Category Archives: Horror
Antonia Bird had a long career as a director, but she only made a handful of theatrical features. As far as I can tell, none of them went anywhere commercially. I think in part this is because her films don’t play by the rules that mainstream audiences are used to. Her movies just don’t fall into the usual categories.
Take Ravenous. It tells the story of a young soldier posted to a remote fort in California who narrowly escapes being eaten by a cannibal, only to later find himself becoming a cannibal. Ravenous is not a comedy, though it has moments of very black comedy. It’s not a western, though it has many of the elements that characterize westerns. And it’s not a horror movie, though a number of scenes are truly horrifying. Really it’s a morality play. The crux of the film is the main character’s choice between right and wrong.
The script, by Ted Griffin, begins with a battle in the Mexican-American War. We see the young soldier, Boyd, as he receives a medal and a promotion for single-handedly seizing a command post behind enemy lines. Later we learn the full story, and it beomes clear that Boyd isn’t the hero he appears to be. In fact he’s severely traumatized, and his commanding officer sends him to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas.
This is where he encounters Calhoun, the only survivor of a party that tried to cross the Sierras in the dead of winter. At first it seems that Calhoun is the only member of the party that managed to escape when his companions turned to eating one another. But we soon find out that he’s the cannibal, and that he’s still hungry. We also learn that in eating his victims he acquires their strength and bravery. Calhoun tells Boyd of his transformation from a sickly, tubercular invalid to a healthy, virile predator. He plans to continue eating human flesh, and he invites Boyd to join him.
Calhoun’s character represents the savagery of nineteenth century American imperialism. He’s intelligent and cunning, and totally unapologetic about the fact that he eats human beings. In fact, he sees the practice as a sign of strength. Standing in a graveyard outside the fort, he speaks to Boyd of Manifest Destiny, explaining that this young, hungry nation must eat to grow. The first time we see Calhoun, he’s holding a small cross in his hand, and throughout the film he’s closely associated with this Christian symbol. For centuries, European nations had used evangelism as a pretext for slaughter and plunder, and the US continued that tradition in the nineteenth century. Christianity was perverted to justify war against the indigenous people who populated North America. At the film’s climax, Calhoun paints a cross on his forehead with blood. It’s not subtle, but it is effective.
The film’s design seems to have grown organically out of its themes. The story is mostly played out within the claustrophobic darkness of the fort or the enormous, snowy landscapes of the American West. Against this background of murky shadow and blinding white, we see the dull blue of the soldiers’ uniforms, the bright red of splattered blood, and occasionally the colors of the American flag as it curls in the breeze. This beautifully unified conception is the work of production designer Bryce Perrin. Using this visual framework, cinematographer Anthony Richmond paints a physical landscape that is overwhelmingly huge, while at the same time delineating a psychological landscape that is dark, cramped and terrifying. Sheena Napier’s costumes don’t just help define the characters, they also express the way the characters evolve as the story unfolds.
And these are unusual, challenging characters. Guy Pearce does an impressive job with Boyd, bringing us into his state of mind, allowing us to see these harrowing events through the eyes of this weak, scared, vulnerable man. But Pearce also makes clear that there’s a spark of strength in Boyd that allows him to take a stand against evil. As Calhoun, Robert Carlyle is both frightening and charismatic. This intelligent, articulate cannibal isn’t just a bloodthirsty monster. He believes in what he’s doing, and preaches eloquently on the subject. Sheila Tousey’s Martha speaks few lines of dialogue, but the actress imbues her character with a quiet, stoic strength. And Jeffrey Jones shows his consummate skill at playing offbeat roles, making the softspoken Col. Hart sympathetic, even when he becomes a cold-blooded killer. I can’t think of many actors who could handle the line, “It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.”
The score is just as unusual as the rest of the movie, being credited to a young rock star and an established film composer. Damon Albarn uses traditional instruments to capture the psycho soul of these soldiers trudging through the vast isolation of the American wilderness. Michael Nyman’s orchestral cues are skilfully woven into the texture of the film, underlining the feeling of dread and paranoia.
Antonia Bird’s films didn’t follow the usual patterns, and didn’t offer comforting solutions. Her protagonists find themselves in difficult, overwhelming situations, and they don’t win easy victories, if it can be said they end up winning at all. And this is probably a large part of the reason why her theatrical features never found large audiences.
Bird died last October. She was a filmmaker who didn’t want to compromise, and she paid the price at the box office. It’s not easy to find her work, with some of her films being difficult or impossible to get hold of. This is a shame. She was a unique artist and a gifted director. Her films deserve to be seen.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is a brief, terrifying parable. Prospero is a wealthy prince whose land is being ravaged by a plague. He gathers his aristocratic friends together in a castle and seals it tight to keep them all safe from the disease. Believing that they now have nothing to fear, Prospero and his guests devote all their time to extravagant entertainments, while those left outside face certain death. But like a story in the Old Testament, The Masque of the Red Death ends in terrible retribution. Prospero and his friends learn that no walls are thick enough to save them from the plague.
When I went back to story and re-read it, I was surprised to find that Prince Prospero is the only character mentioned by name. Poe spends little time describing the man himself, and he only speaks a few lines of dialogue. Most of what we learn about Prospero comes through the author’s description of the apartments designed by the prince, a suite of seven rooms, each decorated in a single color and lit by torches that shine through colored glass. The scene that Poe paints for us is highly stylized, almost abstract. Really it’s the landscape of the mind.
To make a feature length commercial film, director Roger Corman obviously had to flesh out the material. This can be a dangerous proposition, because often the whole effect of a short story depends on its brevity. But Corman was a lifelong admirer of Poe’s work, and he knew that he couldn’t just add padding to the author’s tale. The screenplay would have to expand on the material in such a way that it grew organically from Poe’s original concept.
Corman has said that in his Poe adaptations his preferred approach was to use the original story as the third act, the climax of the film. That’s what he does here, and the screenwriters do a beautiful job of fleshing out this macabre little tale. The script, by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, expands on Poe’s story a good deal, and yet it stays essentially faithful to the author’s conception. In addition, Beaumont and Campbell bring in fragments of another Poe story, Hop-Frog, weaving it skillfully into the framework of the film.
What the screenwriters do with Prospero is pretty impressive. Starting with the minimal details that Poe offers in the story, they create a fascinating, multi-faceted character. This is not your standard horror movie villain. Prospero is a philosopher who sees the world in the bleakest possible light. He is horribly cruel, but he is also intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive. This is a man who has spent his life observing the world, seeing the horror and misery that plague mankind, and he has become brutally cynical. He refuses to believe in a loving God, because he can’t believe that God would allow the suffering and the violence he’s witnessed.
As the film begins, we see Prospero’s cruelty in the harsh punishments he inflicts on the peasants in a small village. But as the story unfolds, we learn that he has no more respect for his fellow aristocrats than he does for the peasants. He sees his guests as weak and foolish, and he takes joy in humiliating them. He’s appalled by humanity. It’s as though he’s punishing mankind for its cowardice and stupidity.
Prospero is a frightening, fascinating character, and the part would be a challenge for any actor. Fortunately, Corman turned to Vincent Price, who he’d already worked with on a number of films. Price is magnificent. His performance is a marvel of intelligence and subtlety. Prospero is repellent, and yet at the same time we can’t take our eyes off him. Playing the part, Price commands our attention, but without unnecessary theatrics. Graceful and witty, cold and merciless, the actor’s performance as Prospero is one of his finest.
Art director Robert Jones and production designer Daniel Haller create an oppressive, expressionistic world that reflects the disturbing beauty of Poe’s writing. A young Nicolas Roeg shoots it all with striking confidence. The richness and subtlety of Roeg’s lighting gives the images dimension and depth. By this point in his career Corman was very assured as a filmmaker and he seems to have an intuitive understanding of the rhythm and shape of a scene. His camera glides through the chambers of the castle, settling on one composition, shifting to another, defining the relationships between the characters and heightening the tension.
Sound also plays an important part. Striding through an eerie silence, Prospero lectures his guests on the terror of time, the ticking of a clock in the background, the soles of his shoes clicking against the marble floor. Francesca is wakened in the middle of the night, and as she peers through the dark bedroom we hear the flutter of birds’ wings receding into the night, suggesting a phantom in flight. In keeping with the way Poe uses words, Corman uses images and sounds not just to create a physical world, but also a psychological landscape.
I often hear people make excuses for crude, shabby horror movies. They didn’t have the money. They didn’t have the time. Roger Corman proved over and over again that limited resources are no excuse. With a little creativity and cunning, a filmmaker can work wonders, even if they’re shooting on a shoestring. It’s not the size of your budget. It’s the size of your imagination.
Near Dark (1987)
A young man and a young woman are running through a deserted industrial area. The sky is a sheet of black, lit only by dim yellow orbs hanging overhead. The woman stops, and raises her hand.
‘Look. The night. It’s so bright it’ll blind you.’
The young man is Caleb, a cowboy who’s come into town looking for some fun. The young woman, Mae, is a pretty girl he flirts with on the street. Before he knows what’s happening, she has taken him through a door he never knew existed into a world he never imagined. A world where the night is so bright it’ll blind you. A whole new kind of experience.
Kathryn Bigelow’s early films are about people walking through that door. Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break all deal with characters who find themselves embracing an ecstatic experience of the world, a kind of experience that is equally exhilarating and terrifying. In Near Dark, Caleb’s world is turned inside out when Mae bites him on the neck. Without even understanding what’s happening, he’s soon travelling with a family of vampires who roam the American Southwest, hunting for prey.
Caleb tries to escape, but finds it isn’t easy to get away. He’s horrified by what he sees, but there’s a part of him that’s drawn to these people who “keep odd hours.” Even though they’re a hundred and eighty degrees from the family he lives with back on the farm, there are strong bonds that hold this clan together. Whether hunting, stealing or hiding, they work as a team, and when the chips are down they back each other up. Jesse and Diamondback are the imposing father and mother figures. Severen is the wild older “son” who enjoys toying with his prey. Mae is more passive, and seems troubled by the life she leads. Homer is the angry, lonely boy who has lived more than enough to become a man, but will always be trapped in the body of a child.
Bigelow and co-screenwriter Eric Red splice two genres together, creating a dark, dynamic fantasy landscape. The western is purely American, and speaks of a clear cut, black and white morality. The horror film hails from the dark corners of Northern Europe, and dares us to step into a terrifying, irrational world. The monsters may die in the final reel, but they live on in our imagination. The tension between these two genres comes across in images that resonate in powerful, inexplicable ways. The shootout at the outlaws’ hideaway becomes a startling, hallucinatory sequence where our hero braves the burning sunlight to stage a daring rescue, and saves his newfound “family”. A barroom confrontation becomes a bloody slaughter, while the jukebox reels out pop tunes in the background. Even a conventional love scene is twisted into something strange and unnerving. Not having tasted blood since his transformation, Caleb is weak and pale. Mae opens a vein in her wrist and offers it to him in order to bring him back to life. He drinks deeply, and feeling miraculously rejuvenated, he kisses her passionately, traces of blood still smeared across his lips.
All this probably sounds like a far cry from the classic westerns of John Ford, but actually Bigelow is a direct descendant of that American master. In fact, among living filmmakers, she is probably the one whose perspective is closest to Ford’s. They are both deeply, unapologetically American, while at the same time obsessively examining the violence and the arrogance that are inextricably woven into this country’s fabric. They’re both poets, relying on a sound, an image, a gesture to express themselves where others would speak to us in words. And they both deal with individuals who find themselves in conflict with their community. The comparison may be easier to see in films like K-19, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which deal with stubborn outsiders who collide with rigid institutions, but the similarities are very much there in Near Dark. It’s a story about a young man who has to choose between the seductive, dangerous outlaw “family” and returning to the safety and comfort of his own family.
In the end, it’s easy for Caleb to choose because his young sister, Sarah, is in danger. But it’s actually the vampires’ humanity that brings about her release and their own destruction. Mae wrests Sarah from the grasp of her younger “brother” Homer. At a crucial moment, Diamondback urges Caleb and Sarah to run. As the sun rises, Homer chases desperately after Sarah, not as a vampire chasing his prey, but as a child who is losing his only friend. He frantically calls her name as his body is engulfed in flames. Jesse and Diamondback clasp hands, knowing it’s all over, calmly accepting their fate.
Caleb frees Mae of her curse, and the two lovers are united. In Bigelow’s early films, her innocent heroes usually walk away a little wiser and not too much worse for wear. But in her later work she has focussed on characters who are more complex, and the moral issues aren’t so clear cut. From The Weight of Water on, Bigelow’s protagonists aren’t just struggling with their fate, they’re struggling with themselves. There are no more happy endings.