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.

Summary of Discussion on Dead of Night

Dead of Night proved to be suitably spooky pre-Christmas fare, and prompted much discussion on its unusual structure, its gothic and uncanny elements, as well as its lasting influence.

craig-and-foleyIt is first worth noting that the version of the film we watched was that which was originally released in the UK (102 mins, October 1945), and not the edited US edition (77 mins, released June 1946). Both included at least some of the wraparound narrative of the architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) visit to Eliot Foley’s (Ronald Culver) house, its consequences, and the restarting of the tale. There were significant cuts in the US however. According to contemporaneous sources, the US version excluded the second (The Christmas Party) and the fourth (The Golfing Story) sequences, keeping the first (The Hearse), the third (The Haunted Mirror) and the fifth (The Ventriloquist’s Dummy) (New Movies: the National Board of Review Magazine, August –September 1946, pp. 6-7).

We particularly commented on the Englishness of the two tales cut from the US release. In the Christmas Party sequence the large house was occupied by upper class characters, with cut-glass accents, enjoying games of sardines and blind man’s bluff. This was reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ narrative of Scrooge’s previously happy the-lady-vanishesChristmases in A Christmas Carol (1843). Meanwhile, the golfing buddies are played by Basil Radford (George) and Naunton Wayne (Larry). The comic duo were especially familiar to UK audiences, not just as Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock) but other films whose release was more limited to the UK – including Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter) and Millions Like Us (1943, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder).

As well as the specific Englishness of these sequences perhaps making them unsuitable for US audiences, the decision may have also be related to the time of year of the releases: the Christmas Party sequence seems more appropriate to Autumn than Summer. We found the horror anthology nature of the film reminiscent of M.R. James whose tales of ghosts have become a Christmas staple. Notably it was not just the Christmas ghost tale removed from the US release, but also the only other tale with ghosts.

We turned to more detailed discussion of the sections, noting that each of these contained an uncanny element. In the first, The Hearse sequence,  it was commented on that the immobility of the doctor’s (Robert Wyndham) left arm, while well disguised, became a point of focus for some.

The Cavalcanti-directed Christmas Party sequence was especially gothic. The shadowy shots of the large space, especially the stairs, are effective. This combined with the appearance to Sally (Sally Ann Howes) of a suitably creepy ghost child summoned up gothic associations. This child names himself as Francis Kent. Other characters assertsally-and-francis that his older sister Constance was his killer. This refers to the real-life case of 1860 in which a sixteen year old had murdered her four year old brother.  It gained much publicity five years later, and again in 2008 with the publication of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The bringing in of such a notorious case serves to blur the boundary between fiction and reality, adding to the sense of unease.

haunted-mirrorThe woman-in-peril aspect of the gothic was especially seen in the third narrative – the Haunted Mirror. In this, the teller of the tale, Joan (Googie Withers) is in great danger from her new husband Peter (Ralph Michael). He has seemingly been possessed by the spirit of a bed-bound, violent and jealous husband of a century before. This is caused by Joan’s present of an antique mirror in which the husband sees a different background reflected. Joan is only saved when she literally breaks the mirror whilst being strangled by her husband with a scarf.

While the previous Christmas Party sequence seems firmly anchored in the past by its referencing of the Kent case and its Dickensian overtones, the Haunted Mirror had a more modern feel to it. While it too looked back at the past, we found it more striking in terms of the comment it makes on post-war masculinity.  Peter seems passive – especially in his lack of interest in getting married, and searching for a house, while Joan drives things forward. She sets off the entire narrative by purchasing the mirror. Joan’s active nature is also seen as she is pictured sitting on Peter’s double bed, in his presence, before they are married.  The last action of the sequence – Joan’s mirror-breaking during her husband’s only attempt to take charge –  comments further on this.strangling Another odd aspect we commented on was the other main character of the sequence- the antiques shop owner (Esme Percy). His strange manner, especially his lengthy clutching of Joan’s hands when she returns to the store, seems to make the possibility of a supernatural, rather than a psychological, cause even more likely.

triangleOur main thoughts about the golfing sequence involved its comic value – perhaps providing a breather for the audience. One of the key moments, when Larry walks into the water and drowns after having lost the round of golf, and therefore the girl, Mary (Peggy Bruce), who figures as the ‘prize’ – is not very funny though. Nor did we find it scary – life in the narrative simply goes on without him. The ambivalence is furthered when it is implied that after the disappearance of the newly married George and the presence, though invisible, of Larry, the latter will simply take the former’s place (maybe a further reason for the fact this section is not seen in the US release).

dummy-switchWe found the final sequence (the Ventriloquist’s Dummy) the most disturbing of the individual narratives. There are unsettling moments throughout, including the dummy Hugo seeming to move from one place to another without help. The switching of the ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) and Hugo’s voices at the end of the sequence was particularly striking – visually and aurally.

The ways in which the sequences can be compared, as well as the wraparound narrative, were also discussed. The relation of the tellers to their narratives is interesting. The first 3 play significant parts in the flashback sequences – though notably only the wife and not her passive husband is present at the house to tell of the tale of the Haunted Mirror. Given the proximity of the tellers to these spooky tales, they remain surprisingly unruffled by these earlier experiences – all only proffering their narratives once prompted by Craig.

Noticeably the Golfing story sequence is more tangential to its teller Foley, the owner of the house and gatherer of the guests. It is understandable that neither of the golfing buddies can tell the tale- one has managed to disappear while the other in invisible. In addition to the teller being somewhat disconnected from the story, since he is a bystander, the ambivalence towards death referred to earlier, blurs the boundary between life and death.

drThe final sequence also involves its teller – the psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk)– to a lesser degree. The reason for the lack of Maxwell Frere at the house is more sinister than previous one – he has gone insane. It is also significant that by telling the tale, the doctor is afforded, and indeed lends, an authority to it – and indeed to his assertions throughout that there is an explicable, psychological reason for Craig’s sense of déjà vu. It is presumably that it is just this which inspires Craig to strangle him.

All the narratives satisfyingly come together at the end. The characters are still presentending in Foley’s house, but there is splicing of various spaces we know cannot be geographically related – for example the separate spaces of the Christmas Party house and the prison. This adds to the sense of terror. We agreed that the most terrifying moment was when the dummy ‘walks’. The circularity of the narrative was also deemed especially effective as there was not just a wraparound story, but the restarting of the film’s beginning with Walter Craig again visiting Foley’s house, once more with a feeling of déjà vu.

We concluded with comments about the influence of the film. While the production of horror films had been banned in the UK during the war the genre exploded following the film’s release. More specific influence has also been attributed to the scene in which Frere switches his voice to that of his dummy. It is echoed at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  Jez Conolly and David O. Bates comment on this, as well as the reading of the tussle between the two ventriloquists over the male dummy as a love triangle (Dead of Night, Columbia University Press, 2015). More recently, the presence of the character the Ventriloquist in Batman films is perhaps a nod to this horror classic.

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

I hope you all have a peaceful Christmas and New Year.

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!

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 12th of February, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the third of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 12th of February in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Black Christmas (1974, Bob Clark, 98 mins).

Black Christmas

Kat has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Black Christmas (also released under the titles Silent Night, Evil Night, and Stranger in the House) is a 1974 Canadian independent horror film directed by Bob Clark and written by Roy Moore. It stars Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, Marian Waldman and John Saxon.

The reason for choosing this film is that it bears the hallmarks of the ‘woman in peril’ Gothic melodrama, only in this film, it is somewhat multiplied to numerous women. There is also an uneasy ambiguity surrounding the men, most notably the character of Peter, as well as the house containing a ‘secret’ within its walls and history.

There has always been speculation as to what the film is based on, and there are two strands of thought. Firstly, that the narrative takes its cue from the urban legend of ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’, that dates back to the 1960s and involves a babysitter who begins to receive crank calls from a mysterious man who asks her to continually ‘check on the children’.  The second strain of thought is that the source of the film is sorority murders that took place in Quebec around Christmas time in the years prior to the film. However, there is little evidence to establish this claim and Moore died without ever being interviewed on the subject.  However, it is interesting to note that sorority killings occur in the second episode of American Horror Story: Murder House, and these took place within the 1960s and are meant to be based on actual events (although I am not suggesting a link between American Horror Story and Black Christmas).

The Story

Black Christmas 2Originally written by Roy Moore (and re-written by Clark himself), Black Christmas takes place  just before  Christmas break at a large college, where a group of sorority sisters are making plans for one last party before they all head off on holiday. Jessica (Olivia Hussey), the  serious-minded beauty of the group,  isn’t in such a celebratory mood. She’s just found out that she’s pregnant and she’s struggling with whether or not she wants to keep the baby while also dealing with near constant badgering from her temperamental boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), who wants  her to keep the baby and commit to marriage. As Jessica contemplates her future, her friends plan their party oblivious to her plight and to the fact that the night is about to take a very ugly turn. The house begins to get a rash of obscene phone calls, that at first seem like a harmless prank but quickly turn serious as the caller starts to delve into each girl’s personal life and one of the sorority sisters goes missing. When it becomes clear that Jessica is the caller’s primary target, the police place a wire tap in the house only to find out that the real culprit is closer than anyone ever imagined!

The Significance

Over the years, the phrase ” the calls are coming from inside the house!” may have become somewhat of a punch line thanks to urban legends about babysitter stalkers  and campy movies like When a Stranger Calls (1979), but back in 1974, Black Christmas established this now seemingly normal horror convention in a way that hasn’t been used quite as effectively since. There’s still some speculation about whether Roy Moore actually based the initial idea for the Black Christmas screenplay on those old babysitter stories, but what is clear is that whatever formula he used  proved influential to many classic horror films that followed. Billy, the film’s main menacing force, roams through the sorority house at will and the audience sees everything through his point of view, a technique that hadn’t been used so effectively  in mainstream cinema up to that point. On the Canadian DVD extras, it’s revealed that although the steadicam wasn’t introduced to filmmakers until 1976, camera operator Bert Dunk created the fluidly roaming “Billy” camera shots by designing a rig that attached to his head – this is especially impressive considering the shot where Billy climbs the trellis outside the house all the way up to the attic. That killer-POV shot went on to become standard in soon-to-be-classic slasher films that followed like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) . In fact, many of the Black Christmas eyeelements present in Black Christmas – including its holiday-themed setting and feminist subtext  –  may seem like a cliché when viewed through a present day horror fan lens, but Black Christmas arguably influenced the slasher cycle that began with Halloween and dominated the horror genre in the 1980s and beyond.

Do join us, if you can (and dare!)

Summary of Discussion on Early Film Melodrama Shorts

Posted by Sarah

This week we had the opportunity to compare some varied short film melodramas: Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard, 1901, 10 mins) directed by and starring George Melies, The Mothering Heart (1913, 22 mins) directed by D.W. Griffith and starring his frequent collaborator Lillian Gish and Suspense (1913, 10 mins) co-directed by, and starring, Lois Weber. I have summarised the discussion below, but do log in to comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Barbe bleueDiscussion on the earliest of these film shorts, Barbe-bleue, noted that, in keeping with other films produced at the time, it was filmed by a static camera. However, the fairly frequent set changes and constant on-screen action (including some of Melies’ trademark trick shots of a character – a taunting imp –  appearing and disappearing accompanied by a puff of smoke) added impetus to the already melodramatic story. This story was closely related to the gothic with some powerful imagery involving a secret room, keys, Bluebeard’s dead wives hanging from nooses and the latter characters invading his current wife’s dreams.  Significantly the narrative centred on a woman (or perhaps more correctly women) in peril, which has been a constant theme in the films the Melodrama Research Group has screened. Appropriately for Melies, known for his magic, Bluebeard’s dead wives inexplicably become reanimated, just in time to be rescued by men who had rather magically appeared.

 

suspenseLike Barbe-bleue, Suspense bore close relation to the gothic since they both focus on a woman in jeopardy. The threat to the woman in Suspense is explicitly sexual, however. Tom Gunning’s article on the use of telephone in early film “Heard over the phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde tradition of the terrors of technology.” Screen 32.2 (1991): 184-196 was referenced. In this, Gunning notes the fact that both telephonic and cinematic technology manage to bring us near to, but at the same time keep us at a distance from, the subject (either the person at the other end of the telephone, or the characters in the film). We are not in a position to affect what occurs onscreen, while the husband in Suspense is similarly hamstrung by his physical distance from his home and wife whilst they are under attack. It was noted that Gunning mentions D.W. Griffith’s Lonely Villa (1909) which also uses a telephone in the narrative.

As well as an exciting narrative, Suspense included some stunning shots. Especially striking were those from a character’s point of view. One of these was a shot from above of the tramp looking up and threatening the woman, supposedly from the woman’s point of view out of an upstairs window. In addition, the tramp was shown to be particularly menacing as he ascend the stairs and looms large in the frame. The split screen which sectioned the tramp, the husband and the wife into separate areas was also very effective.  The car chase afforded some great opportunities for inventive camerawork.  There was a point-of-view shot from the second car of the first, while the wing mirror of the first car neatly showed those pursuing it several times.

mothering

D.W. Griffith’s The Mothering Heart was very different to both Barbe-bleue and Suspense. The melodrama focused on the less fantastical, and arguably less suspenseful, issues of marriage and infidelity.  It was preoccupied, as were other films of the time, with the split of the woman into virgin (as represented by Lillian Gish) and the vamp (Viola Barry). Both of whom were interested in the same man (Walter Miller). Discussion of Griffith’s film focused mainly on the presence of Lillian Gish and the similarity of her role to the one she played in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) in which she also appeared as a mother who tragically lost her baby. While Gish’s character here appeared to act more progressively than in Way Down East – she leaves her husband while she is pregnant due to his infidelity – the reconciliation at the end over their dead baby’s body felt very contrived. Griffith’s inclusion of Apache dancing taking place in the background of the club where the husband meets the vamp was also commented upon. A comparison was drawn between the Apache woman following her man and the foregrounding of suffering Woman – a common theme of melodrama.

It was also especially interesting to compare the work of two often-referenced male film pioneers (Melies and Griffith) with a lesser known, though hugely important, female director of the silent era.