There I was, snuggled in bed, too tired to read, but reading anyway, beginning another collection of weird tales from the collections of the British library. Entitled Weird Woods – Tales From The Haunted Forests Of Britain, I was just a few words into John Miller’s introduction when I sat up in bed, suddenly wide awake. Miller begins his preface to the anthology of woods-based narratives thus:
“I grew up three miles from a haunted wood: Oxney Bottom, a name which still gives me shivers. You’ll find it on the road from Deal to Dover on the Kent coast, though it’s not a place you’re likely to stop… but if you did somehow end up in Oxney Bottom, you could tell straight away that there’s something uncanny about it. The road curves as it dips and takes you down into a hollow. Whatever the weather, it’s suddenly darker and colder there… the trees are thick enough to imagine that looking at them five hundred years ago would be the same as looking at them today. There’s no sign of the eighteenth-century house, or the ruined chapel, or the well where a young girl fell to her death in the 1960s. There’s a grey lady – the story runs – who will come out of the woods at night, limping into the oncoming traffic and then melting into the air…”
I turned to my husband, read Miller’s words out loud, and a few seconds later, a plan was formed. We would find the haunted woods of Oxney Bottom and make this jaunt into the arboreal uncanny our last excursion of this strange lost year.
We set out on the afternoon of December 30th, wrapped in scarves against the cold, but not dressed at all suitably for the horse-churned paths of treacherous mud. Admittedly, we may have trespassed a bit, daring one another to walk over a fallen section of fence so we might go deeper into the woods, where the colonies of aspleniums were at their most lavish. We encountered a structure of bent trees, fashioned by nature in homage perhaps to the old chapel mentioned in Miller’s preface. It made for a pleasingly eerie set-piece in the noiseless woods. Ivy was rampant, the trunks of trees rippling with its arteries, and the woodland floor upholstered with thousands of dark green leaves, which, like fish scales, reflected what little light remained.
The quality of silence reminded me strongly of my wanderings in Abney Park – not so much the absence of sound, but an abeyance, these woods waiting for us to leave so it might go back to whatever secret rites our presence had interrupted. Disappointingly, we didn’t catch sight of Oxney Bottom’s grey lady, or even the damp spectral form of the unfortunate girl who fell down the well all those years ago, and we didn’t dare go deep enough to find the walls of the ruined chapel itself. Instead, we enjoyed the curious sensation of time-travel, being the only things moving through an otherwise ancient woodland, a site which long since pre-existed us and would likewise go on without us too.
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 sceneslook 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.
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. InFrogs (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 inDay 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.
With the exception of some digitally post-produced blurring at the periphery of these photographs, and a hint of sepia, you’re looking at ‘what happened’ late one night in the dark in rural France.
Equipped with my old 35mm camera, some 1600 black and white film, and a cheap battery-operated camping light, I produced a series of long-exposure photographs with myself as the subject. At risk of demystifying the resulting images still further, you have to imagine me running from one position to the next in the dark, switching on the camping light between my bare feet, and posing – or moving through different poses – for short intervals of seconds.
I had to wait until my return to England to process the images, and when I saw the resulting images, I was delighted and spooked in equal measure. What the camera had seen that night out in the dark was not what had been put in front of it. I promise, hand-on-heart, I wasn’t wearing a black Cleopatra-style wig (in truth I wasn’t wearing very much of anything at all!), and so I can’t explain everything caught on camera. I’ve taken lots and lots of photographs in ominous settings in the hope of capturing something otherworldly on film; these snaps, taken with old technology, taken hurriedly (and with so inelegant and earthly a subject!), are proof that cameras are haunted.
One of my favourite moments in Richard Donner’s 1976 horror film, The Omen, is when Jennings, the photographer reveals his photographs are prophecising the deaths of their human subjects – including, chillingly, his own. This scene never fails to raise the hairs on my neck, I think because it has the ring of truth about it. Very few of us would happily scour the eyes of a loved one from their photographic image, because we already intuit some causal link between the image and its subject.
Jennings notices the blemish on his photograph of the priest, who will later be impaled by a church spire, The Omen, 1976.
An impromptu self-portrait reveals Jennings’ own days are numbered, a mark having appeared in the photographic image, severing his head from his body, The Omen, 1976.
I’m sure there’s a story in my own family of haunted photographs, though I might have remembered it wrong, or invented it entirely. I do recall my grandma talking about some ill-fated relative-or-other whose bride died on her wedding night. I remember two details about this story, the first being how the woman was killed, her wedding dress covering the tail-light of her new husband’s motorbike as they rode away together into the sunset, another vehicle ploughing into them and killing her. The second detail is the one about the wedding photographs developed after the bride’s untimely demise, and how in each image taken on her wedding day, the bride’s face is seen to be in someway obscured by a flaw or shadow in the image… and up go the hairs on my neck again.
Venturing out in the pitch-darkness of the rural countryside with a camera, a camping light and the goal of conjuring ghosts can seem like a particularly silly thing to do – especially when you’ve watched as many horror films as I have, but it’s mostly hope I experience in these moments, not fear. When I took these particular photographs, the activities themselves were comedic, ill-suited surely to producing any eldritch results. I was largely nude and waving my arms in the air like an enthusiastic participant in a music and movement class with no way of knowing what the old 35mm camera was seeing, or how the effects of the long exposures would manifest. Upon seeing the developed images, I experienced that same pleasurable horripilation already familiar to me from watching The Omen or listening to my grandmother’s story about the tragic bride. I had the uncanny realisation I hadn’t been alone out there in the dark at all, that my ordinary camera possessed an extraordinary acuity of vision for other realms and their beings. I still feel that way when I look at these images now – a sense of vindication almost. You might even call it hope.
But rather like a seance on a dark and stormy night, you can’t always know who is going to ‘come through’ from the other side – and so it was with these photographs. Just to reiterate, no, I wasn’t wearing wigs or any semblance of costume when these images were taken, so I can’t readily explain what Cher was doing in my ensemble of fae folk, holding her microphone very proudly aloft! (Stealing the show obviously).
Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948, egg tempera on gessoed panel
Christina’s Word by Andrew Wyeth is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
In chapter two of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll describes a maddening moment wherein Alice is thwarted by a path and stalked by a house:
“I should see the garden far better,’ said Alice to herself, `if I could get to the top of that hill: and here’s a path that leads straight to it — at least, no, it doesn’t do that — ‘ (after going a few yards along the path, and turning several sharp corners), `but I suppose it will at last. But how curiously it twists! It’s more like a corkscrew than a path! Well, THIS turn goes to the hill, I suppose — no, it doesn’t! This goes straight back to the house! Well then, I’ll try it the other way.’
And so she did: wandering up and down, and trying turn after turn, but always coming back to the house, do what she would. Indeed, once, when she turned a corner rather more quickly than usual, she ran against it before she could stop herself.
`It’s no use talking about it,” Alice said, looking up at the house and pretending it was arguing with her. `I’m NOT going in again yet. I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again — back into the old room — and there’d be an end of all my adventures!’
So, resolutely turning back upon the house, she set out once more down the path, determined to keep straight on till she got to the hill. For a few minutes all went on well, and she was just saying, `I really SHALL do it this time — ‘ when the path gave a sudden twist and shook itself (as she described it afterwards), and the next moment she found herself actually walking in at the door.”
When I look at Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, I’m reminded of Alice’s efforts to outwit her house, this house that just won’t quit, this house that so badly wants this little girl back inside it, like a whale gobbling a minnow. When I look at Wyeth’s painting, I think this is the exact moment, a girl, exhausted, twisting back around to look across the field only to find the house is there again – an ordinary house admittedly, but not a homely one.
Alice’s determination to not re-enter the house is on account of fear that in so doing, her adventures in Wonderland will end prematurely. I wonder if Christina worries the same way? I look at the distance she has put between herself and the house. I wonder is it enough? Don’t we all worry about this a little bit, on those long Christmas trips home, as we stand before the houses we grew up in, preparing to surrender our grown-up selves and end, for a time at least, some of our more adult adventures? I never get the sense Christina is looking back at the house because she is looking forward to a slice of apple pie at its kitchen table. This isn’t an episode of Little House On The Prairie. Christina isn’t one of those running, tumbling girls. No, this strange painting is none of those things. If we could see Christina’s face – and I’m always happy we can not – I think we would find in it only horror, or rage, or impotence – or whatever expression these three things might combine to produce.
Like the Alice stories, which I never once found comforting or joyful or pleasant, Christina’s World compels me to remember my own déjà vu dreams comprised of loops and repetitions; me, hopelessly lost on the London Underground but always happening upon the same place over and over; or the running dream when I know I cannot rest, cannot stop, because if I do, even for a second, the thing that chases me will be standing at my shoulder. However firmly routed in Americana and thus separate from my own experience, I find Wyeth’s painting familiar in that way exclusive to the uncanny. What is repressed is returning here. Christina’s house, like all the houses of our childhoods, is haunted.
Ed Gein’s house, Plainfield, Winconsin, 1957
Andrew Wyeth painted Christina’s World in 1948. Nine years later, the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department searched Ed Gein’s Winconsin farm and found the decapitated body of a missing store owner hanging upside down in the outhouse. Among other unimaginably horrible discoveries, they also found masks made from the skin of female heads, bowls made from human skulls, a woman’s face in a paper bag, a lampshade fashioned from human skin, and nine vulvae in a shoebox.
Known as the Butcher of Plainfield and the Plainfield Ghoul, the sheer spectacle of Ed Gein’s depravity forever skewed the optics of remote rural farmhouses and their occupants. Where once all those wooden houses anchored like plucky steadfast ships in the vast fields and vaster skies of the American landscape might have denoted the virtues of self-sufficiency, hard-work and the heroism of the Frontier, now they seemed as likely to be harbouring the darkest of secrets, lived in by families twisted into deplorable dependencies unchecked by the proximity of neighbours.
After Gein, came Psycho (1960), with its iconic wooden house as stark against the skyline as Wyeth’s, and after Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), where another white house sits island-like in a sea of insect-ticking grass, and behind its door, an entire family of ghouls.
The old wooden house behind the motel, Psycho (1960)
The family home in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
I always think of these other houses when I look at Wyeth’s painting. I think of these bad places, and all the girls who went inside and died there. I cannot expunge Ed Gein from Wyeth’s ominous-looking outhouses. The filmic shapes they make against that low ceiling of sky make happier thoughts impossible, that and the oppressive silence of the painting, the sense of something held-fast. I love this painting, as I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I would no more have Christina’s World on my wall than I rush to viewTobe Hooper’sgruelling movie.
Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, helped me understand something about Wyeth’s technique. In a recent conversation, Phil told me a little more about tempera, how the fastidious construction of the artist’s marks locks up and locks out movement or noise, that, as a technique, it stifles a certain expressiveness. There is a paradox at the heart of Wyeth’s strange painting – immobilisation producing oscillation – an effect as arresting and exhausting as the near-imperceptible flicker of a failing strip of florescent light.
Another image sharing the frozen restiveness of Christina’s World is I. Russel Sorgi’s Suicide (1942). In Sorgi’s image, the inevitable and expected forces of gravity are stopped by the action of the camera shutter, just as the wind that should animate the surface of Wyeth’s sky and fields are paused. We have only the scant horizontal lines of Christina’s breeze-blown hair to attest to the physical reality of her world, but like the flaring of the falling woman’s dress in Sorgi’s photograph, they only serve to stopper-up the image even more completely.
What is equally powerful about Sorgi’s photograph is the way we know more about what is going to happen than the people in the coffee shop. While this image is shocking, it’s not shock we experience, but rather the attenuation of suspense.
Of course, Psycho’s Alfred Hitchcock knew a thing or two about suspense, about the origin of this contrary pleasure. For an audience to feel suspense, they must first have information. When I look at Christina’s World, I experience suspense because I know there is something here at least, an off-ness, a threat, a shadow, an ominosity awarded to the otherwise humdrum elements in the picture. It’s there too in what is not quite right about Christina’s body. This girl is not some relaxed participant in this tableau. It is there in the composition, those houses held-up like that against the flat sky and the way Christina seems so horribly alert to them. Always I’m reminded of titles of cheapskate seventies shockers like Don’t Look In The Basement (1972) and Don’t Go Into The House (1979). because this is what I’m thinking; don’t go into that house, Christina – and if you do, Christina, definitely don’t look in the basement.
Wyeth generates suspense in one other simple way, for while Christina has her back to us, Wyeth presents her posture in such an awkward way, we feel, at any moment, this girl must surely turn around if only to correct what is wrong about it. We know the Christina in the painting is based on a real Christina, and the image itself inspired by a real memory of the real Christina crawling across a real field. The real Christina is thought to have had Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, in which scoliosis is common and likewise the malformation of bone sockets. Does this account for the visceral discomfort I experience when I look at the girl in the painting, my eyes glueing again and again to her feeble emaciated arm, braced against the ground in a way that looks impossible to endure? The detail of her elbow, the angle of her wrist, the somehow reptilian curvature of her spine – all these little things are powerful engines of suspense because I feel them in my own body and know, if I was this girl, marooned out there without a hiding place, I’d be pivoting already, freeing-up, standing-up, extending my limbs in readiness to make good on my escape. Get up, Christina. For God’s sake, get up.The house, Christina. The house is coming.
Betty, Gerhard Richter, 1988, oil on canvas
And always when I think about Christina, I think about Betty, another girl in aspic. I don’t worry as much about Betty, though I do wonder what so arrests her attention in all that darkness. I couldn’t have Richter’s hyper-real 1988 painting hanging on my wall any more than Wyeth’s celebrated slice of American art, for there wouldn’t be a morning when I came downstairs when I wouldn’t be fully expecting to find Betty looking out at me instead, that some chain in the image had finally given out, its subject swinging round to look me in the eye.
Maybe Betty’s face is a face you could learn live with – even love? I suppose it depends on what she saw in the dark and what mark it left upon her. But Christina’s face – no, I never want to see that – and when I do think of it, turning my imagination to the task as I might finger an aching tooth or pimple, I see her face in a paper-bag.
The Kick-About #5 prompted me to exhume these images from the archive in advance of Throwback Friday, specifically Graeme Daly’s recollections of the basement in his father’s house, and particularly the suspicion with which he regarded the dolls who lived down there in the company of spiders.
In reference to the dolls that creeped him out as a child, Graeme articulated a particular paradox I recognised. Graeme wrote, “There has always been something about dolls that horrify me – in the best way.” I know that feeling too; an especial sensory sensation triggered by dolls and all the objects like them; the puppets, the mannequins, the waxworks – the uncanny objects.
I spent a good part of my masters degree investigating the uncanny, taking photographs and writing lengthily on its uses in art, film and literature. It all seems a very long time ago, but these images, originally taken on 1600 black and white film in the gloomy interiors of various antique shops, still reward me with a little prickle of unease – in the best way.
Street of Crocodiles is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Back when I had a pudding basin haircut and jumble sale clothes, I pestered my parents for a Purple People Eater.
The Purple People Eater was a toy in which the aim of the game was to rescue a clutch of small plastic people from underneath the titular monster, which was a rubbery blob with a valance of tentacles sitting over a battery-operated mechanism. In what essentially was a pimped-up version of the old wire loop game, you had to feed the little plastic people back out of the mouth of the Purple People Eater while avoiding whatever bit of the mechanism that would otherwise cause the rubbery blob to startle very suddenly into growling, flashing life.
I wanted a Purple People Eater more than anything and I was beyond thrilled when I got one – and then I played with it. I tried to enjoy myself. I wanted to enjoy myself, but the truth I dared not name was simple; my Purple People Eater scared the living shit out of me, and not because of the way it looked, for I was the sort of boy who happily spent his pocket money on giant rubber centipedes. What frightened me was the prospect of my Purple People Eater coming so shockingly to life, the horrid jolt of it, this jump-scare in-waiting. The Purple People Eater scared me, not because it was horribly alive, but because it was always about to be.
A child hopes and dreams their toys are alive. This same child fears it’s true.
This contradiction lives on in my fascination for the Brother’s Quay 1986 stop motion animation, Street of Crocodiles, an adaptation of a short story by Bruno Schulz peopled by broken dolls, forlorn clockwork toys, and mannequins.
Freud’s theory of the uncanny is used to explain the special queasiness we save for humanoid effigies, for the puppets, the dolls, the mannequins and the waxworks, and as explanations go, it feels right. The cultural unease we reserve for this category of objects is special because it is an unease we’ve known before. It is not surprise we experience when, as sensible, right-thinking grown-ups, we’re compelled to glance twice at the ventriloquist’s dummy, but familiarity. As children, we knew very well to regard our person-shaped playthings with a degree of ambivalence. We knew an act as simple as turning off our bedside light could reveal the Janus-faces of our poppets, our moppets and our beloved unblinking homunculi. When we experience the uncanny as adults, we are returned to that precautionary knowledge and we don’t like it much; few adults care to confront gladly the frailty of their hard-won rationalism.
The trope of the scary toy has been bludgeoned into harmless hokiness by all the many horror films that seek to press this ready-made button. I am immune to the likes of Chucky and to Annabelle. I watched the 2012 adaptation of The Women In Black in a mild state of annoyance, feeling cheated out of a more complex experience by the gratuitous shots of sinister toys. When I want my button pressed, I return to Street of Crocodiles, and not to the animation’s many sightless dolls or mannequins, but to the monkey toy with its skitter of cymbals that looks out at us from within its grubbied vivarium of glass and which comes so suddenly to life. In these moments, I’m back in my room in the house of my childhood kneeling opposite my Purple People Eater, wishing it into life, wishing it dead and gone, agonised by indecision and suspense.
Street of Crocodiles feels like a monument to childhood trauma – mine, yours, the directors – like we’re looking through the keyhole into a counselling session in which the filmmakers have been asked to play with toys with which to enact, exorcise or inflame some private psychic injury. I feel positively voyeuristic when watching the Quay’s animation, like I’m peering at their most private things, at the oblique treasures of two disturbed hoarders. To view Street of Crocodiles is to open a secretive door into a secretive cabinet laid out with secretive objects, all of which are substantively mundane, but in the status awarded them by dint of their fastidious presentation, I know them to be magical, dangerous, and of obsessive importance. I’m quite comfortable admitting I do not know why we are shown so often the strange meeting of two skeletal arms, which appear to create some kind of shock or tremor when they touch. What to make of the ice-cubes that unmelt, or the precise importance of the pocket watch filled so unpleasantly with a sphincter of raw meat? Often times, I feel as nonplussed and blinkless as the puppet character himself. There is a visual language here fraught with significance I haven’t been invited to share. This is not a criticism. It feels just as meaningful and true to experience things that cannot be understood. My gaze is frustrated. I look and I look, and like a visitor to a foreign country, I see many meaningful things the meaning of which I cannot know.
Acts of looking characterise Street of Crocodiles. Our own journey through these streets is pinned to the investigations of an unnamed stop-motion puppet, whose design is the answer to the never-asked question that wonders what would happen if the venerable gentlemen of horror, Peter Cushing, was spliced with some cautious long-legged insect. Reluctance, shame and curiosity all combine in the behaviours of this character, who is often shown hesitating on the threshold of some darker door or deeper ingress. Dressed as he is in a tail-coat, it’s like watching a mini-me Dorian Gray creeping his way into the opium dens and fleshpots of some Stygian London backstreet.
When I lived in Dalston, I was enchanted by Abney Park Cemetery that was just up the road in Stoke Newington. One of the ‘magnificent seven’ of London’s great cemeteries, Abney Park is lent further romance on account of it having once been abandoned to nature. I walked there one morning to take a series of moody black and white photographs, drawn to capturing on 1600 film the fright-wigs of desiccated ivy sported by some headstones, and drawn too to having my button pressed by all those watchful marble angels who may, or may not, have been moving out of the corner of my eye. It was an ordinary week day, the sun shining, the liveliness of Stoke Newington Highstreet a short distance away, but in this truly remarkable place, the atmosphere won out, and I moved through a timeless sequestered world of green gothic shadow. I didn’t know it then, but the cemetery was a popular cruising spot, and as I departed from the cemetery’s more formal pathways in search of moodier vignettes, I became aware of the keen, watchful presence of other men waiting silently on the edges of the cemetery’s more secluded spaces.
I recall this episode because, in their tingling mix of curiosity and caution, the thirsty men of this once-forgotten cemetery and the Street of Crocodiles’ Wildean protagonist feel one and the same. In the animation, the character’s ingress into the street of crocodiles begins with him loosening a knot in a near invisible line of thread. Then, in ways we never truly understand, this thread activates unseen apparatus that clear the way for the puppet to enter into a scenario he is both fascinated by and nervous of. He wants to go further, but he worries. He wants to explore, but at what risk?
When I think about those bold-bashful men in the ruined London cemetery, I also see them reaching out to pluck with their fingers at some otherwise unseen connection, as mysterious to some and shadowy as the mechanisms at work in the street of crocodiles.
Schulz’s street of crocodiles shares with Abney Park its double-coding. It is both what it is and also what it isn’t. Schulz lavishes description on the interior of a tailoring shop and its tailor, and we soon learn that this establishment and staff offer services of a very different stripe, though inside leg measurements are common to both. Schulz elides the precise nature of these backroom activities, but we can guess. The Brothers Quay are a little more forthcoming, as the same sequence in the tailor shop moves from dancing pins and coloured scarves to unsettling tableaux of a sexual nature. We watch as the shop’s retinue of fussing, broken dolls approximate an erect penis with orbs of meat and pins. An abandoned glove and sprout of pubic hair stands in for a vagina. We must assume these carnal alter-pieces are emblems for every shade of debauchery, but far from seeming rude, erotic, or illicit, I always find them poignant. Watching the dolls interact with these naughty artefacts, with their little hands and hollow heads, is like hearing children using terrible swear words the transgressiveness of which they don’t really understand, or like watching children shave with daddy’s razor or wearing mummy’s pearls. It makes for a peculiarly sad and queasy spectacle.
Desquamation, deriving from the latin word desquamare, meaning ‘to scrape the scales off a fish’, is the word describing the shedding of our skin. None of us like to think too long or too hard about what comprises the dust collecting on the surfaces of our homes, but to watch Street of Crocodiles is to fairly relish in the stuff. In what might be called ‘the poetics of desquamation’, Street of Crocodiles makes a fetish out of dander. Every scene is flocked with particles of one sort or another, glass frosted with non-specific granules, screws pushing their way out like mushrooms through thick coverings of mulch… But what is Street Of Crocodiles if not a world of cast-offs? Toys, light-bulbs, screws, the worming of snapped rubber bands, all things once useful, once vital, now fallen like flakes from the usage that previously gave them purpose.
Street of Crocodiles always gets me thinking about the coils of my own hair collecting unnoticed in corners of my house, an errant toe-nail clipping, or light powdering of my former-skin, these bits of me made abject and disturbing only on account of their new separateness. Watching Street of Crocodiles encourages me to feel sorry for my detritus. It hardly seems fair or reasonable to evince so much distaste for what are harmless fragments of myself.
Ultimately it’s this that affects me most when watching Street of Crocodiles: not, in fact, the unheimlich spectacle of that amber-eyed monkey with its spasm of cymbals; not the cruisy explorations of the ever-watchful puppet who seeks out the tailor shop with all its pornographic secrets, not even the film’s extraordinary elevation of grime. No, it’s the powerful melancholy of the piece. I’m less disturbed by scenes of sightless dollies fashioning testicles from steak and more so by the other little doll in the animation who only has a light bulb for a friend. It’s this same friendless little doll that seeks to gain the attention of the animation’s main character with little flashes of a hand-held mirror, and who sits in the dust with only a scurry of screws for company. At one point we see a creature comprised seemingly of light bulbs, as caged behind glass as the amber-eyed monkey, who seems trapped in some bleak Sisyphean task. The tailoring dolls, at first so fastidious and busy, wind down suddenly, their cogs showing, their limbs windmilling uselessly, slowly, slowing.
At the end of the animation, the puppet protagonist escapes the street of crocodiles, leaving all these lonely, broken and abandoned things behind, and it always feels like someone sneaking away from the aftermath of febrile house party, where every room is now filled with broken ornaments, fly-blown food, and the sediment of behaviours unsuited to daylight.
Back in the Summer of 2011, in the complete darkness of the French countryside, I began my first foray into long exposure photography with an ancient praktica camera, a few torches, an old mosquito net, and an old friend of mine who was willing to stand around in the dark (and, as in the image above, in a swimming pool!).
When I was little, we had an encyclopedia of unexplained phenomena on the bookshelf. I don’t know why we had the book. It was the late seventies. It was a big heavy job with a weird pink chameleon on the cover and it was chockful of utterly arresting images of UFOs, ghosts, the charred limbs left behind by luckless victims of spontaneous combustion – and quite a few photographs of naked male and female witches doing arcane stuff while sporting luxurious late seventies pubic hair. I was always looking at this book, in part because it was full of naked witches, but also because I loved all those grainy, poorly-focused photographs of spectral faces looking out of upstairs windows or of seances in which snail-trails of ectoplasm were apparently manifesting out of thin air.
Much to my continuing disappointment, I’ve never seen a ghost, but there’s something inherently spooky about cameras, because they often capture things within the frame that otherwise escape our attention. The image below is a case in point.
I’m almost loathed to tell you how prosaic the original set-up was, but suffice to say it involved the before-mentioned mosquito net, an old parasol, and about thirty seconds of me waving a torch around in a completely dark room while the camera looked on. Hand-on-heart, my mate wasn’t wearing a skull mask under his ad-hoc insect-repelling shroud when this photo was taken, and yet something uncanny crept into this image, some fortuitous alignment of light and shadow conspiring to dial up the horror. Needless to say, I was thrilled.