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:  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:

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

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.

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Summary of Discussion on Notorious

Our discussion on Notorious ranged across various aspects relating to melodrama and the gothic, also touching on production and reception issues and the recent film Crimson Peak.

An initial comment related to the film’s music. This was expressive throughout – including at moments when emphasis has already been provided visually. Several quick camera zooms into characters’ faces, poisoned cups of coffee, and vitallyNotorious ending important keys were also punctuated by music. We thought it was interesting that the most suspenseful scene of the film was not heavily scored. The final scene in which Devlin (Cary Grant) has finally come to Alicia’s (Ingrid Bergman’s) rescue and has to face down her Nazi husband Alexis (Claude Rains) and his mother (Madame Konstantin) uses the characters’ looks to convey the tension.

notorious beginningThe film’s opening is also intriguing. In this, Alicia is seen flirting with an unknown and silent man who only appears from behind, sat in a chair. This is especially sinister since Alicia seems to be so open with her smiles. While this functions to build up to Grant’s star entrance, it also foreshadows the danger he (as Devlin) encourages her to place herself in. As an American Intelligence agent he is involved in recruiting her and remains her contact throughout. He even enables the Alicia and her target –Alexis – to be reacquainted by placing her in physical danger. He gives her horse a surreptitious kick to necessitate the nearby Alexis to ride to her rescue.

The woman-in-peril aspect is complicated however by the fact Alicia willingly placesnotorious drink driving herself in extreme danger from the very start. This is especially seen in her drink-driving which conveys that following her father’s imprisonment for treason she does not care if she lives or dies. This places Devlin in danger for one of the few times in the film.  Alicia faces far more danger and heartache – marrying a man she knows to be a Nazi when she is in love with Devlin.

1 Welcome GaslightSuch a tense marriage can be related to other gothic heroines in films we have recently screened. In In Gaslight (1944) (another film in which Bergman starred) her character’s husband meant her harm. We can contrast this to Rebecca (1940) in which the heroine also marries for love, and rightly grows suspicious of her husband, Maxim. This is proved to be unfounded in relation to the second Mrs de Winter’s own safety, however.

There are also useful comparisons in terms of Rebecca’s heroine as an ‘almostRebecca investigator’.  Alicia is far more active than the second Mrs de Winter, fulfilling the role of spy. She also differs to the second Mrs de Winter (and several other gothic heroines) in her drunkenness.  The fairly blatant communication of her apparent sexual promiscuity contrasts even more sharply to chaste, innocent heroines. By Alicia’s own admission to Devlin that she is a ‘crook’ as well as a ‘tramp’.

notorious riding gear The fact Alicia appears in modern fashionable clothes contrasts to several other gothic heroines. Many of the other films we have screened are set in earlier periods (the late 1800s Gaslight, the early 20th century in The Spiral Staircase (1945)). Even the contemporary second Mrs de Winter only becomes comfortable in fashionable clothes as the film progresses. Alicia’s riding gear which is not only formal but includes a mannish tie contrasts to the second Mrs de Winter’s soft femininity.

A more specific aspect of setting often associated withspiral-staircase-dorothy-mcguire the gothic, the mansion house, is also present in Notorious. Alicia moves to Alexis’ house following their marriage and scenes of the lavish party they throw convey  a sense of space. It is significant that Alicia is not allowed access to all areas of her new home. Notably the key to the wine cellar, highlighted in the previous post’s advertisement for the film, is kept by Alexis. The wine cellar’s role as dangerous space also compares to The Spiral Staircase. A  staircase also plays an important part in Notorious. It conveys Alexis’ mother’s sense of ownership as she sweeps down them to meet Alicia for the first time and is the setting for the film’s climax. Devlin’s tense rescue of Alicia involves him carrying her down the staircase.

notorious fanThe smaller trope of the candle-carrying which we have noticed in other gothic films was also noticeable – though given a twist. Instead of carrying a candle or torch to aid with her investigations, Alicia holds a fan throughout the hosting of the party. This signals the deceit she is practicing on her husband and also nods to the film’s romantic moments – the film’s beginning  brings to mind a romantic comedy.  Significantly candles are most obviously present as a mood-setter for Alicia and Devlin’s outdoor picnic before their romance turns sour and she marries Alexis. The fact Devlin remains Alicia’s contact throughout the film also comments on the film’s romantic, rather than realistic, point of view as it allows for their relationship to play out.

We also discussed some of the film’s other characters. Joan Fontaine RebeccaWe found Alexis’ mother especially compelling. Dorothy Kilgallen’s November 1946 Modern Screen piece on the film (cited in the previous post) compared Madame Konstantin’s performance to that of Judith Anderson, as Mrs Danvers, in Rebecca (p. 138). We also spoke a little about Madame Konstantin’s earlier stage career and roles in European films. This was her main Hollywood role and like other emigres who had fled the Nazis, it is ironic that she played a Nazi in Notorious.

It was also mentioned that several aspects of the film relate to a recent release which drew on the gothic. In Crimson Peak (2015), like Notorious, the heroine is poisoned by a drink and carried out of the house at the film’s end. This reveals the continued relevance of melodramatic and gothic tropes.

notorious kissConsideration of Crimson Peak also flagged up Notorious’ very different production and reception contexts. While the later film is very sexually explicit, sexual references made in Notorious were rather explicit for their time – especially given the censorship of Hollywood films operating. In addition to general comments about Alicia’s sexual behaviour, it is heavily hinted that she has pre-marital sex with Alexis. The lengthy kiss between Devlin and Alicia was censored, however, with constant distractions and discussion about dinner technically meaning it did not last long enough to be considered objectionable. We also noted that alcohol was very freely enjoyed by Alicia – a contrast to a decade earlier when films such as The Thin Man (1934) were criticised for such scenes.

It was said that the key which played such an important role in the film also had an interesting afterlife. Apparently Grant took it from the set and sent it to Bergman when she was in disgrace for her adulterous affair with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Later still, Bergman returned it to Hitchcock.

We also spoke about Bergman’s star image. She was half-German as well as half-Swedish but unsurprisingly the latter was far more foregrounded in information circulated about her in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. Bergman’s international heritage was also utilised in her screen image as she often played characters who were not native to the countries in which her films were made. These extended to not just the United States, but Germany and Italy.

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Summary of Discussion on The Spiral Staircase

Comments on Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946) included the film’s temporal and geographical settings; its use of early cinema entertainment; the film’s plot; its heroine; the source novel; feminism and the film’s characters; the couple; the melodrama genre and more specifically gothic tropes such as the staircase.

spiral credits

Our discussion began with appreciation for the film’s opening. This occurs just after the shadowy shot of a woman descending a spiral staircase over which the credits roll. After establishing a suitably creepy atmosphere, the film proceeds to communicate the film’s time and place. Small town America is conveyed by wide streets and the date narrowed to sometime in the 1910s judging by the dirt road, horses and carts,  and characters’ costumes. The date is further pinned down by the screening of a modern attraction – a short silent motion picture, The Kiss. (This might be an extract from Ulysses Davis’ 1914 version starring William Desmond Taylor, although several shorts with the same name were produced in the 1910s.)

The heroine of the film, young mute Helen spiral old film(Dorothy McGuire), is attending the screening and this aligns us with her as film goers.  It also creates a certain expectation of romance within the film – once more for both us and Helen. We especially liked this depiction of film history within a film text, and were impressed by the inclusion of a woman playing live piano accompaniment. Soon the murder of a disabled young woman is committed in her rooms above the theatre. The masterly fluid use of space between the lower and higher levels contrasts to the disjuncture inherent in our viewing of those enjoying an entertainment and the serious crime taking place upstairs. Even the dramatic nature of the short overtaken by ‘real’ events.

some-must-watchWhile the alignment of us with Helen, and the other film goers, draws us into the action the dissonance between audience experiences (silent vs sound) separates us. This led us to ponder some key differences between the source material (Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch 1933) and the film. The action has moved from rural UK to small-town America (despite the inclusion of recognisable British actors Elsa Lanchester and Sara Allgood). The heroine is now a mute which places her in the path of the serial killer murdering disabled women. These women begin 10 years earlier with a woman with learning difficulties, and more recently one with a scarred face (a strong comment on the linking of women and beauty), another woman with learning difficulties, a woman with mobility issues, one who refused to love the murderer (presumably this is seen to show a lack of judgement, though of course we know differently), and lastly possibly Helen, who is mute.  More significantly the film is placed around twenty years earlier than the novel.  Instances of feminism in the film are therefore displaced onto earlier times and the fact that the heroine literally, and not just metaphorically, has no voice is also connected to the time of women’s suffrage. We also noted that conduct literature of the time advocated all women being quiet – raising her hat to get attention rather than shouting.

We discussed the instances spiral high angle Eb gunof feminism in the film at some length. The heroine is not saved by a man, but a woman. Specifically Helen’s saviour is her elderly, seemingly bed-ridden and cranky employer Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore).  Not only does Mrs Warren urge Helen to leave the house for her own safety but she shoots her stepson, Professor Warren (George O’Brien), when she realises he has committed these heinous crimes.   Although this action might seem surprising – especially in terms of the character’s limited mobility – several important factors have been established earlier. We see Mrs Warren with a gun which she then manages to somehow hide and her hunting past is evidenced by the various animal trophies in her room which include several stuffed birds, tusks and a prominently placed tiger rug. The latter is focuses on when Helen almost trips over it. Mrs Warren  explicitly claims it as her ‘kill’ and notes that her husband said she was ‘not as beautiful’ as his first wife but that she was a much better ‘shot’ – a strength he greatly admired. As well as establishing Mrs Warren’s strong character the various stuffed animals add to the creepy setting by adding more watching pairs of eyes – death pervades not just the town, but the house too.

Mrs Warren also provides a vital insight into the motivations of the killer when she comments, early on, that her husband thought men could only be men if they were toting guns. This places the blame firmly at the feet of her dead husband and this is later confirmed by Professor Warren’s ‘justification’ to Helen. He specially states that his father would be proud he is ridding the world of the ‘afflicted’. (Notably not weak people – there are no male victims only those doubly ‘afflicted’ by disfigurement or disability and the being of the female gender.)

The_Spiral_Staircase SteveProfessor Warren’s half-brother Steve’s behaviour is also critiqued. His attentions are seen to bother his brother’s secretary, Blanche, with their final meeting including him telling her that he enjoys watching her cry. He considers this sadistic behaviour common to all men since women’s expressions of their emotions make the male gender feel ‘superior’. Specifically he cautions Blanche not to be ‘melodramatic’.

The film cannot be viewed as a straightforward criticism of patriarchy, however, as it switches between approaches. The romantic subplot with Doctor Parry expresses this most strongly. Helen and Doctor Parry’s status as a romantic couple is far more straightforward than either Rebecca or Sorry, Wrong Number. While Maxim de Winter and Lenore’s husband are killers (and significantly wife-killers) Doctor Parry is a decent man of conviction. He does not express his love for Helen other than a brief kiss, but it is commented on by Mrs Warren in front of the pair. Mrs Warren attempts to displace the responsibility for taking Helen away onto Doctor Parry, though this is unsuccessful.spiral couple This view of traditional gender roles is also held by Helen.  Her fantasy is of her wedding to Doctor Parry. She pictures this taking place at the house but this turns into a nightmare when she is unable to utter ‘I do’. It is also notable that Doctor Parry takes it upon himself to ‘cure’ Helen of her lack of speech becoming, albeit briefly, another threatening man in the narrative as she shouts at her. In fact Helen only regains her voice after the shock of Mrs Warren shooting her stepson.

We also spoke about the film’s effective creation and dissipation of suspense. As Helen walks home after the murder at the theatre she hears something. Arming herself with a heft tree branch she is relieved to discover the source of the sound was merely a rabbit. As Helen approaches the house she drops her door key and as she stoops to collect it we are afforded a glimpse of a man Helen does not see. Thankfully she reaches the front door and gains access to the house. This is not without a sense of foreboding though as Helen is being watched by various statutes and ‘faces’ in the furniture. Our concerns are made more concrete as it is soon revealed that someone has deliberately opened one of the windows whish the housekeeper Mrs Oates insists was earlier shut. Another moment of suspense is created as off-camera we hear Mrs Oates cry out as she walks out. The culprit – a bulldog- is soon revealed. Such switches (and those critiquing and supporting patriarchy) are part of the ‘rhythm’ of the film’s melodrama.

spiral DMMore specifically gothic tropes such as a woman carrying a candlestick exploring the space of the house also appear. While three women (Mrs Oates, Blanche and Helen) perform this action, only the heroine is actively investigating. Mrs Oates is seeking brandy in the cellar (which it is later revealed her employer Professor Warren has deliberately let her steal so that she will be incapacitated and  unable to interfere in his crimes)  and Blanche is simply retrieving her suitcase so she can leave. Helen alone is investigating by going looking for the missing Blanche. Shortly after Helen finds Blanche murdered, Steven appears on the scene and Helen is proactive in taking action – she utilises Mrs Oates’ candle trick to trick him into the cellar and lock the door. Interestingly other aspects of the heroine wearing a nightgown (see The Innocents 1961) is fulfilled by Blanche and later Mrs Warren who has places her house coat over her bedclothes when she shoots her stepson.

Staircases also play an important role. We noted the striking high angle shot which details Mrs Warren at the top of the staircase shooting her stepson several times. Her powerful position cats her as judge and executioner. More generally, character are often ascending and descending them. It is useful to bear in mind Mary Ann Doane’s comment on the staircase’s significance as a space of ‘transition’ (1987, pp. 135-6: Wespiral mirror particularly noted the difference between the use of the huge front formal staircase (more usually used by the family) and the shadowy back stairs (for the servants). While the former were ascended a lot the back stairs were mostly descended. The fact the prominently placed mirror occupied liminal space by appearing half way up the formal staircase was also discussed. We found the killer POV shots occurring here especially tense, reminding us of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).


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Summary of Discussion on Poltergeist

Posted by Sarah

The post-screening discussion ranged far and wide, addressing several areas: the debate as to whether Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg directed the film;  comparisons to other Spielberg films; the film’s relation to drama and melodrama; the film’s central themes of love and family; how the comedic aspects affected the drama, melodrama and horror; some staples of the horror film gene;  parapsychologist Dr Lesh’s function; more specific aspects of the film including set design, particular shots and the use of music; comparisons to non-Spielberg films. As ever, do leave comments or email me at to add your thoughts.


We started by referencing Warren Buckland’s Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (Continuum, 2006) in which Buckland analysed Poltergeist’s shot lengths and concluded that the film bore close relation to films directed by Tobe Hooper, rather than those directed by Steven Spielberg. However, the group thought that despite this, the film felt like a Spielberg movie– and he was indeed responsible for the film’s story as well as co-writing and co-producing it. On a very general level, Poltergeist was reminiscent of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and its mix of comedy quips and adventure/horror very similar to Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It was noted that Poltergeist’s parents Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) had a similar sense of fun to the parents in Jaws, despite the arrival of children. The fact that the film showing on the family’s TV at one point – A Guy Named Joe (1943) – was later remade by Spielberg into Always (1989) was also commented on as further evidence of Spielberg’s close involvement. It was thought that a reason Spielberg might not have been credited as co-director was that he was exclusively contracted as director on E.T. at the time.

So how might the presence of Spielberg’s guiding hand affect the dramatic and melodramatic aspects of the film? Kat interestingly proposed that Spielberg had ‘blockbusterised’ 1930s and 1940s melodrama. It was agreed that the main connection to melodrama was the emphasis on excessive emotion and the heightened drama.  The film’s main themes regarding the power of love and the family and the very high stakes involved – the average American Family under attack from The Beast – were also related to this gesture towards the excessive. In addition, the characters’ relationships with one another were understandably highly emotional. This was aided by the use of non-diegetic music which inspired an emotional response from the audience. As well as at the level of the plot and theme, the cinematic treatment was excessive – the blockbuster special effects for example. This relates well to some of our other discussion about melodrama. Is melodrama most visible at the level of plot (the suffering of characters – as seen in Poltergeist when the family loses its youngest member) or the way in which the story is told? At this point, John Mercer and Martin Shingler’s Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility (Wallflower Press, 2004) in which the authors state that melodrama is perhaps not a genre, but a sensibility or mood was considered. It was also suggested that Poltergeist’s excessive plot and treatment (especially its dramatic, or melodramatic, elements) were what made the film, essentially hokum, believable, at least at the moment of viewing.

In addition, sentimentality, which is certainly one of Spielberg’s hallmarks, was present throughout the film and is arguably connected to melodrama. This sentimentality contributed to the fact that the film, while it had elements of horror, was not too frightening. We also linked this to the comedy aspect present in several Spielberg films. The squabbling siblings reminded us of a US family sitcom. The sudden intrusion of the horrific elements was therefore in some ways surprising. While this might be thought to lead to extra-shock value, it generally toned down the horror elements as it seemed likely that the familiar comedy component would soon return. It was noted that no one actually dies in Poltergeist – which is highly unusual for a horror film and part of what contributes to its status as a family-oriented horror film.

Some more usual motifs of horror were present though. The house was of course revealed to have been built on top of an uncleared cemetery and the family’s ordeal was not over when the characters believed it to be.

leshCharacters outside the family in Poltergeist were also discussed. We particularly focused on the parapsychologist Dr Lesh (Beatrice Straight). It was thought to be significant that as an outsider, and one who must to some extent suspend any disbelief she might feel, Dr Lesh functioned as a mirror for the audience. She acted as intermediary between us and the film’s moments of excessive drama. As an investigator of parapsychology she of course only appears after Carol-Ann is abducted – once the film’s drama has become excessive. She appeared to provide a sense of stability for the audience, therefore, and she explicitly acts in this way for Diane. The Doctor promises she will return, and the pair shares an emotional hug which marks Dr Lesh as a mother surrogate.

Other specific moments of the film we focused on included the shot which magically lengthened the landing corridor as Diane was attempting to reach the end of it to rescue her children. It was thought that the shot itself seemed out of place with the rest of the film, although the sense of urgency it engendered chimed well with the heightened drama. The pan ‘reveal’ which showed that the proposed housing development would be built on was also commented on. The prominent position the staircase occupied in Poltergeist was focused on. This relates to melodrama in terms of spectacle, although in this instance the stairs’ almost freakishly organic, twisty, appearance was deemed unusual.

We also found some echoes of Poltergeist in later films. The plot was compared to that of Labyrinth (1986, Jim Henson), while Poltergeist’s beginning was related to that of A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) and the bobbing corpses in the back garden to Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell  (2010). The latter is on UK TV this Sunday – Channel 5 9-11.05 pm – if you want to catch it.

We did not get around to discussing Thomas Elsaesser’s article on the family melodrama, but if anyone would like to do so, just add a comment. It should also bear relevance to next week’s screening.

Many thanks to Kat for choosing such an enjoyable, thought-provoking and, at times, quite scary film, and for providing other food for thought!

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 22nd May, Jarman 7, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the third of the Summer Term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 22nd of May in Jarman 7, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will screen Katerina’s choice:Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper, 114 mins)

Poltergeist 1

Katerina has very kindly provided the following information:

“One might suggest that the overall development of the Hollywood cinema from the late 60s to the 80s is summed up in the movement from Romero’s use of the Star Spangled Banner (the flag) at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead to Spielberg’s use of it (the music) at the beginning of Poltergeist.” (Robin Wood, ‘Papering the Cracks: Fantasy and Ideology in the Reagan Era,’ Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan)

Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper was released in 1982 and has been described by Robin Wood as “Tobe Hooper’s worst film”, precisely because it has the look of a Stephen Spielberg film (Spielberg co-wrote and was co-producer of the film). Made on an estimated budget of $10m, it grossed over 7 times that in the US market alone. Its success spurred the studios on to make a further two films and a TV series in the 1990s. As with Jaws and its sequels, however, Poltergeist’s sequels offered decreasing financial and artistic rewards.

There is no doubting that Poltergeist belongs to the horror genre, but it is worthwhile reflecting upon the more melodramatic aspects of the film which arguably underpin its structure and success. If we remove “horror” from our approach, the film could be easily described as a family melodrama or drama, as the narrative is purely based on a family searching for their missing daughter (albeit a daughter “lost” in the ether of the spirit world via the TV). Much of the film focuses on the emotive interchanges between the family and the outsiders that aid the return of the daughter to the family. The camera stays close to the characters to heighten the emotions felt by the characters and the necessary emotive response required from the audience. The film updates the Gothic house in line with the concerns of the 1980s and that decade’s ideologies (references to Reaganism run throughout the film). Familial and homely space are explored in the narrative and presented at odds with the attainment of the American dream.

Indeed, in his postscript on Poltergeist in Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood touches on three important elements of the film; the representation of the all American family, the drive for the American dream and the influence of Spielberg.

The themes that could be focused on in the discussion are:

  • The blockbuster as melodrama?
  • The reconfiguration of the Gothic house in Poltergeist.
  • The importance of space, for example the staircase.
  • The influence of Spielberg, especially to the camerawork and aesthetics, and how this aids in anchoring melodrama to the film (consider it in relation to Jaws, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark).

It may be worth reading, ‘Tales of sound and fury. Observations on the Family Melodrama’ by Thomas Elsaesser.

Poltergeist 2


Do join us if you can. And please note we start at 4pm.