Friday, December 01, 2006

141. Halloween Roundup (10):
Dark Shadows

I know somewhere or other I've already written about Carlos Clarens' An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, but I'm more than willing to do so again; it's importance to my movie life cannot be overestimated. I still have my original copy from 1968, when I was at the sloppy cusp of adolescence, trying to muster interest in playing with toy soldiers, solemnly committed to afternoon cartoons--all to no avail, as I noticed with dismay that I had lost interest in the little land of counterpane and that the new almost-'70s generation of cartoons had nothing to them--or in them, or on them; "blank and pitiless" in their banality. One glossy sheet of illustrations from the Clarens book is missing--and I'm not sure what was on those two pages, why the pictures were so--what? compelling? "illustrative"?--that I removed them; and I like not knowing. A long-held book lives its own life, shared with its owner. And if the two of them stay together long enough, of course they begin to keep secrets from one another, sometimes even from themselves. So I will let those pages go, and the wherefores can be what they want.

Clarens taught me that movies were special effects--every one of them, at least as the product of an odd mechanism that flies and folds images until they achieve sequence, juxtaposing shot and reverse-shot, angle and length and depth, effecting more than observation of actualities and actors, set and scenario--and more than "reality" (I've been more or less reading Derrida, which puts one in the mood to hold at arm's length such hapless terms), but instead some kind of special truth, an object that works its way into the eyes and ears until it becomes a subject, a breathless thing as beautiful as black and white and shades of grey. And Clarens also taught me that such beauty often comes toward the viewer with an odd gait, a touch of evil, so to speak, that arrives slowly--like Lugosi toward Jonathan Harker or feline Simone Simon along the swimming pool's edge--or abruptly--like Spielberg's night-visiting shark or Tobe Hooper's Leatherface--until beauty and horror merge, of course in shadow. And best--or worst--of all, Clarens held out to me promises, but ones that at the time neither of us could keep: Dreyer's Vampyre, Murnau's Nosferatu, Jacques Tourneur and Mario Bava. But reading his book, I prepared rooms for them, and he gave me a sharper eye and more attentive posture as I've watched every day since.

And naturally many have kept at it, especially behind the camera. These days I see it again and again in Japanese horror films, such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo/Pulse (2001), which manages to sustain the dim glories of the expressionst/noir vision, particularly in its subterranean uncertainties. The movie is offhand in its exposition, incidentally plotted, like Caligari or Cat People, and demands that the viewer almost constantly strain to see exactly what is that in the frame's periphery, and why it scares one so. Like so many of its late '70s-early '80s American progenitors, Pulse features young friends in peril, and holds out thwarted hopes of rescue and safety, until the world itself grows indistinct and silent, while everyone recedes into a whispering gloom.

As Clarens points out in many of his overviews of such films, narrative gestures may be perfunctory in this "certain tendency" of horror--"vague," indeed, in the English sense--but one must forgive such lapses with a barely apologetic shrug. After all, as Clarens writes of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's approach, "for the night creatures themselves, these films substituted our dread for them." So the last special effect is produced by the viewers, consuming indistinct objects but never completely understanding them, even as they are held in the hands and brought up to the face, as close as one's shadow, and in the deepening gloom indistinguishable from the self. Pulse sees eventually the whole world this way, one in which there are no more stories, just the open sea and the fog rolling in.

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