Back when I was teaching an undergraduate course, one of my yearly highlights was a screening for students of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho on the big screen. There are many showier reasons for enjoying this film, but I always loved the Saul Bass-designed opening titles – those simple horizontal lines sliding in across the frame with such urgency, while Bernard Herrmann’s score propelled them along. Working with a few simple elements – dots and dashes, lines and ellipses – I set about producing an affectionate fantasia on some Bass-inspired themes for my response to The Kick-About No.49.
Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake In Fright is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
As a self-styled horror-snob, I spend most of my time experiencing disappointment at much of the current fare. My sensibilities around what is horrifying are actually pretty strict, and my ability to suspend disbelief has waned. I’m no fan of excessive violence, or the spectacular aesthetics of ‘gorenography’, or the supernatural, as it relates to cobwebs and castles, and their canonical creatures. I love dread, which is a heavier feeling than suspense, and nothing to do with people walking around in houses with the lights off.
Dread is the feeling a really good horror film puts you through, and leaves you with. A good horror film clings to your clothes. I remember watching the first Final Destination movie in some big old London cinema – a fine, fun film and easily quaffed – and then, for days afterwards, found myself imperilled by every scaffolding tower and passing car, and later, in the privacy of my bathroom, by every pair of vanity scissors. One of the few dud-notes in that particular movie is when they visualise the ‘angel of death’ as a sort of shadow or blemish – we surely didn’t need that – but a good horror film should accomplish this same thing; a ‘reaching out’ to imprint on our lived realities.
Wake In Fright achieves this for me, and then some, even though Kotcheff’s film is not a horror film at first glance, and while the world of its story is full-bodied antipodean, its dreadfulness feels native, a nightmare cut from Phil-shaped cloth.
Nothing about the film’s slim plot suggests it should resonate so personally: an enervated school teacher, teaching in the parched environs of the back of beyond, sets out on a trip to Sydney, where he plans to spend his two week Christmas vacation with his girlfriend. The teacher alights at Bundanyabba, the mining town from where he’s due to catch his flight to the big city, and with time to kill before he leaves in the morning, he goes for a beer in one of ‘The Yabba’s pubs. What ensues is not your usual The Hills Have Eyes fare, in which a more obviously educated and ‘city-fied’ character is pitched tooth-and-nail against the atavistic savagery of the local population. What Wake In Fright shares with that film, and likewise with Deliverance, Straw Dogs and Duel, is what it tells us about the fragility of civilisation and the frailties of manhood.
Rather like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, whose own largely nightmarish adventure begins with the consumption of a potion with powers of reduction, John Grant’s trip down the rabbit hole begins with a single beer, bought for him by the Yabba’s local policeman, Jock Crawford.
Crawford is an imposing character. Grant, who is as pretty as Peter O’Toole, is presented altogether differently. The interior of the pub is unambiguously confrontational; working men drinking together, Grant moving between them, an outsider, as in an unfamiliar face, but different too in terms of class and the sensuality of his features. The pub is rammed, but Crawford singles him out once, and insists on buying Grant a beer, then watches him drink it. This scene reminds of me of the ways in which boys at school would have to smear new shoes, blooding them if you like, finding their shine insufferable. This scene is about class, but it’s also about homoeroticism – and not the good kind. Crawford is drawn to Grant because he is too handsome, and in this way, in this context, unmanly, and so the noticing of him is unmanning. Grant produces a visual tension in this place, his contrast with the other men obvious. He is a tall poppy, or should that be pansy, and here comes Crawford, the alpha, to buy him a beer and supervise its consumption, to see if Grant is ‘man enough’ after all; to see if he is ‘one of us.’
Even at this early point in the film, I feel the grip of claustrophobia. I think about my teenage years, and all the beers I’ve accepted when I haven’t wanted one, accepting one because I know it would say something about me if I didn’t, those alarm bells ringing at Real Men HQ.
Peer pressure isn’t one of those phrases that necessarily fills us with horror. We perhaps think of it as more of a nudging influence, more likely to result in us buying something we don’t want, or taking up smoking, getting an ill-advised tattoo, or accepting a beer in order to fit in. This is likely why Wake In Fright isn’t marketed as a horror movie, in which the malign influence at work is group think, but were we undecided what Kotchek thinks about the benumbing effects of cultural homogeneity, the director soon makes his feelings clearer still: suddenly, a siren goes off, and every man stops drinking to observe a collective act of remembrance for Australia’s world war one soldiers. The ritual is presented as sinister and dehumanising, a moment of mass zombification. Twitchy and bewildered, Grant falls in line accordingly, coerced into strict observance by the ubiquity of everyone else’s behaviour.
I feel the same way about this moment in Wake In Fright as I do about the last night of the proms, or clapping like seals to to show our appreciation for nurses in lieu of paying them. I feel the same way about Come On Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners or Baggy Trousers by Madness, or rather the way both songs transformed the dance floors of my youth into temporary ‘no-go’ areas, because this was the music mobs of straight men felt able to dance to without breaking whatever rule had otherwise kept them glued to the bar. Grant’s discomfort mirrors mine around the wearing of remembrance poppies. It’s not the act of respect-giving or the imaginative act of empathy that gives me pause, but rather the panoptical coercion of having to present as respectful. Wake In Fright presents its own ritual of remembrance similarly, not as an opportunity for the individual to imagine the lives and losses of soldiers, but as an opportunity to fall in line. When I watched Wake In Fright most recently, this particular scene made me think of Conservative politicians sneaking union jacks into their every television appearance, and weighing in on what national museums can say or do about their statues. Kotchek presents nationalistic obedience as innately sinister – because, innately, it always is.
Wake In Fright is a fish out of water film, wherein the fish is middle-class and metrosexualised, and the parched environs of The Yabba are working-class and and hyper-masculine. Some of the film’s other othering effects are more common-and-garden. The Yabba itself is presented as intrinsically surreal and solipsistic, as any new place might be expected to feel to the outsider, its various customs abstruse and its inhabitants odd and unknowable. We’re treated to a short, terrifying shot of Father Christmas; an old man gawps vacantly, and the woman on the reception desk of Grant’s hotel is as rude and flat as a wax mannequin, albeit one who is melting in the heat, dipping her fingers in water and applying it to her face in a gesture striking us immediately as breaking some public/private wall. She may as well have her fingers dipping below the elastic line of her knickers.
But John Grant’s long day’s journey into night truly begins when he involves himself in raucous game of gambling back in the shadows of another drinking establishment-come-restaurant, the rules of which are simple; money is won and lost on the tossing of coins marked with a cross. This is another scene that captures brilliantly the strangeness of male culture, for even though the mood of the game is raucous, and opportunities for theft are rife, some long-established, if unspoken, gentlemen’s agreement keeps everyone in abeyance. From the outside, the game comes off as feral and unregulated, but their are decencies being afforded here and a rule of law maintained. More tripwires for the unwary and the unmanly, I think, as I watch the school teacher make all the wrong choices, losing all his money on the flip of painted pennies. At one point, the camera treats us to a single shot of the hot white spotlight illuminating the gaming arena; I’m always reminded of that other antipodean film about civilised folk ill-prepared for the brutal environment in which they find themselves lost; in Nick Roeg’s Walkabout, the close-ups of the blazing sun are treated similarly, the heat whining mosquito-like on the soundtrack.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too childish, too unsophisticated, too queer, but when, come the morning after his disastrous dalliance with this big boy’s game of pennies, John Grant is next shown lying completely naked on his hotel bed, I’m always shocked by the spectacle of it. I think to myself, ‘Oh grow up, Phil! It’s just another man’s arse’, but then I think to myself, ‘But why this shot and why now?’ After all, there are any number of ways to play this same scene, any number of ways to communicate how this character has been stripped of his costume of respectability. Ultimately, I can’t help feeling as if this man’s body is being displayed, not least because he’s got that vintage porn star’s tan, which further objectifies his bum cheeks by lighting them up for all to see. I don’t know if I’m supposed to find this moment titillating? The truth is I do. Then I get to thinking, if I’m a bit confronted by this other man’s prone nakedness, what about all the red-bloodied straight men in the audience? How discomforting for them, how unwelcome. After all, real men are not supposed to look upon each other’s bodies in this way (even thought the history of popular cinema is a the history of male flesh presented as spectacle: Tarzan, all those sword and sandal epics, Stallone, etc). I’ll concede there is a long and noble tradition of academic types dressing up their erotic pleasure as subjects for great seriousness and meaningful debate, but anyway I’m going to argue this one scene is key to understanding what is really going on in Wake In Fright.
That John Grant has a sexy, metropolitan girlfriend waiting for him in Sydney is the reason he embarks on his journey to the Yabba in the first place. Interestingly, the girlfriend never exists in the film as a contemporaneous character; she is a picture in his wallet, and what might be a memory of a day at the beach, in which boobs and beer are twinned. For this viewer at least, there is something hyperreal and processed about this memory, like we’re watching an advert instead. Nothing about this moment is particularly convincing, and what it really reminds me of is the way I would thumb my way through those discarded pornographic magazines that somehow found their way into school from railway sidings. I’d want something about these scenarios to strike me as convincing, or as credible, but they never would, just as this moment of heightened heterosexuality in Grant’s imagination feels freighted with artifice and overly self-consciousness.
The women of Wake In Fright are either mythically sexual, as in the case of Grant’s girlfried, or waxen and disembodied, as in the instance of the hotel receptionist; or, in the case of the character of Janette Hynes, an off-centred hybrid of both.
After Grant accepts a beer from Janette’s father, a gnomish, unpleasant man who, like every other male character in the film, bullies Grant into accepting ‘another beer’, the teacher ends up returning to this other man’s home. Grant is now broke, his options limited, and this should feel like a moment of Samaritan-style kindness. That instead it feels Faustian is another example of the Wake In Fright‘s special peril. In this film, hospitality is always coercive, where someone buying you a drink is a spider wrapping you in silk.
Janette, meanwhile, is bored and expressionless, largely invisible to the men around her. In addition to inviting Grant into his house, Janette’s father is visited by two local working men, miners both, thick-set, thicker-headed, and ‘out out’ on an all-day binge of relentless beer-drinking. With their hairy chests and brawny bodies, Dick and Joe are cocks-of-the-walk, but they are as disinterested in Janette as her father, and so she turns her attention to the beautiful stranger, and little wonder. Grant engages her in conversation. He is attentive and discursive. He is sensitive.
Their decision to continue their more intimate conversation outside, away from the boorish interactions of the menfolk, results in the decision they should have sex. Nothing about their particular chemistry makes this seem inevitable, although it is obvious from the outset that they will. The sex they go on to have is awful. As Janette readies herself for ravishment, with a squirming fervour speaking to agonies of loneliness, Grant rolls off her and vomits up his guts. I suppose we are to make from this no more than Grant is ‘too drunk to fuck’, but I can’t help read this disastrous encounter as him rejecting something he cannot stomach. In this moment, I am flashed backwards to what is phony-seeming about his imaginary girlfriend. It returns me to the way Grant’s naked body was served up so gratuitously. Not so much ‘too drunk to fuck’, I think, but too closeted.
It is with the arrival of Doc (played to sweaty perfection by Donald Pleasence), that Grant’s evening deteriorates further, with Grant waking up to find himself at Doc’s tin shack, where Pleasence seeks to assuage the teacher’s roaring hangover with a frying pan brimming with minced kangaroo.
Doc makes for strange and stressful company, off-kilter, yapping, a disgraced doctor and alcoholic, living out on the edge of civilisation and broiling greasily beneath the heel of the sun. As he follows Grant about in his yard, invading the other man’s space, watching his guest urinate, Doc produces an energy at once hard to pin down, but also completely recognisable – to anyone, that is, who has ever felt themselves alone in the company of someone with whom some kind of sexual contact is on the cards. The push-me-pull-you between these two characters reminds me of moments from my own adolescent life, those fraught, taut episodes in which a male school friend has come around to the house, to watch a video maybe, and we’re alone on either end of the settee, and something is off because something is on. I recall a gardening job one sweltering day, moving bags of shingle into the back garden of an unlovely terraced house in an unlovely town. I had someone helping me, an acquaintance really, and not even that, but off came our shirts, the two of us sweating and stinking, our bodies close and getting closer as the job wore on miserably. Resting again, the two of us talking, making jokes, the other guy suddenly put his shirt back on, some membrane between us thinning or spoiling, my eyes dipping perhaps, slipping.
The sexual tension between Grant and Doc is not of this delicious kind, humming sweetly like a chiming fork. It’s all the sour notes instead. There’s a grimace to it, a squalor, an incipient abuse of power, and it’s only going to get worse, and it does.
In common with other films of the 1970s and early 80s, Wake In Fright‘s notoriety originates from the fine line it walks between fact and fiction. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) sets itself up as a real historical event; Cannibal Holocaust (1980) includes images of animals being butchered. Snuff (1975) is entirely fictional, but wants you to think otherwise, while Faces of Death (1978) does include footage of fatal accidents. Wake in Fright is nothing like these grubbier examples, but it does include a protracted kangeroo hunt, in which actual footage of the shooting and killing of kangaroos is mixed with staged elements.
Grant’s initiation into bona fide masculine culture, which began with all those glasses of beer he didn’t want, continues apace as he joins Doc, Dick and Joe on a kangaroo hunt. In a scene of blatant homoeroticism (while in no way being homoerotic), we’re treated to the spectacle of the hunters castrating kangaroos, the scrotums of which are of commensurate size and heft as those of the men themselves. While watching Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, in which a cowboy castrates a bull with his bare hands, I was reminded of these scenes from Kotcheff’s film; of the way in which these men rush to touch the impressively large and hairy gonads of another powerful male, but only as a prelude to destroying them.
In pure cinematic terms, Wake In Fright‘s kangaroo hunt is transformed into expressionistic flashes and tableaux by the swinging light of the hunter’s searchlight, which they use to mesmerise their marsupial quarry. Not content with shooting them, one of the hunters goes hand-to-hand with a kangaroo in an absurdist facsimile of a street-side brawl. Grant is required to make his kill too, to be bloodied, to pass, and while we’re shown the teacher gurning happily, pissed, shooting guns, accepted finally, we know very well he is spiralling into the abyss, monstered by his masculinity and the price of performing it to the satisfaction of his peers.
After the hunt, Doc, Dick, Joe and Grant find their way to some out-of-the-way pub marooned on the edge of a great sea of scrub and nothing. There is more drinking to be done, and I watch this moment with a growing sensation of asphyxiation, imagining my own secret scream if I were likewise trapped in this nightmare of consumption. I’m reminded always of those tableaux glimpsed in airport terminals, groups of men already getting into their first pints, preloading their stag-dos. Maybe I’m just envious of their stamina? Maybe I’m as boring as I sound? Maybe I’m afraid, if I were to start drinking at 7am in an airport pub, I too might find myself covered in blood, a pair of kangaroo’s testicles cooling in the palm of my hand.
Not content with drinking themselves into oblivion, Dick and Joe wrestle each other, rolling about in the dust, their arms about each other, their constricted faces mere centimetres apart. It is impossible to not superimpose the nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates from Ken Russell’s Women In Love. It seems the kangaroo hunt was foreplay, but with no sanctioned means of discharging their inflamed libidos, Dick and Joe fall to the ground in each other’s arms. I recall here the anecdote from the set of Russell’s film, wherein Reed and Bates went their separate ways before their scene together, in order to ‘sort themselves out’, so guarding against the horror of any conspicuous displays of arousal. I recollect a moment in my own life, back when I was a sixth former, an outbreak of ‘bundling’ sweeping the common room that saw the young men in my friendship group (myself included) falling to rough and tumble, our bodies knotting together against the thin leatherette cushions of the common room furniture. As Dick and Joe wrestle in the dust, I can’t help think, ‘Oh, just fuck why don’t you?’, which I suspect was a sentiment not too far from the minds of some of the girls in that same sixth form common room, looking on at our plain-sight sublimation of wanks and other kindnesses with small knowing shakes of their heads.
Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence’s character falls into an existential monologue about the barbarity of humankind (like we need reminding, given what we’ve been sitting through) and Grant, a stranger to himself but more recognisable now to everyone else, falls finally into unconsciousness. As the other men continue to fight, Doc smashes up the bar, flinging chairs and howling. It seems the only way this night will end for these men will be in other acts of terrible violence, and so it does, in a fashion.
Grant’s night ‘out with the boys’ concludes with him back at Doc’s shack, where the two men engage in some horseplay of their own. More drink is consumed, only this time the imagery is urophiliac, the two men messing themselves with amber liquid, splashing it around, wetting together like two farmyard animals. Then Grant’s shirt is off, and Doc is leering and laughing and touching and grappling, and while the specificity of the act that takes place between them is left to our imaginations, we know very well something did.
On waking – in fright, we presume – Grant dresses quickly. We’re treated to a shot of Doc wearing his gruesomely stained vest as a tube-dress, I guess because the director wants us in little doubt as to how blurred things have become for the film’s protagonist – or unblurred, arguably, as the painful light of day reveals the more abject realities of sexual desire. This final violence is an interesting one, not least because it inspires Grant to try and murder Doc with a shotgun. It is problematic to suggest the worst thing imaginable is a homosexual act, which is to fall in-step with Steve McQueen’s Shame, where we are encouraged to believe that film’s protagonist is only truly morally bankrupted after we see him being done unto in a gay club. I’ll argue instead, for a closeted man trying to ‘pass’, a homosexual act is likely the worst thing imaginable, and so the final violence here is enacted against Grant’s image of himself.
In his 1919 essay on the uncanny, Freud identifies déjà vu as one of the phenomena likely to elicit this special category of unease. In one of Wake In Fright‘s finest episodes of dread, Grant, desperate, begs a lift back to the big city from a truck driver, whose vehicle has the word Sydney emblazoned on it. Grant climbs on board and sleeps, but when he next wakes, the truck driver announcing, ‘We’re here,’ Grant discovers, to his disbelief and horror, the truck driver has driven him all the way back to the Yabba.
What is most unsettling about déjà vu is the creeping feeling we are doomed to repeat something, that instead of our lives building towards knowledge, new wisdom and growth, we are otherwise trapped in a particular setting or state of mind. What is most unsettling about Wake In Fright, a film not short on such moments, is how it ends: with a series of shots mirroring the opening of the film, as we see Grant returning to Tiboonda, his dust bowl home with its dust bowl school. Given the nature of his adventure, the way it peeled him from his skin and stripped him bare and quivering, you might presume Grant irrevocably changed. You might think it quite impossible for this man to go back to his old life, knowing what he knows and having done what he’s done, but Wake In Fright proves otherwise. Apparently, it is possible to fall, beer-first, into the dark heart of masculinity, to be made over into the semblance of acceptable male norms via alcohol and terrible violence, to be shown, in no uncertain terms, the barbarism of gender norms and their cultural presentations, and then, this short time later, just pat yourself back into shape and continue pretending. If you read this film as being about the agonies of a terminally closeted man, Wake In Fright is frightful indeed.
I’ve got a number of scars on my forty-six year old body; the ubiquitous BCG crater on my arm, a hernia scar from when I was a tiny baby, a ‘hole’ between my eyebrows where I picked a chicken pox spot, and more recently acquired, a scattering of other facial scars following a particularly nasty attack of shingles back in the late winter of 2013. You might call these dents and puckerings my ‘souvenirs’ of the wear-and-tear of being alive.
One of my favourite scenes in Jaws (1975), is the sweet, funny moment when grizzled shark-hunter Quint compares war wounds with the more academic oceanographer and shark expert, Matt Hooper. The two men trade stories about the various different ways various different things have taken lumps out of their respective flesh, leaving them with anecdotes written into the surfaces of their bodies. Meanwhile, Chief Brody looks on, deciding against sharing his own battle scar, because, we suspect, his ‘souvenir ‘ is unlikely to impress. I know how Brody feels. With this in mind, I’ve imagined myself as being as colorful a character as Quint, and with just as many stories to tell about terrifying encounters and near-death experiences, and all of them leaving their mark on my body. These imaginary encounters derive from the spectacular dangers of my adolescent life, or rather from my formative confrontations with a host of larger-than-life fictional perils found in paperbacks and on VHS cassette tapes.
If you’re wondering if my commitment to producing original work for The Kick-About is so great, I was happy to maim myself in the name of art, prepare to be a bit disappointed. These scars are faked obviously, but not produced digitally, but in a much more old-school way: the application of latex adhesive to my skin with a washing-up sponge. That done, you can then fold and pinch your latex-stippled skin together to produce some realistic looking areas of damage. My knowledge of this technique is born from a love of old-school horror films and hours spent in front of a mirror, as a child, using whatever I could get my hands on to emulate various monsters of the silver screen.
With many thanks to Deanna Crisbacher, I’m happy to present Fundus – a short experimental film originating from the series of photographs I produced for the Kick-About No.30. I had the strongest feeling these inner/outerspace images should move and liquefy, and in so doing, would further push my experience of them into the cosmic! I tried a few techniques out myself to achieve this, but ultimately called on Dee’s much more impressive box of tricks to produce the morphing effects I was after, with the addition of some apposite music, and a nod here and there to some classic science-fiction films. Thanks again to Dee, and also to the Kick-About community for the continuing impetus to make new work so directly.
There are a number of things I miss about my previous role working in higher education – and many things I do not.
One of the things I miss most about those days was my day-to-day proximity to other creatives, to their respective projects, and to their conversations about them. An average day would see dozens of discussions about storytelling, art direction, materials, research, conceptualisation, producton design, visual representation and promotion. Manifesting ‘something from nothing’ was always the business of the day, as we all worked together to get an idea ‘from script to screen’ or from 2D into 3D, from a dream of a thing to the thing itself. I know now how luxurious my old job was. Actually, I knew it then and never once took it for granted. It was life-affirming to be in the company of people who could first see things in their mind, and then develop those images into concrete, substantive outcomes – an act of magic and an act of faith.
Hardly surprising then I might have wanted some of that back, to work again with a diverse community of artists, to give a fair whack of my time and energy to making a space in which more of those conversations could take place. So it was I had the idea for The Kick-About, a blog-based creative challenge, in which creatives of all kinds were given the chance to make some new work in response to a fortnightly prompt – myself included. One year later, and we’ve just published Edition 26 of The Kick-About, a gathering together of participants’ favourite submissions, and one thing is clear: there is power in community, not least because the expectation of an audience for new work is an effective means of seeing off procrastination and preciousness by encouraging decisiveness and utility. There is creative freedom too in ‘short sharp snaps’ of creative activity, that ability to start something up and then close it down in a succinct period of time.
Speaking personally, I’ve found The Kick-About to be a hugely satisfying experience, and after a decade-or-more of very happily giving my best ideas away to other people, it’s been reassuring and exciting to discover there are still more ideas where all those others came from. I’ve loved the problem-solving aspect of the fortnightly prompts – resolving cogent, authentic responses to the various prompts in lots of different ways. You might also call it ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ – and yes, it’s been fun.
Gathered here are all my Kick-About responses, digital artworks, sculptures, photographs, shorts films and short stories, and collaborations with other artists. Agreed, it makes for an eclectic ensemble, but I’m reminded – happily – of being nineteen years old and studying my Art Foundation course, which was all about trying and doing everything and not worrying about what it was all for, or what you were going to do with it, or what you were going to do next.
So yes, I do feel younger for running around with my fellow kick-abouters, and if not quite nineteen, then not far off. I just want to say a very real and heartfelt thank you to everyone in the Kick-About community, whether you’ve played once, or always. Your company and creativity is, and has been, restorative, and I’m very much looking forward to doing it all again with Kick-About No.27. Onwards!
Don Siegel’s 1956 science-fiction film, Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
I can’t recall when I first saw Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers – most likely on BBC2, opposite the six o clock news, when I was nine or ten, which was where, and when, they always scheduled science-fiction b-movies, as a welcome refuge for boys like me; from the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the spectre of nuclear annihilation, and Margaret fucking Thatcher.
I wonder if, to begin with, I was a bit underwhelmed by Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, in that it lacked the giant slugs of It Came From Outer Space, the big-brained mutant of This Island Earth, and the tentacled-head-in-a-fishbowl from Invaders From Mars. I’m going to say it probably did. I can also say with confidence that, unlike those showier movies, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers changed my relationship to cinema forever.
But it wasn’t the experience of watching Invasion of the Body-Snatchers that catalysed my transformation from consumer of images to avid cryptographist. It was the experience of reading about it. As my interest in horror and science fiction films intensified, I started to spend my pocket money on books about them, principally because I could seek out glimpses of the many and various films I was otherwise too young to actually watch. And while Invasion of the Body-Snatchers certainly lacked the rubbery bug-eyed delights and flying saucers I thought sure were the canonical stuff of all the most entertaining science-fiction movies, it was a film the people in my books liked to write about a lot.
This was what I learned: in addition to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers being a low budget black and white film about hive-minded pod people from another planet and their sinister bid for world domination, it was also a commentary on the anxiety felt by Americans in the face of communist ideology. Okay, so, I didn’t know what communism was, even less so ideology, except that it had to something to with Russian spies and the colour red.
Confusingly, as I read more about Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I learned the film might also have something to say, not about communism, but about McCarthyism, which was another word I didn’t know, but learned about soon after. Further readings, in different books, suggested the threat against mankind in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers wasn’t coming from the furthest flung regions of space, but from within the magazine pages of Homes & Garden; that the awful sameness spreading from person-to-person wasn’t communism, or the chilling effect on expressions of difference produced by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pernicious witchhunts, but the homogenising effect on the human condition of jolly, post-war consumerism.
I’m reminded of the old joke: when is a door not a door? When it is a jar. When is a film not a series of images projected at twenty-four frames a second onto a flat surface? When it is an expansive, dimensional vessel encompassing competing strains of sociological meaning.
Though I didn’t really understand everything I was reading about in relationship to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, a lesson was learned, and it was two-fold; not only could black and white movies about imperialistic alien vegetables tell us something truthful about the emotional realities of individuals living in the real world, but also that interpretation was not the intellectual project of fixing meaning in place, but the art of enjoying competing truths.
As improbable as it sounds pretentious, I really can trace my intellectual awakening to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers; from here, the early beginnings of my understanding of politics, the scaffolding of our lived realities, largely invisible to children, but very far from irrelevant to them; from here, the beginning of an understanding about the various different ways our freedoms might be imperilled – from within and from without; from here, the idea a person’s difference could be considered precious, a characteristic to be protected; from here, the tingle of unease for any large group of people laying definitive claims to a single mode of existence.
Invasion of the Body-Snatchers also taught me films were unavoidably articles of social history, that however future-looking or historical or interplanetary, movies are marinaded in the times of their production; that the surface of a film is a mirror, in which we find the values of the people who made it.
In this way, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers gave me the confidence and conviction to spit in the eye of various teachers and later, academics, who would have me and others believe there was no value in something as popular as genre, no truth-telling power, no insight; that the only culture with the power to cast light on the matrices of human behaviour are those within the realm of finer things.
A boy runs from his mother, who is ‘not’ his mother.
Wilma is convinced Uncle Ira is ‘not’ Uncle Ira.
A doppelgänger is discovered as it assumes the form of its victim.
A doppelgänger transforms in the darkness of the cellar.
Invasion of the Body-Snatchers begins at the end; with our hero, Dr Miles Bennell, in custody in the emergency room of a hospital; wild-eyed, Bennell is trying to convince a psychiatrist he is not a lunatic, and so recounts the events leading up to his arrest.
And events begin simply enough: a boy running in mortal fear of his own mother. Soon after, we meet Wilma, cousin of Dr Bennell’s love interest, Becky Driscoll, who is convinced her Uncle Ira is ‘not’ her Uncle Ira. Meanwhile, the sun shines, and Uncle Ira cuts the grass on his neat front lawn, and the town of Santa Mira looks as pretty-as-picture, with its neat, white wooden houses, neat, white picket fences, and neat, white families. Oh, how these first small pangs of wrongness delight me, the chiming of these minor chords in an otherwise happy-clappy melody; the way they say, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’, like watching the filter on someone’s #Livingmybestlife Instagram feed glitch-out for a second to reveal a stray dog turd.
Maybe cinema has conditioned me to regard small, pretty towns inhabited by smiling people as inherently dishonest and keepers of secrets? Maybe I only think this way because Invasion of the Body-Snatchers taught me to think this way, or maybe Invasion of the Body-Snatchers is the just outward expression of something I’ve always known to be true? We think of myths as stories, but I wonder if myths are the stories we recognise as truth? Santa Mira is but one of many small towns whose inhabitants are actually conspirators or monsters or both. I’m thinking of the leafy streets of Stepford, and the painted streets of Summerisle. I’m thinking about Seahaven Island, and the Village from The Prisoner, the ice-cream-coloured neighbourhood of Edward Scissorhands, and every other dystopic conurbation.
Anyway, we soon learn the boy’s teacher and Uncle Ira have been hollowed out by extra-terrestrials, who are making a tremendous effort to keep up appearances. I suppose this is what I’m talking about when I think about all those towns and villages that so inspire distrust in me, or the way another person’s exquisite manners give me reason to be wary of them; I think to myself ‘so much effort’ and then, ‘for what?’ and then, ‘why?’, and then ‘I think they doth protest too much’. I do know of people who ‘just want everything to be nice’ and they’re always the bloody worst of us, because in my experience ‘by nice’ what they really mean is ‘repressed’ and ‘silent’ and ‘servile’.
Dr Bennell and Becky look out at the ‘normal’ streets of Santa Mira.
Whenever I re-watch the unfolding horror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I’m reminded of a warm evening spent with old friends around a table on the scruffy candle-lit terrace of an old French house. We were playing a hypothetical game of Room 101, nominating our least favourite things to be cast into Orwell’s oubliette. The conversation began lightly enough, and my suggestion for banishment was John Lennon’s Imagine. I loathe Imagine musically because it is a dirge, and also because, lyrically it is about as profound as a souvenir tea towel, as profound as The New Seeker’s I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing, only markedly less catchy. My choice confused my companions, and as we wrestled with it, the tone darkened. I railed against the glib utopianism Lennon offers, finding in it only the nascent trappings of fascism – and not Orwell’s dystopian hell hole of conspicuous boots brought down conspicuously on faces, but Huxley’s Brave New World of insensate, perfected bliss. Imagine is every pod person’s sing-a-long, a love-song to frontal lobotomies.
The discovery of the seed pods in the greenhouse.
I likewise relish Invasion of the Body-Snatchers for its hokier trappings, principally, its central premise that the human race might be victimised, then vanquished, by plants. Maybe like all small boys at one time or another, I had a venus-fly trap, having begged my mum to buy me one. I was instantly disappointed by the diminutive size of my fly-trap, and also disappointed when I killed mine after feeding it a single strand of frozen mince. The idea of carnivorous plants fascinated me – still do, and while the alien pods in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers do not predate on the flesh of their victims, they feed on us nonetheless, absorbing the likenesses of their subjects while their subjects sleep.
The film’s scenes in the greenhouse, in which our heroes witness the birthing of their dopplegangers from rubbery seed pods, remain gruesome all these years later, evoking a horrid fascination for prodigiousity familiar to any gardener. Recently, I’ve been propogating spider plants by cutting off the scintillas of baby plants and poking them into water, where now there are white, worming roots, as these decapitated little off-shoots strive busily to survive; like the time, I was re-potting a large podophyllum, which, when at last liberated from its pot, trailed with it what looked like masses of white spaghetti. Consider too the bamboo roots once growing under our garden path, resembling exactly the mad result of an experiment to splice a giant millipede with a human spine. Let’s call this category of horticultural unease the ‘vegetal uncanny’. Anyone who has opened a kitchen cupboard, to find at the back of it a long-since forgotten potato, bristling with roots the translucent milky-yellow of an overly long toenail, knows what this is. In Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the bodies of the soon-to-be-replaced are found in darkness in the self-same way; down in cellars, secreted in the boots of cars, and inside them, the horribly busy pods.
The pods begin to hatch in the greenhouse.
From where I sit as I write this, I can see out of the window of our spare room and down into the narrow street below. A few weeks ago, I was looking out and I saw a lone woman walking rather aimlessly in the street. I noticed her trainers and heavy brown coat. She looked tired in an unremarkable way. She’d just left one of the houses on the street and didn’t look like she knew what to do next. I recognised the woman, having sat across from her in pubs on various occasions pre-pandemic, and then talking with her directly one day outside another pub in the summer of 2020, just after lock-down restrictions had been eased. On this occasion, the woman wanted to talk about COVID. Specifically, she wanted myself and anyone else in earshot to join the ‘march against masks’ being organised in London. Fascinated, I talked with the woman further, and it soon became clear the woman was ‘anti-mask’ because she was of the firm belief that COVID was an elaborate, precision-engineered Trojan horse, its insides crammed tightly with illustrious conspirators; Bill Gates, naturally, but also ‘the Rothchilds’, various media tycoons, including the chieftains of the BBC, and the World Health Organisation, and many more. I remained kind and curious during our exchange and continued to ask for clarifications on the specific goal of the beautiful conspiracy and what ‘success might look like’ for the sinister elite. The woman couldn’t tell me. She just knew the end of the world was nigh, and like some Cassandra, all she could do was move from stranger to stranger, asking them to take a leaflet.
Days later, another friend in the town told a story about meeting the same woman in the supermarket, their conversation largely mundane until she informed him the vaccine was part of plot to murder the human race.
One of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers most chilling moments is when Dr Bennell returns to his hideout, after leaving Becky alone for a short time, to discover she too has succumbed to the alien conspiracy, and is now a replacement. The woman he once knew is gone, hollowed out by an alternate societal paradigm.
Dr Bennell’s moment of realisation, after kissing Becky Driscoll’s doppelgänger.
The seed pods are harvested and distributed.
This cuts to the knotty horror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. There I was, looking out of my window, watching the woman in the heavy brown coat walking down the middle of the street, and thinking to myself, ‘The pod people have got her.’ I even started wondering what she’d been doing in this other person’s house just moments before. I had a very clear image of the woman stowing big green seed pods under beds, in the shed, in the greenhouse, just as, in the film, the alien menace is seen growing, harvesting and distributing more pods throughout the land. The problem is, the woman in the heavy brown coat thinks the same about me.
Let’s compare dehumanisations for a moment. I pity this individual because, it seems crystal clear to me, she’s surrendered her autonomy of thought and action to some injurious hive-mind existent between the nodes of social media. The woman pities me because it seems as clear to her I have surrendered my autonomy of thought and action to some injurious hive-mind broadcast by ‘the establishment’ and its media.
In the final moments of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, just as it seems likely the psychiatrist is going to consign Dr Bennell to the nearest institution, another patient arrives at the hospital, who was involved in a collision with a truck – a truck carrying giant seed pods! Hurrah! In the nick of time, Bennell’s outlandish tale of alien conspiracy is authenticated by a third party and his sanity vouchsafed. Phew! This was not, however, the intended ending for the film, which instead concluded more grimly with the existing scene of Dr Bennell running into a road busy with traffic, screaming like a mad person, screaming, ‘They’re already here! You’re next! You’re next!’ The producers felt this ending was too dark, too depressing, too downbeat, not least because it first destabilises the world as we know it, and next withdraws the comfort of a happily definitive ending.
When I think about the woman in the old brown coat, I also see her running against the traffic, shrilling, ‘They’re already here!’ and everyone driving past, ignoring the crazy person. But there have been many times this past year, when I’ve felt like running into the streets, gripped by fear and frustration, railing against the decadence of the COVID-is-a-Hoax brigade, against the baroque fantasy of the QAnoners and their tribes; against the likes of Trump and Johnson, against the maddening populism of the UK and elsewhere, against the hollowing out of facts over the primacy of people’s feelings… ‘The end of the world is nigh!’
And there it is, the creeping, perfect terror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers – not alien invasions, not sentient vegetables from beyond the stars, but the more prosaic personal dread of being thought of as mad when you’re 100% certain you’re not.
‘They’re already here! You’re next! You’re next!’
Long Weekend, directed by Colin Eggleston in 1978, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
I can recall exactly where I was when I first saw this film: folded into one corner of our second-hand sofa in the living room of our first floor flat secretly wishing I wasn’t watching Long Weekend at all.
I remember watching Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) at a sleep-over, my friend and I with our beds downstairs on a polished parquet floor the colour of conkers, the big box of the television our only source of light. I was secretly terrified at the prospect of watching Dracula – right up until the moment the film itself began, when I realised Bela Lugosi was going to make me laugh instead. Even back then in the early 1980s, 1931 was an awfully long time ago.
I remember watching Salem’s Lot (1979) on a tiny black and white television – on a narrow boat holiday. As I recall, the tv reception was terrible, which only made the experience more unsettling, especially this scene, which traumatised a generation and most certainly left an indelible impression on me. I likewise remember watching An American Werewolf In London (1981) with a bunch of school friends, and the walk home afterwards, which was nightmarish with shadows and the suspicious breaking of twigs. I recollect this occasion also because it was the night I had my first French kiss, sneaking one behind a pair of long heavy curtains with a girl from my class – only to find the sensation of this other person’s tongue in my mouth to be a small horror of its own, largely because this other person’s body part tasted so powerfully of cheese and onion crisps.
But this film – Long Weekend – a movie with a title giving scant clues to its content – now, this cinematic first encounter really stayed with me. Long Weekend impressed on me most clearly the core paradox of viewing horror films; how it feels to be entranced and repelled simultaneously, to want to see and not-see, to run and remain, to want in and want out, and all the confusing fizz of it.
As I sat watching Long Weekend from my corner of our second-hand sofa (its underpinning of springs always so uncomfortable), I also observed the workings of my brain with fascination. I was made terribly afraid by this film, vibrating before it like a tuning fork, twanged by its strangeness and suspense, by its sexier bits, by its unusual mood of misanthropy. I found the experience of watching Long Weekend unbearably intense. I felt at risk from this movie somehow and yet, even as I wilted under its intensity, I asked myself questions, interrogating my instinct to go on watching. There was pleasure in it you see, something perverse.
Plot-wise, Long Weekend is simple and not subtle; a married couple who cannot abide each other decide to go to a secluded beach somewhere in Australia for a weekend’s camping in an ill-conceived effort to warm-over the remains of their relationship. That they are doomed to fail in this endeavour – and also doomed – is signposted from the outset. We’re only minutes into the film and the wife, Marcia, is marked for death, caught in the cross-hairs of her husband Peter’s rifle. By the end of their long weekend together, both Peter and Marcia will be dead.
The tagline on the poster for Long Weekend reads ‘Nature found them guilty’, meaning we can categorise Eggleston’s film alongside all the other eco-horror movies synonymous with the 1970s. In Frogs (1972), for example, the denizens of a Southern US swamp enact revenge on an environmentally unfriendly family. In Prophecy (1979), pollution from a paper mill produces a fifteen foot mutant bear, and in Day Of The Animals (1977), the thinning ozone layer causes mountaintop animals to become murderous.
In Long Weekend, humanity’s crimes against nature have two distinct strands, the first following the trappings of these other examples. Peter and Marcia are presented from the outset as insensible to the natural world, removed from it by modernity and upward mobility. Compared to the chemical spills in some of these other movies, this couple’s environmental vandalism seems trivial, their disrespect of a largely unspecial kind. They are casual, indifferent litterers. They are loud, boorish, and destructive in a series of petty acts against their surroundings. Peter and Marcia do not commune with the natural world, they subordinate it, reducing it to a prop in their performance of being ‘out-doorsy’. Maybe this is the crime of which nature finds them guilty – the crime of condescension. Perhaps this is the most pernicious environmental crime of all because it is the crime enacted against nature by most of us.
There is a prelapsarian idea at work here too. Peter and Marcia make for very unconvincing substitutes for Adam and Eve, but they anyway try to re-insert themselves into the Garden, in an effort to cleanse themselves of everything they know about themselves and about each other. Little do they know the Garden itself will very soon expel them again – and violently.
But we know this.
We know this from the beginning.
At the start of Long Weekend, Marcia is seen with a frozen chicken, which she drops onto the kitchen floor while taking a telephone call. This moment follows another, in which an unwatched news bulletin reports on attacks on properties by flocks of cockatoos. The frozen chicken is an unrecognisable lump of plastic-wrapped flesh, an object now so removed from nature, the camera gives us time to marvel at its inherent strangeness. This is not the male gaze, but nature’s gaze, mass-produced meat made abject. This peculiar frozen thing – signifier of civilisation, of domestic leisure, of the decline of man-as-hunter – looks ridiculous suddenly, and nothing like a societal achievement at all. This same frozen chicken will accompany the unhappy couple on their camping trip, where it will putrefy almost instantaneously, catalysed into self-destruction by its sudden proximity to the world from which it has been othered so entirely. That this frozen chicken also reminds us of something fetal, in its pink, limbless Erasorhead-like way, is surely no accident either – for reasons Long Weekend soon makes clear.
But even before the attacking cockatoos and portentous frozen chicken, we know something is up. During the opening moments of Long Weekend, the camera descends slowly towards the ground. We’re shown a fern, a plant family so ancient, it pre-dates the dinosaurs. The self-importance of this close-up imbues the fern with an uncanny quality of intelligence and sentience. Seconds later, we’re shown Marcia watering some rather sorry-looking houseplants in the bath – root-bound captives in plastic pots. In this way, Long Weekend is never a subtle film, but already the dread sifts down nicely, as something about this fern inspires the same prickle of unease triggered by the murmuration of starlings or a neat line of marching ants; that an intelligence is revealing itself, and not an alien one exactly, but one that is other.
Long Weekend relishes the anthropomorphism of vegetation, the director treating us to multiple voyeuristic shots of Peter and Marcia from the point-of-view of some unseen spectator hunkered down in the grass. The camera prowls, monitoring the human couple, its gaze unattributed. Is this the view of some apex predator licking its lips at the meaty prospect of these two unhappy campers? Is this surveillance undertaken by those self-same marching ants, their hive-mind united in cool measured thoughts of reprisal? Or is it the grass itself, its blades presented to us as sharp-as-knives, fringing the bottom of the frame like a snaggle of incisors?
The trees of Long Weekend are in on it certainly, conspiring against our unhappy couple to disorientate them, to turn them about, to diminish Peter’s masculinity and dial up Marcia’s already impressive levels of passive aggression until they’re charting off the scale. There are arrows carved into some of the trees, which like the Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz, keep pointing Peter and Marcia in different directions. Are the trees trying to ensure Peter and Marcia never find their way to the beach where they plan to spend their weekend? Are the trees trying to protect the beauty spot from these suburb-slickers by somehow tucking it away into some alternate temporal pocket? I don’t think so. My younger self sitting on the sofa doesn’t think so either. In fact, the trees are reeling Peter and Marcia in, drawing them deeper into the thicket. This is what lambs being led to the slaughter looks like. This is someone pushing down the sprung-loaded jaws of a big old rusty bear-trap in readiness for the hunt to begin in earnest. Eden has been weaponised, only Peter and Marcia don’t know it yet.
But we do.
I did – this mean, grumpy little movie like a bony hand around the hot pump of my pubescent heart.
While Peter and Marcia are persecuted for their crimes against nature, another of their misdemeanors is more generic. They are made to suffer because they are outsiders. Worse than this, they are urban, middle-class outsiders, and thus Peter and Marcia join the countless ranks of other similar characters in horror films who find their manners, mores and privilege challenged brutally by some indigenous population. You see it in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), you see it in The Hills Have Eyes (1977), in Straw Dogs (1971) and Deliverance (1972).
You see it plainly in Spielberg’s Duel (1971), which, in common with Long Weekend, is a low-budget, pared-down grudge-match between ‘civilisation’ (as denoted by the trappings of an urban middle-class life) and the wilderness and its predators, as represented by a dirty big truck and its anonymous blue-collar driver. In one wonderfully paranoid scene, Dennis Weaver’s everyman is wrong-footed by a roadside diner’s clique of redneck truck drivers, and Long Weekend has its equivalent, when Peter and Marcia stop at a gas-station-come-bar-come-convenience store on their way to finding the secluded beach. During Peter’s short conversation with the bar’s other customers, we learn none of them have heard of the beach to which Peter and Marcia are headed. Are the locals lying to Peter, fucking with him in the time-honoured tradition of locals everywhere who like torturing tourists, taking their money even as they disdain them? Are they somehow complicit in nature’s plan, as conspiratorial as the trees with their contrary arrows? Or – more bizarrely – are the locals telling the truth, which makes the elusive beauty spot in question like some ‘Brigadoon of Doom’, a location appearing only to those parties first judged guilty enough to access it?
As Peter takes his beers and returns to the jeep, we see the locals gather at the door, staring intently out through the glass. Marcia, who has been waiting for Peter in the vehicle, now meets their eyes unhappily. For a moment the film threatens to disclose itself as another type of survival story. Is this Last House On The Left (1972) or I Spit On Your Grave (1978) terrain? Is the young man eyeballing Marcia the real animal we need to be worrying about, one of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs?
No, Long Weekend isn’t some brutal rape-and-revenge shocker, but that the director picks up this thread and encourages us to run its tendinous fibres between our fingers – before dropping it completely – was a formative moment for me as young cineaste. Here was the storytelling power of letting something dangle, the expansiveness produced by ambiguity. In plot-terms, this short scene serves no real purpose. It introduces us to characters we never meet again. New tensions are established but not explained. The atmosphere thickens meaningfully – awfully – though we don’t know why. The overall effect is discomforting, though ‘discomfort’ hardly expresses the kick of pleasure I felt back then – and always feel – as Long Weekend ratchets up its impending sense of doom.
In Nick Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), a film with which Long Weekend shares a number of tonal and visual similarities, a young aboriginal boy comes to the rescue of two middle-class white children from the ravages of the Australian outback. Roeg peppers his film with macro imagery of ants, snakes and reptiles, and the Australian landscape is presented as preternatural. Long Weekend deploys a similar lexicon of audio and visual techniques to heighten the reality of the environment and further transmit its otherness. If we configure nature here as a proxy for aboriginal loathing, then Long Weekend starts to look a lot like a post-colonial revenge fantasy.
Early in the film, Peter runs over a kangaroo – albeit accidentally – an animal that could in no way be more connotative of Australia’s indigenous population. From that moment on, we know Peter and his wife have tripped a wire. I think of it as like the moment a fly first twangs at the furthest edge of some vast web. I like to think of the Australian landscape’s genius loci as the great elegant spider at the heart of that web. Alert now, the spider need only wait patiently for the fly to ensnare itself more terminally. Come into my parlour, says the spider, and Peter and Marcia oblige, driving their little red jeep deeper into the wilderness.
I suggested there were two strands comprising Peter and Marcia’s crimes against nature, and if the first of them is universalised (Peter and Marcia as unlucky stand-ins for all mankind), then the second reason is more specific. Marcia has had an abortion. We know this because Marcia and Peter fight about it in one of their many arguments, and we know this too because of Marcia’s fascination with an eagle egg, which she later smashes spitefully against a tree. We also suspect the baby wasn’t Peter’s, but rather the unintended consequence of their wife-swapping arrangement with another suburban couple.
There is a nasty streak of conservatism here, and no small amount of hypocrisy, given that ‘mother nature’ encompasses any number of mothers who eat their young. I’m tempted to give the blunt moralising a pass here. I end up almost admiring the meanness of the film’s position on this issue, its refusal of sympathy or greater nuance or any more liberal finer feelings. It’s part of that dystopian 1970’s vibe that can sometimes feel like courageous non-market-driven storytelling. To be clear, I’m not judging Marcia for her decision, but let’s face it, my feelings don’t matter to the flora and fauna of Long Weekend either.
Reproductive conservatism is evinced elsewhere in Long Weekend, where both characters’ route to masturbation is interrupted by the natural world around them in one way or another. For Marcia, it is some trippy presentiment of Peter’s aquatic peril that shoos her hand from her privates. For Peter, it is the clattering of a possum that interrupts him as he reaches for his copy of Playboy. One can’t help conclude nature is wagging its finger at these Onanistic indulgences. You might even say Long Weekend‘s dim view of human practices that do not result in making babies is not a separate thematic strand at all, but merely a variation on its disdain for the capacity of mankind for self-absorption.
Long Weekend was released in the same year as John Carpenter’s Halloween, a film setting in stone the relationship between sexual pleasure and imminent death, and shares with Halloween too its spectacle of decadent suburbanites being punished by something animalistic and uncivilised. Like I said, I can’t get my own knickers in a twist about all the sex-equals-death stuff. I’m thinking instead of The Wicker Man (1973), in which the main character is marked for death because he’s a virgin. In one scene in the folk-horror classic, Sergeant Howie, who is investigating the disappearance of a missing girl on a remote Scottish island, pays a visit to the local school, where, inside the missing girl’s desk, he finds a live beetle tied by a length of thread to a nail.
We soon learn Sergeant Howie is the beetle. We will watch powerlessly – and with some small barb of pleasure – as Howie himself ends up ‘tight against the nail’, the victim of an elaborate conspiracy that sees him burned alive in the titular wicker effigy. (Honestly, you’ve got to love the 1970s – and you thought things were dystopian now?)
Long Weekend‘s Peter and Marcia are beetles too. Round and round they go in ever decreasing circles until the moments of their deaths, which are presented as inescapable. Marcia is impaled on the end of Peter’s spear gun. He kills her accidentally, goaded into doing so by an ensemble of snapping twigs and ominous rustlings in the undergrowth, in scenes of suspense so unbearable, my younger self, balled into one hard corner of that old sofa, came perilously close to tears, wishing, with clasped hands, the film would just hurry up and finish.
When Peter finally makes a break for it, running through the woods in a last ditch effort to find his way out of the wilderness and back to the road, the director treats us to an extended series of tracking shots of Peter’s flight. The dynamism of these scenes is a cruel trick. We are actively running with Peter now. We want him to survive. We even think he might. Peter is even allowed to make it safely out onto the road, only for a cockatoo – of course – to fly into the cab of an oncoming truck, causing its driver to lose control of the vehicle. Peter is pressed flat into the tarmac, the truck’s tyres drawing long lines of blood on the road. A final crane shot reveals the truck is carrying a cargo of live animals to a local abattoir.
It’s all so horribly unfair – probably. We may not like either of them very much, but Peter and Marcia are human, nuanced just enough by the script and the actors’ performances to ensure we know them not to be complete monsters – and yet, from the moment we first encounter them, they’re dead people walking; and not because Marcia’s had an abortion or because Peter is an adulterer (the film begins with Peter saying goodbye to a pretty young women in the city), or because Marcia and Peter are swingers, or even because of their fondness for frozen chicken. Peter and Marcia are dead-by-dawn because that’s what the film always intended for them. It’s what this movie wanted.
But someone has to say it. As revenge of nature films go, Long Weekend is a bit lame. I’d go as far as to say the actual animal attacks, such as they are, are comedic. There’s a low-budget eagle attack, a snarling possum, a domestic dog turned feral, and a modest clutch of snakes, lizards and spiders, but nothing like the apocalypse of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), with which Long Weekend nonetheless shares a number of affinities – not least the parade of unlikeable characters and its shrill vibratory pitch. Maybe this goes some way to explaining why Long Weekend is not better known or more highly-regarded? Is it a problem the animals of Long Weekend are not, well, scary?
Not for me. The dread this film inspires comes from everywhere else, emitted by smaller cinematic particles – like the decision to shoot Long Weekend in widescreen. Funny how an aspect ratio can do that, lending heightened significance to everything in shot by pushing our eyeballs to the periphery, keeping us wired by the increase in effort it takes to keep scanning the entirety of the frame, looking for danger. John Carpenter’s Halloween is the same.
No, it’s not the animals of Long Weekend that frighten me – not the living ones anyway.
In common with lots of other horror movies, the real chilling set-piece of Long Weekend situates around a corpse – but unique to Long Weekend, the corpse in question is the body of a dugong, a marine mammal similar to a manatee.
In scenes willfully reminiscent of Jaws (1975), Peter is first menaced by a dark shadow in the water as he swims and surfs. The shadow doing the menacing may – or may not be – the unfortunate dugong that later washes up on the beach, killed by bullets from Peter’s gun. Though inarguably dead, the dugong slowly and inexorably moves its way towards Peter and Marcia’s campsite. We never see it move, only the evidence that it has, and this is where the horror dwells.
At the end of film, the dugong corpse has made it as far as the campsite itself. Even as I type these words – a forty-five year old man in a small bright room – I can recall the way in which every hair on my scalp stood up as I watched Long Weekend that first time, this strange dead dugong doing that, this simple, unshowy horror, this masterstroke of uncanny cinema. Bravo!
Throughout Long Weekend, Marcia is shown to be audibly aware of a plaintive animal keening sound, a sound we are not always certain is diegetic. Peter explains the cry of an infant dugong can sound like a human baby in distress. If the link between the dugong and Marcia’s aborted baby is not already overt enough, we need only look at the body of the dugong itself, with its soft fetal face. Ah yes, the return of the repressed! Peter and Marcia have come all this way to an unspoiled paradise to put their past behind them – to bury their dead – but here comes the past again, shuffling up the beach when no one is looking, to mewl wetly at their feet.
Dr Frank Poole is a character in Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated, technically-breathtaking think-piece, 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968). This is a film I admire very much, but one of my favourite things about 2001 are Dr Frank Poole’s shorts. Here’s why.
A year or so after finishing my A-levels, I learned something surprising about one of my former English teachers. In addition to her passion for the works of Shakespeare and so forth, she was also writing pornographic fan-fiction under an online pseudonym. This was all such a long time ago, the internet was in its infancy, but nonetheless, the teacher in question was charting the ongoing adventures of Walter Skinner and Alex Krycheck and disseminating her stories on niche web-based forums.
You only need to know two things about Walter Skinner and Alex Krycheck, the first being they are both supporting characters in the science-fiction/paranormal show, The X-Files, the second being they are both heterosexual male characters in the show and at no point in any episode do they fuck.
But not so in the stories written by my former-English teacher. In her fiction, Walter Skinner and Alex Kyrcheck cannot keep their hands off each other. In her stories, Walter Skinner and Alex Kyrcheck are positively priapic, with no detail spared, however anatomical, however anglo-saxon, however gymnastic.
This was my first encounter with slash fiction, a literary subgenre deriving its name from the / between whatever same-sex fictional characters are engaging in graphic sexual relations with each other, as in Skinner/Krycheck. Slash-fiction is said to originate with Kirk and Spock, that while a large proportion of Star Trek‘s famously loyal audience were nestled on their settees enjoying the utopian charms of Gene Rodenberry’s rosy view of a federation of planets, another demographic within that same loyal audience were intuiting something no less progressive – an oblique sexual frisson between William Shatner’s impulsive captain and Leonard Nimoy’s cool, logical science officer, consummated ‘off-screen’ in the imaginations of amateur writers and their readers.
When Roland Barthes proclaimed so famously, ‘The author is dead’, he meant it wasn’t to the originator of a particular text we should look for its definitive explanation (be it a book, a play, a film, tv show, photograph or whatever), but rather to the consumers of the text, its audience, us. What follows from this is there are as many meanings to something as there are recipients for it; that anything we produce produces a multiverse, and if meaning is a palimpsest, then to try and fix, limit or arrest interpretation is to tilt foolishly at windmills.
All of which brings me back to Dr Poole’s shorts.
I’ve watched 2001 – A Space Odyssey many times. I screened it for students every year – the whole thing – which always took some pedagogical resolve. With its long takes, overture and intermission, thin-dense story and narrative opacity, 2001 is no one’s idea of an effortless viewing experience. Kubrick’s crystalline visuals, soaring classical score and weighty cosmic ambitions would always have to compete with the pointed rustling of crisp packets and performative sighing, which was established undergraduate code for, ‘When will this fucking film end?‘
But Kubrick isn’t interested in entertaining us exactly. His interests lie in producing the conditions for expansiveness and contemplation. 2001 slows us down so we can think about the images on screen and the ideas they comprise. In the precision of its slowness, in its insistence we keeping looking at something even beyond what is truly comfortable, 2001 is an exercise in accessing some other state, in the same way staring at any one thing for a long period of time encourages the mind to project itself elsewhere.
I don’t know when it happened, which screening of my many screenings in particular, but at some point, as I floated freely in the space Kubrick created for me, I apprehended something new about the film. I began to read some of its visual messaging differently, discerning an alternate text, adding things up using the abacus of my own identity. I figured something out (and no, not the ending of 2001, never that), and since that moment, I can no longer ‘unknow’ what I think I know about 2001, or unsee how I’m seeing things, and now what I think I know about 2001 is this: the film’s middle section, entitled Jupiter Mission – Eighteen Months Later, is not only a prescient cautionary tale about Artificial Intelligence, but also a gay love triangle between two scientists and a super-computer, or put more succinctly: Dr David Bowman / Dr Frank Poole / HAL 9000.
Discovery crew member, Dr David Bowman
Discovery crew member, Dr Frank Poole
My erstwhile English-teacher and amateur pornographer was convinced the writers of The X-Files were complicit in twanging gently at the libidos of the show’s fanbase, sprinkling episodes with homoerotic breadcrumbs so as to draw audiences more deeply into forming binding emotional attachments to their characters. In this way, she argued the ‘queering’ of Skinner and Krycheck was not in fact projection or distortion or superimposition, but rather an act of co-authorship. 2001 is hardly about human relationships at all, which is why it makes for such antiseptic viewing for some audiences. 2001 is about human existence, which isn’t the same thing. It’s when the film does focus on people I start to put this film together differently, because one character’s on-screen presentation is different to the rest.
We are actively encouraged to objectify the character of Dr Frank Poole in a way conspicuous and distinct from any other character in 2001. We are invited to enjoy the act of looking at him, who we first encounter running around the Discovery’s centrifuge. The camera drops low in front of Dr Poole, tracking backwards, keeping time, and we are directed in this way to stare up at his crotch – and I do. I suspect we all do. The view is an exceptionally good one. How can we not enjoy the spectacle of Frank’s muscled thighs? When the camera shifts, we follow along behind him, his round solid buttocks perching attractively just above the bottom edge of the frame. We need only substitute Frank in our imaginations with a female scientist to certify these framing choices are classically objectifying. If a woman were running around Discovery’s centrifuge in just her gym-shorts and a tight t-shirt, and the camera so instructed us to look at her genitals and then again at her bottom, we would appreciate very well this was the male gaze in action. We also see Frank jabbing the air as he jogs, shadow-boxing. In this way we are told Dr Frank Poole is no egg-head, hot-house-flower or etiolated academic. He is athletic, strong, masculine, and with his fine head of thick black hair, Dr Frank Poole is our man’s man, our matinee idol, an obvious sex object treated obviously.
A short time later, Frank reclines on a sun-bed of sorts in just those same short white shorts, his white socks and white running shoes. While this scene continues Kubrick’s fascination with presenting the likely realities of space travel, it is also an opportunity to present Dr Poole’s very nearly naked body. It’s another long scene, our eyes given little else to do but rove. At one point we cut to a tighter shot of Frank looking across at the tele-viewer, where his parents are wishing him happy birthday. This framing couldn’t be more sensual. We study his pretty lips and tan-coloured nipple. We apprehend his slumberous eyes. This is a lover’s view of Dr Frank Poole. Hell, we’re nearly watching this guy sleep, and we all know how loved-up you have to be to do that.
The next time we meet Frank, he’s eating from a tray of pureed space food dressed in a white towelling robe. He is freshly showered after his exertions and languid tanning session, relaxed, un-uniformed, free-balling. What is it about the humble white towelling robe that speaks so directly to the nakedness underneath it in a way other sorts of clothing do not? Indeed, there is even something a little Hefner-esque about how relaxed Frank looks in his dressed/undressed state.
When I consider these introductory shots of Frank, his on-screen presentation – the crotch shots, the spectacle of his thighs, arms and torso, the proximity of his lips to the screen and that soft warm disc of nipple – I wonder whose gaze is (de)constructing him so? Mine certainly – I admit it freely – but I’m inclined to think about Kirk and Spock too, the way in which the contrast of their differences drives the engine of their homoeroticism. Like Kirk, that playboy with the perennially torn shirt, we know Frank Poole has a swinging dick and his handy with his fists. Like Spock, Frank’s human companion on the Discovery, Dr David Bowman, is configured in opposition. Bowman is presented as more cerebral, more sensitive (he is an artist, drawing the other crew members asleep in their pods). There is something of the android about him – a hint of Zuckerberg – and in this way, Bowman is closer to HAL, an affinity reciprocated by the super-computer, who engages with Bowman more often than with Frank, and always more revealingly. I’m compelled to conclude Bowman is repressed, careful and cautious in a way that makes him different to Frank Poole. We can’t easily imagine Dr Dave lounging about the place in just a loosely tied dressing gown.
Sometimes I think the camera watches Frank in the way it does because this is what it’s like to be David Bowman, who is living in intimate proximity with someone he desires. It’s like a flat share when one roommate insists on walking about in just his pants or bath towel, which is normal for him and non-sexualised, and speaks to the comfort he feels in his own skin and his confidence in its display. Dave Bowman is the other room mate, the tidier one, the more controlled one, for whom these everyday flashes of thigh are utterly arresting, troubling even. A secret like that can transform even the most ordinary activity – jogging, sun-bathing, eating dinner in a dressing gown – into giddy high-points of erotic fascination.
But maybe I’m wrong about this? I even think I might be. My hypothesis assumes David is repressed and Frank is unaware. I’m assuming this is a relationship forged out of denial, of secret-looking, out of a love that dare not speak its name. Oh dear! How old fashioned of me, how formulaic! Maybe David and Frank are not homoerotic together, but just homosexual? During the scene where Frank is having his sun-shower, his parents say, ‘Give our love to Dave’ or words to that effect. This implies affection for, and familiarity with, the idea of Frank and Dave being associated as a pair. It speaks to an existing long-term relationship. It implies Dave has met Frank’s family – more than once. Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967. 2001 was released the year after. In the film, the year is 2001, but it is a future imagined by someone in 1968, so maybe Frank and Dave have sat together on Frank’s parents sofa as husbands, wearing matching Christmas jumpers and drinking eggnog? Maybe this relationship isn’t the furtive raw material of fervid slash-fiction, but an actual same-sex partnership presented unremarkably as the future we could and should have had?
So to whom might the film’s objectification of the masculine belong, if not to Dr David Bowman? Who else might be zoning in on the exhibited flesh of the Discovery’s resident pin-up, Dr Poole? Who else other than me?
Scopophilia describes the pleasure derived from looking at objects of eroticism as a substitute for actual participation in sexual relations. The HAL 9000 is the Discovery’s fey-sounding, red-eyed cyclops who has been programmed with a semblance of emotions to ensure it interfaces as effectively with humans as possible. The question remains how human is HAL, or put another way, how flawed, how petty, how jealous, how irrational? If HAL knows everything about everything, he will know about sex. If HAL is hooked up to the sum total of human knowledge, we can safely assume HAL is a consumer of pornographic imagery, pornographic imagery being one of humanity’s most prodigious data-sets. Might we assume HAL is likely to experience simulations of arousal too, and thus simulations of sexual frustration at his lack of corporeal agency? HAL is imprisoned in his voyeurism. HAL can only look. HAL cannot consummate. HAL is impotent.
We already know HAL identifies closely with David, whose flatness of expression and measured behaviour mirror the computer’s own. We can also intuit Dr Frank Poole is less comfortable around HAL. Later, Frank will say as much too. Ultimately, this is what I figured out that day in the darkness of the lecture theatre, while behind me, thirty or so undergraduates rustled their crisp-packets in protest at another of Kubrick’s longueurs: HAL is in love with David Bowman. It is a cerebral connection, a Platonic, rather superior sort of love. HAL’s relationship to Dr Frank Poole is of a more provocative kind. You see, I think it’s HAL watching Frank’s crotch while he jogs around the centrifuge in his short white shorts. It’s HAL who looks on while Frank suns himself. It’s HAL pushing the camera to fixate on Dr Frank Poole’s face, on the configuration of his lips. This is the computer’s gaze, the red eye of a hopelessly disembodied scopophiliac.
As I write this down, spelling it out, I’m reminded of the last dissatisfying scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where, after the film’s rapturous powers of ‘showing-not-telling’, a handy psychiatrist sits us all down and ‘explains’ the lurid plot. He tells us Norman Bates kills Marion Crane because he feels sexual attraction towards her, but that it is his ‘super-ego’ – ‘Mother’ – who intervenes so bloodily. Marion is killed because she produces a powerful effect in Norman’s erotic imagination, installing a glitch in his otherwise urbane and gentle programming. Norman kills because he cannot consummate, and he cannot consummate because, at his most basic level of programming – his motherboard, if you will – he disapproves of something as human as fucking. In this, HAL and Norman share more than just their love of peeping. As Marion did for Norman, Frank does for HAL, confronting him with the thing he wants but cannot have. HAL experiences arousal, frustration, resentment, shame. Ultimately, the spectacle of Frank reminds HAL he is ‘imperfect’, that he is human.
Oh, and of course, HAL is betrayed. David, the platonic object of HAL’s affection for a human being, and Frank, the erotic object of HAL’s disaffection for the human body, conspire together to unplug him. The two men squirrel themselves away in one of the ship’s pods to share their unease about the onset of HAL’s erratic behaviour. This meeting always feels so wonderfully illicit to me, charged with danger and with intimacy. Unfortunately, HAL is as adept at lip-reading as he is at playing chess and we are treated to a sequence of intimate shots of the two men’s mouths, which always manages to remind me of the split-screen antics in the Doris Day / Rock Hudson rom-com Pillow Talk. And how this betrayal must burn! Not only are the two most significant men in HAL’s life conspiring to deactivate him, they do so while sitting so very closely together, looking into each other’s eyes, that small pod filling with their exhalations, their lips but a short distance apart…
By way of reprisal, HAL conspires to separate the two men, and when Frank is alone in deep space, HAL puppets the robotic claws of one of the Discovery’s pods and snips his air supply, sending his body whirling away into space. A short time later, HAL refuses to let Dave back on board, after he goes out to collect Frank’s corpse. In one of cinema’s most celebrated displays of passive-aggression, HAL refuses to ‘open the pod bay doors’. Hell hath no fury like an AI scorned.
I do wonder what my former English teacher would make of all this? Would I get an A for effort, or an F for the effort of straining to make this fan theory cohere credibly? I certainly haven’t been rude enough to earn any gold stars in the category of slash fiction. I’ve more likely just revealed a dimension of my own character, or shown myself to be unfailingly trivial in the face of so portentous a science-fiction narrative. I may just be admitting that, having seen 2001 so many times, I’ve succumbed to doodling in its margins to pass the time, an activity really not so different from rustling a packet of crisps. Anyway, why apologise? According to Barthes, I am where the meaning of 2001 begins. But, in one last evidenced-based bid to demonstrate how this portion of Kubrick’s film might also be a story about a scopophiliac super-computer driven to kill the object of his own self-loathing, I offer this – HAL’s secret song, which only begins to play as Dr David Bowman goes about shutting him down…
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,
I’m half crazy, All for the love of you…”
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is a 2009 German language film shot in surgically precise black and white. The time is 1913, the place is a small, isolated German village named Eichwald, and the narrative evolves around a series of unexplained acts of cruelty and malice perpetrated against the remote, rural community.
In common with Haneke’s Hidden (2005), The White Ribbon is purposefully ambiguous. Motives are never laid bare and pointed fingers fail to skewer definitive targets. In this way, the film refuses easy categorisation, but for this viewer, at least, Haneke’s menacing exploration of shame, reprisal and complicity continues a fine cinematic tradition of paedophobia: stories that evince or seek to evoke a visceral distrust or dislike of children.
The mark left by a trip-wire used in a booby-trap, The White Ribbon (2009)
A mysterious fire, The White Ribbon (2009)
The Baron’s son is thrown in the river, The White Ribbon (2009)
While The White Ribbon determines for its audience neither motive nor culprit for the violent acts, it certainly doesn’t dissuade us from thinking the worst of the neat, straight-backed children who inhabit the village – they who gather watchfully outside doorways and windows to enquire ever-so politely about the well-being of the individuals hurt in the film’s mysterious accidents and brutalised in off-screen beatings. There is something insincere about the children’s sincerity, something too knowing about their curiosity, their demeanour reminiscent of scientists coming back to observe dispassionately the outcome of inhumane experiments. This may ultimately be an example of Haneke’s game-play, in that the audience is tempted by the director to foreclose on further discussion and apportion blame – and in so doing make issue of our intolerance for incertitude and preference for scapegoats.
I’m not alone in fearing the children of remote, rural Eichwald. The school teacher, who narrates the events of the film, comes finally to suspect the children of unwholesome activities. His hypothesis is met with indignation and disavowal. Hardly surprising: the idea children can be so wilfully malign always elicits public outcry – especially in cases where children abuse or kill other children (and children are victims of violence in The White Ribbon). One need only namecheck Mary Bell and James Bulger to know children who kill present society with an idea too unpalatable.
Mary Bell at the time of her arrest.
James Patrick Bulger being led away to his death.
It is Eichwald’s pastor with whom the school teacher shares his misgivings, who reacts predictably with horror. There is, however, something too strident about this puritan’s refutation. The pastor is appalled by the premise that the village children (his own among them) could be responsible for the violence, but not, I suspect, because he finds the school teacher’s theory unimaginable, but rather because he can imagine it perfectly well. Author William Golding evidences no such squeamishness. Golding’s 1954 novel Lord Of The Flies, in which a community of English schoolboys stranded on an island descend into savagery, is a celebrated reposte to the idea that children are wired more benignly than adults.
A school boy savage, from Lord Of The Flies (1963)
Whereas Golding suggests none of us are beyond the thrall of atavism – children especially – Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956) makes the case that evil derives from specific genes or ‘bad seeds’. Rhoda Penmark, aged eight, is the bad seed of the film’s title, a child-killer and sociopath, and as a subplot reveals, the granddaughter of a female serial killer.
Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed (1956)
LeRoy’s film is an adaptation of a 1954 novel by William March. The novel’s original ending – in which Rhoda’s mother attempts to kill her daughter with sleeping pills and then shoots herself, only for Rhoda to survive, free to kill again – was much too nihilistic for the censors. The spectacle of a child psychopath going unpunished contravened the Hays Code, which insisted films had a solemn moral duty to show ‘crime didn’t pay.’ The film’s ending was duly revised, with the mother now surviving her suicide attempt and Rhoda being dealt a lethal blow by a bolt of lightning. Ultimately then, Rhoda is given the mother of all spankings by the father of all fathers. Not content with this sledgehammer-subtle deus-ex-machina, a post-ending coda shows the mother spanking Rhoda, so as to further reassure audiences and restore too in the minds of worried moms and pops the efficacy of their own parenting. I can only wonder what changes the Hays Code would have demanded of Haneke’s The White Ribbon – a film in which children are violent, crimes go unpunished, motives remain elliptical, parenting is largely abusive and bolts of cleansing lightning are in conspicuously short supply.
Rhoda gets spanked by her mother, The Bad Seed (1956)
If the children of Eichwald have a ring-leader, it is the passive-aggressive Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus), whose resemblance to Rhoda Penmark might encourage us to believe in the existence of genetic templates for evil after all. Klara is as blonde and outwardly wholesome as LeRoy’s sociopath, but as dead-pan as Wednesday Addams, whose morbid fascination with injury and accident Klara may also share.
Klara is confronted by the suspicious school teacher, The White Ribbon (2009)
It is Klara who is responsible for one of the film’s acts of violence that is attributed without equivocation. Klara is the pastor’s eldest daughter who, in falling short of her father’s puritanical expectations, has been made by way of punishment to wear the titular white ribbon on her arm. While the white ribbon itself is symbolic of purity, the wearing of it announces moral deficit and failure. Following further public humiliation by her father, Klara kills the pastor’s pet bird in reprisal and revolt. That the bird itself is caged is surely significant, for Klara is likewise denied the full expression of her nature by the repressive structures of her father’s world. As significant is the means by which Klara first mutilates and then displays the pastor’s bird, making from its corpse a mockery of a crucifix. Fathers of all kinds are punished in Eichwald.
Klara’s revenge, The White Ribbon (2009)
The White Ribbon‘s temporal and geographical context encourages us to lend chilling significance to the idea of a generation of children learning to flex their muscles with impunity and address their resentments with violence. The school teacher’s opening narration suggests plainly that, like him, we might seek to connect the social microcosm of the troubled village and the macrocosm of twentieth century European history:
“I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay. After so many years a lot of it is still obscure and many questions remain unanswered. But I think I must tell you of the strange events that occurred in our village. They could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country.”
If The White Ribbon is ‘about’ the incubation of fascism in Germany, then Klara and her tribe are not simply bad apples, but bitter little acorns from which something truly monstrous will grow. The film’s title may, of itself, be an example of grim foreshadowing, as Ian Johnston suggests, “The shaming white ribbons worn on Martin and Klara’s arms project associations into the Nazi future, both the Nazis’ armbands and the badges of shame (yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) used in the camps.” (Johnston, 2010) Of Klara and her cohorts, Alan Nothnagle makes this grim prediction: “These terrorists in waiting are around ten or twelve years old, and as such are too young to participate in World War I. No, instead of experiencing the disillusioning meat grinder of attrition warfare, this lot will instead soak up the dying Empire’s “victory” propaganda and later join the Freikorps, the Storm Troopers, and the Nazi Party. In 1933 they will be around thirty years old and will form the backbone of the new regime.” (Nothnagle, 2009)
Hitler Youth Propoganda Poster
In Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning Cabaret (1972), we encounter another beautiful blonde child whose implacable resolve gives us one of cinema’s most truly chilling scenes. For all its apparent ambiguity, The White Ribbon is no less clear in its message: we should fear for our children, in so much as they are manipulated easily, controlled and abused, and we should be in fear of our children for the self-same reason – or as singer-song writer Tracy Chapman puts it more simply, ‘Bang Bang Bang.’
Tomorrow Belongs To Me from Cabaret (1972)
The afterimage of Hitler’s youth permeates another peadophobic classic, The Village of The Damned (1960), based on John Wyndam’s science-fiction 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. Here too, we encounter a tribe of precocious moppets all with startlingly blonde hair and glacial, impeccable manners with scant disregard for the feelings of others.
The glacial blonde children from The Village Of The Damned (1960) > Hitler Youth Propaganda poster.
At least the mums and dads of Midwich have got aliens to blame for their wayward offspring – and not a serial-killing encoded gene. In this instance, their creepy kids are the hive-minded, telepathic progeny of an extra-terrestial intelligence. Likewise, when their sullen five year old starts acting-up in Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) Richard and Katherine Thorn can at least take comfort from the fact of finding themselves at the heart of a global conspiracy plotting to see the antichrist installed on his earthly throne.
Damien Thorn, the antichrist as a child in The Omen (1976)
In these peadophobic fright-fests, the parents are squarely not at fault – external forces are at work. These children are monsters of (super)nature not nurture. Not so in The White Ribbon. Haneke’s children are Larkin‘s children – fucked up by their mums and dads and by the alienating ideologies of adulthood. As Ryan Gilbey observes, “If the children are the perpetrators of the violence, it is their elders who have nurtured these dubious talents. The villagers’ child-rearing techniques, based on instilling guilt and inflicting pain, are shown to be incendiary” (Gilbey, 2009) It’s even possible to see the acts of violence perpetrated against the village as projections of the adults’ otherwise unexpressed resentment. The village is festering with grown-up grievances, unvoiced, neutered by puritan restraint and the tugging of forelocks. Haneke’s refusal to name and shame gives the various attacks and accidents a near-supernatural quality, as if they’re being visited upon the village like portents, which is further encouraged by the inclusion of a child character who appears able to prophecise the episodes of violence in her dreams. Notice Gilbey’s choice of the word ‘incendiary’, which seems particularly apposite considering the way in which The White Ribbon‘s cruelties ignite without warning – as if the pent-up negative energies building up in the village have found an ‘out’, striking people down like the lightning that incinerated poor Rhoda Penmark.
The notion of children expressing or acting out the repressed rage and frustration of their parents surely finds its apotheosis in David Cronenberg’s 1979 body-horror chiller, The Brood. In what can only be described as Freudian tour-de-force, Cronenberg introduces us to a monstrous mother figure capable of giving birth to ‘rage babies’ from a cancerous womb appended to her stomach. Like the monster from Forbidden Planet (1956), the mother’s snarling off-spring are the progeny of her id. They are hatred and jealousies made flesh. Springing from the mother’s own repressed feelings of resentment, her vengeful brood act upon her most violent fantasies, committing brutal acts of murder about which the mother herself remains unaware.
The Brood‘s romper-suited ‘rage babies’,
Meanwhile, the non-synonymous issues of childhood sexuality and the sexualisation of children by adults have never been more freighted, confused or conflated. This is another way in which children have come to terrify us – something the Chapman Brothers, for example, know well and are keen for us to confront and interrogate.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000), 1995
Haneke’s The White Ribbon is as unflinching in exploring our disquiet around children and sex. In one acutely disquieting scene, Klara’s brother admits reluctantly to his father he’s been masturbating. In response, the pastor tells his son an appalling lie about another boy in another village who died a horrible malingering death as a direct result of the same nocturnal activity. If this sounds far-fetched, consider this: according to the Journal of Religion and Health at one point, “two thirds of all human diseases, medical and mental, were attributed to masturbation” (Patton, 1986).
The pastor’s son wears the white ribbon during his cross-examination, The White Ribbon (2009)
As a further deterrant, the boy’s hands are tied with knotted ropes to his bed so he might sleep through the night without succumbing to the evils of onanism. Here, what is normal, healthy and ubiquitous about childhood sexuality is equated with pestilence and moral decay, the prospect of a ‘sexual child’ so unseemly, so immoral, that the physical abuse and enforced incarceration of a boy by his father is deemed preferable, curative, and ‘more proper’.
Another child tied to a bed by religious men in an effort to prohibit further ‘self abuse’ is Regan MacNeil in William Freidkin’s The Exorcist (1973). True, twelve year old Regan is possessed by an ancient, foul-mouthed demon, but that the abject corruption of her soul should manifest as an episode of female masturbation leads some to interpret The Exorcist as resonating so powerfully with audiences, less because of how it depicts an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil for a young girl’s soul, and rather more because it twangs parental anxiety in regard to the secret sex lives of their pubescent children.
Meanwhile, back in Haneke’s bleak little village, the doctor is abusing his daughter without conscience, even going so far as making a gift to her of his dead wife’s earrings so that his moral trespass might be elided still further. In Eichwald, the sexuality of its children is both refused and exploited. It becomes a thing of horror – for them, for us. Hypocrisy abounds; a man alienates his son from the province and pleasures of his own body in an obvious act of guilt and self-loathing (are we seriously meant to believe that the pastor has never masturbated?), while another adult with responsibilities of care and rehabilitation abuses his daughter with breathtaking indifference to his crime.
The doctor abusing his daughter, The White Ribbon (2009)
Another peadophobic film shot through with peadophiliac disquiet is Jack Clayton’s masterful adaptation of Henry James 1898 ghost story novella The Turn Of The Screw. In common with The White Ribbon, Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is a strange and ambiguous film and shares too a narrative predicated upon the spectacle of precocious, implacable children intent seemingly on out-manoeuvring their adult wards. A very prim and proper governess, played by Deborah Kerr, is charged with looking after Miles and Flora, siblings who may – or may not – have fallen under the malign influence of two dead former employees, who, while living, were locked into a darkly passionate and notably indiscrete love affair. Ostensibly, The Innocents is a film about creepy country houses, restless ghosts and possession, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t the cosy stuff of fireside yarns. For all its billowing curtains and gothic trappings, The Innocents is as discomforting about the issue of children, sex and sexualisation as any Chapman Brothers mutant (and a good deal more elegant).
Miles and Flora in The Innocents (1961)
Supernatural possession aside, the film hints that the two children have anyway witnessed sex-acts between the two lovers. The governess fears the two children ‘know too much.’ Certainly, Miles is a little too mature for his years and even flirtatious towards his governess. In a scene more lastingly shocking than Regan MacNeil masturbating with a crucifix, Miles kisses his governess on the lips. This isn’t a goodnight kiss. This isn’t a wholesome kiss. No, this kiss between a male child and a grown woman is something else entirely. Kate Bush’s suitably spooky song The Infant Kiss, inspired directly by this scene, has lyrics that make explicit the lingering suspicion that the Governess herself – and not a ghost – has developed her own unnatural obsession with Miles.
Say good night-night
I tuck him in tight.
But things are not right.
What is this? An infant kiss
That sends my body tingling?
I’ve never fallen for
A little boy before.
Just a kid and just at school.
Back home they’d call me dirty.
His little hand is on my heart.
He’s got me where it hurts me.
Knock, knock. Who’s there in this baby?
You know how to work me.
All my barriers are going.
It’s starting to show.
Let go. Let go. Let go.
I cannot sit and let
Something happen I’ll regret.
Ooh, he scares me!
There’s a man behind those eyes.
I catch him when I’m bending.
Ooh, how he frightens me
When they whisper privately.
(“Don’t Let Go!”)
Windy-wailey blows me.
Words of caress on their lips
That speak of adult love.
I want to smack but I hold back.
I only want to touch.
But I must stay and find a way
To stop before it gets too much!
All my barriers are going.
It’s starting to show.
Let go. Let go. Let go.
(Don’t let go!)
In the film’s final scene, which earned The Innocents its x-certificate, the over-wrought governess kisses the dead boy on the lips. Clayton’s The Innocents is as mischievous as Haneke’s film in refusing to coalesce in terms of ‘what happened’ or ‘why’. The innocence or otherwise of Miles and Flora is left undecided, while the culpability of the various adult characters in so influencing them is held up for enquiry. All theories are kept in play and so The Innocents, like The White Ribbon, is free to unsettle audiences indefinitely.
The infant kiss from The Innocents (1961)
So what finally do I think of Eichwald’s children above and beyond the film’s exquisite unheimlich effect that situates Klara and her cronies alongside the likes of Miles, Rhoda and those Midwich cuckoos? What can I conclude from the peadophobic trend explored here of which The White Ribbon is another example, which in different ways seems to prove that we are, at best, ambivalent about children, and at worst, afraid of them?
If you watched all the way to the end of that scene from Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, you would have heard one character say to another ominously, ‘You still think you can control them?’ Strictly, he’s referring to the rise and rise of the Nazi party as exemplified by the angelic fascist and his hymn to radicalisation, but this character’s doubt applies to children more generally. This could be Haneke’s pastor, admitting finally (if only to himself, if not to the school teacher) that for all his teachings, Klara and her brother are consolidating their own identities in spite of him – without him. Stripped of its socio-historical meaning, Tomorrow Belongs To Me is the anthem of all children. Tomorrow is theirs. Children know we’re only so much dust given momentary breath and that power, control, judgement and influence will be theirs in time. This is what Klara knows when she’s saying nothing. This is what the children of Eichwald know. This is their secret and it’s a simple one; time is on their side, not ours. All children have to do is wait for the ruling class of adults to grow old, lose traction, and die. This, of course, makes them our next bright hope for the future – and our enemy.
The children of Eichwald, The White Ribbon (2009)
Nothnagle, Alan, Horror film of the decade – “The White Ribbon”, http://open.salon.com/blog/lost_in_berlin/2009/12/27/horror_film_of_the_decade_-_the_white_ribbon
Patton, Michael S., Twentieth Century Attitudes Toward Masturbation, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol 25. No 4, 1986 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01534067#page-1
Gilbey, Ryan, The White Ribbon, http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2009/11/white-ribbon-haneke-european
Author’s note: Originally published here in August 2013, I was prompted to revisit the article again in light of the recent Alice Neel-themed Kick-About, in which a number of the participating artists, including myself, produced work examining some of the societal expectations around motherhood and children. I also wanted to share it because I’ve been struck by the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic is reiterating some of the themes explored here; we are acutely worried about the future prospects of our children and seek to protect them from returning too early to school. We worry too children will become the unwitting agents of our own destruction – carriers for the virus, bringing it back through the door, infecting the old, the vulnerable and the shielded. Politically, the young are both courted and curtailed, a sure sign their power is threatening. Notice how Greta Thunberg is othered by her most powerful critics, framing her as a Midwich cuckoo not quite of this earth and bent on some malign conspiracy to topple the existing world order…