A final clutch of half-imagined horrors spirited up by The Kick-About No.39, as I do my best Lon Chaney homage by masquerading as a host of horrible characters! Happy Halloween one and all! Pleasant dreams.
Boo! Five more ‘self-portraits’ produced for The Kick-About No.39: five more ‘Children of the Night’, five more filmic moments inspired by my enduring affection for the sorts of narratives best experienced in small front rooms with black and white televisions as the only appreciable light source…
Another selection of pages from my super-seasonal ‘Portfolio of Horrors’, produced in response to The Kick-About No.39, with an utterance by Count Dracula at its dark little heart.
In common with previous images, these are all self-portraits executed via a webcam struggling with low-lighting conditions, and styled after half-remembered moments from creaky old horror films, lurid short stories, and other rich sources of ‘kinder-trauma’.
A second macabre collection of self-portraits from my ‘Portfolio of Horrors’ project, produced in response to The Kick-About No.39. Some of the transformations in this set really make me smile (though that’s not the intended effect on the audience!), because they happened so simply. I don’t know what it says about the specific configuration of my features, but the ‘Count Orlok‘ portrait, with those heavy-lidded eyes and hooked nose, is just my face and nothing more than that. Likewise, the topmost image, which is wonderfully strange, like some stunted, fetal imp, is also just ‘my face’.
The transformations of shadow, aided and abetted by the low-resolution textures of my rubbish webcam, are rather thrilling. They play to that universal childhood experience of discovering how even the most familiar things in our bedrooms can persecute us with their otherness after the lights go out. When I saw the results of the ‘imp’ image, I was strongly reminded of an episode from the 1976 television series, Beasts, about a newly married couple finding some strange dead creature bricked into the walls of their cottage, an idea I promptly nicked for the caption.
Originally, I was going to write a short story by way of a response to The Kick-About No.39, and I even got as far as committing to a rough outline, but while the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak, and I couldn’t make it happen in time. The prompt comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the count is talking about the baying of the wolves beneath the moon, but I was never truly scared by vampires and the like. This was due in part to my fascination with the nuts and bolts of horror – its trappings, its effects, and its preoccupations.
The early horror actor Lon Chaney, was known as the man with a 1000 faces, on account of the ways he transformed his face for his performances in films such as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London After Midnight (1927). Inspired by Chaney’s lo-fi monsters and the lurid short stories of the Pan Book Of Horror, I set about producing a series of self-portraits.
The way in which the resulting images were produced involved conscious use of my webcam, as opposed to my digital camera, courting the particular effects of low-light levels and low-resolution. I was going for something nostalgic, what it was like as a small boy catching glimpses of disturbing things on small, poorly-tuned black and white televisions.
I wrote the captions to further enrich these imaginary moments, ranging across a host of hoary old tropes and cliches familiar to me from those wondrous and tawdry Pan Books of Horror and countless old movies. That said, for all my obvious enjoyment in producing these portraits, one or two did leave me glancing uneasily over my shoulder…
Our last Kick-About together was kicked-off by the cut-outs of Henri Matisse, and specifically his White Alga on Orange and Red from 1947. Inspired by one of Matisse’s less well-known cut-outs, regular Kick-Abouter, Kerfe Roig, treated us to something with touch of Halloween about it – a trio of rather dashing devil masks, and a foretaste of this week’s showcase. With dialogue uttered by Dracula himself as our starting point, it’s little wonder things have taken a spookier turn…
“One of those Kick-Abouts that seemed to have a life of its own. The colours were fun to try to control.”
“Based on childhood nightmares this is a painting I did a while ago but by re-photographing the unmounted slide, it could become a still from a seriously spooky film…make up your own narrative!”
“All I can say is that it’s a classic thriller/horror trick of dark shadows, tangled forest, mounting soundtrack, being lost, sense of being watched… Whaaaaaa!”
“Some painted over photographs from a forgotten forest in Ireland. Inspired by the stagnant stillness of nature in the night, where no street lights are seen, and only the little tufts of smoke from chimney spouts signify life. The thick fog and heavy mist hiding and shielding much of what you should see, like a visceral view of brain fog. But still, our imaginations would always be lit, ablaze.”
“Without knowing where the quote for this week’s came from my mind instantly jumped to Victorian-era gothic fiction and ghostly visions and apparitions. With perhaps the help of some otherworldly spirits guiding me, I got a nice little phantasmagoric effect going in the same kind of magic lantern ad hoc way the horror theaters of old used to employ.”
“The prompt comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the count is talking about the baying of the wolves beneath the moon, but I was never truly scared by vampires and the like. This was due in part to my fascination with the nuts and bolts of horror – its trappings, its effects and its preoccupations. The early horror actor Lon Chaney, was known as the man with a 1000 faces, on account of the ways he transformed his face for his performances in films such as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and London After Midnight (1927). Inspired by Chaney’s lo-fi monsters and the lurid short stories of the Pan Book Of Horror, I set about producing a series of self-portraits.
The way in which the resulting images were produced involved conscious use of my webcam, as opposed to my digital camera, courting the particular effects of low-light levels and low-resolution. I was going for something nostalgic, what it was like as a small boy catching glimpses of disturbing things on small, poorly-tuned black and white televisions. I wrote the captions to further enrich these imaginary moments, ranging across a host of hoary old tropes and cliches familiar to me from those wondrous Pan Books of Horror and countless old movies. That said, for all my obvious enjoyment in producing these portraits, one or two even left me glancing uneasily over my shoulder…”
You’ll find a larger PDF here.
“What a juicy, exciting prompt this week! Children of the Night is such an evocative theme. For my contribution, I’m submitting work I made a few years ago, but it’s something that has never seen the light of day, and I thought this Kick-About prompt was a good occasion to give it an airing.
I’ve written here before about some design work I did for a touring stage production of Hansel and Gretel back in 2018. Working with director Clive Hicks-Jenkins, the overall concept for the staging involved using children’s toys and building blocks to conjure environments and scenery for the action performed by two puppets.
Before we arrived at the final approach, I played around with some other ideas, most of which were discarded once we had nailed the shape of our vision. The idea I’m submitting here focused on the witch’s cottage, traditionally made of sweets to entice the starving children into the witch’s clutches. Simon Armitage had written a wonderful text for the piece that provided a rich, dark re-imagining of the traditional tale, with a contemporary edge to bring the story up to date. One of my earlier ideas for the cottage involved incorporating sweets into the architecture, but to depict the confectionery as rotting and putrefying. The witch in Simon’s tale is a rather desperate creature, half-blind and cack-handed, and she hadn’t kept on top of the window-dressing designed to entrap lost children.
I made a model of two stone gate posts, the entrance to the cottage garden, topped with a couple of rather mouldy-looking liquorice allsorts. The images here include the original sketch from my sketchbook, the models, and some test shots on a table top environment of the witch’s garden. It was all good fun, even if the idea never took off. I did make loads of fake gingerbread cookies, which we used in a filmed animation sequence, so the concept found its way into the production in the end.”
“I find ruined churches and in fact any type of ancient architecture fascinating and love imagining how people lived there and who they were. The fact that when night came and the only light was from candles and fire must have been so scary. No wonder everyone believed in spirits, ghosts and demons. Added to that would be the earie sound of wolves howling. Such clever animals and necessary for the ecosystem. I hear they may even be reintroduced . Hopefully not Dracula as well!”
“I was thinking about this prompt when I found some monoprints in neon colors that I had never finished, being uncertain where to go with them. I wondered what would happen if I covered them in drips and spatters of spirits and night… And then I wrote something to accompany them.“
Children of the Night
There’s a dark path in the forest that reaches not only to the horizon but far up into the stars in the sky. The contours float, infused inside and out by an endless melody that sings chaos into shimmering pattern.
Where does the story end? Perhaps it leads to dreams that have been hidden away, to possibilities invisible in the light of day. To once upon a time that becomes here and now.
If you listen – still, silent, boundaried by the night – it’s possible to catch a glimpse of these distant voices. But only a child can find the entrance to this liminal landscape of matter, spirit, and sound.
silvered, transcendent –
Chris Rutter & Evelyn Bennett
Here is the latest effort. A cut-up poem from the text; ‘Listen To The Music’.”
And for our next creative prompt…
“The spinning saxon, flying pigeons, polka batteries, jumping jacks and firecrackers, squibs and salutes, Aztec Fountains, Bengal Lights, and Egyptian Circlets, bangers or bungers, cakes, crossettes, candles, and a Japanese design known as kamuro (boys haircut), which looks like a bobbed wig teased out across the stratosphere. . . the language of fireworks has a richness that hints at the explosive payload it references. And yet, anyone who has ever held their camera up to the blazing sky knows that a brilliant firework show can rarely be captured to any satisfying degree. Perhaps this is what makes a nineteenth-century series of catalogue advertisements for Japanese fireworks so mesmerizing: denied the expectations of photorealism, these images are free to evoke a unique sense of visual wonder.”
John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is one of my favorite things. Here’s why.
If Halloween was a cake it would be a cake without lashings of chocolate ganache or hidden centres of jelly sweets, or tall strata of sponge in the rainbow colour of unicorns. It Halloween was an item of clothing, it would be something simple, cut sparingly from some all-natural textile. If Halloween was a song, it would have been laid down in the fewest takes possible, with no auto-tune, no vocoder, and no melisma.
The idea of a ‘classy’ slasher film is absurd, as ‘slasher films’ are fundamentally exploitative thrill rides and no better than they should be, but Halloween is, ahem, a cut above the rest.
As I’ve aged, my tolerance for horror cinema has shifted. I could watch any amount of on-screen violence as a Clearasil-dabbed teenager. For the most part, I swerve spectacles of excessive dismemberment now, and a feature of the horror films I’ve come to canonize is they’re largely bloodless affairs.
My other intolerance is for zombies. I’m not talking about actual zombies (though I’ll admit some fatigue with them too). I’m talking about the legions of modern horror films that look and behave like horror films, but are actually hollowed-out meat-puppets, vapid storytelling experiences strung together from carbon copies of other, better examples of the genre. These films are only horror films because the music and the lighting and the violence and the slick marketing are telling us they are. I am fiercely impatient with horror films in which characters walk around in the dark for prolonged periods of time, searching out some jump-scare, some sudden, glitchy walking thing or zooming pale face. These automated suspense-dispensers are to horror what aspartine is to sugar, as if ‘turning off the lights’ is some surefire way of putting the umami into a horror film’s secret sauce.
Of course, Halloween has its fair share of dumb characters walking around in the dark, and I guess we have the extraordinary success of Carpenter’s movie to thank for all the ‘dumb characters walking about in the dark’ that followed it, but Halloween‘s especial powers to frighten derive from its sensitivity, not for shadows, but for daylight. It’s here, in the sunshine, that Halloween makes its move from exploitation flick to the stranger stuff of myth, from cheap-trick to the truly more spookier realm of archetype.
Halloween’s day time scenes look pristine, Haddonfield’s pavements, paths, and big white wooden houses kicking out all this soft matte light, as if the film stock itself has been cut with some fine silvered powder. At other times, the light is honeyed, catching in the hair of Halloween‘s young and beautiful cast, and showing up all those Instagram filters for the synthetic pretenders they are.
If someone were to ask me ‘how I’m doing?’, as my mood pertains to the events of 2020 – and especially the prospect of heading into winter and the shrinking effect of a likely second UK lock-down, I’d likely say I was doing fine. I’d likely say I was prepared for the narrowing, for the darker days to come, and yet, in readiness to write this blogpost, I re-watched Halloween, and something about its onscreen capture of light made me ache. My reaction was due in part to that weird vicarious nostalgia for a time I never lived though and a place I never knew, what you might call the Super 8mm phenomenon, but mostly it was a strong visceral reaction to those moments in Halloween where the film grain holds the setting sun.
But hey, all this poeticism is well and good, but you don’t watch Halloween for the sun-flares. You watch it to be afraid, and while the film’s third act is where you’ll find all the screaming, running, stabbing and falling, this is not for me where the fear lives.
The early sunlit scenes of Halloween are as menacing as anything in horror cinema. These are long, slow shots in which nothing much happens; leaves scud across pavements, a girl in white woollen tights leaves her home, a girl in white woollen tights walks to school; the road is wide, the lawns green, but the overall effect is as if some invisible ether is slowly filling the frame. It certainly looks sunny here and everything looks fine. Everything looks safe. Everything looks normal, but we can’t feel fine, we can’t feel safe, and we know, despite the evidence of our eyes to the contrary, that nothing about this place is normal. There is malice in all this pristine clarity, and this is one of the less trumpeted achievements of Halloween, less trumpeted because it’s none of the ‘scary stuff’ that comes later. These early ‘unremarkable’ scenes produce exquisite feelings of the uncanny – that rarest, most delicate fear. This is the emptied sunlit horror we find in the paintings of De Chirico, it is Halloween‘s mystery and melancholy of the street.
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’, Giorgio De Chirico, 1914
Halloween isn’t the first horror film to understand the special powers of daylight for producing the conditions for a really good scare. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) establishes the template John Carpenter goes on to deploy for Halloween‘s finest moments of unease – daylight and distance.
While The Innocents takes place in a classical haunted house, with Deborah Kerr’s increasingly harried governess gliding about its rooms at night by candelight, it is the pastoral sunlit scene down by the lake packing the most powerful punch. When the spectre of the previous governess manifests suddenly among the tall reeds, there is only sunlight and stillness, and how it chills.
The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, 1961
Halloween plays this same demure trick three times to increasingly pleasurable effect. Distracted during class, Halloween‘s final girl, Laurie Strode, looks out of her classroom window to see a figure in a white mask watching her from the other side of the road. That we can hear the teacher talking away in the background about the ‘personification of fate’ lays in some of the film’s more metaphysical ambitions. She doesn’t know who this figure might be or what he wants with her. Later, walking home with her friend, Laurie sees the same figure standing at the end of a long run of neat hedging. Once at home, Laurie is in her room upstairs, at which point she sees the figure again, who is this time standing silently among the bright flapping sheets of her washing. No thunder claps, no jump scares, no cheap-tricks, and no ‘lights off’ – just the dreadful pricking of these three small slivers of wrongness.
A few years ago, I was riding in the back of someone’s car, driving past homes in some ordinary place of terraced houses and paved front gardens. It was morning, or it was afternoon, some mundane greyish day. I happened to look out of the window and saw a bare-footed woman walking away from the road up through the narrow gap between two houses. The bare-footed woman had no head. It was daylight. I saw her clearly, if fleetingly – a woman in a long dress, her arms hanging loosely at her side – a woman with no head. I sat bolt upright in my seat, my head whipping around to continue looking, to be certain of what I saw, but more houses slid past and the moment was over. I’m pretty sure the woman did have a head. I think something about the play of light between the two houses and the angle of the woman’s body in relation to my own combined to produce this disturbing effect. Anyway, this is what I tell myself, but just for a moment, I had that appalling jigsaw-feeling, that a piece of the world had been jammed into the fabric of reality the wrong way up – but made somehow to fit.