970s horror movies including Last House, Shivers and Dawn. I was starting to think that perhaps this was a cruel thing to do to non-horror fans when one of the students – a young black girl – came to tell me that she had really been turned on to the genre by these films, because she had come to see it as a radical alternative viewpoint. Of course, conservative types will continue to dismiss the genre, and Hollywood will keep trying to neutralise it and de-fang it.

Shivers (1975)

American Mary (2012)

With chapters on more contemporary titles such as Teeth and American Mary, you demonstrate that horror is still presenting subversive ideas to audiences. What do you think of the current state of horror and where do you see it heading in the future? 

Horror seems to come in movements, like the 1931-1936 cycle, the 1970s cycle, the splatstick films in the 1980s/90s. Right now, I think the Larry Fessenden group of filmmakers – Jim Mickle, Ti West, Brad Anderson, Chad Crawford Kinkle, constitute a movement in the States. These guys are very much aware of the radical aspects of the genre and are committed to it. Independent production is growing, thanks to digital technology, so alternative voices are emerging. I think we are going to see more women filmmakers, more ethnic filmmakers going into the genre and bringing a new radicalism to it.

And finally, Jon, what’s next for you? 

It’s looking like the next book will be a Devil’s Advocate monograph on Candyman for Auteur Publishing. I’m really looking forward to going into depth on a single film, looking at its social commentary, on how Bernard Rose adapted Barker’s short story, The Forgotten, and the influence of real-life setting Cabrini Green in Chicago. I remember going to see Candyman when it came out in 1992 and being blown away by it. I love the ambiguity of it, and the way it becomes a study of urban myth as a sociological phenomenon.

Author Jon Towlson
After that, it’s another book for McFarland, this time on 1930s horror cinema. I’m expanding on an article I wrote for Paracinema which argues that the first cycle of horror from 1931-1936 is more akin to apocalyptic horror of the 1970s than it is to the more conservative horror films of the war, even though the 1930s and 1940s films are often lumped together as the ‘classic’ period. Essentially I’m arguing that the horror film from its earliest days is inherently subversive. I’m looking at the way that the genre was formulated in the 1930s before the Production Code came into full effect. I think we forget how shocking the early 1930s horror films were. That scene from Murders in the Rue Morgue, for example, where Lugosi has the prostitute strung up on a cross while he takes samples of her blood - it’s almost an early example of ‘torture porn’, and it’s also strikingly similar, in the way it is staged, to the scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where we have Leatherface carving up a body in the foreground, while Pam is dangling from the meathook behind him. So it’s my contention that you can’t separate horror into political periods historically: you can’t say that the classic period is conservative and modern horror is subversive. I think it is much less clear cut than that. The subversive tradition exists alongside the conservative one and always has.

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present will be published in July 2014 by McFarland & Co, and is now available to pre-order. If you can’t wait that long, worry not, it is available to download for Kindle, no waiting necessary. For a detailed look at what it has to offer, including the delicious foreword by Jeff Lieberman (who, as the writer-director of titles such as Squirm, Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn, knows a thing or two about subversive cinema) check out the preview on Amazon

Visit the author’s blog here, and keep up to date with him on Twitter and Facebook

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Old Graveyard & Church Ruins Outside Clogherhead

Last weekend my parents and I took a drive across the border into County Louth. We drove through the parish of Togher, which lies on the coast betwixt Dundalk and Drogheda, and ended up in the tiny fishing village of Clogherhead, which borders Togher. When driving back from Clogherhead we happened upon the ruins of an abandoned church along a small dirt road. This being Ireland, the countryside is laced with little winding lanes – some said to be haunted, naturally - and trails that date back to famine times, and many boast ruins of churches, abbeys and chapels. Despite trying to find out more information about the place online, research proved fruitless and I’ve been unable to ascertain the name of the church and the graveyard that surrounds it. As such, I’ve also been unable to find out if there are any interesting (i.e. spooky) stories connected to the history of the place, but I did uncover a couple of creepy stories regarding the nearby fishing village of Clogherhead.

Owing to the colour of marine life there, part of the headland has been dubbed Red Man’s Cave. Sometimes it is also known as Dead Man’s Cave… During Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649-50, British soldiers were said to have put to death a number of Catholic priests hiding in the cave on the coast at Clogherhead; the name Red Man’s Cave is said to have derived from the sight of the slain priests’ blood on the walls within the cave. Apparently, until very recent times – the cave is now inaccessible from the land - the inside of it was painted red to commemorate the event.

A much more fantastical tale associated with the area is that of the ghastly Captain Redman. Local lore has it that Redman helmed a small ship to Ireland from Spain. The journey was plagued by ill luck, odd occurrences and, as most of the crew succumbed to a deadly bout of scurvy, death. By the time the ship reached the coast of Ireland, only the Captain and six crew members were left alive. Taking shelter from stormy weather along the coast at Clogherhead, the remaining crew members and Captain Redman came ashore at the cave to seek sanctuary. With no sign of the storms abating, the men were forced to camp at the cave for several nights. It is said that each night, one of the crew died in mysterious circumstances, and eventually, the two remaining men came to the conclusion that Captain Redman must be responsible. They ambushed him and chopped off his head, sticking it on a spike at the mouth of the gaping cave entrance. Legend has it that anyone who ventures to the cave at night, might catch a glimpse of the headless spectre of Captain Redman in search of his head; which has been heard whistling at the mouth of the cave…

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Borderlands

Dir. Elliot Goldner

The Borderlands tells of a small team of Vatican-sanctioned investigators who are charged with proving/disproving an apparently paranormal presence in an isolated church in a remote part of Western England.

While the found-footage horror film has been much maligned of late, Goldner’s offering intelligently amalgamates rational scientific investigation with the hint that something otherworldly is stirring within an ancient church, proving that when it’s done right, this format still has the power to unsettle. The found footage angle is actually convincing given the basis of the plot; Vatican-sanctioned investigators needing to ensure their documentation of events is as stringently methodical as possible so they can prove/disprove events. It makes sense then that the church they're investigating and the cottage they're staying in are fitted with cameras, and each team member wears a head-cam.

Goldner incorporates elements of occult and folk horror into the shivery mix, as it becomes obvious the site the church stands upon was once a place devoted to pagan ritualism. With a shuddery nod to Bram Stoker, and heavily influenced by the atmospheric tales of MR James, and indeed HP Lovecraft, The Borderlands proffers that maybe, just maybe, outside of our realms of perception and comprehension, unknowable things exist and they are intent on wreaking chaos. This notion is underpinned by the various theological conversations between characters, which add further unease, as they ponder the possibility that there is much in our universe that man has yet to comprehend. James’ influence is also present in the rational, academic and reasonable protagonists who obsessively, and always level-headedly, probe into the dark corners of the everyday, seeking unattainable knowledge that can only bring about their demise. The script carefully fleshes out the characters and their evolving dynamics, as agendas and various dark secrets are revealed. The chemistry between the world-weary and initially cynical Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and the Agnostic, eager-to-prove-something Gray (Robin Hill) helps evoke sympathy for them, makes us invest in them; especially when things become very grim. Before long, the psychological strain each man feels as the group delves deeper into the dark, becomes palpable.

Goldner’s approach to revealing the horror is much the same as MR James’ own quiet, suggestive methodology; the foreboding atmosphere of dread is effortlessly sustained until it reaches fever pitch, at which point the director lets rip with the chilling terror. The atmosphere and tension is enhanced by strikingly effective sound design; disembodied scratchings in the church pews by night, something moving behind the ancient walls, the distant sound of a baby crying, lights suddenly shattering... While The Borderlands is peppered with jump scares, they are never cheap, one or two are even of the light-hearted variety to help alleviate the dread. All add to the clutching, all-consuming tension. Of the many stand out scenes, a panicked run through the woods in the dead of night is particularly unnerving. When you add glimpses of a dead priest, things become downright spine-chilling. The isolated location also enhances the disquieting mood, and the ancient church in which the creepy occurrences unfold, is fittingly eerie; particularly at night. It’s gradually revealed that the history of the church is connected to creepy local traditions, folklore and ancient legends. While certain moments threaten cliché – the investigators stopping to ask for directions, only to be met with hostility by suspicious locals – Goldner maintains his course along a path less trodden. When the tight knit community closes ranks, it’s more to do with them feeling exploited, than hinting at their possibly sinister intentions.

The Borderlands is genuinely terrifying. Its slow-burn, modern vs. ancient approach becomes unbearable as events jolt towards a particularly macabre and daring climax, which taps into some very dark primal fears indeed. Don’t spoil it for yourself, go into this one cold. And preferably alone, in the dark…

Sunday, 6 April 2014

When There's No More Room In Hell...

...The Dead Will Deafen You!

Last night saw Belfast’s Waterfront Hall play host to a special screening of George A. Romero’s satirical zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead. The screening was part of the Belfast Film Festival and featured a live score performed by none other than Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin.

Dawn of the Dead tells of a group of people caught up in an ever-increasing pandemic of the dead returning to life and devouring the living. Seeking refuge in a shopping mall, they attempt to fortify the place while they await rescue. Events take a turn for the worse however, when their sanctuary is pillaged by malevolent humans and the group soon realise they have more to worry about then the marauding zombies outside…

Describing the experience of seeing Claudio Simonetti and his band perform the score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria live last year as 'sensory overload', doesn’t do it justice. Nothing can prepare you for the experience of hearing the band perform live, and their rendition of the score for Dawn of the Dead, while not quite as intense as Suspiria, was all kinds of bombastic. Doomful, moody and unsettling, it utilises gloomy synth cords, heavy bass and a relentless, trudging beat to enhance the atmosphere of increasing hopelessness, despite the overtly satirical script. Veering between moments of kitsch Seventies electronica and stately, sombre darkness, this score is perhaps one of the band's most underrated. At times the music drowned out some of the dialogue, and there were a few issues with the volume of the film’s soundtrack itself, but the band could not be faulted. With the volume cranked up to 11, the very foundations of the hall shook. No spine was left un-tingled, no ear left un-split. After the film screening they performed a selection of greatest hits (including the main themes from Phenomena, Suspiria, Tenebrae and Deep Red) to rapturous appreciation. It’s testament to the sonic-visions of Simonetti and co that these themes still sound as strong and evocative when ostracised from the films they feature in.

Famed for their collaborations with Italian horror director Dario Argento, Goblin started out as prog-rock outfit Cherry Five, headed by Claudio Simonetti and Massimo Morante. Heavily influenced by Pink Floyd, King Crimson and early Genesis, the band was invited to score Argento’s giallo classic Deep Red, as the director wanted a score to reflect the progressive nature of the film. Changing their name to Goblin the musicians created what is arguably one of the most atmospheric and influential scores in horror cinema. When it was released, Deep Red, and indeed its soundtrack, was a huge hit both in Italy and abroad, and horror movie history was made. Unfortunately, despite their success, the band was rife with personal strife and the line up was perpetually changing. The original members consisted of Claudio Simonetti (keyboards), Massimo Morante (guitars), Fabio Pignatelli (bass guitar) and Walter Martino (drums). Throughout the years however, members came and went, but what was left of the band continued to work mainly on soundtracks. There was a partial reunification for Argento’s Phenomena and Tenebrae, though the musicians were credited separately, and not as Goblin. The sound they produced of course was Goblin through and through in everything but name. Their last collaboration took place in 2000 when the original members reformed to score Argento’s contemporary giallo, Sleepless.

Since the original split, Simonetti has formed other bands inspired by the original Goblin: Daemonia, BacktotheGoblin, Goblin Rebirth and New Goblin, all featuring original members of the band in one combination or another. Now, with two members of New Goblin, Titta Tani (drums) and Bruno Previtali (guitar), and Daemonia member, Federico Amorosi (bass), the newly formed Simonetti's Goblin have been on the road, deafening audiences with their live film scores. If you get a chance to go see them, it is recommended that you do. Thanks to the Belfast Film Festival, I’ve been lucky enough to see them twice (in six months!), both times in appropriate venues with large, appreciative audiences; and while their performance of Suspiria was by far the more intense experience, both concerts were unforgettable.

These photos aren’t great, but hopefully they provide a little context...

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Tingler

Dir. William Castle

Esteemed pathologist Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price!) discovers that the tingling sensation experienced in the human spine during states of extreme fear is caused by the growth of a creepy parasite that every human plays host to. During particularly lengthy moments of terror, the creature, which he dubs the "Tingler", can grow to such size and strength it can kill its host, and the only way to weaken the creature is by screaming. During the autopsy of a mute woman, whose death-by-fright came about because of her inability to scream, a Tingler escapes and wrecks havoc in a nearby cinema. Cue Dr. Warren urging the audience to scream for its life…

While The Tingler is essentially a camp B-horror, nestling amongst the trite dialogue and wooden acting are some interesting ideas which would later be explored in grisly detail in what would come to be known as the sub-genre of 'Body Horror.' Central to the plot is the notion that our bodies play host to a parasite, which feeds on fear. When the host is frightened, the parasite grows and makes the spine of the host ‘tingle.’ There is a creepy effectiveness in the scene in which Dr Chapin shows his assistant various x-rays depicting an engorged parasite latched onto a spinal cord. For all the guffaws and derisive sniggers it elicits, The Tingler also demonstrates a knack for sly reflexivity throughout, with the on-screen audience (and the actual audience) being prompted to scream for their lives, and snippets of dialogue pertaining to the cathartic release offered by the experience of being frightened. Scary horror films provide a release from the daily stresses of reality, they create the same ‘safe fear’ as rollercoaster rides or ghost trains – somewhere for people to experience extreme emotions and remain unscathed. Of course, none of these ideas are explored in any sort of depth, but they still offer food for thought in what is otherwise a fun and fickle little creeper of a film. The Tingler climaxes in a cinema, with an unsuspecting audience being terrified by the creature as it scuttles amidst the aisles, breaches the projection booth, and scurries across the film – and eventually our screen – which cuts to black while the inimitable voice of Vincent Price booms from the darkness, beseeching us to scream.

Director/producer William Castle is of course infamous for the various gimmicks he devised to promote his films. Screenings of The House on Haunted Hill for instance, treated audiences to 'Emergo' – skeletons dangling on wires over the heads of the audience during key moments of the film. Spooky! For The Tingler, Castle had electronic devices installed underneath random seats in the theatre which were activated during specific moments of the film and vibrated, tingling the spines of the audience. This was called 'Percepto.' I watched The Tingler at Belfast Film Festival’s Beanbag Cinema, and while the beanbags weren’t rigged with Percepto devices, there was a specially designed soundtrack which played during certain moments of tension, throbbing out of huge speakers on the floor and building so intensely it could be felt vibrating up from the floor and along the spine. This was particularly effective during the prolonged scene where Martha, the unfortunate deaf-mute lady, is scared to death by spooky occurrences in her home – including having an axe flung at her by a disembodied arm, finding her bath overflowing with bright red blood (another gimmick-tastic moment), and discovering a cleaver-wielding living-corpse in her bed.

The Tingler is a cult classic for admirers of Vincent Price – whose scenes with Patricia Cutts, as icy adulteress Mrs Chapin, are tinged with gleesome vitriol - and fans of director William Castle’s campy oeuvre.

"Ladies and gentlemen, just a word of warning. If any of you are not convinced that you have a tingler of your own, the next time you are frightened in the dark... don't scream..."