You can thank Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 film, Freaks, for what follows, which is certainly one of the most vivid circus-centric narratives I know. The important thing about Browning’s unfairly maligned movie is where the director puts our sympathies – we are never in any doubt – and likewise the age-old question it asks as to the difference between men and ‘monsters’. I’m not going to say much more about the short story that follows, except to say it was written for The Kick-About No.53, and inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of a clown performing with his black pig, and also this: The Greatest Showman it is not.
Sometimes, it has felt as if my brain is too old or too stupid or simply too preoccupied with other more important things to even think about undertaking another creative brief ‘for the sake of it’. If I’m thinking this, the guy who sets the Kick-About prompts each fortnight, I’m pretty sure some of the regular kick-abouters have thought it too. Lives get busy. Lives get glum. Interest and energy wanes. The mood passes. Art is fart.
And yet, all that being true, now I’ve gathered here together a year’s worth of new work in a single place, I am reminded of the intrinsic value of ‘making stuff’ and of the power of community. There is little doubt, were it not for the examples set by all the other artists in The Kick-About, I wouldn’t have followed through on these various creative enquiries of my own. It’s quite unlikely I would have started them, and I certainly wouldn’t have finished them, finding a bunch of reasonable excuses to get on with more pressing stuff, or stuff I didn’t need to think about quite as much, or the stuff of watching television and eating bars of cheap chocolate on the sofa. But as it happens, I’ve inflated latex gloves with water to produce wobbling horrors, made moonscapes out of bags of flour, photographed tin-toy chickens obsessively, made short films, written a story about a woman with nasturtium seed for a head, encased a bunch of stuff in ice, and the list goes on – and largely because I wasn’t alone in my endeavours. Somewhere in New York, Kerfe was suspending paper fish inside a litter bin, and somewhere out in Brisbane, James was populating a primordial forest with bare chested brutes; meanwhile, Charly was crocheting a hat of fantastical proportions, Tom was configuring Saul Bass-inspired spirals out of code in Yokohama, and Gary was fashioning a Christmas tree out of hand-foraged willow and meticulous strips of calligraphic paper!
What I particularly enjoy, it seems, is the license to shape-shift in terms of creative work; the Kick-About encourages me to diversify, to jump about a bit. That said, there are obvious preoccupations – a love of in-camera transformations, what we might call ‘analogue magic’, and a preoccupation with the darker side of the human imagination. I blame the Pan Book of Horror and all those brave, strange, mean films of the 1970s.
‘Jumping about a bit’ can be confusing, so I decided to get my ‘art-house’ in order a bit by re-organising my personal website. It might not make a scrap of sense thematically, but at least it’s nice and tidy, right?
Thanks again to all the Kick-Abouters: we’ve been living through some strange rootless times, and your company and creativity has done much to keep my feet on the ground and my imagination a good deal higher up! Onwards…
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.
A second set of photographs produced in response to the photographic collages of John Stezaker, the prompt for our most recent Kick-About together. In some of these images, the titular head-piece has been given eyes, fashioned from two pickled onion-sized balls of tights-stuffed-with-fluff, which I decided against using again in other compositions. The eyes, such as they were, had the effect of undoing some of the deconstruction of the face, pushing the head towards something hokier. As it is, I couldn’t help thinking about this scene from Friday The 13th Part 2 (viewer discretion advised), my husband reacting similarly each time he turned a corner to find my disembodied muse looking back at him from the corner of the bathroom floor.
Our last Andy Goldsworthy-themed Kick-About together inspired some winter wonderlands (and some much less wintry offerings too, courtesy of Brisbane-based artist, James Randall). For this, our last creative runaround of 2021, we’re keeping things seasonal, with an illustration by Arthur Rackham for a festive classic. Enjoy this showcase of new works made in a short time, and wherever you are, and whoever you are, I wish you and yours all the very best. “Merry Christmas, one and all.”
“I jumped into this sweet text with no clear ideas, so dug out my favourite Pelican fountain pen and began a repetitive process of re-writing the narrative onto lightweight card cut to 140cm lengths. On completion, to counter the banality of what I’d done I re-wrote it, word-for-word, in free-form graffitti style; less mind-numbing, yet still clueless as to the intention. Days later, in woodland, I happened upon a magnificent, towering, perfectly-formed evergreen. With willow twigs in-hand, and the echo of Goldsworthy, I then attempted this balancing act. It may not be towering at 150cm, unless perhaps you’re that mouse not stirring on Christmas Eve. May all Kick-Abouters enjoy a healthy and happy holiday.”
“It’s the season of giving gifts, but these days it’s more like the season of GIFs for me. I’ve been making a lot of quick fire animations in my spare time, and producing some looping Christmas tree things seemed quite natural. I think this one is suitably high-tech but festively cheesy at the same time.”
“I have taken some artistic license with this Kick-About, and you must imagine that it is early on Christmas Eve when the light is just starting to change before darkness falls. The weather is cold and there has been snow a few days earlier, which is now slushy . This young boy’s mother has said, ‘Hey Jack. Can you just run up to the woods and bring us back a little tree to decorate tonight? Your father’s so busy at the farm he’ll be exhausted by the time he get’s home and your brothers and sisters are so excited and can’t wait to start decorating it. I’ll never get them bathed and into bed asleep before Santa comes tonight!’Christmas Eve is such a magical time and there is so much to do that it always flies by before you know it.
“And wishing all the Kick-About gang a relaxed, leisurely Christmas and a healthy new Year – artwork courtesy of Toby, my youngest grandson, who proudly carried this picture out from school this week.”
“The shadows in Arthur Rackham’s drawing are rather ominous, but I find there’s a spookiness lurking in so many of his images. His work is, on the surface, often enchanting and whimsical, but there’s a darkness and strangeness to them hiding just out of frame.
I’m submitting a painting that plays with similar themes for this Kick-About; shadows and light, mysterious things unseen, and a prickle of unease. I don’t know what’s going on behind the topiary here, perhaps somebody burning rubbish on a bonfire, or a streetlamp, or maybe something else…”
“Not much from me today, as I did these quick sketches on the journey to Stansted airport on my way back to Ireland! I couldn’t get over the eerie nature of Rackham’s scratchy shadows! I found his illustration horrifying – in the best way! For me, Rackham’s art always veers towards that polarising view of what is ‘charming’, where it is uncanny and not quite right. There’s something about the blackness of the line work, particularly with the scratchy shadows, and the way the sickly stained walls progressively get more bruised towards the top; making me think old Saint Nick isn’t as jolly as it’s told, and could be hiding in those shadows, ready to unhinge his bearded jaw and gobble up those kids as they run right up to him… ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake…'”
“I grew up in a very tall, very dark, very cold Victorian house, and although Arthur Rackham‘s drawing was done a quarter century earlier, the image instantly brought all my childhood fears back to me. There were shadows everywhere and permanently icy draughts that stroked the back of your neck, and then savagely slammed any door you were unwise enough not to shut securely behind you. It was great in daylight: high-ceilinged rooms and long corridors, changing floor levels, and plenty of hiding places. But when the night drew in…”
“I was thinking of the brilliant film, Nosferatu, with the shadow of the vampire climbing the stairs then put that into the traditional snack left out for Santa! Enjoy Christmas everybody, however you choose to spend the time. Have fun and keep cosy.”
“On Christmas Eve in our house, there was always a tradition of telling ghost stories just before bed, often with a flickering candle for a bit of Dickensian ambience. Sometimes the stories were read from a book, but often they were created by the family itself, each of us taking it in turns to make up a new bit of the story, before letting the next person continue it, cliff-hanger by cliff-hanger. Mostly, these descended into fits of giggles, as my brother and I failed to resist the temptation to slip rude words into our respective sections, and by ‘rude’, I mean words like ‘bum’, and ‘knickers’. *Snicker*.
Christmas Eve has always had this touch of spook about it, and I think my sensitivity for this peculiar atmosphere predates any knowledge of Scrooge and his ghosts. It was just a night with an imminence like no other. Rackham’s illustration of these three boys heading up to bed captures this feeling very precisely; it’s there in the contrast between their cherubic faces and what is not so angelic about the rendering of their shadows on the wall behind them. I thought this a perfect opportunity to revisit that childhood tradition of a Christmas ghost story.”
“Thanks Gary Thorne for your good advice to take a sub-tropical approach. And so I landed on the hot nights when the heat spins about you as you search for the numbness of sleep. I could have used a darker palette for night. I had the Christmas excuse to use the gold paint that I was too conservative to use previously – wish I could share the metallic on screen. So as the year darts to a close thanks to all of you wonderful KAers and your inspirational works. They amaze me every week and make me want to try harder to capture some of your spark. May you all have a wonderful Christmas and a healthy happy 2022!”
Courtesy of Kick-Abouter (and artful Christmas Tree wrangler) Gary Thorne, we have a new prompt to carry you through those moments when, despite all the food and other festivities, you’re twiddling your thumbs and wish there was a classic example of mid-Century kinetic art to inspire you…
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…