A film can haunt you in many different ways.
In 1978, an excited boy and his overworked parents trek down to the Odeon, Leicester Square. No, not the previous summer-smash Star Wars, but it's more domesticated twin, Close Encounters. Inspired by The Third Kind, he would travel home counting every twinkling light of air traffic as an alien ship passing in the night sky.
A fifteen year old is skipping across the ground level section of Westway (A40) and bunking into an X-rated double bill of Terror and Savage Weekend. It's 1981 and the last gasp of the ABC cinema at Edgware Road. Young men are performing a ritual of daring each other to grin through slit throats and dismembered heads.
Jump cut. That boy-teen-man is now projecting a 35mm print of Peeping Tom to sleepy film and literature students at the University of Warwick. He is anxiously waiting for cue dots to appear. After effecting a change of reel, seated alone beside a small aperture in the booth, he looks out across the illuminated heads, several bobbing down to new planes of consciousness. The projectionist is transfixed by the imagery on the screen showing a movie camera that has been turned into a deadly weapon.
Yes. Those are all my hauntings and they still persist to haunt. This year of slow motion into middle age has lead to a reappraisal of the Italian director, Mario Bava. His richly lensed films were discovered online where there are collective opportunities for the young and old alike to be haunted or re-haunted. This past year has seen the passing of the great Christopher Lee. I kept YouTubing majestic scenes from Bava's The Whip and the Body. In particular, there is a compelling sequence when the heroine is being drawn to the S&M ghost of Lee down a darkened corridor by the constant cracking of a whip. Cinematic magic.
As a practising multi-media artist this "haunted" quality only manifests itself in drawings and unpublished or unrealised screenplays. I share a few of the former with you. Although my lips are temporarily sealed on the latter, I do wish to share a few thoughts about a seasonal haunting, Quatermass and the Pit (1967).
QM is a great British science-fiction film, bristling with bold ideas and told in a vivid fashion. The electronic sound effects by Tristram Cary, combined with effective direction by Roy Ward Baker and compelling performances, makes this a haunting of hauntings. The film is also part of the rich cultural tapestry of Hammer studios before that fizzled out in the 1970s. An older generation would have experienced the Nigel Kneale's Quatermass stories (of which Pit is the third in the series) when broadcast by the BBC in the 1950s. These are rightly regarded as landmark moments in British television.
Enthusiasm aside, I want to talk about the haunting engendered by Quatermass and the Pit. This has a very specific past, present and future.
Past tense. I have a ghostly memory which can be precisely dated to Christmas Day, 1973. This turbulent period in British politics would see industrial disputes, three day working weeks, power cuts, and a country grinding to a halt. I can still feel the bones of those darkened and cold spaces. This was the perfect setting for an impressionable seven year old to be spooked on Christmas Day when Quatermass and the Pit was shown as the main late night adult film on BBC2. I seem to recall watching this film alone. Where had my family disappeared to? Had they been swallowed up by the gut of seasonal excess? It matters not, for the film exerted a pulsating grip especially in its claustrophobic evocation of the London underground where a mysterious object is discovered and which unleases atavistic impulses in the human mind.
Present tense. As a homage to that 1973 haunting, I decided to photograph a recent transmission of Quatermass which took place on 20tht December 2015. Towards the end of the film, the television underwent a spectrum change with its cathode ray tube. The green light waves completely swamped the reds and blues. I am still trying to interpret the significance of this haunting and I present documentary evidence for your perusal. The TV box on the following Boxing day was as right as rain.
Future tense. Quatermass and the Pit is older than Time Lords and Jedi knights. It is begging for a new leash of life and I wonder if the current Hammer Films might be thinking about a re-make. If they do, they will be hard pressed to beat the original TV and film adaptions. Special effects will be a different kettle of fish however. Hopefully a new generation of writers and film makers will discovery the original and use it as source material to create their own narratives. I've just started mapping out a new screenplay called Glass Kill in which medi-EVIL stained glass is discovered in the London underground.
Hauntings can come in all manner of tea cups or flying saucers and is not exclusive to the horror genre. If you want to catch a fascinating blast of gallery based hauntings, I point you no further than the sublime Susan Hiller who is showing at the Lisson Gallery until the 9th January. She has described her work as an "archaeological investigation, uncovering something to make a different sense of it." Here you will find an eclectic probing into the real and the unreal, the memory of ghosts and the ghost of memories. Of particular interest is Wild Talents (1997). This is a multi screen video installation that shows paranormal phenomena in a range of American and European horror films and this is juxtaposed with a small monitor showing a documentary about children who have religious visions. Three sets of images are unfolding in the same time and space. Haunting is all about the co-existance of past, present and future.
Quatermass and the Pit airs next on the Horror Channel on:
Thursday 31st December @ 22:55
Saturday 23rd January @ 22:00
Wednesday 27th January @ 22:00
Halloween. All hallow's eve.
Whether the roots are pagan or Christian, we cash in on this secular chill that thrills.
The suspense is killing me, so take me back, take me back.
Back to reflect on my interest in horror that started in childhood.
It is more than just academic and festers deep with psychology:
Role playing, body image, transgression;
Canny and uncanny ways to escape from terra firma into incognita.
Here are three of my favourite zero degree chills.
I take all my modern inspiration from Jennifer Kent's Monster.
The suggestive shadow play rather than the yawning gore.
The construction of creeping tension is far more effective than in her feature-length adaption, Babadook.
The domestic image of pots and pans that can never be cleaned
As a mother and child are trapped in a world of their own making
Shattered by the jarring horror in fast motion when we first see the entity as it slices up a staircase.
This is a lovely echo of the stately paced movement of Nosferatu in the silent age.
A modern day fairy tale that is far from Grimm.
It seemed fitting that the possessed mother in Bababook should be supplementing her nightmare
With pills and a diet of TV horror and one scene has her watching Mario Bava's Black Sabbath.
I evoke Mario Bava for this second instalment of being scared and excited at the same time.
His 1966 film, Operazione Paura (Operation Fear) which a slick American producer
Renamed in classic exploitation manner as Kill, Baby Kill.
This story of a village cursed by the ghost of a dead girl is old school
But so compelling is the rolling ball of tension and a set design
Fleshed out in exquisite lighting that old is memorably made new.
Continues the childhood theme.
Rosemary's Baby brought to life by the dark imagination of Roman Polanski
And given a kiss of death by Krzysztof Komeda's haunting score.
The lullaby, la, la, la, figure of eight on a glacial and fragile surface
That will culminate in a poignant maternal instinct;
Red raw seeds of the devil are shaped by the human milk of kindness.
Minus three, two, one.
All hallow's eve. Halloween.
Over the decades, I have written several scripts of varying lengths. This will be the first feature-length venture. Oh boy! It's a challenge for someone more used to improvisation and short films that are elliptical compressions of documentary and poetry with a West London genetic time code.
As I look forward to a new challenge of constructing a cinematic story (we are only at first draft stage), I can see a lineage. The portrait of the artist as a young boy. I could harken back to 1970s and an early love of all things Gothic and Hammer. Here are the opening and closing lines from Tales From the Crypt. I wrote it as a 13 year old student in 1979.
"This tale begins when a group of people find themselves trapped in an underground passage, after being separated from a party that was being shown round an exhibition." One thousand nine hundred and fifty words later. "Silence falls on all the people, then they turn around and walk away. They walk up to a pit, fall into it. The pit is alight with fire."
I'm not sure how much is original here. But I can still feel the young author's hyperventilating ink: the excitement, the desire to frighten, defy elders. In another story, my teacher would write jokingly in the margins: Edgar Allen Gras or Bram Gras?
A massive influence was BBC2 horror double bills. These ran from 1975-83 and were a great introduction to classic fangs and Awhooooooooooooooooo! (a poor rendition of a Werewolf cry). They also juxtaposed old school with more contemporary horror. The films of George Romero really made an impact and sign posted more graphic developments in the genre. But there is still a charm to the suggestive qualities of films like Cat People (1942) and the sublime Brides of Frankenstein.
There was also my first cinema going in the late 70s and early 80s as I took in the silly craze for slasher movies. Well it started off promising but descended into copy-cat killings at the box office. However these poor offerings were being stored up while I navigated film theory at the University of Warwick and feasted on world cinema. Appreciating how horror and art have always been interlinked, invariably from a patriarchal perspective.
Only in the last few years, when researching the Elephant and Castle theatre and links between melodrama and horror, have I discovered the joys of Italian horror from the 60s and 70s. One case in point is Mario Bava, cinematographer turned film maker, able to conjure hypnotic and transgressive themes in the shake of a technicolour cocktail.
It's prudent for the artist slash author to reflect critically on what they are doing. So what can one possibly like in the horror genre? For me there is the common currency of its bloody tropes and how these get reinterpreted. Exquisite moments when you see the form transcended; for example, any number of scenes in Vampyr and the long tracking shot in Death Line. When a film ends with a bad taste in the mouth, but leaves all manner of subversive thoughts ricocheting around the the mind. For many viewers, experiencing horror becomes a test of endurance, the willingness to be outraged or shocked. I draw the line at recent torture porn movies. I have no heart for that. The gore or effects should always remain just the icing on the cake.
Note to self about taking risks - I will complete this horror screenplay, if it proves the death of me.
Critical reputation or not!