Blackmail, murder, brutality, manipulation: Otto Preminger’s noir world view is at its darkest and most compelling in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and Whirlpool (1949).
Blackmail, murder, brutality, manipulation: Otto Preminger’s noir world view is at its darkest and most compelling in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and Whirlpool (1949).
A contemporary director who continually engages with figures on the margins of society and the gaps and pauses that form the backbone of ordinary life, Jim Jarmusch is regularly cited as the most influential American independent filmmaker since John Cassavetes. Infused with a cinematic sensibility that stretches way beyond US borders, Jarmusch’s cine-literate films can be further characterised by their minimalist aesthetic, their relative disinterest in genre, their economy of narrative, character and dialogue, and their continuing curiosity with colliding cultures and communication issues. Resisting studio benefaction to work entirely without compromise (the Weinstein-funded Dead Man proved an unhappy alliance), Jarmusch scored his biggest commercial success with 2005’s idiosyncratic Broken Flowers.
Aggrieved by suggestions that working with a starry cast was a conscious attempt to broaden his audience, the director, whose work has always been actor-led, has extended his repertory acting company with his newest feature, the enigmatic The Limits of Control. Set largely in the striking and varied landscapes of contemporary Spain (both urban and otherwise), the film has been described by Jarmusch as his attempt to remake John Boorman’s Point Blank via Jacques Rivette and Michelangelo Antonioni. Reaction has thus far been lukewarm, with a cacophony of hostile notices chastising Jarmusch for veering into wilful obscurity and, gasp, outright pretension. Variety‘s Todd McCarthy described the film as ‘a self-indulgence’ that ‘approaches self-parody’; patience-testing and vacuous was his final summation.
Marshalling actors including Isaach De Bankolé (in their fourth collaboration), Bill Murray (their third), Tilda Swinton and John Hurt (their second), Gael García Bernal, and Luis Tosar, Jarmusch certainly seems to have kicked against the perceived conventionality of Broken Embraces, making an elliptical and deliberately awkward hit-man ‘thriller’ that is as extreme an art film as you are likely to see all year. Retaining a trademark and playful interest in coffee and cigarettes, it begins with a quote from Rimbaud that gestures towards a derangement of the senses, and that is precisely what The Limits of Control proceeds to offer as it follows a mysterious loner (De Bankolé) whose activities remain meticulously outside the law. The sharply suited man is in the process of completing a job, yet trusts no one, and his objectives are not initially divulged. His journey, paradoxically both focused and dreamlike, takes him not only across Spain but also through various states of perception.
Beginning as a 25-page story that was expanded as the shoot progressed, The Limits of Control certainly requires a leap of faith and a degree of patience on the part of its audience, but it is undeserving of the vitriol that has been thrown at it. Beautifully shot by Christopher Doyle, it is an audacious and intuitive work that slowly worms its way into the viewer’s consciousness as repeated codes and meanings slowly reveal themselves. As with any off-road journey, the film takes a few wrong turns and the motif of Paz de la Huerta appearing in various states of undress, though explained within the narrative (her character is credited as ‘The Nude’), feels lurid and unnecessary. Perhaps best approached and enjoyed as an interesting excursion, Jarmusch’s twelfth feature as director suggests a continued desire to defy expectation and grapple with the possibilities of the medium. In an era of rampant complacency, he’s to be admired for refusing to abandon his principles.
The slightest re-ordering of synaptic sequences and a sane man becomes psychotic; the slightest re-ordering of alphabetical sequences and Santa becomes Satan. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? How about severed fingers? Stockings hung by a chimney with care? How about teens hanged with stockings by a chimney with care? A jolly fat man with six tiny reindeer? How about a depraved, homicidal psychopath dressed in red and white? Prefer the latter in every case? Then welcome to the obverse side of the cinematic Christmas coin. Welcome to festive dystopia - a time of chaos on earth and ill-will to all men, where the fraught Christmas film becomes the fright Christmas film.
The first and for various reasons the most influential of the slasher sub-genre of Christmas films (if genre they be) is the 1974 film Black Christmas, directed by Bob Clark and written by Roy Moore. Black Christmas set the parameters for almost all future slasher films: the slasher in contradistinction to the murderer, the ‘final girl’ scenario, the sorority house setting, the stalker/slasher point of view shots, the not-so-smart cops and adults, the ‘Is anybody there?’ motif, the ‘should have left the house but had to have one more look’ motif, and even the ‘leave narrative room for a possible sequel’ strategy. Clark and Moore can also lay claim for establishing the Christmas (or holiday/special day) variant of the slasher film, entailing as it does the additional elements of transgressive seasonal activity and dystopian, even oppositional, frames of mind that render traditional Christmas certainties impossible to maintain. Black Christmas remains, if not the best, certainly the most influential of slashers and opened up the market for more of the same - including an inevitable remake in 2006.
With the successful reception of Black Christmas (it made back six times its budget) and the cinematic Christmas slasher stencil established, other filmmakers turned their attention to the Christmas theme. Coming at the tail end of the psycho-Santa peak period, Charles E Sellier’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) was released at a time when alarm was being raised about the so-called ‘video nasties’, and debate raged about the sacrilegious nature of the film and the effects that film depictions of a psycho-Santa might have on children. In Sellier’s variation on the theme, a boy witnesses his parents’ death at the hands of a Santa-garbed thug and then grows up to become a Santa-garbed maniacal killer himself. Due to the controversy around the film, it acquired a small following and four sequels were made, each one decreasingly rewarding. With the last instalment, the poorly rated Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991), director Martin Kitrosser condemned the whole Christmas slasher film cycle to the dustbin and by extension, forced our poor psycho-Santa into near-retirement.
James B Evans
This is an excerpt from James B Evans’s ‘Psycho Santa, qu’est-ce que c’est: The Christmas Slasher Film’, published in the winter 08 issue of Electric Sheep. It is available from Wallflower Press.
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New Year’s night, the last weird hours of a house party, I walk in on two friends staring at a window. From downstairs there is the pulse of unrecognised music, muffled by plaster and carpet. Up here, it is quiet and almost morning but still dark outside and the yellowish light in the room reflects back at us in the black glass. ‘Man,’ says one. ‘Man… your curtain. It’s made of tanned human skin.’ The noise from downstairs surges as a door opens. The two friends rear upward, in unison, transfixed by some synthesis of sound and vision. The next day they will tell me that that was when the moon exploded. One of them will shake his head, almost affectionate. ‘I swear I could see old Leatherface.’
It seems that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is embedded in our subconscious, lurking in the synapses and still causing redneck death trips in suburban English bedrooms. Perhaps for this reason, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 psychedelic horror withstands reissues, reappraisals and deluxe treatments without losing its bite, even if - as it is released on Blu-ray with three hours of extras - we might question the necessity of yet another attempt to polish this exhilaratingly lo-fi vison. However, there is one area in which the remastering process has done more good than harm: in bringing to the fore Tobe Hooper and sound recordist Wayne Bell’s stunning soundtrack.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was scored with the same mix of pragmatism, rawness and experimental sensibility that imbues its cinematography, editing, and particularly art direction. Its haunting qualities are much admired, but little has been written about its formal construction aside from anecdotes about some of the junkyard/household items used as sound sources. This instrumentation is cited as yet another example of Hooper’s DIY attitude; in fact, it also demonstrates an understanding of 20th-century avant-garde music, with which the director was apparently familiar. The sound design might have been done on the cheap, but the clever interweaving of diegetic and non-diegetic sound in the film, which reaches its apex as the whirr of the title’s notorious power toool melds with the ominous low-pass filter of an analogue synthesiser but in fact occurs throughout, results in a sonic experience that is all the more noteworthy for the inexperience of its composers.
Hooper and Bell weren’t the first sound designers to use electronic music to illustrate fear, but their use of real sounds alongside electronic textures creates masterful shifts in perspective that illustrate, for me, the disorientation of being trapped in the ultimate nightmare. These are not the glacial synth melodies or demonic disco pulses of giallo soundtracks, nor terrifying sounds from outer space; this is everyday sound turned bad. In the opening credits, a lone cymbal (which sounds wonderfully cheap, like a dustbin lid), a scraped tuning fork and some heavy reverb set the scene; a growling oscillator announces the first murder; but we first encounter a full sonic attack when Pam - soon to meet her fate in the deep freezer - enters a room festering with chicken feathers, bone totems and a caged, chattering hen. Skeletal percussion and metallic tones clatter and jangle at increasing volume as outside an electricity generator whirrs and tin cans swing from a tree. We hear both ritual music of a particularly sinister intent, and the eerie presence of machinery gone diabolical. Pam is trapped in a place of death whose spells are both ancient and modern, and we can hear as well as see that she is not going to escape.
While other horror movies use harsh sonic textures sparingly, for dramatic effect alongside melody, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s soundtrack is unusually, relentlessly atonal. There are some expected cues: extreme shock is often signalled by high-end, painful electronic sounds. In other places, though, the composition is subtler, as in the grotesque dinner scene, in which Leatherface and his grim family bicker and gibber as they terrorise their victim, Sally. The scene is awkwardly choreographed, frenetic and almost slapstick, but a low, droning hum and white noise, layered with echoing, modulated percussion, convey a slow, dreamlike and horrendous aspect that is close to nauseating.
While roughly within the context of electronic composition of the mid-20th century, Hooper’s hands-on, DIY approach results in a wonderfully punk take on concrete music that would be echoed, many years later, in the visceral, atmospheric and very likely horror-influenced records of bands such as Michigan noiseniks Wolf Eyes. Most of all, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s feral electronics are a perfect match for the film’s deeper message - that, as Suicide were to opine a few years later over their own rough-edged synth sequences, ‘America, America is killing its youth’.
The 70s Japanese series Lone Wolf and Cub, based on a popular comic by Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, builds on the tradition of 20 years of samurai films. While it is one of the most violent examples of the genre, the staccato brutality suits the plot and is juxtaposed with elegiac scenes of travel through desolate landscapes. The overall story is quite simple, although individual episodes may leave the casual viewer wondering about characters’ motives and allegiances. The six instalments follow the travels of disgraced samurai Ogami Ittō and his three-year-old son Daigorō, who he pushes around 17th-century Japan in a cart, looking for work as a killer for hire while battling members of the Yagyū clan. The first instalment, Sword of Vengeance (Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru), tells the tale of how Ittō goes on the run when members of a splinter faction of the clan murder his wife and household and frame him for treason in order to install one of their own as the Shogun’s executioner, a revered position in the social hierarchy. The rest of the first film and subsequent episodes have Ogami and ocassionally Daigorō dispatch various members of the Yagyū clan and perform work for hire from town to town.
Unlike the manga, the films don’t have a definitive conclusion as the comic was still being serialised while the films were produced, with the final episode printed in Weekly Manga Action in April 1976. However, the films do increase in violence as they go along, with the final film White Heaven in Hell (Jigoku e ikuzo! Daigorō) depicting a battle between Ogami Ittō and 150 assailants, the largest body count caused by a single individual committed to screen in one scene (although the Rambo franchise boasts more over its entire length).
The legacy of the Lone Wolf series has influenced work in various media in a number of ways. The violence alone was parodied in a memorable scene in The Addams Family (1991) where Wednesday and Pugsley hack each others’ limbs off in a school play, spraying the audience with blood. The American remix of the first two films - Shogun Assassin - was withdrawn from distribution in the UK for 15 years following the backlash against ‘video nasties’ in the early 1980s. It is interesting to see how adaptations of comics in Western cinema are now approaching the level of violence depicted in their Japanese counterparts 30 years ago. American comic book creator Frank Miller was also impressed by the series, providing covers and introductions for the first dozen issues of the 1980s US reprint before casting similar samurai and ninja characters, fond of dismemberment and decapitation, in his series Ronin and Sin City. The 90s comic book The Road to Perdition, adapted for film in 2002, was also influenced by the series both in its plot of a wandering assassin travelling with child on a path of vengeance and the name of the comic itself, as Ittō refers to his journey as meifumadō (The Road to Hell). As the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road and subsequent film also feature a man pushing his child around a desolate landscape in a cart, you can see that Lone Wolf and Cub is a series that has influenced both pop culture and literature alike.
Before manga and exploitation Japanese cinema were better appreciated in the West, many fans of the saga would have been introduced to the characters by the American release of the second film Baby Cart at the River Styx (Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma) as Shogun Assassin in 1980, which adds flashback scenes from Sword of Vengeance but subtracts 10 minutes from the overall running time. This structures the film more episodically, which means that connections between some scenes are lost, but paradoxically also makes the film seem closer to the self-contained weekly episodes of the serialised manga. However, the addition of an omniscient voice-over by an older Daigorō adds unnecessary pathos and the simplification of the plot reduces our affinity with the characters.
The popularity of the various incarnations of Lone Wolf and Cub in the West can be attributed to the obvious - the engaging plot and characterisation, the excellent direction and performances - but also to the brief interest in ninja films in the early 1980s and the cross-referencing between the series and Spaghetti Westerns. While Sergio Leone’s films refer to the plots and brief but terminal melees of 1950s samurai films, in turn the Lone Wolf series uses many of Leone’s trademark devices such as close-ups of eyes during the tense build-up to duels and the placing of characters in long shot within a landscape. These elements, together with the simplicity of the plot, the reoccurring characters and blood as lurid as anything in a contemporaneous horror film, add up to a winning formula that’s terrifically watchable and leaves the viewer frustrated when it comes to an early end. It should come as no surprise that Japan produced further Lone Wolf and Cub TV series, but the original films are a great evocation of both the 17th-century Edo period - the subtitles and subplots have a surprisingly educational quality to them - and 1970s manga and filmmaking. Now distanced enough from the taint of exploitation associated with their initial American releases, they still have the ability to greatly impress modern audiences.
All the advance indications predisposed me to like this old-school British melodrama. It’s a shadowy tale of obsession, mystery, and the supernatural set in Catherine the Great’s Russia. The leading man Anton Walbrook had just made The Red Shoes and Colonel Blimp with Powell and Pressburger, and was about to make La Ronde with Max Ophí¼ls. And ranged against him is Dame Edith Evans, in what appears to have been her first talkie, two years before her famous ‘handbag’ role in The Importance of Being Earnest. Quite a debut it is too, lurking in lace, croaking and squalling with that unique voice, quaking in her crinolines and veils like a crumbly old cake on a trolley. She was only 60, just eight years older than Walbrook, but certainly carries conviction as a relic of a generation long past.
The Queen of Spades was described by Martin Scorsese as ‘a masterpiece, one of the very best films of the 1940s’. But I regret to say I think it is more of a curio than a classic. It is not in the same league as Thorold Dickinson’s true masterpiece Gaslight (1940). No doubt times have changed, and the grimy noir tension of the earlier film suits the tastes of today better than the mannered costumery of The Queen of Spades. I found myself unable to make the imaginative leap needed to immerse myself in the story, and could only enjoy it as an uninvolving spectacle. Certainly Dickinson created a remarkably atmospheric St Petersburg in Welwyn Garden City (!), and there is plenty of semi-expressionist visual pleasure on offer, together with a typically grotesque cameo from Ealing stalwart Miles Malleson, and sundry moonlighting ballerinas thrown in for good measure.
So what’s the problem? Partly the source material - Pushkin’s story. It made a great opera for Tchaikovsky in the late 19th century, but I’m not sure there was enough to the plot to sustain a film in the mid-20th - you can see where it’s going, and the twist is not a surprising one. All hinges on the two protagonists, a gambler and an aged countess. In Pushkin’s original, it is love that provides the initial driving force for the gambler, but Dickinson seems to play down this side of the story, perhaps sensing that it declines in interest as events progress, to the point of being forgotten by the end. It is hard work to make a gambling compulsion an appealing foundation for a romantic anti-hero, and I fear that Walbrook distances us from the gambler’s character first by moody brooding and then by wild-eyed raving. He errs on the side of solipsism: the drama is too much an internal one to exert a strong emotional pull.
In the end, though, the buck has to stop with the director: the film is just not as spooky as one would like it to be.
The second edition of Jason Wood’s 100 American Independent Films arrives at a critical industrial juncture for the American independent sector; the economic slump of the past year has seen the Hollywood studios almost entirely withdrawing from the ‘speciality’ business, leaving genuine independent financiers and distributors to flounder on the sidelines, struggling to secure screens and attract audience attention. Wood acknowledges this in his new introduction, observing: ‘The recent economic climate has led to a process of consolidation in Hollywood, with production being scaled down and the activities of specialist divisions frozen or closed.’ Since the publication of Wood’s revised text, Disney announced the downsizing of Miramax, which even in its post-Weinstein era was still the market leader among the boutique divisions, scoring critical and commercial success with such films as Steven Frears’s The Queen and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men until its corporate parent decided that competing for Oscar gold was no longer beneficial to its bottom line. Yet Wood remains optimistic; he notes that the 2008 Sundance Film Festival received 3,000 submissions, suggesting that the independent sector is in rude health creatively, if not economically. He also draws parallels between the advent of digital cinema and the self-distribution methods practised by John Cassavetes, and speculates about a time when ‘a filmmaker will be able to deal directly with the cinema operator about showing his or her movie’, thereby eliminating the involvement of the studio or even the niche distributor.
Wood’s thoughts regarding the future of American independent cinema are argued concisely and convincingly but, as the title of his study indicates, this is a celebration of the films themselves, not industrial networks, and entries range from breakthrough hits to midnight movies and obscurities that many readers will want to track down. Some selections seem obvious or obligatory; Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider exemplifies what we ‘traditionally regard as key aesthetics of American independent films ‘, while George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is ‘permeated by a nihilistic sense of abject hopelessness and frantic despair’, and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets ‘bristles with the director’s ferocious energy and commitment’. The faux-documentary The Blair Witch Project seems to merit inclusion based on unprecedented commercial success (a domestic gross of $140 million against a cost of $25,000) rather than any enduring quality, while Wood’s praise for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is undermined by the suggestion that the director is ‘now little more than a skilled copyist.’
Certain movements suffer from a lack of representation; Wood is not as strong on African-American cinema as he is on suburban stagnation, so Boyz n the Hood, which was produced by Columbia Pictures, is included at the expense of more authentic examples of ‘new black cinema’, such as Matty Rich’s Straight out of Brooklyn or Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. However, Wood does not argue that his list is definitive, and is self-deprecating enough to reprint the preface from the 2004 edition in which Suture directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel bemoan the fact that Wood did not initially include their favourite American independent film, Tom Laughlin’s ‘pacifist-vigilante recipe’ Billy Jack, or any examples of their own work. The 2009 preface by Tom Kalin is more serious, with the director considering what is meant by the term ‘independent’ in an age of economic uncertainty, while also recalling his ‘watershed moment’, which came with Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, as well as the challenges he encountered while shooting his most recent film, Savage Grace.
The enthusiasm that Wood expresses regarding the future of American independent cinema is also evident in some of this edition’s 25 new entries. In Search of a Midnight Kiss, the first crossover success of the ‘mumblecore’ movement is ‘gently sprinkled with the melancholy that often trails in the waning hours of the year and the desperation to find happiness and have a good time’, while Wood also notes the ‘residual accumulation of brutality, recrimination and confrontation’ that is integral to Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories and the ‘creeping and almost suffocating sense of paranoia’ evident in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, an unsettling genre piece by a director who has been largely ignored beyond genre aficionados. Park City casts a long shadow over the independent sector, but Wood’s championing of Lynn Hersham-Leeson’s little-seen experimental documentary Strange Culture and Jem Cohen’s Chain, which was developed from a video-installation project, ensures that 100 American Independent Films also searches for the post-millennial successors to the underground movement, rather than simply serving as a check-list of Sundance success stories.
In connection with the Electric Sheep Film Club at the Prince Charles Cinema every first Wednesday of the month, we run a film writing competition: film students and aspiring film writers are invited to write a 200-word review of the film on show that month. The best review is picked by a film professional, and renowned Polish poster designer Andrzej Klimowski was the judge of our November competition for Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). The prize for the best review is publication on the Electric Sheep website. We are pleased to announce that the winner is Matthew Pink. Andrzej Klimowski said: ‘All three of the short-listed reviews [the other two were AG Robson and Richard Walsh] of Polanski’s Repulsion were very effective evocations of the film’s powerful emotive force. The film, which I haven’t seen in over 30 years, rushed back to my mind in its entirety after reading these concise but vivid accounts. Matthew Pink’s writing had a quality that resembled a miniature scenario. When reading his piece I felt that I was in the dark apartment with Catherine Deneuve enduring the heightened claustrophobia.’ Here is Matthew’s review:
The first crack creeps along the thick masque of face cream in a beauty parlour. But the cracks run deeper than the surface of the skin.
Polanski’s film plunges into this crack, the line dividing sexual fascination and repulsion, the male and the female, the society and the individual. The face, the eye, the four walls around Catherine Deneuve’s Carol all rupture and fracture. Her mind’s grasp on reality splinters, she withdraws and psychosis sets in; murder the result.
Polanski’s camera, always on Carol’s shoulder, follows her, playing with the dimensions of the flat, condensing, flattening, blocking space and view, disallowing normal perception. The sound too creeps up on us, interspersing gulfs of emptiness on the track with bursts of rush staccato drumming, announcing broken chapters.
Those sounds, which are always present and yet go unheard in daily life, the ticking clock, the dripping tap, are heightened, made alienating and brought to the fore. The additional jazz score starts at regular rhythm only to hit entropy and break down. Image and sound suffer fissures too, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
An uncooked rabbit carcass festers throughout but the abiding image is the human hand, discarnate, reaching, groping.
Next screening: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger with live rescore by Minima, Wednesday 2 December. For details on how to enter the competition, visit our Film Club page.