Summary of Discussion on The Devil’s Vice

Our discussion on The Devil’s Vice included comments on: its Gothic elements; references to other Gothic films; Richard’s ‘Gaslighting’ of Susan; the audience’s genre expectations; the audience’s alignment with Susan; Richard and Susan’s relationship in terms of control and isolation and Susan’s realisation that Richard is her abuser; the role of technology; the film’s contemporary setting; the film’s purpose of the promotion of awareness of domestic abuse and the relation of this to the Gothic.

Like last session’s The Diary of Sophronia Winters, The Devil’s Vice contained a checklist of gothic elements. The opening shots of Susan, as a woman-in-peril, falling through the space from the top of the stairs onto the hard floor beneath emphasises the importance of the house. This is where much of the film’s events take place (the only other settings are a hospital, a  local library, a coffee shop and a police station), with its two staircases also playing prominent roles. Other aspects of the house are significant: there is a mirror on the stairs, several locked doors, focus on a keyhole, creepy portraits (specifically an old black and white formal photograph of a group of children and their schoolteacher, nicknamed ‘Smiler’ by Susan and Richard and seen as a demon), bats in the attic (and later in reference to this a comparison to Dracula’s house) and a disturbing doll in the no-longer needed nursery. In addition to Susan’s status as woman-in-peril she, like many other gothic heroines, is an active investigator who is seeking an answer to what is happening – and engages in the often-present action of walking down the stairs in her nightwear. In keeping with the contemporary setting, Susan is clad in pyjamas rather than a nightdress, and lacks a candlestick to light her way.

More specific references to gothic and horror films abound. The spiral staircase invokes memory of Robert Siodmak’s 1945 film. Susan’s research into the possible presence of a poltergeist summons up thoughts of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), and her misleading suggestion that they call in a catholic priest brought to mind William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Other points of plot similarity to gothic films include the pain of child loss (in J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, 2007) and concern for Susan expressed by her husband Richard to his wife’s friend (Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love, 1948). Aspects of The Devil’s Vice’s style also appeared to be referencing other films: the black and white footage of Richard’s attack on Susan was likened to scenes in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009).

Smaller moments also inspired comparisons. The appearance of the sunglass and strange oculist equipment-wearing medium, Madam Barbara, reminded us of Insidious (James Wan, 2010). Shots of Susan painfully and slowly crawling across the floor after being attacked in the kitchen were similar to Michelle Pfeiffer’s attempts to escape her husband in Robert Zemecki’s What Lies Beneath (2000)Richard’s sing-song taunting while addressing Susan by her name as she’s attempting to find proof of his attacks echoed that in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The colour red also gains significance when Richard is about to repaint the no longer needed nursery in a blood red hue; when combined with The Devil’s Vice’s concern with children and the occult, this made us think of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

We also brought in our own knowledge of other gothic texts and films. Particular attention was paid to Susan’s moment of realisation that her husband is her attacker. This occurs in the office as she watches footage form the cameras she has placed in the kitchen. It was noted that this pivot is in some ways is akin to Bluebeard’s eight wife entering the secret room which contains the bodies of his previous wives.  Such a device was also used in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1947) when Celia (Joan Bennett) uncovers her husband’s secret.

The film’s self-aware drawing on of other gothic texts is probably most obvious in its use of Gaslighting.  The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight (notably filmed in the UK by Thorold Dickinson in 1940 and the US by George Cukor in 1944) in which a husband attempts to make his wife think  she is going mad and thus gain control of her fortune. In The Devil’s Vice, Richard engages in such behaviour by placing the creepy photograph in their home. Susan later doubts herself when she remembers that the schoolteacher’s eyes in the photographs have always been closed while Richard insists the opposite is the case.  (He has presumably used digital alteration to support his position, since the audience agrees with Susan.)  Not all Richard’s manipulations are as clear-cut. His suggestion that Susan research the history of the house seems less than helpful, while his subtle undermining of Susan to her friend Helen and the hospital doctor includes him planting the idea that Susan harms herself.  We even wondered if the anti-depressants in Susan’s system were only present because Richard was drugging her in order to undermine her at this point.

Much of this is only seen in retrospect, once it is revealed that Richard is an abuser. This is also true of the way in which Madam Barbara’s ambiguous warning to Susan that ‘he’ will kill her, and that she should leave the house, becomes reframed as a clear denouncement of Richard. Similarly, Susan’s friend Helen asking Susan if she has received the messages she gave to Richard, and indeed her straight forward question of whether Richard is hurting Susan, are afforded extra significance. The oddness of the latter was made more apparent when we considered it later – Helen would hardly have asked this unless she was already concerned.  Some of us suspected Richard early on; he seemed too perfect and his ever-ready smile caused us to make connections with ‘Smiler’ in the photograph. In addition, we are familiar with Gothic tropes, and in the gothic the husband is often the perpetrator. Yet like Susan, who is clearly also aware of some of the horror tropes present (she researches the Occult, knows about poltergeists and considers calling in a catholic priest for an exorcism) others in the group, despite their awareness of the related matter of the gothic, only realised later.  It was knowledge of horror films which led to this. It occurred just after Richard claimed he had been attacked by the demon – while the woman often sees the demon in horror films, this is far less true of the man.

The delayed realisation reveals the success of the film’s attempt to align us with Susan. We spend most of our time with Susan, with Richard’s life away from the house little commented on – we just see him in his pinstripe shirt and suit, setting off for an undemanding day at work. Our alignment is not just in terms of sympathy, but in point of view. This is not strictly literal, but significantly we, like Susan do not physically see her attacker until the camera footage is screened. This means the revelation is indeed a plot twist for some of the audience.

We further pondered Susan and Richard’s relationship, speculating on how long they had been together and when the abuse started. Susan seems highly conditioned to her situation, accepting Richard’s control and her isolation without question. Oddly many of us also accepted Susan’s isolation until considering it more after the screening. In addition to the earlier mention that Richard has isolated Susan from Helen, we found it troubling that she had no friends or family to turn to – even by telephone. The house, in which Susan spends the majority of her time, is also physically isolated – with Richard using the couple’s one car to go to work every day. Some of us even credited Richard with more control than he possessed by wondering if he planted the card for Madam Barbara in the library book on the Occult. What happened during her visit discounted this theory, since Madam Barbara does not reinforce Richard’s ideas on the presence of demons. While Richard has not arranged the Madam Barbara’s appearance, she nonetheless seems frightened of him too since she leaves after giving only an ambiguous warning to Susan, and does not return to check on Susan.

Instead, Susan takes the matter into her own hands. She escalates the situation with Richard by goading the ‘demon’ until he attacks her – in full view of the cameras in the kitchen. Susan is prompted to take this action after ‘Smiler’ has apparently attacked Richard. The couple sits in the car, with Susan at the wheel, ready to drive them both away from the danger in the house. She is stopped by Richard, who asserts that Susan will never be able to escape from the demon, who he claims is feeding off the guilt she feels at losing her unborn children. This argument is illogical since Susan’s miscarriage occurred when she was attacked (seemingly by the demon). Susan does not question Richard’s logic.  It is only after Susan sees the visual evidence from the cameras that the two parts of her brain which have previously been dissociated, join together, and she sees Richard as her abuser.

The consequences of this realisation are grim for Susan. Richard hits her over the head with the laptop on which she has been viewing the camera footage. We wondered if perhaps a similar realisation had prompted the attack at the start of the film. It is also possible that Richard deliberately timed it so that causing the loss of her babies would further punish Susan, make her more vulnerable, and place her more fully in his control. Sadly it is the case that an abuser never needs a reason to abuse. The morning after Susan’s discovery, Richard seems a little wary of her. Susan is especially forceful in her squashing of sausages in the frying pan, perhaps causing him, like us, to wonder if he was about to be attacked with this most domestic of weapons. He is right to be concerned. Although Richard foolishly takes at face value Susan’s suggestion they consult a catholic priest, she finally finds proof of his abuse (courtesy of the camera she placed in the fruit bowl which she has previously overlooked)  and leaves him.

Symbolically Susan leaves behind her rather ostentatious engagement/wedding ring. Susan and Richard are obviously comfortably off; they rent or own a large house, have a four wheel drive car, neither is overworked, and Susan can spend several hundred pounds on her investigations without blinking. The ring is another sign of this wealth. It is also indicative of something else though. A member of the group was reminded of the Adrienne Rich poem ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’. This discusses the ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ on Aunt Jennifer’s hand and references imperialism and the oppression of women by men. (You can find the full poem here: http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/rich-jennifer-tiger.html)  As with The Yellow Wallpaper and The Diary of Sophronia Winters, patriarchy is signalled to be damaging, and women are advised to avoid marriage.

Susan, with the help of technology, manages to extricate herself from her situation. Seeing film footage of Richard attacking her is what makes Susan see the truth, and also provides proof for the police. Susan was also able to access this technology via other technology – she orders the cameras over the internet she perhaps surprisingly has some access to. Technology is not wholly positive, however, since Richard uses it to physically attack Susan.

Such instances of technology clearly place the film in the modern day. The modern is also reflected in the decoration of the central aspect of the house. While it has Gothic elements (an almost church-like appearance, especially evident in its windows) the interior is stylish and modern. The fact it is largely functional also suggests emptiness. There seem to be few personal items, with the main photograph that of a group of children and their schoolteacher. While some Gothic films are set in contemporary times (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Secret Beyond the Door, and Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975)), more often they take place in the past (Gaslight, The Spiral Staircase, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).

Setting films in the past provides the audience with distance from the narrative, to allow them to deny the relevance of the gothic (and its disturbing overtones) to the present day. By contrast, The Devil’s Vice is set in contemporary times since social documentary and feature film maker Peter Watkins-Hughes’ main remit was to raise awareness of domestic abuse and to encourage people to seek help.  It was released at the time Clare’s Law –the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme was rolled out across the UK. The law allows people with concerns to make enquiries about a partner. You can find out more on the film’s website: http://www.thedevilsvice.org.uk/

We thought that the film was very effective in using its small cast of fewer than ten, limited running time and few locations. These all added to the sense of constraint. However, the tone was occasionally uneven (especially in Helen’s visit to the house seemingly being played for a little comedy), and we found Susan’s desire to return to home a bit unbelievable. Regardless of how much Susan is being controlled, she has suffered not just terrible physical trauma but the emotional effect of losing her unborn babies. This is dealt with quickly. While the focus on extreme physical violence is understandable in terms of seeing what is already in plain sight, it underplays the significance of the more subtle ways people abuse others. Since the film’s release, the matter of coercive control has also been more discussed, and indeed in March 2015  was included in the Serious Crime Act https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482528/Controlling_or_coercive_behaviour_-_statutory_guidance.pdf)

But the film did raise our awareness in making the connection between Gothic heroines and domestic abuse – whether physical, emotional, or both. This crystallised for us the continuing relevance of the Gothic, especially in a world that continues to be unequal.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, Monday 12th of December, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the last meeting of term. On Monday the 12th of December, at 5-7pm, in Jarman 7 we will be screening the UK anthology film Dead of Night (1945, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer and Basil Dearden, 102 mins).

dead_of_night_poster_03‘How narrow is the margin between dreams and reality, the natural and the supernatural, fact or fiction, is graphically and dramatically shown in this Ealing Studios production based on original stories by H.G. Wells’. This intriguing opening to a Review of the film in Fan Magazine Screenland (August 1946, p. 12) poses these, as well as other philosophical quandaries, in its 5 linked gothic horror narratives. The anthology comprises ‘Hearse Driver’, ‘Christmas Party’, ‘Haunted Mirror’, ‘Golfing Story’ and, the arguably best known, ‘Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ sequence in which a sensitive ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) comes to fear that his sinister dummy is actually alive.

Do join us for ‘engrossing film fare which really makes you think’ (Review in Screenland, August 1946, p. 12).

You can find the full review on the Media History Digital Library’s fantastic website: http://archive.org/stream/screenland501unse#page/n911/mode/2up

More information on Fan Magazines can be found on the University of Kent’s NoRMMA blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/

Melodrama Meeting, 17th of October, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the next Melodrama Meeting on Monday, 17th of October, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7. We will be discussing Kat’s choice of gothic text: Alice Thompson’s novel, The Book Collector (2015).

thompson-book-collector

 

Kat has very kindly provided the following introduction:

On its release in 2015, The Book Collector, was noted for its liberal use of gothic motifs, its allusions to fairy tales, and for its ‘melancholic sadism’. Described as an Edwardian gothic chiller, The Book Collector, was heralded as residing somewhere between pastiche and critique. Indeed, Alice Thompson makes many nods to previous gothic outings; Angela Carter, Hans Christian Andersen and most notably the Bluebeard myth.

Set in Edwardian England just before World War I, orphaned Violet is approached by a mysterious man at a cafe who leaves her his business card for his second-hand book shop, a most appropriately gothic named, Looking Glass. The shop proprietor turns out to be Lord Archibald Murray, a recent widower. Violet and Archibald marry quickly and soon settle into a fairy tale existence in Murray’s Arcadian country home. Wanting for nothing, it isn’t long before Violet gives birth to a son. But as with all Bluebeard narratives, living a fairy tale existence comes at a price. Violet begins to grow suspicious and doubts Archie’s love for her. She becomes obsessed with one particular book of fairy tales in Archie’s collection, an obsession that leads to Violet suffering from paranoid hallucinations, resulting in her incarceration in a nearby asylum. On her return to the family home, Violet finds Archie has employed a nursemaid, the beautiful, yet enigmatic, Clara. Disturbed by Clara’s presence, Violet becomes perturbed by her husband’s nocturnal absences and by the disappearance of women from the local asylum. As Violet begins to investigate, she soon realises that the horrors of the asylum are nothing compared to what she uncovers.

While there is little doubt of the debt owed to the gothic tradition by The Book Collector, it is more challenging to ascertain whether the book seeks to critique gothic tales such as Bluebeard, or if it desires for a more pastiche rendition.  The book does not shy away from its explicit citing of gothic tropes; the secretive husband, the country estate, female insanity, asylums and forbidden texts. However, there are jarring elements that contemporises the gothic sensibility in, The Book Collector. Following on from the previous meeting’s screenings of Bluebeard, The Book Collector, is an ideal text to discuss, for it provides another interjection not only into the history of the Bluebeard narrative, but also into the gothic tradition.

Waves of Horror Festival this Halloween Weekend

Hi all,

A reminder that Kat’s fabulously scary Waves of Horror Festival will take place over this Halloween weekend on the University of Kent Canterbury campus.

waves of horror

Here’s a link to a search on Waves of Horror on the Gulbenkian Cinema’s website for those feeling brave enough! : http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/search/?q=waves+of+horror

Also see their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Waves-of-Horror-Film-Festival-736601073018188/

And the twitter account:  https://twitter.com/WavesofHorror?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

Summary of Discussion on Dead Ringers

Kat has very kindly provided the following excellent summary of our discussion on Dead Ringers (1988):

Never before has there been such a hushed silence post screening! Jeremy Irons knows how to wow an audience…..

The initial discussion focused not on the Mantle twins, but rather on the representation of women in the film, which was not wholly positive. The twins, but most often Eliot, were quite dismissive of women, despite the fact they are celebrated gynaecologists. They wonder at the spectacle of Claire’s “trifurcated cervix”, which in essence is a mutation of the cervix and by the end of the film Beverly only sees “mutant” women who require normalising. Women are represented as functional objects in the film; they are either portals of pleasure for the twins, or child bearers (once successfully treated by the Mantle twins). Even Claire Niveau is not constructed as a sympathetic character – it is challenging to engage and feel empathy with her, even when she realises she has been deceived into sexual relationships with both twins, thinking it was just one,Dead Ringers Claire make up Beverly. Claire talks of how she wishes and needs to be humiliated in taking a role in a miniseries. A later scene where costumes are discussed for her character, Claire’s character is described in terms of being an “emotional hooker” . While in another scene, Claire is visited by Eliot whilst she is having her makeup applied for a scene in the mini-series. The audience is privileged to only one side of Claire’s face and when finally there is a full head shot, Claire’s make-up is to create the appearance of a woman beaten up – bruised and swollen eye and bruised lips and cheek. We discussed this as an externalisation of Claire’s emotions and how she feels she has been treated by Beverly and Eliot – as damaged as the supposedly “mutant” women, Beverly thinks he is treating.

Intertwined in the discussion surrounding the construction and representation of Claire, was an aside thread of the theme of art versus glamour (or art and glamour) in the film. There seemed to be a fine line between both. Beverly enjoyed watching “glamorous” shows on TV. However, there is a suggestion of gynaecology being a “work of art”, or at least a creative process that hints at the Mantle twins being perceived as “artists”. The theme is fully realised in the spectacle of the tools Beverly has made in order to treat “mutant” women that finish up displayed in the window of an art gallery.

dead ringers christ like pose imagesThis thread of the discussion on art/glamour developed into the role of colour, costume and the twins. We all agreed there was confusing representations of the twins in terms of when they undertook surgery. Beverly especially as it was normally he who undertook this work. As he was dressed in his scrubs, he would stand, arms out stretched, as if he was Christ like. However, their work in the process of the creation of life is more God-like, we thought.  Nonetheless, very religious imagery stood out against the grey 1980s colouring in the rest of the film. The conclusion was that this was a confusing and muddled aspect of their representation. The costumed scrubs appeared a little excessive for the narrative. We pointed out that the film is explicit in placing the film in 1988. However, the costumes for the surgery pulls it “out of time”, another puzzling part of the film. However, we agreed this did add to the horror and overall general creepiness. The colour red stood out against the grey, even though we didn’t consider it practical for surgery! There was something priest like, or inquisitional regarding the costume and colour here.

In discussing the doubling trope of the twins, it was observed that even though we were privileged with knowing they were twins from the beginning, there were certain scenes in the film when it wasn’t made explicit which twin we were watching. So, the film succeeded in creating suspense in the twins’ identities by denying the audience knowledge of individual identity.

The final point of the discussion was on the idea of male hysteria. It was noted there are previous examples of the double in the relation to the female example in relation to the double. For example, Black Swan and The Yellow Wallpaper. There are references to female identity with Beverly and Eliot, their names for one. Here we pondered on the idea as to whether here is a feminised hysteria in the construction of the Mantle twins. Beverly appeared “weaker” than Eliot and we view him as the more feminised twin. Also, their job is to give life, as if “mother”, but from the beginning there is the notion of “no touching” of the revering of how fish procreate – underwater and again, with no touching. Are they the mutants for suffering from a feminised hysteria?

Thanks for a great summary, Kat. Your final question is certainly one to ponder!

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk

Summary of Discussion on The Double

Frances has very kindly provided the following excellent summary of our discussion on The Double.

Double#1

 

The Double: Screening and Discussion notes

The post-film discussion began with the observation that the film taps into ideas of horror and the surreal, and how the relationship between these two themes is becoming more common in recent films like The Double. However depictions of horror and the surreal are by no means a new invention as it was noted that the dark humour of the film was quite Lynchian and particularly reminiscent of Twin Peaks. The Double also touches on the tone and themes we shall explore with our next screening, Dead Ringers.

Our discussion also touched upon the nature of the doppelganger figure represented in the films shown as part of our season. The Double shares an affinity with The Dark Mirror shown a few weeks ago because both films depict the double character as inevitably evil. In The Dark Mirror, this portrayal hinges on the ‘scientific’ notions that twinned siblings have fraught, competitive and dysfunctional relationships where one sibling will eventually turn to crime: the idea of the ‘evil twin’. Although the doppelganger which appears in The Double is not an identical twin, the same logic is applied to the duplicated appearance but mental incongruence between Simon James and James Simon. Where Simon is unpopular but kind, thoughtful and loyal, James is successful but manipulative, selfish and cruel.

This opens up the question: what purpose does this doubling of characters serve in these films, and what does the figure of the doppelganger signify? It was noted in our discussion that the doppelganger functions as the ultimate fracturing of identity and thus appears to engage with ideas about modernity. This is supported by the film’s mise en scene. The spaces in The Double seem quite modern as, for example, the office Simon works in uses computer technology to process data. However this same technology is also strangely archaic: the computers look outdated and the machines are cumbersome and slow. Our sense of time and space is ruptured as the film seems to suggest that the events depicted in The Double could be everywhere but nowhere.

As such, the doubling of Simon functions in part to illuminate the horror of modernity: machines control the characters in the film, as well as giving them a sense of purpose, but the outdated technology also hinders the ability for these people to relate meaningfully to other human beings. The humour of the film derives from the horror of this situation. James’s intrusion into Simon’s life proves how nothing matters in this reality – that a callous attitude can succeed over a humble one – but this life is not a nightmare as such: the film states this is just ‘reality’. It is for these reasons that the film adopts a deadened tone despite the larger melodramatic themes and scenes which take place.

Finally, we also briefly discussed how James is introduced into the story and how this compares with other films featuring a double. In The Double, James first appears in very brief shots, when he quickly passes by Simon on his way home. The fast editing offers just glimpses of James before his formal introduction at Simon’s work place the next day. This entrance is similar to the double’s introduction in Black Swan, where noises on the soundtrack indicate the doppelganger’s arrival. Both instances also take place in tight, claustrophobic spaces where sound and image are difficult to discern. These images also contribute to the double’s status as a harbinger of evil which will threaten the wellbeing of the main protagonist.

 

Thanks Frances! Do, as ever, log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

The Orphanage showing at The Gulbenkian Cinema on the 4th of March

Posted by Sarah

The fifth film in the Gulbenkian  Cinema’s Gothic Season – J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) – screens on Tuesday 4th of March  at 9.30pm. It will be preceded by a panel discussion which will include contributions from the Melodrama Research Group’s Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald, as well as Dr Cecilia Sayad and Professor Nuria Triana-Toribio.

The OrphanageThe Gulbenkian Cinema’s description of the film:

J. A. Bayona | Spain | 2007 | 106mins | Belén  Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep

This terrific Spanish horror film, the debut of J. A.  Bayona and produced by Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, received great acclaim on its release in 2007.

After thirty years, Laura returns to orphanage where she  grew up, accompanied by her husband Carlos and their 7-year-old son Simón, with  a dream of restoring and reopening the long-abandoned mansion as a home for  disabled children. The place awakens Simón’s imagination, and he soon begins  playing not-so-innocent games.

As events take a sinister turn, Laura slowly becomes  convinced that something long-hidden and terrible is lurking in the old house,  something waiting to emerge and inflict appalling damage on her family, in this  cleverly made, utterly terrifying film.

“A shiver of fear  runs right through Juan Antonio Bayona’s pungent and scary film” Peter Bradshaw, The  Guardian, 4 stars

“A good old-fashioned  horror in the best possible way, this is a beautifully told, terrifying ghost  story that lingers with you long after the shivers have stopped” Olly Richards, Empire  Magazine

Spanish  w/Eng ST

For more information and to book your ticket please go to: http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/events/cinema/2014/March/2014-03-the-orphanage.html

Summary of Discussion on The Awakening

Posted by Sarah

Frances has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion on The Awakening (2011):

the awakening

 

Warning! The following discussion contains spoilers for those who have not seen the film yet…

On Wednesday 19th February we watched and discussed The Awakening. I did not want to say too much about the film in my opening remarks and so most of the group present were experiencing the film for the first time and without much previous knowledge. This was an important component for our discussion after the film as quite a lot of time was spent discussing the film’s ending and its twist (or twists). We agreed that the film remained ambiguous about whether Florence is alive or not at the end. We mentioned that, logically, it is probably likely that she survived (the manner in which she interacts with other characters and is about to leave the house points to this) but it is interesting that the film still works to evoke the question of her mortality and does not complete resolve the ambiguity. Costume and performance are important parts to this uncertainty. Florence’s costume has changed and so this suggests she has survived. However we awakening endingnoted how the white coat she wears could make Florence seem ghostly and this is an interpretation reinforced by the way her presence is ignored by the school’s headmaster. In either case, we felt the possibility for different interpretations was a fitting ending to a ghost story where frequently our expectations are continually subverted.

The group commented how, in many ways, The Awakening is a conventional story of a haunted house where the spirits interact with the living in order to resolve unfinished business. The music contributes considerably in establishing this uneasy mood and the film contains some good, unexpected scares. A comparison was made between The Awakening and Turn of the Screw and the relationship between the ghost story in cinema and that in literature. But that is not to say that the film does not contain some very striking moments which we agreed worked especially well. We talked about how the uncanny is evoked by the film, especially in the scene where Florence keeps returning to the same room depicting her mother’s death, despite her attempts to run away. The rabbit toy is also particularly uncanny and signals a rare instance of the use of vivid colour in the film. We discussed how it is possible to extend the Freudian reading of the film further, as the dollhouse functions as another double: it is the double of the house but also metaphorically represents Florence’s mind (it is her ‘mind palace’). Florence’s interaction with the dollhouse – which moves from confusion to trepidation and fear – parallels our protagonist’s the awakening doll's houseincreasing understanding of the haunting. The dollhouse allows Florence to observe the whole house, at once, and yet she is still unable to ‘see’ the larger picture for the majority of the film. This radically changes of course when Florence remembers her traumatic childhood and the memories of those disturbing events are ‘re-lived’ before her eyes.

In this respect the film can be interpretedthe awakening rabbit as a representation of the psychoanalytical process, as a kind of ‘talking cure’. Florence’s experience of the haunted house in the film functions to provide a series of shocks for the heroine so that she may remember the traumatic truth of her childhood. Tom’s presence in the film represents a form of the return of the repressed. The rabbit toy also functions as an important marker and another double. The song which the toy sings remarks that all the children ‘are gone except one’. This creates another double because at first the viewer believes this to be the ghost child (revealed later to be Tom) but this ‘child’ is also Florence herself, as she survived her father’s brutal attack. Only by remembering – or rediscovering – her true ‘self’ can Florence come to terms with this true identity. We discussed how it is interesting that this journey of self-discovery is framed by Florence’s movement from spiritual sceptic to dedicated believer in ghosts. This somewhat undermines Florence’s characterisation at the beginning of the film as an independent, successful author and career woman in the early 20th Century, and so the ultimate ‘message’ of the film is obtuse.

We also discussed the film’s setting and agreed that the post-WWI era is particularly suited to this type of horror story. We said how the film thus taps into a British cultural memory in addition to performing as a conventional ghostly tale. It was commented that The Awakening also correlates to the wider tradition of British horror which emphasises the paganism and spiritualism of the countryside against the supposed rational and sceptical urban city. Additionally, the manor house setting in The Awakening brings in the question of class, particularly through the character of Maud, and how the haunting of the house is caused – in part The Skeleton key– by the oppression of the aristocracy. We commented how this trait in horror extends beyond British films albeit in a slightly different guise: The Skeleton Key is a good comparison point with the manor house now replaced by a plantation house.

Many thanks to Frances for choosing the film, introducing it and providing the above excellent summary of our discussion.

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Alien (1979) Showing at the Gulbenkian Cinema on the 24th of Feb

Posted by Sarah

The fourth film in the Gulbenkian Cinema’s Gothic Season – Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) – screens on Monday 24th of February at 9.15 pm. It will be introduced by Melodrama Research Group member Frances Kamm.

Alien

The Gulbenkian Cinema’s description of the film:

Ridley Scott | US | 1979 | 113mins | Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John  Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” Ridley Scott’s (Bladerunner)  1979 modern classic stars a never-better Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist) as Ripley, one of  several scientists on board the spaceship Nostromo, on the return leg of a  routine mission when they detect a mysterious transmission from a nearby  planet. Investigating the source, they find the remains of an alien creature  and crew member Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by the creature in one of its  eggs. Back on board, he has seemingly recovered when an uninvited guest  arrives, in gloriously gory fashion, in one of sci-fi’s most memorable  sequences.

The undisputed best of the Alien films, with a cerebral slant  alongside the thrills and gore, and an iconic feminist heroine in Weaver’s  preternaturally cool, tough Ripley, it’s a shocking, seamless ride.

“It  remains a benchmark of extra-terrestrial horror, and gave us a bona fide A-list  star in the shape of Sigourney Weaver” Film4.com

“One  of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made” Jamie Russell, BBC

For more information and to book your ticket please go to: http://www.thegulbenkian.co.uk/events/cinema/2014/February/2014-02-alien.html

 

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 19th of February, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fourth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 19th of February in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening The Awakening (2011, Nick Murphy, 107 mins).

TA 4

 

Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Following on from Kat’s screening of Black Christmas last week, this week’s film The Awakening is another example of the intersection between horror and melodrama in the
Gothic tradition. The Awakening picks up many of the Gothic tropes present in Black Christmas, such as the woman-in-peril and dark house motifs, but uses these elements for a very different effect.

The Awakening TA 1is a 2011 British horror film starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton and directed by Nick Murphy. In many ways the film contributes to the popularity of the haunted house and ghost story narratives which have been featured and revived in many recent horror films, such as the Paranormal Activity series (2009-present) and, in particular, The Woman in Black (2012 and another British horror film). The Awakening also shares many similarities with The Orphanage (2007), as it seeks to combine a classic chilling story of a house haunted by a supernatural presence with the aftermath of traumatic historic events: in The Awakening’s case, Britain in 1921 after World War One. The Awakening tells the story of writer Florence Cathcart who has made her name as a paranormal sceptic and now helps the police in exposing and arresting charlatans who host spiritualism meetings and séances which promise to reunite paying customers with family members and the soldiers who did not return from the war. A war veteran and teacher, Robert Mallory, meets Florence and requests she return with him to his boarding school in the countryside, where he believes a real ghost of a former schoolboy is haunting the premises. Although initially reluctant at first, Florence agrees to return with Robert and prove the ghost a fraud, and thereby restore order to the school and the boys who believe the recent death of their school friend to be caused by a malicious spirit. With the help of her scientific equipment, Florence quickly believes the mystery to be solved and the ‘ghost’ exposed as a childish prank, until further paranormal occurrences begin to take place and Florence is forced to question her beliefs…

TA 5The film incorporates many of the major themes and tropes of the Gothic, as   established by the Gothic literature of the 18th century and the Bluebeard tale, which in turn inspired the Gothic cycle of films in Hollywood in the 1940s beginning with Rebecca (1940). Florence is the Gothic heroine of the film who is compelled to investigate the mystery of an old, dark house: in this case, the boarding school. In unlocking the secrets of the house, Florence becomes the woman-in-jeopardy conventionally at the heart of these stories: Florence is imperilled by the supernatural presence in the house; by the threats posed by the shady groundskeeper Edward Judd; and by her own stubbornness to question her rationalist convictions. In keeping with the traditions of the Gothic, the film’s narrative hinges on the revelation of a hidden secret which comes to light through Florence’s investigation. In The Awakening this secret is not contained within a single secret, locked room (as conventionally seen in such Bluebeard-inspired tales) but rather the house itself is the mystery to Florence, which must be discovered and understood in order to reveal the building’s – and her own – troubled past. As such we explore the house and experience the supernatural sightings with Florence and this identification with the female protagonist shows the film’s correlation to the conventions of horror established by films like Black Christmas, as discussed last week. The film adheres to other horror generic conventions, particularly in respect to low key lighting and the threat conveyed through effective editing and camera movement, but The Awakening is not just concerned with shocks and jumps. In his 2011 review of the film, Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw describes the film as a ‘supernatural melodrama’ and this description becomes very apt. The film’s horror elements work to illuminate andTA 3 frame the personal (and often private) melodramas which affect each character. The teachers of the school fail to conceal these tragedies as these secrets are also revealed within the course of Florence’s investigation. Central topics include shell-shock, child abuse and death.

The film extends the Gothic trope of the house revealing secrets to include Florence herself, as The Awakening ultimately performs an in-depth analysis of the heroine and her psyche as well. This commingling of the paranormal or the mysterious with scientific and rational reasoning is a TA6reoccurring trend in the narrative and becomes key to unlocking the secret of Florence and her past. This is evident from the film’s very first frames, when we see a quotation from Florence’s popular book about the debunking of spirits informing us of the high death rate in Britain recently and concluding: ‘This is a time for ghosts’. This sentiment is supported by the opening scene which sees Florence attend a séance. Yet this first ghostly encounter is quickly revealed to be a fraud by Florence, who has the proponents of the meeting arrested. Florence maintains her sceptical, rationalist ideals through the use of advanced technological devices to prove the boarding school’s sightings of ghosts to be a hoax, only to have this same scientific equipment ‘prove’ the opposite is true. The narrative’s vacillation between incredulity and belief highlights the importance of the film’s setting in post-war Britain. The years following the First World War – a conflict which would radically re-define modern warfare and the devastating impact of technology – saw an increase in the popularity of spiritualism and belief in the paranormal. It is important to note that Freud’s essay on the uncanny was also published at this time, in 1919. The uncanny has a long history, which is interwoven with the Gothic tradition and literature of the 18th century, but the fact that Freud should choose to publish his work on the uncanny at this time is significant. Just as the world was recovering from the shock and trauma of the ‘modern’ – in this case, modern warfare – Freud muses upon the affect a displacement from the world, like an experience of the uncanny, has upon the mind. Like Florence, Freud hopes to offer a scientific explanation for these occurrences although, by his own admission, he ultimately fails. It is therefore important to view the film in terms of the uncanny as well, because the concept helps contextualise the historical setting for the film and The Awakening effectively incorporates many of the motifs which Freud identifies as ripe for an uncanny experience. These include representations of the double; the slippage between what is known to be alive or dead; and the unheimlich or the unhomely nature of the house. In testament to Freud’s work, The Awakening reveals that the secret behind the melodrama, the cause of the horror and ‘the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and has long been familiar.’

When watching the film we can think about:

–          How The Awakening fits into this Gothic tradition

–          Why the film has this historical setting

–          Florence’s characterisation

–          The ending: what does it all mean?

Do join us if you can for this chilling screening!