Friday, 29 March 2013

Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Despite this being near the top of my Things To Watch list, it took me quite some time to get around to actually seeing it, likely due to a slightly subconscious view of silent films as somewhat “difficult”. (There never seems to be a perfect time to just kick back and watch a revered silent film of historical importance, featuring surrealist set design and lashings of German Expressionism.) In any case, the moment did arrive, during an altruistic mission to ease another's illness with multiple DVDs and a selection of fine snacks, and I'm heartily glad I got round to viewing it in the end.

As the first acknowledged horror film, Caligari sets the bar high. The plot cracks along at a fast pace, and at only around 70 minutes' running time (less than even a Police Academy film), there's not a great deal of time to fit all the action in. The plot centres around a fair in the town of Holstenwall, at which Dr. Caligari exhibits (after experiencing some clerical difficulties at the Town Hall) his somnambulist, Cesare. The somnambulist awakens on command, and utters a prophecy of death to one of the audience. When the audience member is found dead the next day, suspicion falls upon Caligari, and the investigation takes a distinctly uncanny turn.

The genius of Caligari lies not with the plot, but with the atmosphere conjured by the scenes presented to the audience. Much has been written about the incredible set design – and in a far more eloquent and knowledgeable way than I am able. I will say, however, that the peculiar asymmetric sets add to the feeling that the story being told is not rooted in real life, and is more akin to a fable – something deeply metaphorical and of universal importance. Here is also perhaps the first instance in film of the sympathetic monster – Cesare does not willingly murder, but does so under the influence of his master. He is a tragic creation in the vein of Frankenstein's monster, and Conrad Veidt manages to inspire sympathy simply through the act of opening his eyes – the pained expression he displays shows in a few brief seconds both his character's reluctance to be a pawn, and also his helplessness and inability to resist.

Surprisingly for a film made in 1920, there are many elements of the film and its marketing that are thought of as distinctly modern. There is a twist at the end (which I must admit to having not foreseen), an element that seems to be almost mandatory for recent creators of horror films. There was also, apparently, a viral advertising campaign when the film was released – a key phrase from the film: “Du musst Caligari werden!” appeared on posters around Berlin with no further explanation given. So, it seems all those Blair Witch shenanigans were pre-dated by some ninety years.

In conclusion, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is mesmerising, haunting and a must-see for anyone with a love for any aspect of the fantastic genre that we call horror.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Women in Horror Month (was last month...)

A small article I wrote back in February, when it was actually Women in Horror Month...!

Women In Horror Month: Let's Hear It For The Theorists

Scream queens, final girls and femmes fatales! I've been reliably informed that it's Women In Horror month, and so it's time to celebrate the great work done within the genre by those of the XX persuasion.

Actresses have always played a pivotal role in horror – from the haunted expressions of the silent era stars, through the Hitchcock blondes and the almost dynasty of Leigh / Lee Curtis, to slasher survivors and Neve Campbell's post-modern turn in the Scream films. In writing, too, women have come to the fore. Some of the best-known horror fiction has been written by women – the works of Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier (to name but a few examples) are rightly regarded as classics, and have indelibly influenced the genre.

There is, however, another area of horror at which many notale women have excelled – the field of academic writing on the subject of horror. Looking through collections of essays, female names crop up a great deal: Joan Copjec, Helene Cixous, Mary Russo, Laura Mulvey, Jennifer Wicke, Julia Kristeva, Tania Modleski... the list could go on.

There are two books by female theorists that I've read recently which I'd highly recommend to any horror fan – and they are both (appropriately enough for the month's theme) about the role of women in horror films. The two works are Men, Women and Chain Saws by Carol J Clover and The Monstrous-Feminine by Barbara Creed. They differ greatly in their structure, style and conclusions, but each contribute a great deal to the study of the horror genre.

Clover's book examines mainly the slasher sub-genre, and in essays in the book such as “Carrie and the Boys” and “Her Body, Himself”, she deals with the themes of audience identification. Clover challenges the assumption that young males in the audience for a slasher film will automatically identify with the killer – an assumption that frames these films as a misogynistic artform. She emphasises the pivotal role of the “final girl”, saying that “we understand immediately from the attention paid it that hers is the main storyline.” (Clover p.44) This kind of cross-gender identification is also demonstrated, in her opinion, by the camerawork – despite the frequent use of POV shots from the killer's perspective: “Our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes... by the end point of view is hers.” (p. 45) In other chapters, Clover discusses male / female narratives in possession and revenge films, and the role of voyeurism / the eye in horror films.

Barbara Creed's “The Monstrous Feminine” is an exploration of the various types of female monster in horror film, relating these characters to feminist and psychoanalytic theory. In the first part of the book, Creed takes the various types of feminine monsters (and notable films in which they feature) as the focus for each chapter. These themes are: Archaic Mother (Alien); Possessed Monster (The Exorcist); Monstrous Womb (The Brood); Vampire (The Hunger); Witch (Carrie). In each of these chapters Creed investigates the psychological reasons why these character types occur frequently in horror narratives, and how and why they inspire such
fear. The second part is more focused on psychoanalytic theory – Creed reinterprets at length Freud's case study of “Little Hans”, which formed the basis Freud's theory of the castration complex. Creed argues that the figure of the mother / female is perceived as terrifying because she has the power to castrate, opposing Freud's theory that the fearful aspect is the female's apparent lack / castration. This is very much the theme throughout the second half, and as such the remainder of the book will certainly be more enjoyable if the reader has a high tolerance for lengthy discussions of castration, vagina dentata, femmes castratrices and modern-day Medusas. The Monstrous-Feminine is certainly a fascinating read, and enables the reader to see many of the classic horrors in a new light.

Anyone wishing to delve into the theoretical side of the role of women in horror could do a great deal worse than taking a look at these two books. Don't just take my word for it – there's this recommendation on the back cover of Men, Women and Chain Saws from one Joe Bob Briggs (drive-in movie critic of Grapevine, Texas): “I like this book so much that I almost don't wanna recommend it, because what if everybody says 'Oh, don't read that, Joe Bob likes it!' Joe Bob says check it out.” I reckon Joe Bob would get quite a kick out of Creed's work, too.