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Archive for July, 2010

Can’t Look: Eyeball Mutilation in Western and Asian Horror Cinema

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Horror fans worldwide can always remember a film where a victim has their eye punctured, sliced, popped, gouged or otherwise mutilated…these tend to be the most memorable scenes in any given film. They’re also the most squirm-inducing. We watch them and at the same time, we feel repelled. Whether it’s the sight of a woman being ever-so slowly pulled towards a shard of jagged glass which punctures her eye in Fulci’s Zombi, or someone having their eye slashed with a razor in the surrealist short film, Le Chien Andalou, genre fans and non-genre fans alike tend to remember the eyeball gore long afterwards. Eyeball gore has become a classic motif in horror cinema, and it still used, even in more mainstream films such as Jason X.

There is surely something particular about this horror feature which simultaneously disgusts and compels horror audiences. Other, even gorier effects seem to have less of an impact or at least on a personal level, disgust people less. Eyeball-gore is always a talking-point. There are, it seems, specific anxieties attached to the human eye and to sight, which invest eyeball gore with specific meaning: this, in my opinion, is why eyeball mutilation has become such an important modern horror staple.

Firstly, eyeball gore and the spectacle of severe damage to the eye symbolises a very graphic type of dehumanisation. This is because it shows us a person not only at the mercy of others, but being permanently altered by them in a way that will not just disfigure, but disenfranchise them. The loss of sight in such a visual modern culture as our own means that a person will be less able to participate fully in that culture: in effect, they will lose the ability to ‘look back’ in a world which as built itself upon the importance of appearances and external qualities. Victims in eyeball gore scenes cannot even look back at their captors: they can’t accuse or identify because they can’t look at them. They can’t do even the slightest thing to redress that power balance. Loss of sight and damage to the eye also speaks to our awareness of the importance of the eyes on a cosmetic level. Even in these times of medical breakthrough, and surgery which can repair almost any undesirable physical trait, we are unable to reconstruct the eye. It is something that remains too great a challenge for modern science and yet, the eyes are one element of appearance that remains immediately obvious. If you destroy the eye, it is irreparable, noticeable, disfiguring and ultimately disempowering.

An interesting theory which could be put to use in this examination is the theory of the ‘body gothic’. According to this theory, the human body can be used as a site, where contemporary social anxieties are displayed, or ‘played out’. Often used in literary criticism, deformities, mutilations and disfigurements have been linked to the particular social concerns of the day. The oozing, barely-recognisable forms of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine have been seen as manifestations of anxieties held, at the time of the books’ writing, about degeneration, seriously-held beliefs that the human race was de-evolving and becoming less human. If the ‘body gothic’ is useful in examining horror cinema as well as horror literature, as I think it can, then eyeball mutilation could be the ‘playing out’ of specific and acute modern anxieties.

I believe that the eyeless, defenceless bodies of such films as Flowers of Flesh and Blood and perhaps most notably, The Devil’s Experiment from the Guinea Pig series encapsulate contemporary concerns about our own bodies. Firstly, in many ways the human body has been reduced to nothing more than a mess of component parts. No mystery remains: every inch of our bodies, inside and out, has been mapped. Even on a genetic level, our bodies are understood, categorised and owned by medicine. In some cases, our genes can be ‘read’ and we can be told we will develop a degenerative or fatal disease decades before it happens. If the eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’, then destroy the eye, and you symbolically destroy the mystique of the person. This is a potent reminder that we are no more than the sum of our parts in the modern day, and the general decline in religious belief only attests to this.

Similarly, the spectacle of eyeball gore could remind us that, frequently, we are watched, and we endure the ‘gaze’ of the media, medicine and science, with little or no opportunity to turn that gaze back on the watchers. The violent blinding of victims on-screen could reflect our anxiety and our inability to defeat the constant, subjugating gaze of our cultural institutions. Perhaps this is the true horror of modernity and a reason why we keep returning to the grisly motif of loss of sight, because we both fear it and recognise it in ourselves. We are powerless to look back; we are unable to return judgement, but we have to endure the ‘eye’ of the media being upon us. Victims who have their eyes destroyed are dramatic representations of this condition. However, this creates a dual function. Not only might we recognise the destruction of sight in the eye-gore scenes, but we might also enjoy the opportunity to participate in the process from a more empowered position. Though we may well sympathise with the mutilated victim, so we might enjoy being, for once, in a more dominant position. We could feel glad to be able to see the subjection of a person without being subjugated ourselves: we can feel glad that it ‘isn’t us’, on some level, so that we simultaneously squirm, as well as remain motivated to watch because we enjoy the opportunity to do so.

Eyeball gore is used to great effect in Asian cinema, especially in the horror and exploitation cinema of Japan. The previously-discussed Guinea Pig films originate in that country, and both ‘The Devil’s Experiment’ and ‘Flower of Flesh and Blood’ include graphic scenes of needles through eyeballs, and the dismemberment and eye-gouging of a female victim. Other notable examples of Japanese eyeball gore include ‘Naked Blood’ (a woman combines a love of food with a new-found love of pain by removing her own eye, then eating it) and ‘Evil Dead Trap’ (a TV host is sent footage of a woman being tortured and having her eyeball pierced – it spurts liquid as it is punctured). Eye mutilation seems to be an important facet of Asian cinema as well as in the West – but are any of the issues different?

What is beyond doubt is that the Japanese culture invests the eye rather differently than us in the West. Japanese life is permeated with the importance of etiquette. Hierarchy in society is very important, and age, gender, status and ability dictate one’s social position. Eye-contact is an important part of this daily etiquette: unlike Westerners, prolonged eye-contact is considered rude and it is taught that one’s gaze should rest on the neck or shoulders, not the eyes. Visitors to Japan are often told to reduce eye-contact, as we in the West make a significant amount more than our Japanese counterparts. This practice has historical pedigree: during Samurai days, peasants who dared to look a warrior in the eye would be decapitated. Possibly, eye gore reflects some ingrained social anxieties about eye-contact. If we in the West are concerned by our inability to return ‘the gaze’ of cultural institutions, then, in Japan, perhaps at some level people believe that they shouldn’t return the gaze; to do so might be improper. Japan, as a traditionally homogenous culture, believes that the real source of horror and anxiety is to erode their unique traditions by seeing too much. In Japanese culture, eyes might get gouged because on some level, Japan is anxious not to peer into a world that is somehow dangerous. If this is so, then Japan has some different meanings for eyeball gore compared to us in the West, and this complexity may go some way towards explaining this enduring horror motif and the plethora of meanings attached.

Red (2008)

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Rarely have I wanted a central character to get vindicated as much as I did after watching Red (2008), a deeply-affecting and engaging film by director Lucky McGee, showing us again that – as with another of his films, May (2002) – he is terrifically skilled at creating sympathetic, flawed, deeply human characters on screen.

Brian Cox plays Avery Ludlow, a respected old timer living a quiet life with his beloved pet dog, Red. Closing up the local store he runs one day, he and Red head out to do a spot of fishing, where he runs into three teenage boys hoping to shoot deer.

When Ludlow points out that the smell of the gun oil might be why they haven’t so much as spotted any deer, embarrassment seems initially to compel one of the boys, Danny (Noel Fisher) into increasingly menacing behaviour, as he begins to berate and demand money from Ludlow. And then, although Ludlow is being placatory, Danny levels his shotgun at Red, killing the animal outright, before the boys disappear back into the woods.

In shock, Ludlow returns home with Red’s body and buries him, but he decides he must track down the boys in order to insist they apologise. Moments of purposefulness are intermingled with acute sadness for the loss of his closest companion – a dog bought for him fourteen years before by his now-deceased wife – and Cox’s performance here is intensely good. By and large, he finds out who the boys are and goes to speak with Danny’s and his rather more moral younger brother Harold’s (Kyle Gallner) father, Mr. McCormack (Tom Sizemore) – but although he is initially polite, McCormack believes the boys’ lie about their whereabouts on the day of the shooting, and so Ludlow gets neither an admission nor an apology.

Unable to just forget this, or to just accept such a display of cowardice and dishonesty, Ludlow tries everything he can to seek redress – but his attempts to do this through legal means are soon interrupted by an escalating campaign against him by the McCormacks, whose intitial facade of courteousness soon slips to reveal something persecutory and dangerous. As the McCormack vendetta drives Ludlow into pursuing a vendetta of his own, we see that he has long been struggling to come to terms with past tragedy in his life. His relationship with Red was actually his lynchpin, all that he had to keep himself together and to link him to his old life, and the one thing that stopped him being overwhelmed by an incredible trauma.

This film has several things in common with straightforward ‘vengeance’ films, but it is far more complex than a tale of a man out for some vigilante justice. Ludlow does everything he can to seek redress through safe and legal means, and it is only his growing frustration at a system which rewards bribery and seems to be stacked against honorable people which (eventually) makes him take the law into his own hands. It is his disbelief, both that people can act in such an arrogant way and thrive, thanks to a system which allows them to get away with it, which drives the drama here – and it is the continued cruelty of others which, after all, drives a decent man to desperate actions. One of the reasons that the film is so effective is that we recognise this inept system and the monsters who succeed within it. The shooting of Red – a blasé moment of mindless cruelty – was very affecting and I found it deeply upsetting, despite it being handled in an understated way (you do not actually see the shooting) and fundamentally necessary to the development of the film’s intense pathos. Also, as the film deals with imbalanced power relationships in society, as well as the idea of powerless/indifferent parents and the resultant immoral, cruel children, then the usage of that scene is a sharp indicator of these themes. Animal cruelty is intensely emotionally-charged and so we as an audience understand Ludlow’s shock, disbelief, sadness and anger.

Red is a powerful, brilliantly-realised film and its horror derives from the pain of loss, and of good people trying to deal with that loss. Brian Cox gives a superb performance here and this is not a film I will easily forget. Highly recommended.

Revisiting Much Maligned Draculas

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

With all the film versions of Stoker’s eponymous novel Dracula out there, it goes without saying that some versions are going to be better-received than others. Even those that do very well, like the classic Hammer spins on the story, are always going to have their detractors. That said, some versions have received more knocks than others and not always fairly, in this blogger’s humble opinion. Two of my favourite Dracula films – namely, Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) and John Badham’s Dracula (also 1979) – did poorly upon their respective releases, and their reputations have only very slowly recovered since then. I’d like to spend a few moments joining in with their defenders, as I believe that each have masses to recommend them and, ultimately, I rate them highly amongst the huge number of Draculas I’ve seen to date.

Nosferatu (1979)

An obvious criticism of the 70s remake is, of course, that as such a seminal classic of cinema Nosferatu didn’t really need to be reworked. You could still make an argument for that, although of course Murnau’s ‘exhaustive borrowing’ from the Stoker novel landed him in hot water with Stoker’s then still-living widow, very nearly leading to all copies of the film being destroyed for copyright violation. I think the remake’s biggest genuine stumbling block has always been that it falls between two fairly divergent genres: too arthouse for the horror buffs, too grisly for the arthaus crowd. It has that sort of dreamy, ponderous pace that as a horror fan you’re most likely to be able to tolerate if you like French contemporaries such as Jean Rollin, and probably not at all if you’re a gorehound, as the film has very little blood. I am a Rollin fan (in amuse-bouche sized doses) and I can live without masses of the ol’ scarlet stuff in my films and so, having seen Herzog’s film for the first time recently, I really loved it…

The first reason is incredibly shallow I know, but I thought that Isabelle Adjani (as the amalgamated figure of Lucy Harker, wife of Jonathan) was just spellbinding. She has just the sort of monochrome good looks that Pola Negri and Theda Bara made popular in the old silent films, and yet she looks somehow enduringly 70s as well. All wrapped up in turn-of-the-century clothes, another weakness of mine!

She’s not just gorgeous though – I like the fact that, as in Badham’s Dracula, here we have a Lucy character who actively engages with what’s going on around her.  Of course, in the novel Lucy Westenra has to go all Bloofer Lady before she can make her way in the world, but I like the fact that, as there has yet to be a direct adaptation of the novel, one of the changes made here has been to show Lucy being more than a two-dimensional being. She moves from being a very pliant Victorian lady to actively trying to combat ‘die Peste’ which is taking over her homeland.

Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula is great and also deserves a mention, as here we have an underrated (and delightfully eccentric) actor playing Dracula as a purposeful yet lovelorn (and Kinski-stylee sexually menacing!) character. The only shame is that Kinski definitely doesn’t need to be made up as a ghoul to achieve all of that, but this ties in nicely with the film’s overarching overblown style.

Herzog’s cinematography here is stunning. In the ‘Making Of’ documentary provided on my DVD version (from the Anchor Bay Box of Blood) he explains that as a German filmmaker he really wanted to get a feel of continuity between his film and the greats of Expressionist film, and I think he achieves that with this heavily-stylised piece of cinema. Lots of shots have almost no movement in them at all, being held long, like tableaux , and the use of symbolism is made beautifully – such as when Lucy is whirled through the town square by a procession of coffins…

The bleakness of this imagery is of course mirrored by the theme – of an undead nobleman spreading illness and discord through a new land – but most versions of Dracula have this in spades, before Van Helsing arrives to stake the offender and get everything back to normal. Where Herzog’s film differs is that the bleakness is never vanquished. No one saves the day, and despite Lucy’s sacrifice, the plague is still spreading at the end – with Harker as its new missionary.

So, a very artistic, arthouse spin on a classic horror tale with some archetypal performances and heaps of atmosphere; I really enjoyed the stylish gloom present in this film.

Dracula (1979)

What was it about the year of my birth, I wonder, that saw two very different Draculas both struggling, at least initially, to get a critical toehold? One possibility in the case of John Badham’s Dracula could be that the film just looked too anachronistic in one important way. Not to put to fine a point on it, Count Dracula’s (Frank Langella’s) wardrobe might have been a mistake. Lest we forget, this version was directed by the man who brought Saturday Night Fever (1977) to the world – and it shows here, where an otherwise engaging and sensual Dracula seems to be wearing disco-style white satin and wide collars.

It’s a style faux pas in what is otherwise a very stylish Gothic fable, full of stunning locations (Carfax Abbey here is awesome) and boasting an unrivalled, atmospheric musical score.

Frank Langella originally cut his teeth (pun very much intended) on the Dracula role on the stage. Success on the stage doesn’t always automatically translate into prowess on film however, and so it’s a real credit to both Langella’s acting and to Badham’s direction that it transfers so well here, with Langella easily able to work with the camera and none of the awkwardness which is possible.You quickly forget the outfit and see instead a three-dimensional vampire; Langella’s Dracula is someone who simultaneously displays charm and poise, acts as the perfect host, and yet carelessly vampirises Lucy’s friend Mina Van Helsing with a distinct lack of concern for her humanity. He seems to fall in love with Lucy (Kate Nelligan) though – and he admires her atypical strength, leading to a heady romantic interplay between them.

As mentioned above, Lucy (Seward here, rather than Westenra) is no wilting English rose. Seond to Dracula himself she is the film’s strongest character and she is never made into a mere stooge here. She can’t help but feel attracted to her exotic new neighbour and she chooses to spend time with him, using Victorian ideas of neighbourly decorum (such as accepting dinner invitations) for her own, rather less prim reasons…at least at first, Lucy is a willing vamp, and unlike her friend Mina, she never succumbs to the sort of mindless bloodlust which many Lucys portray.

Mina’s resurrection does provide us with one of the most creepy vampire scenes ever shot though, so we’ll forgive her for working to rule…

Click here for the clip on Youtube…

You’ll notice, if you watch the above, that this version’s Van Helsing is none other than Sir Lawrence Olivier – looking genuinely fragile here, as during filming he was not a well man. If Lucy is preternaturally resilient, Olivier’s Van Helsing is unusually hesitant and flawed – something which helps this version strike out on its own and contrasts favourably with the strength of Langella’s Undead character. The humans around him do struggle to contain him – as you’d expect, really – and this makes their final battle feel a lot more humanised.

So, the gradual resurgence of the Badham film is deserved – a film with enough recognisable elements to feel like a part of the Gothic tradition with interesting touches, not least of all a feeling of brooding atmosphere, brought to the screen by the skilled use of confident performances and smart visuals – collars notwithstanding…