Thursday, 28 August 2014

Happy 200th Birthday Sheridan Le Fanu

'The Father of the English Ghost Story', Dublin-born Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, is best known to admirers of Gothic fiction as the influential author of such chilling tales as Uncle Silas, The House by the Churchyard, The Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, and, perhaps most famously, the short story collection In A Glass Darkly, which contains Green Tea, The Room in the Dragon Volant, The Familiar, and, of course, Carmilla.

Carmilla (1872) was groundbreaking for its time, not least because of its deeply Sapphic subtext. Taking his cue from John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), Le Fanu’s darkly sensual tale, detailing the delicate yet increasingly sinister courtship of a young woman by a lesbian vampire, further entwined the figure of the vampire with notions of forbidden sexuality. Le Fanu was deeply influenced by the historical figure of Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian countess who reputedly bathed in the blood of young virgin girls to retain her youthful complexion. This influence is most evident in Carmilla in the chapter where the titular character is discovered asleep in her coffin, submerged in blood…

“The features, though a hundred and fifty years had passed since her funeral, were tinted with the warmth of life. Her eyes were open; no cadaverous smell exhaled from the coffin. The two medical men […] attested the marvellous fact, that there was a faint but appreciable respiration, and a corresponding action of the heart. The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed. Here then, were all the admitted signs and proofs of vampirism.”

While predatory, Carmilla is also a strangely tragic character. The narrative retains a dreamy atmosphere, heavy with a rich, sensual undertone, as characters begin to recognise one another from long-ago childhood dreams, later revealed to be suppressed memories and half-remembered, moonlit encounters. Le Fanu's prose, while elegant and poetic, evokes an unsettling atmosphere of dread. The central relationship in Carmilla - between vampire and victim – would trickle into Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as evidenced in the character of Lucy Westenra (Dracula’s first victim when he arrives in England) and the Count’s brides who ‘court’ their victims. Their ambiguous sexuality echoes that of Le Fanu’s titular vampire, and it’s no coincidence that once these female victims become vampires; they also become self-aware and sexually confident, unveiling repressed desires and becoming lustful, hideously grinning she-demons. Their deaths are particularly brutal as they are essentially being punished for their sexual knowledge and the violation of their restrictive role in Victorian society.

Carmilla has been loosely adapted for film several times throughout the years, the most notable titles being Dracula’s Daughter (complete with the tagline ‘She gives you that weird feeling’), Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil), and Daughters of Darkness.

Carmilla by David Henry Friston

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Google Doodle celebrating Le Fanu's 200th Birthday

When staying in Dublin earlier this year, I visited Mount Jerome Cemetery where Le Fanu, sometimes referred to as 'The Invisible Prince' because of his reclusive tendencies, is buried alongside his wife, and her father and brothers. The grave is marked by a simple stone slab, the inscription on which has become so eroded by the passage of time that it is, sadly, no longer readable. You can view what remains of it here.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Doc of the Dead

2014
Dir. Alexandre O. Philippe

Depending on your opinion, Danny Boyle either has a lot to answer for, or has not been given nearly enough credit for the popularity of zombie themed entertainment throughout the last decade. 28 Days Later arguably kick-started the current interest in zombie movies, and while it isn’t strictly speaking a 'zombie' film, Boyle took a fairly typical zombie movie template and fashioned a dark and breathlessly taut film which poked at the same slagheap of ideas and themes (infection, social collapse, global catastrophe) as George Romero’s earlier flesh-ripping classics. Shaun of the Dead quickly followed, and its success convinced studio honchos that zombies were hot again. This prompted them to, for once, throw money at George Romero, who is largely responsible for the overriding popular perception of zombies today anyway, to help him make Land of the Dead, a belated follow-up to his ‘Dead trilogy’.

In the few years since then, zombies have spread virus-like into cinemas, onto DVDs, into computer games, comic books, graphic novels, the small screen, and live action role-playing games, with increasingly recognisable imagery and traits.

Alexandre O. Philippe’s latest documentary attempts to explore why contemporary society has so embraced the figure of the zombie, ensuring it an increasingly prominent place in popular culture.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

WolfCop

2014
Dir. Lowell Dean

When small town, alcoholic cop Lou Garrou is cursed by a mysterious cult beneath a full moon, he transforms into a werewolf. Director Lowell Dean subsequently has a lot of fun with traditional werewolf film conventions while creating some interesting and original lore of his own.

An energetic and highly entertaining romp, Dean's sophomore offering features a surprising amount of character development and back-story behind all the B-movie bravado and, in case you were in any doubt, WolfCop is as much fun as it sounds. And then some.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Couching at the Door

by D.K. Broster
(1942)

Liverpool-born Dorothy Kathleen Broster (1877-1950) is perhaps best known for her ‘Jacobite Trilogy’ of historical novels, The Flight of the Heron (1925), The Gleam in the North (1927) and The Dark Mile (1929). Much like Ediths Wharton and Nesbit though (more famous for works such as The Age of Innocence [1920] and The Railway Children [1905], respectively), Broster also turned her hand to writing fiction of a much darker nature, producing the bizarre collection of tales gathered together in Couching at the Door. Obscure, atmospheric, elegantly penned and seriously odd, this batch of little chillers ranges from ghost stories boasting undeniably supernatural intrusions upon vulnerable characters, to subtle, Shirley Jackson-esque studies of obsession and fraying mindsets.

Suffusing her stories with the everyday and the mundane makes them all the more effective, and at times Broster approaches what can only be described as ‘kitchen-sink Gothic.’ Her protagonists are usually artists, or spinsters with an appreciation for fine art. Time and again she reveals her characters to have fallen on hard times, whether this be financially or through ill health. This renders them more vulnerable to experiencing the supernatural, or, as the case is certainly hinted at more than once, to believe they are experiencing something supernatural because of the psychological strain they are under. Sometimes the horror is so suggestive and grounded in the psychologies of Broster’s protagonists, it eludes classification, or indeed, explanation.

One of the weirder tales is the title story, which concerns Augustine Marchant, a writer of decadent and macabre literature which calls to mind works by M. P. Shiel and Arthur Machen, who is plagued by a black-furred serpent after he dabbles in mysterious and debauched activities in a house in Prague. The title is derived from an obscure passage in Genesis within which Marchant believes he has found an answer to his plight… “And if thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin coucheth (lies, waits, crouches) at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” When Marchant discovers how he can be free of this pest, he loses any sympathy the reader may have had for him… The sheer oddness of this story is enhanced by moments of flesh-crawling creepiness: “Wide awake in an instant, with an unspeakable anguish of premonition tearing through him, he felt, next moment, a light thud on the coverlet about the level of his knees. Something had arrived on the bed…”

The tales feature little to no violence, but when things do turn bloody, as they do in Clairvoyance, they are all the more effective because of Broster’s subtle approach. Clairvoyance tells of several well-to-do friends who gather for a séance tea-party one sunny afternoon. When a particularly sensitive member of the party becomes possessed by a former occupant of the house, the presence of an antique samurai sword in the drawing room where the séance is taking place, should leave you in no doubt as to the bloody fate of all involved… The Window, which is at times similarly gruesome, tells of a soldier who breaks into the long abandoned home of a woman he is obsessed with, in order to paint the view from the window. He becomes trapped and witnesses spectral bloodshed when the upper sash of the large window drops down on his arms. Broster works themes of destiny and sinister genealogical elements into the mix, with haunting results.

The Taste of Pomegranates is a highly unusual reworking of the myth of Persephone, featuring ‘growling, bloody-muzzled monsters’ that could be bears or troglodytes, menacing two archaeology-obsessed sisters trapped in a secluded cave. Here Broster taps into primitive fears such as the dark, or of being eaten alive, to weave a taut tale, moments of which evoke memories of The Descent, with their claustrophobic tension and subterranean terrors menacing untypical female characters.

Obsession is the main theme of The Promised Land and The Pavement – which has vague shades of the work of Arthur Machen, with its telling of an exhumed Roman villa, complete with highly curious mosaics depicting bucolic scenes and haunted maidens, and the effect they have on the elderly woman whose property they're discovered upon. The Promised Land, with its pitiful protagonist who is harassed into insanity and murder by an overbearing cousin while holidaying in Italy, recalls the obsessive and repressed female characters that walk (alone) throughout the chilling tales of Shirley Jackson. The denouement of this story is downright shocking in its simplicity.

Guilt and obsession also fuel the haunting in Juggernaut, a story that also demonstrates Broster's ability to have a little fun. The protagonist is a kindly, elderly spinster who writes macabre fiction under a pseudonym “fearing that if the vicar or some member of the Mother’s Union came upon her real name displayed upon the cover of 'The Murder Swamp', he or she might be scandalised.” Humour is also derived from her perpetual despair at the incompetency of her editor, who keeps making errors in the serialisation of her latest chiller, The Death Stairs – “the scoundrel has turned ‘the dreadful bond which linked them’ into ‘the dreadful bone which licked them.’” She may be mild-mannered, but her love of the morbid and her "chronicling of deeds of terror had never affected her appetite, nor did the ‘Things’ which in her stories walked behind her heroes on lonely moors, or waited, gorilla-like, to strangle her heroines in underground passages, ever sit beside her bed or deprive her of a single night’s rest.” She’s a strong-willed and practical character, whose encounter with a seaside haunting (which calls to mind the work of MR James) is rendered all the more creepy because of her refusal to believe it is caused by anything other than guilt and obsession. Which it might be; Broster once again wraps things up with a healthy dose of ambiguity. The way she hints at the contents of the bath-chair is highly engrossing and quietly chilling. While the ending is clearly signposted, it is no less shocking because of Broster’s matter of fact and blunt execution.

One of the most peculiar and gripping stories is The Abyss. Here, Broster really mines lore and then-popular reports of doppelgangers, to eerie effect. The dark and light aspects of a single personality appear to be separated and take physical form after a horrific car crash. One of the passengers, Daphne, is “miraculously thrown clear” as the car plunges over a ravine. So where is she? When a young woman shows up claiming to be Daphne, why are there still reported sightings of her wandering along lonely roads? Is this a ghost? By suggesting that the self is not always housed within the body or the mind, and that it can sometimes detach itself and wander off as another being or entity, Broster explores some rather haunting notions and conjures truly creepy imagery; the two women waiting on the road by the mountain ravine, for example. Is something diabolical at play? Have the minds of the characters been shattered by grief? Broster offers no comfort.

For those who like their horror ambiguous and without satisfactory resolve, this collection of short stories will really be of interest.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Funny Games

1997/2007
Dir. Michael Haneke

A middle class family are taken hostage in their holiday home by two young men who force them to play sadistic games for their own amusement.

Throughout Funny Games, director Michael Haneke strives to reawaken and stimulate audiences who have become accustomed to stylised cinematic violence and graphic imagery. The film not only assumes the form of a devastatingly cruel home-invasion narrative, but a scathing and darkly humorous critique on violence in modern cinema. Haneke explores, in typically cold and unrelenting fashion, contemporary audiences’ craving for violence and sadistic imagery, and the role we play when watching such films, forcing us think about how we interact with screen violence. It’s an isolating yet utterly involving film.

Working as a reflexive commentary on audience expectations and violence in cinema, and an exercise in unrelenting suspense, it exhibits an acute self awareness as it keenly subverts conventional notions of film-viewing. The constant interruption of the narrative – the antagonists frequently address the audience directly - ensures that we are always aware of our role as spectators and are forced to acknowledge and ponder our desire for violence. We’re frequently jerked out of the reality of the film to ponder, as objective observers, what is unfolding on screen. Given the plight of the family at the heart of this gruesome tale though, and how we inevitably side with them, remaining objective isn’t easy. We become accomplices to these brutal crimes and are reminded that the reason the young men are torturing the family is for our entertainment. During one instance we are even asked if we have ‘had enough?’

Funny Games 1997

Funny Games 2007

Relentless in its vision of brutality, the film questions the sensibility and motive of an audience who would pay to sit through such a display of human brutality and debasement. The two captors have a seemingly altruistic urge to provide the audience with everything we have come to expect from such a film - violence - as they directly address us as active spectators throughout. This implicates and renders us complicit in the crimes depicted in the film simply because we are watching it. As sophisticated as contemporary audiences believe themselves to be, it would be easy for us to predict how this particular grisly tale will play out; we’ve become so accustomed to watching violence on screen and have even become part of the very machinery that victimises the characters that populate horror films. It is as though we were helping to orchestrate their suffering instead of just anticipating it.

Through the ‘games’ the two men subject the family to in order to ‘entertain’ the audience, Haneke sets about awakening us to the senselessness of the increasing blood-lust that audiences display. He builds tension carefully and then completely obliterates it. Everything is filmed in long, static shots that not only serve to heighten the tension, but to create a clinical detachment. By seemingly giving us what we want, he just as suddenly takes it away – highlighted in one particularly manipulative scene involving a TV and a remote control... Interestingly, some of the aspects of reflexivity evident in Funny Games not only serve to remind us of our role as detached spectators, but also act as a tool with which to actively involve us in events, making it increasingly harder to remain objective. We are reminded that the plot is structured around the intention to entertain us and that the violence inflicted upon the family in the film is therefore our fault and carried out in our name.

Funny Games 1997

Funny Games 2007

Haneke acknowledges that voyeurism is an integral aspect of watching a film, but he then undercuts what he is acknowledging by not actually showing any acts of violence. Everything is left to the imagination of the audience, again forcing us to remain active within the events depicted in the film. Consistently subverting the conventions of the genre, Haneke provides no comforting answers. This is not a film where the villains’ backgrounds become a factor. Indeed, we learn nothing about them; not even their real names. They sometimes call each other Tom and Jerry - acceptable icons of violence - and when asked why they are humiliating and abusing the family, one of them offers various reasons which could have been plucked from any other psycho-thriller flick or media headline - ‘Is this virtual Neo-Nazi the sad product of divorce? An impoverished drug addict, perhaps?’ Haneke, a former student of psychology and philosophy at the university of Vienna, likens the villains’ behaviour and methods to those of a horror film director. ‘Why don’t you just kill us right away?’ the bruised and tear-stained woman asks her tormentors. ‘Don’t forget the entertainment value’ is the cold response. Audiences today have built up an overwhelming level of tolerance for screen violence. This was one of Haneke’s prime reasons for producing the film, and indeed directing its US shot for shot remake which lost none of its intensity or intentions in the process.

Funny Games 1997

Funny Games 2007

Haneke’s film simultaneously makes us aware of our role as a film audience, whilst forcing us to analyse why we watch violent films and what that may mean. However it also, rather contrarily, forces us to accept responsibility and provocatively points a finger at our desire to watch violent imagery and the part we play in its production. This results in a highly stimulating piece of cinema that is, while thought provoking and engaging, also extraordinarily challenging, accusatory, and daunting. Funny Games gives us space to contemplate our immunity to cinematic violence and degradation, and to perhaps reflect further what this bloodlust reveals about ourselves and the society in which we live.

The Silence of Spiders

Now that I’ve reached the upload limit on my photography blog, Camera Obscure, from time to time I’ll be posting some of my photos here, beginning with these…

I crawled out, batting spiders into the shadows. I could hear a thud as they hit the floor joists, then a scuttling sound, then, worst of all, the silence of spiders. Bailey White

The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show when you are there.