Monday, 26 September 2011

The Black Cat (1934)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat illustrates very clearly the concerns of the horror film in the mid-1930s. Frankenstein and Freaks had reflected the raised class consciousness brought about by the Depression which had led to Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, with the clouds of war gathering in Europe following Hitler’s rise to power, film-makers, by 1934, had become increasingly concerned with the spectre of catastrophe arising, once again, from Germany.

Essentially an allegory of the dark forces at play in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire following World War 1, The Black Cat concerns the unfinished business between Austrian psychiatrist, Dr. Werdergast (Bela Lugosi), and his architect friend, Poelzig, whose Bauhaus house (an ex- fortress) is built on the corpses of a battleground and undermined by dynamite. During the war Poelzig commanded the fortress which he is accused by Werdegast of having betrayed to the Russians, causing the death of thousands of Hungarians. A na├»ve American couple are drawn into this vendetta scenario with the two adversaries competing for their ‘souls’. Ulmer alludes to the ‘occultism’ underlying the Third Reich in the character of Poelzig, a Satanist. The film culminates in the sadistic flaying of Karloff by Lugosi in the former’s underground torture chamber and the subsequent detonation of the dynamite that brings about a new conflagration.

Ulmer’s film clearly conveyed the message that World War 1 had not been resolved:  the forces of chaos which had started that war could easily spark another. “The slightest mistake by one of us could cause the destruction of all” Werdegast warns at one point, voicing popular opinion at the time that World War 1 had been started by ‘mistake’.

It is easy to see why Universal baulked at the film in 1934, what with Hitler drawing on the Eugenics movement to preach Aryan superiority (using the United States 1932 Eugenics conference to justify his views) and international tensions rising following Germany’s massive rearmament programme. America had invested heavily in European war debts to keep the European economy afloat as a large consumer market for American goods. In effect, American commercial interests had financed Germany’s rebuilding and close relationships between American and German businesses now became an embarrassment following the Nazi rise to power. 

In Hollywood many were alarmed by Hitler’s anti-semitism (including Curtiz whose extended family were to perish in Auschwitz). Even conservative studio heads such as Louis B. Mayer joined the Anti-Nazi League. However, Joseph Breen was sensitive to the industry’s commercial interests in Germany and Anti-Nazi films were almost impossible to make under the Production Code.

But, as Richard Maltby has remarked of the Production Code, it ‘forced Hollywood to become ambiguous’. It can be seen that the horror films of the time addressed the issue of the increasing Nazi threat allegorically. Images of sadism and the ‘torture chamber’ as featured in The Black Cat became increasingly prevalent in films of the era, featuring strongly in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and The Raven (1935), to name just two examples. The latter caused international protest at the potent image of its swinging pendulum: a literal sword of Damocles hanging over Europe...

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Post-9/11 Horror Films

The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is perhaps an apt time to consider how horror films post-9/11 have responded to this national trauma and the War on Terror that followed.

The actual images of the twin towers falling and the destruction of Manhattan have, of course, become iconic to the age - just as the mushroom cloud was to the dawn of the atomic age in the 1950s - and science fiction/horror films made since 2001 have been replete in imagery of a destroyed New York . Cloverfield (2008), in its lo-fi handi-cam presentation of the city under attack, echoed the video footage of the twin towers at the point the planes hit – the chaos, the panic, the flight from ‘ground zero’ and the response of the emergency services in the moments that followed. The immediacy of the ‘actuality’ footage in Cloverfield seemed therapeutic in revisiting the trauma of 9/11 and contributed towards the film’s popularity.

I am Legend (2007), released the year before, also used the destruction of New York – alongside Will Smith - as a major selling point. I remember watching the trailer in the cinema and noting the unusual emphasis on showing Manhattan in ruins, so much so that the associations with 9/11 were unmistakable.
Roland Emmerich – that inveterate band-wagon jumper – had actually started this phase with The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Although he had trashed Manhattan before in Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998), the serious tone of The Day After Tomorrow, appropriate in the light of 9/11, made it his best film. He followed it up with 2012 (2009) – another eco-disaster film that took much of its power from the apocalyptic destruction of the Big Apple – but the film was less successful financially, perhaps a sign that, by 2009, audiences were no longer in need of therapy for 9/11 because a new trauma – that of economic recession – had descended upon them.
In my post The Horror Film and Social Collapse I discussed the political implications of 9/11 and how, according to Joseph Stiglitz, America’s handling of Globalisation had contributed to the wave of anti-American feeling that led to the 9/11 attacks. Two films that dealt allegorically with the subsequent War on Terror – particularly the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – highlighted the shortcomings of the Bush administration and its militaristic foreign policy.
28 Weeks Later (2007)  depicted an Iraq-like ‘green zone’ and its breach by violent ‘insurgents’. The film focuses (as does Romero’s The Crazies - an obvious influence on 28 Weeks Later) on the military’s botched response to the outbreak of the rage violence which threatens to ‘infect’ everyone in the zone.  Unable to contain the outbreak, the military escalate the violence to the point where their only solution is to carpet bomb the whole area killing everyone in it. The film makes the point that responsibility is not always taken seriously by those who hold power.

Romero himself made the same point in Land of The Dead (2005). But whereas 28 Weeks Later offered a withering critique of America’s foreign policy, Land of the Dead criticises Bush’s domestic policy in the aftermath of 9/11. ‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’,  states Dennis Hopper’s Rumsfeld-like plutocrat, when faced by a revolt headed by the ethnic military man (read Bin Laden, Saddam Hussain, Gaddafi)  who up until then had been doing his dirty work. In the face of the zombie crisis, Hopper’s character has been feathering his own nest – and those of his cronies – Enron-like- in a literal tower while the ordinary people to whom he owes a responsibility are left to fend for themselves on the ground. Romero’s conclusions – that those in power during 9/11 have acted only to serve themselves – were firmly echoed by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).
Other horror films after 9/11 have addressed the issue of America's War on Terror more obliquely. 'Back woods' horror films like Wrong Turn (2003), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006), spoke of the curtailing of liberties following 9/11 and, according to critic, Linnie Blake, the 'demonisation of difference' as the hillbilly figure in these films is presented both as a savage aggressor and a victim of the nation's attempts to marginalise those in society who refused to be assimilated into the dominant ideology (Muslims). This 'demonisation of difference' extended to those in other countries in Hostel (2005) and Hostel 2 (2007). Although some reviewers have claimed that Hostel criticises America's self-proclaimed role as 'policeman of the world' I would disagree. Rather than it being a critique of the American arrogance over foreign policy I would argue that the tropes of the film - and of others in the 'torture porn' subgenre - place it within the reactionary strain of horror films. These films amalgamate the 'slasher' - sexually curious teenagers are punished by torture and death - and the 'urbanoia' film - where the 'have-nots' (in the case of Hostel - the east-Europeans) are exterminated with impunity by the 'haves' (the Americans) for daring to rise up against them.
But whatever way you look at the horror films that followed 9/11, their success at the box office proves (in the words of Wes M at Plutonium Shores) that, 'during these turbulent times, audiences need that cathartic experience.'

Monday, 5 September 2011

New French Extremity

New French Extremity is the term coined for the series of transgressive films produced in France and Belgium in the last decade including works by auteurs Gaspar Noe, Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Francois Ozon, as well as individual titles such as Baise Moi, The Pornographer, Intimacy and In My Skin. These films, which have received considerable international attention, are characterised by a desire to shock, although critics are divided as to whether the deliberate breaking of taboos in these films is linked to a genuine desire on the behalf of the film-makers to shock audiences into political consciousness.  A number of distinguished horror films have been linked to the movement: Haute Tension, Frontiere(s), Inside, Martyrs, Seitan, Them and Calvaire.

Despite the emergence of the French  and Belgian horror film in recent years, Martyrs’ director, Pascal Laugier is quick to disabuse us of any notion that the horror genre has become part of French mainstream cinema:  ‘My country produces almost 200 films a year but there are only 2 or 3 horror films. It’s still a hell to find the money, a hell to convince people that we are legitimate to make this kind of film in France.’

This is, of course, reassuring as it suggests that the New French Extremity Movement (and the horror films within it) provides an alternative to French National Cinema, a challenge to national identities. But to what extent can these films in themselves be considered ‘progressive’? Certainly their tradition seems to be that of Bunuel, Franju, Clouzot – the tradition of French ‘shock’ art and literature originated by De Sade, Artaud, Bataille  – a tradition problematic  in itself, anchored as it is in the philosophy of nihilism, an extreme scepticism that denies all human values, all human forms of communication,  and therefore the possibility of progressive change. There is, to boot, a disturbing undercurrent of fascism in many of these films (Noe’s work strikes me as particularly problematic – especially in his treatment of homosexuality). This is, of course, not peculiar to French cinema – the whole ‘torture porn’ subgenre is redolent of it. However, the New French Extremity movement, can, I believe, be seen most significantly as a response to the rise of right-wing extremism in France during the last ten years (as personified by the figure of La Penn), a response that film-makers are in the process of working through.

Of all the horror films attached to the movement, Frontier(s)(2007) is perhaps the most progressive-minded. The plot concerns a family of degenerate murderers, led by a former (and still practicing Nazi) who imprison and torture a group of young people on the run who stumble into the family’s inn on the Belgian border. Set against a backdrop of Paris riots following the fictional election of an extremist right-wing candidate into the French presidency, Frontier(s) clearly functions as a political allegory about a degenerate-regressive ‘old guard’ set on annihilating the young.  The fact that the young people are a mix of races and sympathetically portrayed emphasises the Nazi undercurrents of the torture that they undergo at the hands of the elders. Director Xavier Gens explains that the story for Frontier(s) “came from events in 2002 when we had presidential elections in France. There was an extreme right party in the second round. That was the most horrible day of my life.”

The capture-torture motif of Frontier(s) is also central to Martyrs(2008), but in this film the political intentions are less overt, more ambivalent and ultimately nihilistic. The film begins with a young girl, Lucie, as she escapes from a disused abattoir where she has been imprisoned and physically abused by mysterious captors.  From there the film develops into a tale of friendship:  Lucie - tormented by ‘survivor guilt’ - is taken into care in an orphanage where she meets Anna, who attempts to help her.   Up to this point, Martyrs appears to be about the phenomenon of parents imprisoning their children in order to abuse them - a’ la Fred West and Josef Fritzl - and its psychological effects on the victims. But then Martyrs makes a sudden volte face as the mysterious captors are revealed to be a society of aged super-rich inflicting torture on young women in a bid to discover the secrets of the afterlife.  This shift in story direction comes across as muddled and confused (and somewhat unconvincing), and while there is no doubt that Martyrs is a visceral piece of work, this confusion about what it is trying to say, together with its unremitting bleakness, ultimately detracts from it being a better film. The overall impression is one of nihilism –  ‘putting the audience through it’  seems to be the film’s raison d’etre.  Martyrs is currently being remade by Daniel Stamm, director of The Last Exorcism (another film that falls down its final moments due to an ‘ideologically’ confused ending), who claims to be reworking the film to give ‘a glimmer of hope’.

Whereas Martyrs falls somewhere between a progressive and nihilistic vision (it does, after all, explore the notion of a degenerate older generation abusing its young), Inside (2007), falls into the category of reactionary horror film because of its dread of the woman’s body.  It concerns the attack and home-invasion of a young pregnant woman, by a mysterious stranger (played by Beatrice Dalle) who seeks to take her unborn baby. The film presents pregnancy and motherhood in a wholly negative light. Firstly, in Beatrice Dalle’s character is the personification of the ‘psychologically disturbed mother’ who would seek to harm another in her obsessive need for a child to replace the one she lost. Then there is the depiction of childbirth itself as something to be loathed (shown in the film as an impromptu Caesarian performed with a pair of scissors). Inside is a perfect case study in what Barbara Creed called the ‘Monstrous-Feminine, and a reminder that transgressive horror does not necessarily mean progressive or even subversive horror.

The horror films of the New French Extremity, then, can be seen as an off-shoot of the torture porn subgenre, and like 1930s horror films such as The Raven (1935) and The Black Cat (1934) pre-occupied with sadism and torture imagery, reflecting the rise of fascism in an era of economic collapse.  As the European Debt Crisis deepens it will be interesting to see what direction the movement takes; whether it will continue apace or lose its impetus in the face of industry recession and increased censorship.