The Death of Grass by John Christopher

John Christopher’s Death of Grass (published 1956) came out five years after John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Both are about how the precariousness of modern life can so easily give way to a tooth-and-claw battle for survival when civilisation breaks down. Christopher’s chosen disaster — a virus that destroys all grass-related plants, including wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice, and which soon threatens the world with starvation — isn’t as instantaneous as Wyndham’s, but that’s only to give its English characters a brief chance to look on in combined pity and superiority as China, where the virus originates, descends into chaos. As the virus spreads, the Brits tighten their belts and roll their eyes at the thought of going back to war-time rationing, sure they’ll handle the situation with the same dignity:

“Yet again,” a correspondent wrote to the Daily Telegraph, “it falls to the British peoples to set an example to the world in the staunch and steadfast bearing of their misfortunes. Things may grow darker yet, but that patience and fortitude is something we know will not fail.”

But when our hero, John Custance, learns the government’s latest efforts to combat the virus aren’t working, he, his family, and a small but growing band of taggers-along, head for his brother’s farm in the north. Situated in a narrow-entranced valley, it should be easy to defend as the country goes feral — as long as they can get there in one piece.

They certainly can’t do so peacefully. Leaving London, they’re faced with a military roadblock. By this point, Custance is convinced the government are planning to drop hydrogen bombs on the major cities, including London, to bring the population down to the sort of levels that can be maintained with new levels of food production, so he knows it’s a matter of kill or be killed. This close to WWII, Custance is the sort of man who has had some experience of this:

He brought the rifle up and tried to hold it steady. At any fraction of a second, he must crook his finger and kill this man, unknown, innocent. He had killed in the war, but never from such close range, and never a fellow-countryman. Sweat seemed to stream on his forehead; he was afraid of it blinding his eyes, but dared not risk disturbing his aim to wipe it off. Clay-pipes at a fairground, he thought – a clay-pipe that must be shattered, for Ann, for Mary and Davey. His throat was dry.

The most significant addition to Custance’s group is Pirrie, an older man whom they encounter when they try to first buy, then rob, guns for their trip up north. After the robbery fails, they explain what they know and Pirrie agrees to provide them with guns in exchange for him and his wife being able to come along. He proves to be a crack shot, and soon becomes their most valuable asset. He is also quite ready to take advantage of the new lawlessness to his own advantage — not to the point of betraying the group, but certainly in getting his own, sometimes brutal, way. His pragmatism quickly becomes the embodiment of what this new world is going to be like. John Custance comes to rely on, and trust him, more and more.

There’s an uneasy air of compliance, in the book, in Custance’s shift from civilised man to survivalist leader. Perhaps because we started it off by taking his side — he was the reasonably-sounding, civilised one in the early chapters, as opposed to his friend Roger’s pessimism — but as we rarely get to see inside his head, we don’t witness the inner moments when he gives in to the way the world is going to be. We just see his actions getting darker and darker. At times it’s hard to tell if Custance is taking a certain pride, or grim satisfaction when, for instance, he finds his children being that much more obedient to him — and the women too — now he’s taken on the role of leader of a band of survivalists.

So, it’s an uneasy book. But, of course, it’s meant to be.

Day of the Triffids was far more about the ecological disaster, the loneliness of the survivors, and the many different types of challenges they’d have to face in order to survive. Although it addresses the same sort of moral issues as Christopher’s book, Christopher’s is more wholly, and brutally, about the moral issues alone. In Death of Grass, there’s no real concern for the idea of trying to preserve civilisation, or mourning its loss, just a cold looking on as it dies. As Roger says, “We’re in a new era… Or a very old one…” and everyone seems quite happy, after an initial inner tussle, to take that as read and join in:

“It’s force that counts now. Anybody who doesn’t understand that has got as much chance as a rabbit in a cage full of ferrets.”

It’s easy to see Christopher’s characters as the sort Wyndham’s might meet, try to talk to, and quickly need to escape from. Wyndham had no illusions about the depths human beings could sink to, but he did believe that some might (successfully) choose not to sink all the way — which is, after all, the basis of civilisation. Christopher’s book doesn’t really debate the point. The pragmatists are the most eloquent, and they are the ones with the guns. They survive, but we do, at the end, get to see some of the cost of that survival. (It should also be said that Christopher’s characters suffer more than Wyndham’s. Not only do they kill others, but two of the women are, early on, kidnapped and raped, something that Wyndham would never have included in a book. It’s not dwelt upon, but it certainly sets a grim tone for the mental state the group falls into.)

There was a 1970 film adaptation, named No Blade of Grass (after the US retitling of the novel), which is mostly faithful, and fits in neatly with the 70s fascination with ecological disasters and survival scenarios. The smaller cast changes the dynamics of the group, even improving on Christopher’s plot at one point, when Pirrie (here a younger rather than an older man) chooses Custance’s daughter Mary to replace his wife (instead of, in the book, another young woman picked up on the way), which makes Custance’s acquiescence all the more damning — or it would, if only Custance (played by Nigel Davenport) wasn’t so stolid and matter-of-fact throughout the film. The whole mood of the film really depends on how Custance is portrayed, and Davenport doesn’t bring the slightest hint of moral doubt to the role. The group might as well be out for a country stroll, for all the horrors (made all the more horrific by being depicted in lurid 70s fashion) they meet with, and perpetrate. (It doesn’t help that, with his eyepatch, jacket, and moustache, he’s the mirror image of Julian Barrett’s 80s action-star parody Mindhorn.) Plus, there’s a rather silly stand-off near the end with a motorcycle gang, who seem to be there simply to use up the film’s stunt budget. You can see its trailer at Trailers from Hell.

Nigel Davenport’s Custance, Julian Barrett’s Mindhorn

Vertigo

We begin with a plunge into a human eye, and the hypnotic, whirling spirals in its depths. Vertigo (1958) is all about that plunge, that being caught in the combination tangle-and-embrace of an ever-revolving spiral, be that spiral love or deception, the frailties of one’s own mind, or the darkness and mysteries of another’s.

Vertigo is a lush film, and lushness is the invitation to plunge in, to immerse. The cinematography is lush, with its bold, smouldering colours, such as the almost supernatural green Hitchcock keeps bathing his leading lady in. Bernard Herrmann’s music is lush, with its teetering-on-the-edge arpeggios at the start, and the deep, romantic surrender-sigh of its love theme. And it may sound odd, but I think the plot is lush, too. How can a plot be lush? Because it tangles you in its ever-whirling spiral, pulling you deeper and deeper, and the deeper you go the richer it gets, increasing in questions, complications and implications the more you give in to its embrace.

Usually when a film has one of those mid-point reveals which throw a new light on everything that went before, it makes the plot clearer. If you watch the film again, it’s with a series of mental tumbler-clicks. “Ah, so that’s why-so-and-so did such-and-such…” But when Vertigo passes through its central reveal, it only seems to make things clearer. Once you start to think about it, it actually makes everything that’s been going on even stranger.

I’m not going to lay out the whole plot (though what follows contains spoilers), but it begins with Scottie (Jimmie Stewart), retiring from the police force after a roof-top chase proves him to have a debilitating fear of heights, and results in the death of a fellow officer. Jobless and aimless, he’s contacted by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, who needs someone to follow his wife — not because he thinks she’s having an affair, but because he believes she’s come under the influence of a past she never knew about. Somehow, she’s being possessed by the spirit of her long-dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who took her life at the age Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is now. Though initially reluctant, Scottie takes the job, and does so because Madeleine is beautiful. As he follows this dreamy young woman in her wanderings about San Francisco, he falls in love with her.

Why does he fall in love with her? Not only because she’s beautiful, but because she’s in need of being saved, and Scottie is very much in need of saving someone, because that’s the only way he can redeem himself. His masculinity took a blow when he was forced to leave the police, and what he needs to restore it, to feel like a hero again, is to save some beautiful, haunted young woman from… whatever it is she needs saving from, be it her own psychology, a darkness from the past, or the ghost of dead Carlotta.

The thing is, this story about Madeleine being possessed and death-obsessed isn’t true. The Madeleine Scottie follows isn’t haunted by the past, she’s not Gavin Elster’s wife, she’s not even called Madeleine. It’s an act, part of a murder plot to do away with someone Scottie never meets, but for whose death he is going to be made to feel responsible.

Can the love for someone who’s not real be real? If you judge by its effects — losing the unreal Madeleine plunges Scottie into a near-catatonic combination of melancholia and guilt — it is real. And anyway, even though “Madeleine” is an act, there’s something about the act that is true. Because this woman does need saving. Not from the spirit of dead Carlotta, but from the tangles of Gavin Elster’s murder plot. So perhaps Scottie does love the real woman behind the Madeleine-facade, the woman who needs saving, and whose redemption can, in turn, save him.

And perhaps another proof his love for her is real is that Madeleine — or the woman who’s only pretending to be Madeleine, but who nevertheless is on the receiving end of Scottie’s love — falls in love with him. Which is even stranger, because that means she’s fallen in love with a man who loves her because he thinks she’s someone else.

After things go wrong and Gavin gets away with murder, and the real Madeleine is dead and Scottie thinks he’s to blame, he meets Judy (Kim Novak, again). Distraught over the death he thinks he caused, he sees enough of his Madeleine in Judy to make him think he can remake this young woman in her image. Which, of course, he can, because she’s the same woman. And when he turns up at her door, Judy, who has made an obvious effort to look and act as unlike Madeleine as she can — brunette as opposed to blonde, gaudy makeup and chunky jewellery as opposed to elegant understatement, homespun, high-voiced innocence as opposed to deeper-voiced, smouldering refinement — Judy at first thinks she has to run away, because she is, after all, accomplice to a murder. But she doesn’t run away, and that’s because she’s genuinely in love with Scottie.

Judy and her ghostly alter-ego

Or is she? This Judy that we meet in the second half of the film is also an act. She’s doing her best to be as unlike Madeleine as she can, so as not to be discovered. She has been cast off by her former lover/accomplice Gavin, so she might well be looking for a protector, and she knows enough about Scottie — now a vulnerable, broken man clearly capable of being manipulated — to play him. She may have seemed to be falling in love with him even when she was still playing Madeleine, right before the murder, but was she, really? She later claims she ran to the bell-tower of the church to prevent the murder of Elster’s wife, but how can that be true? She must have known that, the moment she appeared in the tower’s top chamber, Elster would throw his already-dead wife’s body off the top of the tower. And the key thing is already-dead. The murder, by that point, would have already taken place. If she’d really fallen for Scottie, and wanted to prevent the murder, she should have taken him away from the tower and explained everything. He was an ex-policeman, he’d have known what to do. But she didn’t. What she did gives every appearance of going ahead with the plan.

At no point in the film can we be sure we meet the real Judy. But it could be, in a mirror-image of Scottie’s story from the first half of the film, that she might be trying to redeem herself for her role in the murder by trying to save this broken man from his lovelorn melancholia. She may also truly love him. Or it could be that, though she might not (like most of us, with regards to both Vertigo and life) understand this complex, ever-deepening spiral she’s found herself caught in, but she’s doing what, in this film at least, is the one thing human beings can do in the face of so much confusion and deception: she’s finding someone she can cling to.

This is what Vertigo is about. It’s about clinging to whoever’s there to cling to. There are several long sequences in Vertigo where Jimmie Stewart’s Scottie and Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy are caught in an extended clinch — it’s the only word for it — a constantly moving, restless mix of kiss, embrace, controlling hold, and don’t-leave-me grip. At times, they’re struggling against one another, at others they’re just sort of pressing helplessly into one another as though no hold could ever be close enough. (In the final sequence, they spend over five minutes in near-constant physical contact, even as they cross a quadrangle and climb the steep, spiralling steps of a church tower.) The first time I saw the film, I was left for some time afterwards with a lingering, almost physical feeling of touch, and it was these intense clinging/clinching scenes that did it.

Despite the labyrinthine tangles of its plot and its characters’ deception-based identities and constantly-questionable motives, what’s real in Vertigo, both for the characters and the viewer, is that moment of finding something to cling to amidst all the whirling spirals and vertiginous plunges. That’s why they cling — because they’ve finally found something solid, something real, a living presence in a world of shadows and ghosts and lies.

Vertigo’s is a world in which there’s no solid ground, and only the feeling of falling is real. You find someone to cling to who’s falling with you, or you do it alone. Obsession isn’t, in this world, an aberration, it’s the only workable response. Scottie’s pal Midge’s lukewarm attempts to get him to love her aren’t anywhere near enough. What’s needed is superheated, Gothic Romantic Noir levels of obsession. Love, in Vertigo, is utterly irrational and absurd — the idea of trusting anyone in a world so full of deception and lies is impossible — so, even if it springs to life on the back of a lie, as long as it does spring to life, you cling to it for all your life and sanity are worth.

This, I think, is the way to watch Vertigo — and re-watch it, and re-watch it, ever deepening the obsession. As you watch it, you know you’re being presented with lies and deceptions, magic tricks and hypnotic passes — not just in the film, by its characters, but by its director, the arch-manipulator of audiences, Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo is, I’d say, his most potent spell. So the best thing to do is give in to the plunge, cling to the cling of Vertigo, obsess with the obsession, otherwise you’ll be lost, alone, in an ever-whirling fall…

The Shape of… What? Er…

I was disappointed to read that Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie, co-director of Delicatessen) was accusing Guillermo del Toro of plagiarism in his latest film, The Shape of Water. Partly, my disappointment is down to both directors having made favourite films of mine (Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie, Delicatessen, and City of Lost Children all real favourites), and I’m always disappointed (though never too surprised) when creators I like criticise one another. But another reason is it seems somewhat ungenerous of Jeunet, considering how liberally he himself has borrowed from other films.

The main scene Jeunet singles out is where Sally Hawkins’s character and her neighbour (played by Richard Jenkins), sitting together on a sofa watching an old musical on TV, start tap-dancing along while sitting down. Jeunet said it was “cut and pasted from Delicatessen” (quote from The Telegraph) — no doubt meaning the scene where Dominique Pinon and Karin Viard, sitting on a bed and bouncing in order to locate a squeaky spring, fall into a sort of sitting-down dance. (You can see both at an article on The Playlist, which also reveals that the Jeunet quotes were Google Translated from the original French.)

Jeunet also says Shape of Water’s having scenes featuring “the painter, the apartment, the girl who is a bit naive” must be inspired by Amelie, which strikes me as almost deliberately vague. I wouldn’t call Hawkins’s character “naive” — certainly not as Amelie is — she’s also clearly a woman rather than a girl, and the relationship between the characters Jeunet mentions is quite different. (In Amelie, the painter is very much a mentor figure; in Shape of Water, the relationship is of equals.) It’s far too vague for an accusation of plagiarism. (Hitchcock’s Blackmail also features a scene with a painter, an apartment, and a girl who is a bit naive, though of course it turns out far differently.)

Perhaps it’s more interesting to look at the scene Jeunet doesn’t mention. At one point in The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’s character shuts herself in a bathroom with the love of her life (who happens to be an aquatic humanoid more comfortable breathing through his gills than his lungs), blocking the bottom of the door with towels and turning on all the taps so they can flood the bathroom and enjoy a little underwater love. It’s reminiscent of the scene at the end of Delicatessen where Dominique Pinon’s Louison and Marie-Laure Dougnac’s Julie lock themselves in a bathroom, stop up all the gaps, turn on all the taps, and flood the bathroom, in this case to aid their escape from the other residents of the building, who want to eat at least one of them. Perhaps the reason Jeunet doesn’t point out this similarity is that this scene also occurs in a 1975 Paul Newman film, The Drowning Pool, in which Newman and a woman are locked in a large bathroom, block the drains, turn on all the taps, and flood the place to escape. In all three films, the central couple are carried out in the flood when the blocked door is finally opened.

The Drowning Pool (1975) — they had a bigger bathroom

It’s just as easy to find borrowings — unconscious or not, accidental or not — in Jeunet’s films. The most obvious, to my eyes, is in Amelie. The scenes where Audrey Tautou’s character sneaks into the grocer’s apartment to play various sneaky little revenge-pranks on him are very similar to those in the 1994 film Chungking Express — not just in the idea of a young woman sneaking into a man’s apartment and playing little tricks, but down to some of the tricks themselves. In Chungking Express, Faye Wong’s character, among other things, swaps a pair of slippers and puts sleeping pills in a bottle of drink (if I remember right); in Amelie, Audrey Tautou’s character swaps a pair of slippers for those a size smaller and puts sugar in a bottle of some alcoholic drink.

Chungking Express — this is not her apartment

To make all these accusations of plagiarism more complicated still, in an Empire magazine feature (Le fantastique M. Jeunet by Olly Richards) from January 2010, Jeunet says of the flooded bathroom sequence in Delicatessen:

“It’s funny, because maybe six or seven years later I saw a short film with Laurel & Hardy and it’s the same idea. Same bathroom with two cops outside. I understood that probably [co-director] Marc Caro or me saw that when we were kids and then forgot it. Then it sat in the back of the mind.”

It’s an old idea that good artists copy, great artists steal, but I can’t help feeling there’s a danger of a huge loss of subtlety as soon as the accusation of plagiarism comes up. There are, most certainly, cases of outright plagiarism, but there will also be cases of unconscious influence, parallel development of similar ideas, drawing from the same sources, and so on. How to tell the difference? Surely, in these sorts of cases, you ought to be able to judge by an artist’s, or director’s, creative integrity, as evident from their existing body of work, something I think del Toro and Jeunet have both demonstrated.

I’m certainly not putting myself on a par with Jeunet or del Toro, but, as it’s the one area where I have some chance of knowing a deeper level of the story, I’ll bring in a couple of examples from my own writing. Some time ago, I decided I wanted to write a Lovecraftian story, and worked hard on coming up with a plot that, to me, summed up the essence of what Lovecraft’s fiction meant to me, in terms of the implications of its world and worldview. This was eventually published (“Zathotha”, in Cyäegha #4 in 2011). I was completely unaware, till I was re-reading it some time after it was published, that I’d in fact reproduced the plot of my favourite Clark Ashton Smith story, “The Double Shadow” — both feature characters carrying out a magical ritual they don’t understand, that leads to the ineluctable approach of an entity that absorbs its victims, and nothing can be done to stop it.

To give another example, I used the idea of a phantom staircase that appears only at certain times, in The Fantasy Reader. I came up with the idea while playing about with the sort of thing that happens in dreams — I have loads of dreams where I find myself in a small house or apartment that, despite its limited size, has endless rooms with doors that open onto other rooms with more doors, and so on, with even the occasional staircase leading to yet more rooms and doors. It was only well after I’d started working with the idea that I remembered it was also in David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. It’s a book I’ve read loads of times, and I even run a website about Lindsay, so, no court of law would ever accept that I hadn’t taken the idea from him, and I’d certainly be happy to say that I had, and it may be I did, unconsciously, but my feeling is I took it from the same place where he, perhaps, found it.

Both del Toro and Jeunet are, even by directorial standards, outright cinephiles, and both not only talk about their influences, but include tributes and references to much-loved films in their work. (The Shape of Water and Amelie both contain scenes set in cinemas.) I have a feeling Jeunet’s reaction may be more emotional than rational — perhaps he saw someone doing the sort of thing he considers his territory, and getting a lot of plaudits, and felt left out. I can certainly understand that. As I say, I like both directors, and would like to see both in the best light.

Anyway, The Shape of Water is a very nice film. I didn’t find it as intense as Pan’s Labyrinth, though it has a lot in common with that film. But it’s definitely the sort of film I’ll want to watch a few more times and really get to know — as I have, and will continue to do, with Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as Amelie, and Delicatessen.

The Birds

It starts with Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor of George Pal’s The Time Machine) trying to buy a pair of love-birds for his kid sister. But, in a way, all the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film are love-birds. Most of them, though — the un-caged ones — are furies of the repressed, denied, and frustrated forces of love. On the one hand, The Birds is a horror film about the possible end of the human race in a war with a hundred billion birds; on the other, it’s about a mother and her new potential daughter-in-law learning to relate to one another. Seen in this way, it’s even got a happy ending.

When Mitch goes to the pet-store to buy his kid sister a pair of precisely modulated love-birds (“I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative… At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof…”), the only thing that catches his eye is Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a bird of a slightly wilder variety. (She has a gossip-column reputation involving an incident in a fountain in Rome, where she was enjoying La Dolce Vita.) The two engage in a poker-faced battle of wits, ending with Melanie, determined to get the upper hand, buying the love-birds herself and delivering them by hand to Mitch’s city apartment. But Mitch has a carefully compartmentalised private life: he spends his bachelor weeks in San Francisco, and his weekends at Bodega Bay, where he lives with his mother and sister. This particular bird has flown, so Melanie sets out after him.

At the bay, the bird attacks come at emotionally significant moments. The first occurs after Melanie has boated across the bay to sneak the love-birds into the Brenner family home. Heading back, she sees Mitch find the birds and run out of the house. She lets herself be seen, and the two adopt the sort of expressions you’d expect from a duelling early-stage couple in a screwball-comedy, each trying loftily to pretend they’re not that interested in the other. Then the first of our furies swoops down to gouge into Melanie’s perfectly-coiffured head.

The next incident — not an attack, but significant all the same — comes when Melanie has taken a room for the night with local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth. Annie is a previous pretender to the title of Mrs Mitch, and knows what stands in the way: Mitch’s widowed mother, Lydia, who’s terrified of being left alone because she let her now-dead husband do all the emotional-warmth side of things, and now finds she has nothing but criticism and disapproval to keep the family together. Just then, there’s a knock at the door, and as both women are thinking of Mitch, they perhaps hope it might be him. But no, it’s a bird. It’s just killed itself slamming into Annie’s front-door.

The third attack is at a kids’ party. Mitch’s little sister Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright, who’d survive all these killer birds only to fall prey to a xenomorph in Alien) and her friends are playing in the garden while Mitch and Melanie go off a little way to have their first unguarded conversation (in a scene written entirely by Hitchcock himself). Here, we learn that Melanie’s mother abandoned her when she was young, leaving her scornful of the very idea of mother-love. Which makes it doubly difficult if she’s going to try to fit into Mitch’s family: Melanie is a woman who does not want a new mother; Lydia, apparently incapable of love, does not want a new daughter; but both want Mitch, so who’s going to give way? The couple return to the party and, charged as they are with this stirring-up of old, difficult emotions, induce a bird attack. The birds swoop down on the kids, as though to underline the point that all of the coming violence and trauma is rooted in childhood vulnerabilities.

Mitch tries to convince Melanie to stay in Bodega Bay, and Lydia does her best, within civilised bounds, to encourage her to leave. A swarm of sparrows burst in through the fireplace (the hearth being the heart of the home), and wreck the living room. It’s like a poltergeist visitation — pent-up, unconscious forces lashing out with no control. The next day, Lydia goes to see a neighbour to discuss the fact that neither of their chickens are eating. She finds him dead, with his eyes pecked out. It’s a (literally) pointed reminder about her dead husband, and all the reasons she has to fear Melanie’s influence on her family.

Now the attacks become more frenzied and destructive, as though the forces let loose by Melanie’s arrival in Bodega Bay — the warring unconscious wraths of Melanie and Lydia — have given up trying to be specific and personal and are now just going to flail about, smashing everything in sight. Cars blow up, men catch fire, horses run wild, everybody’s screaming. A mother at the café skewers Melanie in an outburst that only makes sense if you think of her as somehow being possessed by Lydia’s dark half, giving vent to what that ultra-controlled, over-cool woman really wants to say to her new potential daughter-in-law:

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said that when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!”

By now Melanie’s only rival Annie is dead and everyone’s in retreat. Holed up at the Brenner house, Melanie has that peculiar horror film urge to go upstairs, alone, to investigate the noises coming from a room (a child’s room?), whereupon she finds herself locked inside it with a tempest of birds, lashed and scratched and screeched at till she’s almost catatonic.

And it’s at this point, finally, that the new family starts to gel. As they leave the house and get into the car, Melanie squeezes Lydia’s wrist and Lydia responds with a smile. It’s only when they’ve both been terrorised to the point of trauma, and the house has been wrecked, that the two women can, at last, begin to relate to one another. Melanie, babyish with speechlessness, has gained a mother, and Lydia, forced to flee her wrecked and violated home, has found the ability to show this new daughter a hint of affection.

From one point of view, the world is on the verge of an apocalyptic war between birds and humans. From another, what we’re seeing is the Brenner family’s true inner landscape revealed — a world filled with small but fierce, barely quiescent furies of thwarted and frustrated love, which everyone must tiptoe around, like so many sharp-beaked family secrets. Cathy brings along the love-birds, and perhaps we can now understand Mitch’s wish to give his kid sister an example of love in its not-too-demonstrative, not-too-aloof form: just look at what repression, possessiveness and jealousy does to the place.

(Mrs Bundy, ornithologist:) “Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind—”
(Waitress, in the background:) “Sam—three southern-fried chicken!”
“—It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.”

Walkabout

I said in my Mewsings about the 1988 film Paperhouse that I couldn’t think of many children’s books that, when adapted to the big screen, turned into films for adults, but Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout from 1971 is another to add to the list, as it’s based on James Vance Marshall’s adventure novel for kids, first published in 1959 as The Children, and later retitled Walkabout.

A key difference between the novel and the film is how the children (Americans in the book) find themselves alone in the outback. In the book, Peter and Mary are in a plane crash, whereas in the film (where they’re unnamed), they’re driven to the outback by their father who suddenly starts shooting at them, before setting his car on fire and killing himself — a major change, and certainly part of what takes the film away from being suitable for a young audience. (Though “Hansel and Gretel” starts in a similar way, with a father deliberately abandoning his son and daughter in the woods to starve.)

That infanticidal/suicidal beginning always makes me think of the 60s counterculture’s idea that you should never trust anyone over thirty; also its feeling that modern life was a stifling, dehumanising treadmill that could only end in this sort of psychotic breakdown. Walkabout is very much a film that belongs to the immediate aftermath of the 60s, being at once a product of it and a commentary on it. (As was Roeg’s co-directorial debut, Performance, but I’d also group it with Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée, a.k.a. Obscured By Clouds, which, like Walkabout, features a small group of drop-outs from the West seeking a deeper connection to life through exposure to a tribal culture.)

“It has often been said that one of the characteristics of the modern world,” wrote Mircea Eliade in his 1958 book on the subject, “is the disappearance of any meaningful rites of initiation.” Walkabout is about the rites of passage children undergo to become adults. The Aborigine who helps the schoolgirl and her brother is in the midst of his own initiatory trial, as explained by a title card at the start of the film:

“In Australia, when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the WALKABOUT.”

We first see Jenny Agutter’s character engaged in the West’s equivalent, school. She and the rest of her class, sitting in neatly ordered production-line rows, are practising their speech lessons, which seem remarkably like a sort of primitive rhythmic chant. Later, she tunes to a radio programme instructing her on her tribe’s complex eating rituals: which knife and fork to use when eating fish, and how to cover up if you inadvertently pick up the wrong ones.

By this time, we’ve already glimpsed her father sitting alone in the concrete desert between office blocks, and her mother at home preparing dinner, listening to a radio programme describing how a bird called the ortolan is kept in a box, force-fed grain, and drowned in cognac as a delicacy for gourmets. (In contrast to which, we later see the Aborigine youth hunt, kill, prepare and cook animals, as well as use, for instance, the fat of one of them to soothe the young boy’s sunburn.)

The father (played by John Meillon, who’d later play Crocodile Dundee’s duffer of a business partner, Wally, which makes it even worse that he’s about to start shooting at his children) drives his kids into the desert and, while the boy plays and the girl sets out picnic dishes, reads a report on Structural Geology, as though, even in the midst of the splendour of the outback, he can only relate to his environment as a tabulated business proposal. Spiritually, he’s running on empty, and the car’s almost out of petrol, too. The schoolgirl gives him a slightly worried look, as though she’s half expecting something to happen. Even when he starts shooting, she doesn’t seem entirely surprised — nor too traumatised after it’s happened. (I have to say that one of the things that makes the film slightly difficult, for me, is how she generally doesn’t show much emotion throughout, considering the peril and trauma she goes through. Perhaps it goes to prove how thoroughly initiated she already is in her own stiff-upper-lip culture.)

But even the father’s insane actions have a place in the children’s rites of passage. As Mircea Eliade says, in Rites and Symbols of Initiation:

“Now, suddenly, they are torn from their blissful childhood unconsciousness, and are told that they are to die, that they will be killed by the divinity. The very act of separation from their mothers fills them with forebodings of death—for they are seized by unknown, often masked men, [and] carried far from their familiar surroundings…”

“The universe that the novices now enter is that of the sacred world,” Eliade goes on to say, and the world the schoolgirl and her brother find themselves in is weird and alive, beautiful and deadly, as though supernaturally charged. It’s teeming with life: flies, ants, grubs, locusts, lizards, snakes, birds, kangaroos, camels, and even one desert-venturing wombat.

It’s harsh, too. A few days into their adventure, dehydrated and exhausted, the children find a waterhole, and immediately use up the precious water not just in drinking but in pointlessly washing themselves and their clothes. The next day, they wake to find the water all gone.

It’s at this point the Aborigine youth turns up, throwing spears at a lizard. (Later, while this young man makes more spears, the schoolboy boasts that he can multiply 84 by 84, his nearest equivalent skill.) The schoolgirl asks him, rather embarrassingly, “Where do they keep the water?”, as though this were a park with facilities, not a wilderness. And all she can do is ask — it’s up to her young brother, not yet entirely educated out of touch, to get the message through by acting it.

Whenever I watch Walkabout I expect it to be about two Western children gaining a deeper connection to the primal forces of life through sharing in an outback rite of passage, but that’s not what actually happens. The schoolgirl seems quite happy not to learn any of the skills she needs to survive in the outback, and clearly expects to be taken back to Western civilisation by the straightest route possible.

What of the Aborigine youth? At one point, walking atop a ridge, he passes right by a white woman, making no attempt to let the schoolgirl know she’s just yards away from her own folk. Instead, he takes her and her brother to an abandoned house. The girl, after her initial disappointment that there’s no one there to take her and her brother back to their own civilisation, immediately starts turning it into a home. She and the youth move about inside it, avoiding eye contact, suddenly distant in this confined space. At the slightest hint of her own world, she’s back to being a Western would-be housewife, and the youth seems a bit nonplussed.

My interpretation of their parting is different from others I’ve read. The Wikipedia article on Walkabout, for instance, says that the Aborigine starts to perform a mating ritual to try to win the schoolgirl over, but my reaction (and this isn’t based on any knowledge whatsoever) was that it wasn’t a mating ritual but a farewell. Just beforehand, the youth goes hunting and sees some white men shooting their prey with rifles. Disgusted, he wanders off — ignoring the schoolgirl when he passes her — to lie among some animal bones. It’s as though he’s trying to come to terms with the idea that white men belong to a different, more savage and strange society, and the schoolgirl is one of them, so he’ll have to leave her. Returning to the house, daubed in white to make himself look like a skeleton, he starts a rather spooky dance which, to me, doesn’t have as much a suggestion of a mating ritual about it, as it does a sort of exorcism. Seeing the film for the first time, I assumed this meant he was saying goodbye to her — ‘dying’ to her metaphorically, while perhaps also trying to scare her from the house, to move her on her way. His jerky stares seem more alienating than inviting. Which isn’t to say his dance doesn’t have a sexual element, but that element may be to add to its magical potency.

When the schoolgirl and her brother find him the next day, suspended from the branches of a tree, I assumed he wasn’t literally dead, but was ‘dead to them’, and was going to stay like that till they left. But the general interpretation seems to be that he is actually dead, and that he died by — what? — dancing himself to exhaustion? Then hanging himself up in the tree?

Is he dead? His body’s in the same position as the father’s corpse was earlier in the film, arms outstretched amidst the limbs of a tree. But neither the schoolgirl nor her brother seem very shocked to see the youth like this. (Though this may be yet more ingrained impassivity from the schoolgirl.) They don’t bury him. The girl just brushes some ants from his body. Neither, though, do they tell him to snap out of it. (I’m sure his face twitches as they walk away, though.) Maybe I just don’t want him to be dead. (In the novel, after all, he catches flu from the children and, having no immunity, dies.)

Really dead or not, though, it’s the end of the trio’s time together. The schoolgirl and her brother walk to a nearby road, and head back to their own world. At the end of the film, we see the girl, now grown up (wearing make-up and smoking a cigarette), in exactly the same situation as her mother was in at the start of the film — a housewife in an apartment, preparing a meal for her husband, who comes home and tells her he’s up for a promotion. For a moment, it’s as though nothing has changed. And if the girl is in the same situation as her mother, does that mean her husband will one day take their children out to the desert and shoot them, too? But then we have a glimpse inside her head. Part of her is still in the outback, with her young brother and the Aborigine youth, swimming in a pool. Perhaps something in her was affected by her time in the outback, after all…

It seems to me Walkabout is doing its best to conjure some hope from the end of the 60s counterculture’s attempt at a revolution. It’s the 70s now, and the hippies and drop-outs have had to grow up and get jobs, and they’ve found that the only way to do that is to fit in with the existing system, become one with the never-to-be-trusted over-thirties. But, like Jenny Agutter’s character, who has a piece of her outback experience permanently (if deeply) lodged inside her, those hippies and drop-outs at least glimpsed an alternative, and even if they’re not living the revolutionary dream, at least something inside of them isn’t given wholly over to the Capitalist treadmill. Their revolution didn’t succeed, but it wasn’t entirely defeated, either.

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterOne of the things that makes the original Alien so effective is how lean and sleek it is, plot-wise — what you might call its structural perfection. You can’t help but admire its purity. It’s a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…

The original film’s one allusion to a backstory or mythology, the Space Jockey scene, is so brief yet mind-blowing that all it does is hint at what a vast, scary, and utterly unknowable Lovecraftian universe there is behind the xenomorph’s existence. It’s as if, with the Space Jockey scene, the film is saying, “All this stuff with one killer alien is merely scratching the surface of the horrors that are out there.”

Aliens knew what it was doing when it left any question of mythology alone. Like a need-to-know-only military briefing, it stuck to the xenomorph, and the xenomorph only. Anything beyond that was unnecessary to its story. Prometheus changed all that, but Prometheus was trying to be a different sort of film altogether, only tangentially related to the Alien franchise. That wasn’t what audiences wanted, though, so now, instead of a Prometheus sequel, we have Alien: Covenant, a DNA-fused hybrid that promises a return to the Alien franchise proper, but that also wants to keep things going on the Prometheus front. We know the xenomorph is endlessly adaptable, but I can’t help thinking of that pathetic human/xenomorph thing at the end of Alien: Resurrection, that seemed, to me, more unintentionally comic than evolutionarily impressive.

(And why ‘Covenant’? Aside from it being the name of the ship carrying human colonists to the distant planet Origae-6, there doesn’t seem to be any actual covenant involved.)

Alien: Covenant posterI enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but only in a so-so way. I think the trouble with it is that, by this time, the series has picked up so many story elements it feels the need to give the nod to, none of them can get the attention they deserve. There’s the xenomorphs; there’s the Engineers; there’s the synthetics; there’s David (from Prometheus) in particular; there’s the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; there’s its ageing founder… And somewhere amongst all that, there’s the new characters who must be introduced in each film, if only to give them some sort of story before they’re infected, impregnated, punctured, dissolved, burned, torn apart, experimented on, or whatever other gruesome fate awaits them. In a need to be both a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant spends all its narrative energy running around ticking boxes, doing its best to add its own particular twists (yet more variations on the xenomorph and its ever-mutating gestation cycle, yet more new ways for characters to die), trying to at least hint it’s going to connect with the original film in a meaningful way, while all the time trying to provide some justification for its existence as a film in its own right.

All the scenes that made Alien and Aliens so great get stuffed into Alien: Covenant and hastily run through, but with none of the necessary build-up in character and tension that made them work in the first place. Who is that getting torn apart by the latest variety of xenomorph (a pale, fleshy creature more than a little resembling Pan’s Labyrinth’s eyeless Pale Man)? I don’t know. Which means I don’t care.

Michael Fassbender as David in PrometheusWhere Alien: Covenant does get to create some sort of unique identity as a film, it actually starts to work. The one thing it’s got going for it is the fact that it has two superficially identical synthetics, David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender (who is, I suppose, the prequel series’s Ripley, though an anti-Ripley). This is a new situation for the Alien films, and Alien: Covenant manages to do something with it. The trouble is, it only gets round to doing it in the last few minutes, once the film has finished dealing with all the other Alien/Aliens/Prometheus stuff it feels so contracted to deal with. (Perhaps that’s the covenant in Alien: Covenant? A contract between Ridley Scott and his audience who, he seems to feel, need, not a sleek, tense, killer of a film, but a series of ticks against an ever-increasing list of must-have scenes, twists, and backstory updates, however shoehorned-in.)

Prometheus left me reeling at how nihilistic it was. Alien: Covenant never gets round to making any sort of equivalent statement. And I think this is the curse of backstory, or mythology, or whatever you call it, generally. Backstory works as backstory, not as the main plot of a movie. That’s why the Star Wars prequels could never be as good as the originals. It’s great to have, in the original Star Wars trilogy, references to what went on before — the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and so on — because those throwaway references gave the story-world a bit more dimension, and uncovering hidden past events and family secrets added some counterpoint to the main action of the plot. When Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father, it was a great, though crude, shock moment. But it certainly wasn’t the justification for three new films. (The Harry Potter books/films did it better, in terms of interweaving discovery of past events with present-time plot advancement.)

Star Wars Rogue One posterI really enjoyed Star Wars: Rogue One, and a good deal of that came from its being so free of the tangles of established backstory — certainly, of the ponderous, melodramatic, Gothic weight of the ‘Saga’ of the (let’s face it, majorly dysfunctional) Skywalker clan. Granted, Rogue One took as its kick-off point a detail from the original story — Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans — but that, and its being set in the recognisable Star Wars universe, was all it took. And all it needed.

Alien: Covenant doesn’t actually add much to the Prometheus mythology, which makes it all the more annoying how weighed down it is by including so much of it. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but what I think the Alien series needs is to jettison this dead weight of trying to build a mythology, and get back to being the sleek, simple but mind-blowing killer beast it used to be, with only the occasional between-the-fingers glimpse of a wider, even more terrifying, cosmic reality behind it all.

English Gothic by Jonathan Rigby

At the end of this exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) film-by-film history of English horror cinema, Jonathan Rigby quotes Anne Billson on the special place Gothic has for the English:

‘Horror thrives best when emotions are bottled up, and no one bottles them up quite like us.’

I’m not sure this is true of all horror. I’d say the US horror films, like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which put an end to the 20th century’s main British horror boom, are more about political than emotional repression — when they’re not simply about pure, primal terror, that is. Certainly, they don’t work in that stiff-upper lip way Hammer’s fairy-tale Gothics do. Perhaps that’s why the term ‘Gothic’ seems so much more appropriate to English horror cinema. (Though Rigby has also written books on European Gothic and American Gothic.)

Although Rigby mentions a welter of early horror films in his first chapter (covering 1897 to 1953), things (as well as Things) really kick off in 1954, with Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment, which made a marketing virtue of its ‘X’ certificate (brought in by the BBFC in 1951, to exclude under-16s). That film’s success led to the ‘First Flood’ of British horror (as Rigby titles the chapter), most of which were science fiction horrors, or the sort of costume-drama Gothics that Hammer were to make so much their own.

Right from the start, British critics and censors did their best to act as the repressing super-ego to these horror films’ blasts of unleashed id, complaining of a surging tide of boundaries-testing ‘sex and sadism’ (that nowadays seems merely quaint), which led to a slow choking-off of this initial horror boom in the first half of the 1960s, when horror filmmaking in Britain seems to have been dominated by costume Gothics (not just Hammer, but Roger Corman’s Poe films, too), alongside some respectable one-offs like The Innocents, The Haunting, and Repulsion. (Michael Powell, with his 1960 film Peeping Tom, became the sacrificial lamb to the repressive critics’ slaughter.) With the social changes of the 1960s, that critical repression flipped into outright prurience by the early 1970s, when a glut of US investment led to the films Rigby covers in a chapter called ‘Market Saturation’. After Hammer finally went to the Devil (literally — their last film being 1975’s To the Devil a Daughter), Rigby lumps the rest of the 20th century into a single chapter titled ‘British Horror in Retreat’.

Jonathan Rigby

That’s where the first edition of English Gothic ended. In this new (2015) edition, there’s a new chapter, ‘Risen from the Grave: 2000–2015’, covering the period which contains, among other things, Hammer’s own resurrection, its most characteristic film being (again) in period costume (The Lady in Black).

Perhaps it’s notable that Hammer had their success at the same time as the Carry On films. Both relied for their character on British prudishness, and both failed to adapt to the changing mores of the latter half of the 1960s (trying and failing in, for instance, Carry on Loving on the one hand and Dracula 1972 A.D. on the other), finally giving way to pulpier home-grown product which was far less repressed, and less finessed (Prey, Frightmare) — which themselves failed in the face of the fully explicit, overseas-made films of the video-driven 1980s.

I wonder if perhaps the horror genre will always have two opposing strands to it: the shocking, gory, explicitly violent side and the more dreamy, surreal, Gothic side. As people get tired of the excesses — or used to the shocks — of one (too much blood, or too little), the other has a breakout success. Hence, for instance, the boom of ghostly and surreal Asian horror films at the turn of the millennium, which then gave way to the excessively physical terrors of the Saw franchise five years later.

Some of my favourite British horror films have their feet in both camps — Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, or Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, for instance — but I much prefer the dreamy, supernatural, Gothic side: chills rather than shocks, and spooks rather than psychopaths.

Blow-Up and Performance

The two films I most associate with the swinging 60s are Blow-Up (1966) and Performance (made in 1968, but not released until 1970). I didn’t realise, till I watched them again recently, how much, while being very different in feel, they had in common. While one is set at the height of London’s cultural moment, and the other feels very much in its aftermath, both feature an artist (a photographer in Blow-Up, a musician in Performance) experiencing a revitalisation of their art through contact with violence and crime.

Blow-Up starts with its unnamed photographer (played by David Hemmings) emerging from a doss house, having just spent the night as one of the homeless while secretly taking snapshots. This might be taken as showing dedication to his art and a worthy social responsibility, but soon feels like just one more stunt in a day full of quick photoshoots, impulse buys and throwaway ideas. The dismissive way he orders the clothes he wore in the doss house burned, and the way he skims the proofs of the photos, interested only in the superficial impact of the images, seems to imply how little he’s been touched by the experience. His one contact with a deeper relationship to art seems to be his painter neighbour, who’s at the opposite end of the impulsiveness scale, being quite capable of leaving a painting incomplete for years till he’s sure he knows how to finish it.

One of his many impulses leads the photographer to follow a couple into a park, taking surreptitious snaps. He’s spotted, and the girl of the couple tries to get the photos off him. Something about the situation — its apparent peacefulness compared to the rush of his creative life, the desperation of the girl, an intuition that there’s more to it than meets the eye — catches his imagination and he starts studying the photos, blowing up sections till he realises he may have been present at a murder attempt. For a moment, he’s elated, thinking his art has had a genuine effect on the world — it’s saved someone’s life! Then comes the realisation: he didn’t save a life at all. Instead, he failed to notice a successful murder taking place right before his eyes.

Performance is more ambiguous. It brings together two characters, both in need of a new sort of energy in their lives. One is Chas (played by James Fox), an East End gangster’s ‘Front Man’ who oversteps his bounds and has to go on the run; the other is Turner (Mick Jagger), a burned-out rock star hiding away in dishevelled Bohemian digs in Powis Square. It’s the meeting of these representatives of two very different undergrounds (the criminal and the countercultural) that revitalises both. Turner absorbs Chas’s gangster persona, and uses it to make contact with his musical ‘daemon’ once more; meanwhile, Chas has his ultra-macho self-image broken down to free his more feminine side.

In both films, a musical performance captures the mix of art and violence they’re heading towards: the Yardbirds playing ‘Train Kept A-Rolling’ in Blow-Up (with Jeff Beck rather self-consciously destroying a guitar and throwing its neck into the audience, waking them from catatonia into a scramble of violence), Mick Jagger singing the rather Dylanesque “Memo From Turner”, surrounded by naked gangsters, in Performance.

Both films end ambiguously. In Blow-Up, after realising he didn’t save anyone’s life at all, Hemmings’s character wanders in the park till he falls in with a group of feral street-performers, who set about an impromptu game of mimed tennis. Joining in — throwing back their non-existent ball when it’s knocked out of court — seems, somehow, to provide some sort of resolution to his story. In Performance things are even stranger, with Chas (either more in touch with his feminine side and a fuller human being, or simply stoned out on mushrooms) shooting Turner, then being taken outside by his gangster friends to meet a similar fate, where he reveals himself, in a brief glimpse, to in fact be Turner, or perhaps the both of them, melded into a Chas-Turner hybrid.

Both endings seem not so much to be interested in explaining or resolving the change that’s taken place in their characters, as wilfully defying any sort of interpretation at all. But the feeling, in both cases, is of a sort of rising above the action into an entirely new plane of meaning, an alchemical synthesis of the two worlds (art and violence) that have been polarised in each film’s preceding action. These endings defy rational explanation because that change, that revitalisation, can perhaps only come about through giving way to a wholly new logic.

Pan’s Labyrinth

I’ve been wanting to write about Pan’s Labyrinth, one of my favourite films, for some time, but whenever I sit down to watch it, I find myself wondering what there is to say. Aside from how much I love the way it mixes wonderfully dark fantasy with convincing real-world drama, the sheer artistry of the film is sort of overwhelming — not just the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, and the storytelling, but the way so many of the strands of the story echo and resonate, so every character, every event, every location, acquires a deeper significance from the way it counterpoints other parts of the film. The whole thing works like a perfect piece of clockwork (an apt metaphor for the clockwork-loving Guillermo del Toro) — wonderful to watch, but difficult to write about without simply gushing.

Then I realised I had to write about not what I like most about the film, but what troubles me most about it.

I saw Pan’s Labyrinth at the cinema, and bought it as soon as it came out on DVD. (And, yes, once again on Blu-ray.) When I sat down to watch the DVD for the first time, I was shocked all over again by the opening scene, in which the young Ofelia lies dying at the centre of the Faun’s labyrinth. I’d somehow managed to forget this most troubling fact, that the film’s heroine dies, even though it’s underlined by happening at both the start and the end of the film, so it really ought to be unforgettable. In her BFI Film Classics book on Pan’s Labyrinth, Mar Diestro-Dópido says of this moment:

‘The shocking impact of this scene lies precisely in the sudden absence of magic; we see Ofelia as she really is, vulnerable and defenceless, a thirteen-year-old child incapable of inflicting harm — and a stark reminder of the hundreds of thousands of children who fall victim to adult wrongdoing, particularly during war.’

Every time I watch Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia’s death seems so monstrously unfair. Having passed through three fairy-tale trials, facing genuinely disturbing horrors with real courage and an ultimate fidelity to her conscience — trials which, in most fairy tales, would have granted her the right to the happily-ever-after rewards of selfhood and adulthood — everything’s taken away from her. One way of reading the fantastic elements of the film is as the dying Ofelia’s hasty weaving of a story around the bare few mundane facts of her too-short life, to try to make them meaningful, to make them all point, in a final, desperate act of imagination, to, yes, her really being a princess after all, and this not being a horrible and pointless death but some sort of wonderful fulfilment. Yet, the vision of herself being received by her father, mother, and (somehow, because he’s still alive in the real world) her baby brother, in this magical underworld kingdom, occurs in the moments before she dies, not after, so perhaps this is nothing more than the dying dream of a young girl, one more victim of a brutal, fascistic reality, where death and suffering are handed out as freely as Franco’s daily rations of bread.

But even if it is just a dying girl’s fantasy, there’s another way to look at the story told by Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is about staying true to one’s conscience in the face of a fascist brutality that demands instant, unquestioning obedience at all times. And it’s a wonderfully disobedient act to rework such a harsh reality into your own private narrative, weaving the spaces between the facts with a fairy tale of your own devising.

How else can so helpless an individual as Ofelia triumph in such a brutal world, except through an act of imagination? It’s a world that does its best to deny stories. Captain Vidal — like fascism itself — denies everyone their ability to tell, or enjoy, any stories but those the ruling party tell, criticising Ofelia’s mother for letting her daughter read fairytales, and, in the banquet scene, for telling the story of how she and Vidal came to be married. But Captain Vidal is in the grip of his own story. His father supposedly smashed his pocket-watch the moment before his death, so his son would know how a truly brave man dies, and though Vidal is constantly looking at that cracked watch, and tending its clockwork alone in his office, he denies his father ever had a watch — a denial which only goes to show the power the story has over him. Fittingly, at the end, when he tries to control the story his own baby son will be told about him, his quietly resistant housekeeper Mercedes tells him his son will never even know his name. This, in such a harsh, unfantastic world, is how victories are won: through acts of imagination. History may be written by the victor, but fairy tales can be acts of rebellion.

Near the beginning of the film, Ofelia tells her as-yet-unborn brother the story of a flower that confers immortality, but which nobody goes near because its thorns are poisonous. Her own fairy-tale tasks are designed to test whether she, Ofelia, has been in the mortal world too long and lost touch with her immortal self, the Princess Moanna. But ‘immortality’ in Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t of the literal, Woody Allen kind (‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying’). It’s closer to the pagan idea of living so heroic a life your name will be remembered, and your story told, even after your death.

Dying alone at the centre of a ruined labyrinth, Ofelia confers on herself a very deserved immortality, by telling herself her own story, with herself as the heroine. Whether the fantasy elements of the film really happened or not (and only Ofelia’s escape from the locked attic using the Faun’s chalk-doorway method seems to imply they did), the story she tells herself is true — a true image of her conscience and inner life, that is — and it’s this, her being true to herself despite the threat of death, that confers on her the Pan’s Labyrinth version of ‘immortality’ in the end.

After all, she gets a film made about her.

(And a very good one, too.)

Three Types of Ghost Story

Hill Woman in BlackI’ve been reading a few ghost stories lately. Most recently Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (having already seen Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV film, and the recent Hammer version), though I found it wanting in a way I didn’t with, say, Dark Matter, or my recent re-read of The Turn of the Screw. Thinking about why this was has led to a little bit of theorising about three types of ghost stories and how they work. So here goes.

The first, and purest, type of ghost story revels entirely in the protagonist’s horror of the supernatural. To make it work, the ordinariness of both the protagonist and their everyday world has to be clearly established, so when the supernatural makes its appearance, it feels truly weird and frightening. In this type of ghost story, the ‘ghost’ doesn’t even have to be a ghost, in the sense of a undead human spirit. M R James’s stories are probably the best example of this type, and his ‘ghosts’ are more often demons or elementals — embodied curses or prohibitions — and when they are human, as in, for instance, ‘Number 13’ or ‘Count Magnus’, they’re often supernaturally-tinged sorcerers or necromancers. This type of ghost story is all about technique — the way the supernatural is hinted at, built up, and finally revealed. The only emotion required of the protagonist is terror; details of his or her inner life just get in the way. You don’t get a lot of human insight from M R James’s stories, but you do get a good ghost story.

The Woman from The Woman in Black

from Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black

The second type is as much about the protagonist’s horror at the display of human qualities, such as despair or sorrow, driven to such an extreme they’ve become supernatural. The Woman in Black is of this type. (The book is, anyway. I’d say the 2012 Hammer version, upping the cinematic shock value, turned the Woman into a far more demonic creature than she is in the book.) The bulk of conventional Victorian ghost stories are of this type, too. There, a ghost lingers beyond death because either it has been wronged, or has done wrong, and needs to set things right before it can move on. With The Woman in Black, there’s no longer that Victorian feeling of a moral order keeping certain dead souls from moving on till they’ve done what they’re supposed to; rather, it’s the Woman herself, so consumed by sorrow, anger and the need for revenge that she can’t pass on. The thing about this type of ghost story is that the protagonist is still looking on the ghost as something separate — as purely a horror. Things change slightly in the last chapter of The Woman in Black (the narrator comes to experience something of what made the Woman what she is) but not enough to take this story to the next type; the Woman is still seen as something exceptional and horrific, a twisted and rare form of human being, something to be pitied and feared, not empathised with.

The Haunting of Hill House coverThe third type is about how the protagonist’s own despair or sadness is brought to the fore by encounters with a ghost, until they experience it as a manifestation of their own inner world. The ghost still exists to embody (in a ghostly, disembodied way) supernaturally-distorted human qualities, but as much as the protagonist is haunted by the ghost, they’re haunted by something inside themselves too. The ghost and the protagonist’s inner life become entangled to the point where they’re indistinguishable. This is the type of story where the ghost needn’t exist at all — or it can exist in that Tzvetan Todorov hinterland where the story never makes it clear whether the ghost is a ‘real’ ghost or is just an externalisation of the protagonist’s own mental state. Listing examples, I find all my favourites: The Haunting of Hill House, The Influence, The Turn of the Screw.

It has to be said these three types have permeable walls. (Ghosts being ghosts, they’re not going to be stopped from wandering through walls anyway.) Jonathan Miller, after all, turned M R James’s ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ from a ghost story of the first type to the third, by emphasising how the basic character-type of so many of M R James’s protagonists (academic, reserved, distant and somewhat disapproving of lesser human beings) is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to the terror of an isolating ghostly visitation.

Woman in Black 2012Overall, I tend to like examples from the first and third types. The first work best as short stories — shocks work best when kept short. (Cinematic ghost stories, more and more, tend to be overlong examples of the first type, with nothing but shock after shock after shock. I ended up fast-forwarding much of the second half of the 2012 Woman in Black, searching for morsels of story, because I got bored of being supposedly shocked.) The third type mixes the supernatural with the psychological, which is how I prefer it, and this tends to be best when done at length, with plenty of build-up to establish both the protagonist’s psychology and the ‘normality’ of their world.

The trouble, for me, with the second type, is it’s basically disapproving. It’s about marking certain humans (undead ones, admittedly) as separate from ‘us’ (as represented by the protagonist and the rest of a quietly-ordered, functioning society). It seems to be saying that most of us don’t experience extremes of emotion, particularly negative emotion, so we can safely regard those who do as alien, other, horrific. But saying this is also saying that as soon as we experience such extremes, we have to regard ourselves as now separate, alienated, and horrific, too. This is perhaps a very English thing, where reserve and social propriety can make for a ridigly-defined norm, where extreme emotion is met with an embarrassment and disapproval close to horror — meaning you have to repress such emotions, to the point of being haunted by them. Perhaps that’s why the English write so many ghost stories.