Key Films #29


Mad Love [Karl Freund, 1935]:

To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, "the play's the thing."  As much as the viewer might marvel at the film's combination of macabre horror and darkly comic Gothicism - this story of a doctor and his sad descent into madness and murder - it's for me the central motif of the spectator, witnessing something on stage and becoming transfixed to the point of hysterical folly, which defines the experience of this strange and unsettling work.  Again, it's perhaps symptomatic of a peculiar fondness I seem to have for films that are self-aware; that use the nature of viewing and the subjective investment of the individual to comment on the action itself; that self-reflexivity of the narrative and the way that it seems to acknowledge the divide between the audience and the work through the development of its central character, the sinister Doctor Gogol.  Here is a man who falls in love with the figure of a woman; an actress in a play.   He loves, not the physical embodiment of this woman, living and breathing, but a representation; the "image", or the character she plays.  Unable to possess this woman in any physical sense, the mad doctor objectifies her (literally, the corporeal-form replaced by a wax mannequin) and uses this idealised surrogate to develop a narrative of his own construction.

It's a narrative in which his own heroic gesture - a medical procedure to mend the actress's husband; left maimed in a terrible smash - elevates this character to a level of saviour in the eyes those closest to him, before the inevitable reality of rejection leads to a guilt and shame that taints this act (this gesture, first noble and worthy), exposing it to be no more than a desperate and callous attempt at blackmail and manipulation.  Of course the film can still be read as a more literal narrative - a gloriously ghoulish horror story propelled by the unhinged but still sympathetic performance of Peter Lorre; this character destroyed by his own feelings of amour fou - but I prefer to see Freund's film as more of a projection of Gogol's own over-active imagination.  His sadism and lust for violence - which finds some kind of expression in his pioneering surgeries - becomes aroused by the grisly theatrical performance that begins the film.  From here the character will create his fantasy from the world around him; adapting the people and places significant to his own life and transforming them into supporting characters and locations in a perverse form of psycho-drama.  Here the suffering of the woman on stage creates the seed for his own invented fantasy; a reflection of his own tortured mind.

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The Possession [Ole Bornedal, 2012]:

For me, movies based around the idea of demonic possession always fall apart once the religious aspects are introduced and taken seriously by the characters on screen.  As much as disbelief can be suspended, the attempt to present these things objectively - as actual "semi-scientific" phenomena - pushes the narrative towards scenes of nonsensical incantation, bizarre ceremonies and the most ridiculous justifications delivered with a straight face.  As a general tenet, this is also true of The Possession, which seems, sadly, unfortunate, since the earlier domestic aspects of the film are very strong.  There is a great dynamic between the disintegrating family and the way Bornedal uses the image of the unfinished house as a metaphor for familial disruption and the abandonment of traditional family values and ideals.  Equally, there is a similarly interesting but un-developed subtext of child abuse and the role of the parent as protector (or guardian) against something so unspeakably evil that it becomes impossible to comprehend.  Elements like the little girl's animosity towards the step-dad or the needlessly cruel retribution that later befalls the substitute "father figure", seem to point towards a kind of brutality, unstated, genuinely insidious, but emotionally more complex.

With further development, the relationship between the young daughter and this new "dad" (already seen by the suspicious father as a destructive influence; effectively intruding on and disrupting the sanctity of the family home) is, in fragments at least, evocative of the real-world atrocities of sexual exploitation.  It's not a pleasant idea to entertain, at least not in the context of a film primarily made for escapist pursuits, but it is one that seems to offer some explanation for the events, at least beyond the film's main emphasis on the dybbuk myth.  It also makes sense in the context of the film's narrative, or what might be read as abstract allusions to the destruction of innocence; the possession as something that destroys both body and soul.  The setting - that unfinished house - and the continual return to domestic spaces that suggest vulnerability (the bedroom) or cleanliness (the bathroom), speak to the disruption of the home, as a symbol.  Likewise, the way the possession itself (which occurs, initially, while the child is sleeping) seems to transform the character, physically as well as psychologically, in a way depicts the trauma of the situation in a symbolic or even metaphorical approach.  By rejecting this line of thought in favour of a more conventional horror film narrative (where the demon is literally the monster in the box), The Possession becomes less affecting.  Just another story of demonic invasion that riffs a little too heavily on the iconography of The Exorcist (1973) to ever really develop a true identity of its own.

Having said that, the film certainly has its merits.  The cold, Kubrickian approach of Bornedal and his crew lends the film an unsettling ambience.  Its monochromatic colour scheme - mostly shades of black, white and grey, offset by a remarkable sequence of saturated red - and the static composition of shots are a contrast to the garish, vulgar, undisciplined horror of contemporaries like Alexandre Aja and James Wan.  It seems a more classical, European style, in which the use of silence, darkness and space (and empty spaces in particular) helps to create a feeling of isolation and escalating unease that is expressive of the character's condition.  Also, the intermittent stabs of piano on the soundtrack, which signal the transition between scenes with a disquieting cut-to-black, gives the film an odd and awkward rhythm that amplifies both the tension and uncertainty; almost as if the entire film is drifting through the moments of a possessed (or dispossessed) state.  While far from perfect, The Possession seems to me a rare horror film made by someone who understands that the genre is at its best when working with silence, subtlety and characters that are emotionally appealing.  We care about the progression of the narrative only because we care about the characters - the father and his daughters - and the situation that they're in.

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Zombie [Lucio Fulci, 1979]:

The first image (a gun pointing directly towards the barrel of the lens; into the "face" of the assumed audience) intercut with the second (the living dead - head shrouded by a bed sheet death mask - stirring from its eternal sleep) sets up the central conflict as it will develop through the rest of the film.  No need to establish a context or justification; the suggestion is enough to whet the appetite, already drawing us in.  In the next shot, the gun takes aim.  Cut again to the shrouded zombie, still rising from the bed.  Bang!  The head of the veiled figure - this monster - explodes in a torrent of gore.  From this, it would be easy (if not amusing) to interpret this opening action as a subliminal message from Fulci to the potential viewer.  "Don't pay this too much attention", it seems to declare; "eliminate the brainpan; exterminate all rational thought!"  However, while the resulting plot and the action of its central characters might strain credibility, forcing the audience to suspend disbelief and to see the film as little more than a violent frivolity, the actual direction of the thing - specifically the creation of a heavy atmosphere of foreboding and dread; to say nothing of the staging, or the use of space - is comparatively more sophisticated and, in all sincerity, even bold.

The audacity of Fulci's direction is immediately apparent in the subsequent scene, wherein a boat - set-up during the pre-credit dialogue - drifts into a New York city harbour (the actuality of the Manhattan skyline looming large upon the horizon) and immediately arouses the suspicions of the NYPD.  The boat seems to be unmanned, but in true horror movie fashion turns out to be carrying an unwanted cargo; thus setting in motion the gears of this strange and alarming plot.  The reality of the setting and the seemingly guerrilla filmmaking techniques used to give the film its sense of urgency (Fulci and his cinematographer Sergio Salvati shooting handheld with wide-angle lenses; the policemen apparently played by genuine off-duty cops) jars against the unreality of the action; this zombie rising from the ship's cabin with an unhealthy appetite for flesh.  Like many films by Fulci, Zombie maintains this strange feeling of something occurring both in and out of a recognisable reality; part daydream, part delusion.   Nothing makes sense, the logic is flawed, the tonal shifts are abrupt and irrational, but the atmosphere is redolent with fear and apprehension, the violence is shocking (but impossible to turn away from) and the imagery is overwhelming, provocative and surreal.

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