28/01/10

The old Riverside Screen at Eden Court, even before entropy finally had its say and gravity started sucking huge lumps of asbestos and concrete down on the patrons, could be a difficult place to watch films. The programme was OK, if not a patch on the current one in the new building, but the seats were splintery, the projector was rickety and the screen was smaller than most of us had on our TVs at home. Nonetheless I had happy times there.

I also had miserable times of course: Sylvia was one, Gus van Sant’s almost heroically exasperating Gerry was another, and The Blair Witch Project was a definite low point.

The six of us in the cinema looked round at each other when the lights came up after Blair Witch. It wasn’t that it was a bad film exactly, but shouldn’t it have been scary? Six months earlier hysterical journalists had been running screaming from performances in Cannes saying it was the most frightening film ever made.

What we’d seen was a bunch of annoying kids in a wood. The dramatic high spot was when they lost the map. We hadn’t been terrified. We hadn’t even been worried.

I think the problem with horror is that it is more susceptible to hype than other genres. The ends of Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon are moving even if you can recite the scenes word for word. Scary stuff is only scary if you’re not expecting it or if the build-up is done incredibly well.

The three most frightening films I can think of are John Carpenter’s Halloween, Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls. Each of them relies on a careful layering of menace. It’s threat rather than action that makes them so unsettling.

I didn’t get any of that with The Blair Witch Project, but maybe if it had come at me unheralded I’d have been caught up in it. It’s hard to say. I saw it at the tail end of its run and there had already been a backlash to the backlash against the movie’s original success. There was a similar movie out last year called Paranormal Activity which one reviewer breathlessly described as being absolutely terrifying. But you never actually see anything, he said before going on to divulge that the most frightening bit of the movie was “the bit where the door closed”. They even showed the bit with the door closing on the TV trailers and, you know what? It just looked like a door closing. Shorn of context it was pretty mundane.

I can see doors closing at home, in colour and in 3D. So I never went to see Paranormal Activity.

This is all quite a long-winded way of saying that I finally got round to seeing the BBC’s classic 1968 M.R. James ghost story adaptation Whistle And I’ll Come To You this afternoon. I thought it was great and I was awfully glad to have seen it, but as highly in esteem as I hold it I wasn’t scared by it at all and that made me a bit sad.

It’s a tightly controlled work with a blinding central performance by Michael Hordern as a solitary and sceptical professor caught up in an apparently supernatural sequence of events as he holidays alone. The black and white photography and eerie soundscape look and sound innovative now. They must have been amazing in 1968. The central character’s dislocation could not be more clearly portrayed, and the dread of his being alone but with something unknown is tangible. But when the very few actual scary moments happened I found that each of them was familiar from a documentary I’d seen about horror on TV. The effect wasn’t there for me.

I wonder if I’ll feel differently when I see it again.

***

 

Thirst, the vampire film from ace Korean director Park Chan-wook, is a different kettle of worms or, perhaps, can of fish. As you might expect from the guy behind the Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and not really a trilogy at all) it is physically explicit and goes for the showing you stuff option rather than the subtle implication one.

That’s not a fault though. It’s an enjoyable and often surprising two hours, but flipping heck it’s hard to find new stuff to do with vampires isn’t it?

Park gives it a good go anyway. The central character is a Roman Catholic priest and the narrative (co-written by Park) goes to some lengths to examine how a priest could become a vampire, why he might surrender to the process rather than destroy himself, and what form of justification he might choose to exercise.

It’s a constantly engrossing film, striking to look at and easy to love.

Vampire films and literature are to me a little bit like generic high fantasy in that one of the first people to try it got it so absolutely right that pretty much all of the practitioners who arrived later to the party needn’t have bothered coming at all.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote Lord Of The Rings. Nobody else needs to do it again. It’s been done. In fact it’s a bit annoying when other people try. Stephen Donaldson, David Eddings and Robert Jordan, I am looking at you.

Similarly with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) you feel that the whole of vampire fiction got nailed perfectly pretty early on with, if not perhaps the first vampire novel, certainly one of the first. It’s quite a starchy book I think, written in the epistolary manner. It’s just letters from characters to other characters, journal entries and the like. But what a great story, and you don’t need to be a professor of semiotics to have a bit of a clue what’s going on. An exotic stranger comes over here, penetrates our women and makes them swoon, exchanges bodily fluids with them and takes them from us permanently. It’s all about sex. Or perhaps the fear of sex.

There’s so much in the book that pretty well everything that followed seems redundant. There are a few bold exceptions like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in which the vampires are normal (by weight of numbers) and the sole surviving human is the monster who is trying to destroy them. I’m also fond of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 movie Near Dark which gets closer to pointing out the drawbacks to living forever than most vampire movies, and gets a lot of use out of the remorseless bleaching Texas sun. Mostly though vampire fiction is window dressing and soppy romance.

Anne Rice’s vampire oeuvre gets written up approvingly but I read a couple and thought they were pretty drab. Just typing “sexy vampire, sexy vampire, sexy vampire” over and over again doesn’t do much to further cause of literature or even entertain someone like me, who is frankly pathetically easy to entertain.

Once you get past the obvious sexual charisma, what is there that’s actually interesting about vampires?

Universal Studios, in their adorable series of monster movies, gave up on the Mummy quite quickly. As has previously been noted, it’s not much of a monster if you can defeat it by walking briskly away from it. However they persisted with vampirism.

Dracula was an almost constant feature in their films, but it was the other two horror mainstays I was always more interested in. Frankenstein’s monster with all it had to tell us about scientific responsibility and the fear of change; and poor old Larry Talbot, the Wolfman with his inescapable monthly atavism reflecting our inner animal and showing our civilised sophistication to be the shockingly thin veneer it is.

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