Wednesday, 10 December 2008


So the end result appears to be that Tobe Hooper’s best are his debut, the seminal "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", and his adaptation of Stephen King's "Salem’s Lot", which remains a benchmark in TV horror. Hooper could do scary, in different ways. Even "Poltergeist" is a consummate example of family-friendly and toothless horror… with some scary. "Funhouse", another early Hooper horror, is ultimately disappointing. Apparently beset with production problems and interference that left subplots going nowhere, it’s a routine tale of "teens" not doing as they are told and uncovering terrible monsters at the local fair. It’s long on build-up, hobbled by pedestrian dialogue, characters and plotting and lacks for inventive killings. What it does have is a wonderful evocation of the carnival in all its detail and tackiness, a wonderful midway crane-shot, an unforgettable monster (some debate as to whether Rick Baker’s design is good or not: I say it’s scary, repellent and truly nightmarish), some lukewarm to above-average acting, and excellent set design. The funhouse itself is packed with garish lighting and mechanical monsters, seemingly bigger on the inside than the outside, full of genuine carnie adornments. Ultimately, it’s a routine slasher dressed up really nicely, and so it is more than acceptable when the milieu is so winning.

The most interesting aspect is that when we start off in the family home, our female protagonist Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) is getting ready to go out on a date, it quickly emerges that her prankster younger brother Joey (Shawn Carson) has turned as much of the place as he can into a funhouse of his own. Dummies, masks, cheap shocks… all present and correct, and damned if he isn’t engaging from the start in a thoroughly cheeky homage/rip-off of "Halloween" and "Psycho". In their respective funhouses, both attackers indulge in displays of violence from sexual immaturity: Joey attacks his sister in the shower with a decidedly limp fake knife, wearing a mask that makes him look like a demented old man; our hideous monster Gunther’s (!) premature ejaculation and un-fulfilment drives him to murder girl scouts and fortune tellers. Gunther and Joey both have excellent reveals when their masks are torn off to reveal… greater horrors than the masks traded in. In another "Halloween"-style gag, we see Gunther ( Wayne Doba) help run the funhouse wearing a Frankenstein’s monster’s mask long before the truth about his deformity is revealed (the patrons are deliciously clueless). But at base what "Funhouse" has is the kind of two-dollar sexual motivation and undertones of most post-"Friday the 13th" killer flicks, and exactly the kind that "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" didn’t trade in. On the one hand, sexual immaturity drive the confused to horrible crimes and pranks of passion, and on the other, it’s only the virgin seemingly rewarded with survival.

It is the carnie father and son that represent the family sticking together and surviving against the odds, despite also evidently being the foreign threat to small-town America. The father (Kevin Conway, adding much needed class) is both repulsed and loving to his hideously deformed son, given to bouts of cruelty but also not ready to let him be lynched like his mother or displayed as a sideshow freak like his brother. In comparison, the respectable middle-class suburban family are cold fish indeed, peddling in quick disdain, superficial concern and seemingly disinterest in one another. We can at least allow credentials of tragedy to the horrific monster and dad team, especially as mime artist Wayne Doba gives his best Karloff’s monster rendition to inscribe the Gunther with all kinds of pathos. There’s not much to care about in the double-dating couples who decide to stay overnight in the funhouse, just for chuckles and foreplay. Despite a nice realistic moment where an initial altercation between Amy and her slightly disreputable date sets the night off on the wrong foot, there is little of interest to the couples themselves.

Once these nondescript couples see Gunther commit murder and are hunted down, one might have asked for a little more inventiveness with the funhouse lay-out and props, what with them being so creepy, fun and fascinating. One might have wished for a more creative killing spree to compensate, although there is quite a convoluted castration for Gunther, with his midriff crushed in the gears of the funhouse… yet it never feels as excessive as it ought to be. …Meanwhile, our Joey has skipped out of home and is enjoying the carnie all by himself, and in a further state of impotence can’t get inside the funhouse, which is surely his spiritual home. One can argue that his side-story finally goes nowhere. We could also leave the funhouse asking who the real monsters are… and that’s your standard issue horror coda right there. It will probably always work.

Tobe Hooper, 1981, USA


Ingmar Bergman, 1966

What you hardly read about Bergman is that he is often scary. If you are looking for a precursor to David Lynch's creepiness and surrealism, turn to the opening nightmare sequence of "Wild Strawberries"; or to the hanging woodsman in "Summer’s Children" for a genuine ghost story chill; or death walking the lounge in "Fanny and Alexander"; or the all-round eeriness of "Hour of the Wolf", amongst others. And this is before we have even encountered his essays in psychological breakdown. For someone who isn’t known as a horror writer, Bergman was very assured and casual with the genre’s motifs. "Persona", for example, not only has psychological breakdown and seemingly a personality-transference between an actress and her nurse, but also plays with a wealth of vampire imagery.Or, perhaps, we are dealing in split personality, which we must puzzle out and which is another horror staple. Bergman happily has his characters and dramas interacting with seemingly supernatural elements that may or may not be genuine. I have always loved this because you never know when he is going to spring these moments upon you, and when you are not watching as a horror audience, your guard is often down and the effect is often genuinely surprising and chilling.

"Persona" is a famously unsolvable mystery, and if the opening montage of images are clues, they don’t really help with answers: film stock reeling and burning up; an erect penis (originally censored, naturally); bodies in a morgue; a boy asleep like a corpse in a white empty room. He wakes… is he the actress’ son, dreaming of her, or is she dreaming of him? Or is he a manifestation of the nurse’s aborted child? We can wonder this later or after, when we know some stories concerning our main characters: an actress who refuses to speak or function, apparently in an artistic and existential collapse; and the nurse assigned to oversee her recuperation in a beach house. But it is the nurse who uses the actress’s silence for experiments in unburdening herself in a quintessential Bergman confession of an adulterous dalliance. When the nurse feels her confidence has been condescended and betrayed, a confusion of the women’s characters threatens meltdown. What is real and what is fantastic is not clear: does the actress’s husband really turn up to the beach house and mistake the nurse for his wife? Some kind of emotional vampirism is occurring here, and the actress pours out of fog to seduce her victim. There is also some sucking of blood, completely Nosferatu. Cinematic conventions being played with, where the screen burns up as if the projector is on fire from the drama, but somehow this is more akin to an emotional variation of the formal shock moment from a horror film (rather than, say, the kind of conceited self-reflexive trick of the fast-forward moment of Haneke’s "Funny Games").

It is open to readings of criticism of psychotherapy, and it also acts nicely as a tale of the unreal affinity and emotional demands audiences make of artists: the nurse (Bibi Andersson) may just as well be telling her secrets to a poster of Liv Ullman. But for all this stark, pretty imagery and genre bending, Bergman knows that the real horrors can be existential states of despair and fear, that non-communication, disloyalty and superciliousness can force wide open cracks in vulnerable people. Fascinating, frustrating and compelling, very few can force such ideas to work and transcend. Bergman had a vast output and range, and even now he never fails to surprise and, frequently, to chill.

Death in Venice

Death in Venice

Renowned masterpiece of mood and décor, nearly dialogue-free except for some flashbacks featuring hyperbolic, quite hammy arguments between a couple of artists. One of them, Dirk Bogarde, finds his career as a composer booed down and a breakdown follows, motivating a trip to Venice. The cityFont size seems to be in the seizure of barely concealed paroxysms of death and the decay. The similar corrosion and loneliness of the composer finds relief only in the beatific youthfulness of an adolescent male also staying in the decorative hotel. Scenes roll out slow and decorated with detail, as if to lull the viewer into the very wallpaper and as if staring at a busy painting for a long time. Bogarde pours his performance into carefully, almost painfully measured affected gestures of repression and expression. Everything possesses the aroma and reek of a bona fide classic of the old school. Finally, it floats into a funereal paean to the myth of cities, to aging, to loneliness (but perhaps a relieved and content loneliness)… and then, after all that hanging around, a handsome angel of death points into the distance, having cast furtive smiles at you all the while.
Morte a venezia, 1971, Luchino Visconti