Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Excerpt: 'The Moment of Shock: 'Psycho' and 'Peeping Tom''

A frame from the (in)famous shower sequence in Hitchcock's Psycho.
The following excerpt comes from my recently completed manuscript: Lost in the Dark: A World History of Horror Film. 

1960 was a pivotal year for film horror. No fewer than four groundbreaking movies — Britain’s Peeping Tom, America’s Psycho, Japan’s Jigoku, and Italy’s Black Sunday — were released, each of them seismically disturbing to censors and audiences alike, and all deeply frightening in a completely new way. (The last two films mentioned inaugurated their own national horror cycles, to be discussed later.)

European and Asian film industries gained massive amounts of ground in the 1950s. As nations rebuilt themselves after World War II, they found America ready and willing to absorb their cultural products. Soon lumped in with more serious foreign “arthouse films,” genre pictures from around the world played in America — and made money. Then, when Britain’s Hammer Studios succeeded by reviving the classic movie monsters, it emboldened other European, Asian, and American film studios to leap hard into the genre.

There were few harbingers, especially in England and Europe, of the creative boom to come. There weren’t many non-sci-fi-oriented horror films being made on the Continent. Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound film, Vampyr (1932), was a notable exception, a dreamy, avant-garde affair that has much more to do with Cocteau than Caligari.

There were films based on ghost stories and eerie fables, or hoary, gory “blood and thunder” melodramas such as the popular series made by British actor/theatrical impresario Tod Slaughter (Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street) between 1935 and 1948. Horror anthology films were as old as Richard Oswald’s Uncanny Tales of 1919, but the Ealing Studios’ 1945 production of Dead of Night brought that subgenre back with a roar. Other films, such as Mizoguchi’s 1953 Ugetsu, contain moments of genuine horror but are not horror films as such.

Japan’s biggest, and tallest, contribution to the horror-monster genre was Godzilla, who debuted in 1954. His creation was inspired by the financial success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms two years earlier. Godzilla, a giant prehistoric sea monster revived by nuclear testing, was angry, unpredictable, and violent, a colossally destructive embodiment of the atomic terrors endured by Japan during World War II. His immediate popularity triggered a domino-fall of sequels, an entire subgenre (tokusatsu, or live-action special-effects-laden fantasy, sci-fi, and horror films), and within that, further division into kaiju (giant monster) and kaijin (humanoid supervillain) movies.

 Studios such as Toho (also the home studio of Akira Kurosawa — Godzilla opened the same year as The Seven Samurai), Tsuburaya (home of superhero Ultraman), P Productions, and Toei created highly successful film and TV franchises based on kaiju and kaijin. By Godzilla’s fifth appearance, he had begun the slow transition from mindless force of destruction to rogue champion of those in distress, and eventually to the status of national symbol and mascot.

A new feeling was slowly developing across national cinemas, edgy and disturbing. Actor Charles Laughton’s single directorial effort, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, though classified as a thriller, is one of the scariest and most subversive movies ever made. It’s a dark, Expressionistic children’s nightmare, a cautionary tale with mythic overtones. Legendary film critic James Agee’s script, one of only four he wrote, is masterful. A serial-killer preacher stalks two children in a quest for stolen money. In the process, every social institution and position of trust is brought into question or turned inside out. Robert Mitchum plays one of his signature roles, the preacher who is also a serial killer, stalking two young children in his search for stolen loot. It combines a strange, silent-era dreaminess with a scathing portrayal of hypocritical evil.

Robert Mitchum as evil incarnate in The Night of the Hunter -- LOVE tattooed on one set of knuckles, HATE on the other.
 Georges-Henri Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, also made in 1955, was a game-changer. The story of a wife and mistress who combine forces to kill the abusive man who rules over them was adapted from a popular 1951 murder mystery by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose work would be adapted into other memorable films such as Vertigo and Eyes Without a Face. In a way, Diaboliques was a throwback to the “old dark house” mystery/horror films of the 1920s. However, it differs from everything that came before it in three key ways.

First, the plot. Diaboliques was among the first films to implore its audience (with a final title card) not to reveal its twist ending. The film is constructed as one long buildup to a traumatic payoff, which calls into question everything the viewer has seen and believed. It pulls the rug out from under its audience, assaulting its sense of logic and continuity. Clouzot’s twisty mystery founded the cinema of shock — an entire movie constructed to provide a disturbing payoff at the end.

Vera Clouzot faces the unfaceable in Les Diaboliques.
 Second is Clouzot’s emphasis on the subjective experience of the film’s central figure, its guilty protagonist, the wife Christina. Played by Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife, the film is shot from her perspective. The gloomy, banal setting of a Gradgrindian boys’ school, the film’s dank, sodden, and moldy atmosphere, and the fragmented and shadowed interiors, evoke the unexpressed feelings that ferment underneath as the principals attempt not to panic. Clouzot again and again concentrates on small details and atmospheric touches, and on pauses that linger just a shade too long, using every filmic tool at his disposal to create a sense of impending and inescapable doom.

Third and most important is the unrepentantly dim view of humanity that Diaboliques embodies. There is a despair in the film about the inherent selfishness of human motivation akin to that found in the film noirs of the day, but Clouzot goes deeper. His past provides clues for his attitude. Clouzot started out translating German films into French, but was fired by his German studio for his friendship with Jewish producers. Later, he worked for a German film company in France during World War II and was then condemned afterwards, and for a time blacklisted, as a German collaborator.

In Diaboliques, all actions seem pointless seem destined to frustration. Emotions are irrelevant in the struggle for domination. No one is safe or worthy of trust, and paranoia rules the day. Instead of an attack from without, Clouzot gives us the horror from within, made manifest in the scope of the daily lives and petty ambitions of “normal” people.

The result is filmmaking as primal shock, a thrill ride. Crowds flocked to the film, and it encouraged many repeat viewers, who were eager to see just how the film had tricked them the first time. Now film was a blatant tool of manipulation and assault. From now on, triggering a visceral response, not simply an emotional one, was an essential component of film horror.

The stage was set for the psychological-thriller boom. Fifty years after Freud’s theories emerged, abnormal and dangerous mental states were cropping up in film, presaged by movies such as Night Must Fall (1937), Gaslight (1940), The Leopard Man (1943), and The Scarlet Claw, The Spiral Staircase, and Leave Her to Heaven (all 1946). Alfred Hitchcock made suspense, mystery and unease his stock in trade for decades — and in 1960 he made the most influential and graphic horror film in history.

Psycho is the quintessential transgressive film. In it, a lonely hotel houses a shy young man and his murderous mother. It mixed sex, madness and violence so effectively that it became Hitchcock’s most successful movie. In response, the shock-laden exploitation film market exploded.

Psycho was a low-budget affair, disdained by Hitchcock’s studio Paramount as too perverse a script to film. As a result, Hitchcock produced it himself and made millions. Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, which was in turn based on the real-life career of American serial killer Ed Gein, Psycho put sex, sexuality, mental illness, and (seemingly) graphic violence front and center.

To boot, it gave viewers protagonists that vanished abruptly, and encouraged identification with the villain, himself a victim. Like Clouzot’s climactic scene in Diaboliques, Psycho’s infamous, complexly edited “shower scene” hit the viewing audience in the collective unconscious — a more perfect staging of fatal helplessness is hard to imagine. Hitchcock took the “don’t reveal the ending” gimmick and pushed it hard — forcing exhibitors to refuse to seat viewers after the film started, with promotional, life-sized cardboard cutouts of the director pointing at his watch in every theater lobby that showed the film.

Hitchcock doubled down on Clouzot’s cynicism. The victims in the film are random, and the crimes depicted are discovered and stopped almost by chance. The audience’s desire to see the innocent saved and the guilty punished is repeatedly frustrated — in fact, there is no culpable “guilty party” left by the end of the film, and no sense of a happy ending — the only resolution being found in the final image of a car and the body it contains being pulled out of a swamp.

Hitchcock’s effortless technique, developed by decades of experience, made Psycho a hit, cementing his status as a master filmmaker. Conversely, the experienced, brilliant, and honored British director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, made the same year, destroyed his career. Both featured mentally ill serial killers motivated by voyeurism and sexual excitement. Why was the reaction to Peeping Tom so different?

Peeping Tom is the embodiment of Terence Fisher’s definition of a horror movie as an adult fairy tale. It’s a visual poem about sex and death, created by Powell, best known for his work with writer/producer Emeric Pressburger (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes). Powell took a script by polymath and cryptographer Leo Marks and turned it into a transgressive masterpiece.

In it, a young cameraman, Mark Lewis, turns out to have been observed and tormented by his psychologist father his entire life, examined and documented relentlessly for a study of fear. Mark works as a focus puller by day at a low-budget movie studio making silly comedies, and supplements his income by taking and selling pornographic pictures. He lives in one room of his father’s mansion, renting out the other rooms and keeping to himself. In his spare time, Mark films women as he kills them, capturing their fear-soaked reactions to their own death as they see it in a mirror attached to the camera.

He earns the affection of a lodger, Helen, who gradually discovers his secret. Mark is a pitiable figure, a tragic antihero who is aware of his compulsions but is unable to break away from them. His camera is always with him; he even films the investigation of his crimes. As played by Carl Boehm, he is Peter Lorre-like, quiet and thick-lidded, almost whispering his lines, as invisible as he can make himself. (We never see Mark in the act, as it were — he is perpetually placid.)

Helen, played by Anna Massey, is a “Plain Jane.” Excluded as an object of desire and therefore as a potential murder target, only she has the power to divert Mark from his obsessions even temporarily. She becomes his confessor, and he shields her from his violence as best he can — “Don’t let me see you are frightened,” he implores her. For Mark, fear is the only palpable emotion, the only thing that can excite him sexually, and what provokes him to guiltily kill the object of his sexual impulse.

Peeping Tom's climax.
 When Psycho ends, evil is captured (if not yet brought to justice) and the return of normality is implied. Peeping Tom goes much deeper, equating image-making with death. Taking a woman’s picture turns her into an object to be used, for sexual gratification, or Mark’s substitute for sexual gratification, which is playing the films of his kills over again. “Whatever I photograph I always lose,” he says. In the end, Mark kills himself in an elaborate set-up, recording his own fear as he runs himself thorough on the blade attached to his camera, ironically completing the study his father began. “I’m afraid, and I’m glad I’m afraid,” he cries.

And what does it mean that we’re peering over Mark’s shoulder through the film? The audience came to see violence, too. What is the extent and nature of the audience’s complicity with the horror-makers, and, finally, the monsters themselves? Norman Bates’ brand of madness is easier to digest than Mark Lewis’, it lets you off the hook. 

Peeping Tom
uses the device of the bold heroine who sees through a monster’s disguise, which comes straight out of Beauty and the Beast. Helen is at least physically intact at movie’s end, the original “final girl” in horror film who survives not due to a man’s rescue but due to her own intelligence and guts. It’s a character that would get lost for decades. Horror’s misogyny was about to increase exponentially.

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