Halloween Odds and Ends
The best vampire movie, how scary movies should not end, and other such observations
It’s Halloween. I have traditions at Halloween that have to do with watching holiday-appropriate films I’ve appreciated previously and rereading trusted texts of the same genre. Here are some assorted observations derived from that ritual activity…
I watched Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (which you can see here, and here it is w/Herzog’s commentary) over the weekend. I’ve seen it perhaps a dozen times over the years. It is the best vampire movie ever made, or at least the best one I’ve seen and I have seen quite a few.
Visually, it is a breathtaking work. It would be a superb film even if it had no sound, that is, if it were like the original that inspired it. (I once saw that 1922 original in an exquisite midnight outdoor setting—in San Diego’s Balboa Park—with orchestral accompaniment.)
Klaus Kinski (about whom Herzog, who worked frequently with him, made another film brilliantly titled My Best Fiend) was born to play the lead role. Isabelle Adjani is aesthetically the archetype Mina Harker (though Herzog inexplicably gives her the name of the other major female character in Stoker’s novel, Lucy).
I will probably write something more substantial about this film at some point. It has been an essential example of what can be accomplished with this art for me. Here is, with only a little brushing, the entry I made in my journal after I saw it for the first time almost 30 years ago:
Saw Herzog's remake of Nosferatu, with Adjani and Kinski, an outstanding actor I don’t know as an hysterically laughing Renfield ("Der Meister ist hier! Der Meister ist hier!"), indescribable opening shot of mummies in underground tombs in Guanajuato with music reminiscent of the opening part of Celtic Frost's “Into the Crypts of Rays” (a chant-like two note dirge that perfectly accompanies these horrific images of long-dead corpses with mouths open in silent cries--I believe this music is by Popul Vuh), then a slow motion closeup of a bat in flight, quick cut to Adjani awakening from nightmare with a scream and a look on her incredible face which is the genre perfected. The husband comes to comfort her, then morning shots of their lovely town, with airy, jangly acoustic music that perfectly aurally backs the scene, two kittens playing atop a pile of books, the innocence that is opposed to the terror. Gorgeous scenery and photography throughout (the extraordinary manner in which is depicted the coming of night in the Transylvanian countryside, the sunlight over the mountain being rapidly cut off by incoming mist and fog). A scene in which the Count walks down a dark corridor, then floats into Harker’s room to drink his blood—the whole vampire mythos is there in that shot. This is a cinematic experience that puts me in some childhood place of atmospheric castles and mist-filled cemeteries, Friday night staying up in anxious but excited anticipation for Chiller Theater. I had one of those inexplicable and very specific flashbacks during a certain scene in the film (a shot of the town, after the Count's arrival, as night fell--many of the visions of the town, ravaged by the rat-borne Black Death the Count has unleashed, were absolute emptiness, the atrocity of the total disappearance of society and the human world). I remembered a night as a child, at my grandmother’s house, more mysterious than the abode in which I lived, watching a horror film the title of which is long lost to memory about corpses returning from the dead with white eyes lacking iris and pupil, who pointed accusatory fingers at the living and eventually outnumbered those at whom they were gesturing--the starkest, most unendurable moment of terror, just as in those dreams I had regularly as a child in which I realized, with a sinister gradualness, that everyone else in the world was (un)dead, a zombie, and pursuing me to join them, the culminating moment coming as I sat in the back of a car with my parents in the front seat, and they turned to look at me with leering skull faces.
[Klaus Kinski as the Count]
[Isabelle Adjani as Lucy]
The soundtrack to the movie is superlative. I give you just a few highlights.
Wagner’s “Prelude” to Das Rheingold, which Herzog uses as Harker is making the journey to Dracula’s castle, and passing from one world into another.
As I mentioned in my journal entry, the exceptional German group Popul Vuh did much music for this film, and for several others directed by their friend Herzog. I had known of them before seeing the film, but their music here inspired me to dig much deeper into their oeuvre than I had previously. Maybe something else to come on them too.
Here is perhaps the most remarkable scene in the film, to which I briefly allude in my journal notes.
The Count has brought the plague to the town where the Harkers live. The residents are bringing out their dead and nihilistically feasting in their final moments of health before inevitable illness and death overtake them too.
Barnyard animals walk and defecate freely in the town square; fires burn; people drink, make music, and dance while their coffins sit silently awaiting them. This scene is desolation entire and appalling.
It would be too much to bear but for the fact that Lucy is still alive and well, our eyes and our spirit as she walks through the spectacle of what might be the end of the world, seeking a means to save her Jonathan. The celebrants of the awful rite attempt to convince her to join them in their morbid and world-concluding conviviality, but she refuses and goes on, seeking the life to which we too cling even as the sights of its potential destruction pass luridly before our eyes. Though (spoiler alert) she is (apparently) unable to bring her husband back from the realm of the undead, and though it costs her her life, she vanquishes the plague and its malevolent author from the human world, and we survive collectively to fight on.
Because of the haunting music in that scene, I discovered Hamlet Gonashvili and his version of this same Georgian folk tune, here accompanied by a striking set of visual scenes depicting the lyrical content (a rough translation I found online: “I walked by the spring; met a beautiful girl; the one holding a jar on her shoulder; I told her a word; she got angry with me and stood aside”).
I have not been able to find much more about the song than can be seen in the YouTube description. I trust you will need not even that much to find the song sublime, as I do.
I also watched another film I’ve previously seen this weekend.
The Mist is based on a novella by Stephen King. The story has to do with the ominous appearance of the title entity, which completely covers a small town and brings with it monstrous Lovecraftian entities from some other realm.
I find anything touching on the Lovecraftian irresistible, and the things in the mist in this film are among the most nightmarish anyone has created on film. The plot concerns that horror, but also human interactional dynamics it sets into play, some of which are compelling. It reminds me in that aspect of that old Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” in which small town Americans come to believe (incorrectly) that monsters have come to them and then proceed to descend into paranoid, vengeful, anarchic insanity.
The Mist’s depiction of the role of religion in such crises is at best partial. Would such a situation provide cover for power-mad lunatics like the woman who nearly leads the people trapped in the store to a child sacrifice in the hopes of appeasing the God they think has released these denizens of Hell to punish them for their sins? Yes, it might well do that. We are capable of such things. But there would be people who would find protection and comfort from their faith and the knowledge of the nature of God it gives them in such dreadful circumstances too. Movies made by people in Hollywood nearly always betray the bias on this point that is present in the culture that made the people who make those movies.
Even more troubling to me, though, than the animosity to religion the film portrays is the way it ends.
Apparently, the director changed King’s ending and made it bleaker, with King’s approval. I don’t know how the novella ends, having never read it. But in the film (another spoiler alert), a small group leaves the store and drives away in hopes they can make it out of the mist. On the way, they pass scenes of devastation, and see just how phantasmagoric is the alternate universe that has somehow come into communication with our own. The car runs out of gas. The four of them decide, as the protagonist’s young son sleeps, that they will use the gun they have to commit suicide rather than face the otherworldly monsters.
But there are only four bullets left.
The protagonist takes what we are supposed to see as the heroic path, saying he will dispatch them and then face the creatures alone. But after he does the unspeakable deed and steps out of the car, nearly unhinged, to meet his end, he sees not shambling things from the unknown, but human soldiers on tanks, riding in to combat the alien invasion.
Had he waited another few minutes, they would have been saved. He is not a hero, but a murderer of his four companions, and now perhaps a madman, mentally annihilated by the understanding of what he’s done.
Watching it the first time, and every other time I’ve seen the film, my reaction was disgust and anger, at this character in the film who had so precipitously and immorally gambled with the lives of his friends, but mostly at the maker of the film, who after all is the one who decided on this intolerable conclusion. I think I watched the film again in large part to see if the ending still had this same effect on me. To test my own moral radar, if you will.
Why would a filmmaker do such a thing to an audience? The YouTube commentators seem to have arrived at something of a consensus that the message is “Don’t ever give up.” But if that was the intended take-home of the director, it could have been much more effectively communicated by having them contemplate the suicides and then refuse that path, choosing instead to tremblingly get out of the car as a group and walk on into the mist, to face their fears and to tearfully, joyfully fall into the arms of the marching saviors, their human comrades. To learn a message of courage after an act of destructive false courage, after they have proven too faithless and given up too early, is useless. No one in the film profits from that education, that much is certain. And I find it hard to understand how that message would be reliably given to the viewer either. I see it as much more likely that the bleak nihilist viewer (and we have a few of those in contemporary America) will see it as a confirmation of his mocking, cynical, and empty perspective: “Nothing matters, it doesn’t matter what you do, all ends in disaster, and who cares anyway?”
Here’s one more prelude to a lengthier discussion later, since I seem to be in that mode today: The horror genre cannot do any humane, defensible moral work at all if it abandons the narrative certainty that once ruled the genre, which is that however terrible the action of the film, the good guys must win in the end. If the horror genre becomes a narrative form in which we see the good defeated over and over by evil, you can be assured that this is a sign that our culture is also on the road to ruin.
In a class I used to teach on popular culture, I would use two films on demonic possession to make the point about this transformation. In The Exorcist, released in 1973, the possession of the girl Regan is frightful beyond belief, but it is combatted, and ultimately defeated, once it is recognized what (spiritual) tools are required. Contemporary young people are in my experience more surprised than we were in my generation to find that the good guys win in this film (and in the novel on which it is based). It seems shocking, or at least counterintuitive, to them.
Why? Because they’ve been raised in another culture. In Paranormal Activity, released in 2007, the demon wins. Like The Mist, Paranormal Activity is a skillful working through of the horror genre until its conclusion, which leaves the viewer with no catharsis, no comforting reassertion of a moral universe in the wake of the unsettling trepidation of the drama.
I don’t see how a culture built on such works is sustainable. I just don’t see it.
Having said all that, though, there is a beautiful piece of music backing the scenes at the end of the film leading up to the moral nothingness of the conclusion. It is almost sufficiently marvelous to counterbalance the ending. Almost.
I also reread Hawthorne’s “The Wives of the Dead,” one of my favorite of his tales.
It sketches the line between our dream life and the world we inhabit—or at least we believe we inhabit—while the sun sits high in the sky. Two women have lost their husbands (brothers) on consecutive days. Riven with grief, unable to sleep, they dream, or it actually comes to pass, that each in her turn wakes in the night to receive the news that her husband is not dead. Each then agonizes over how to hide the news from her sister-in-law, who still has her crushing burden to bear.
The story is heavy with the gloomy realization of the foggy boundary between our waking lives and our time in dream. How many times have we have gone to sleep with some dreadful knowledge (the death or illness of one close, a newly discovered or suspected serious illness in oneself, a seemingly insoluble domestic or financial problem) and then been miraculously relieved of it by the dust of dream, only to be dropped unceremoniously back into the suffocating lake of depression and anxiety at the crossing of the barrier back into consciousness?
I’ve been at this project now for more than six months. Hardly seems possible, but I just checked the calendar and I believe that is the right math.
So, this is a note to you: Thank you.
I’m tremendously flattered by your interest in what I have to say about life, art, politics, death and I’m grateful that you read my ramblings. Every writer desires to be read (Lovecraft’s letter accompanying his submission to an editor notwithstanding) and thus owes a debt that cannot really be repaid to readers, however much the writer sometimes pretends not to recognize this (it’s part of the persona, you see…).
So that’s something I want to be sure to say and say again: THANK YOU.
Now, the other reason for this little note.
I finally got around to doing the technical stuff necessary to provide a paid subscription option.
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Inevitably, and despite my deepest feelings about writing, I think at least a bit about possible material returns when I am allocating time to writing projects. I have two kids who eat and are in constant need of new clothes and a house in which things are constantly breaking down. Add to that the fact that, to my great regret, I do not have infinite time to dedicate to writing, and it emerges necessarily that sometimes the possibility of writing things for pay trumps writing things here. This is so even though I much prefer writing here precisely because it allows me more freedom to engage with the topics I find most interesting.
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