A Modern Gothic

No one ever warned me that studying at a bona fide English castle could have downsides; being miles away from civilization can make you a bit stir-crazy, and I didn’t think cafeteria food could be worse until I tried Quorn, a meat substitute so artificial it is banned in North America. However, the worst part about studying at this castle was the possibility of being alone there at night.

The Castle is supposed to be haunted by the wife of a previous owner, usually called the Grey Lady, and a poor soul known as the Headless Drummer. Reportedly the Grey Lady was spotted in the Castle’s conference room a year or two before my stay there. I’m not exactly a believer in the supernatural, but it’s harder to remind myself that ghosts probably don’t exist when I’m alone in the dark. That castle is spooky enough without ghosts, and legend has it that Horace Walpole had it in mind when he wrote The Castle of Otranto.

Late one night I was studying in the small meeting room on the second floor of the Castle, when a custodian came by informing me that he was shutting off the lights, asking me to do the same when I left. I packed up a short time later, around 1:00 am. At this point I remembered the recent ghost sighting – which had happened in the adjoining conference room (not to mention that I was a floor above the entrance to the castle’s small dungeon). I decided to exit into the Elizabethan room, so named for a giant fireplace and old decorations meant to evoke that era. The stone and high ceilings in the Elizabethan room evoke the Gothic even in daylight, so in near-darkness it was simple to imagine Walpole’s Manfred or poor Matilda on the floor below. I took out my £9 phone, hoping its meagre light would help me get down the old wooden staircase. There was no way I was crossing the second storey platform to the enigmatically named Drummer’s Room; if any room in the Castle was haunted, it was that one. I descended the stairs and crossed the floor as quietly as possible, thinking the whole time of the passageways beneath the Castle of Otranto, casting myself as Isabella as I all but ran through the windowless passage that connects the Elizabethan room to the courtyard in the middle of the Castle.

The courtyard possessed an eerie quality, somehow cut off from time. Inside the Castle, one is surrounded by modern updates; electric lights, modern desks and chairs, placards labelling rooms. Outside, aside from some modern wooden benches, I imagine that little had changed since the last occupants of the castle had left or Walpole had perhaps visited. The paltry moonlight was obscured by the looming castle walls, and I could all but see a giant helmet before me, perhaps with Conrad’s body still beneath it.

I passed back into the interior of the Castle, where thankfully the reception lights are always on, and was greeted outside again by a thick English ground fog. “Stick to the road. Keep clear o’ th’ moors,” I snickered to myself. At least the moon wasn’t full – although that meant that there was almost no light aside from sparse streetlamps, reduced to halos in the fog. I walked (or more accurately, stumbled) through a grove of ancient and gnarled chestnut trees, the light on my phone being no help. I probably could have mused on the mood brought on by the trees, but I was too busy trying to find my footing to scare myself much. The brief paved path proved a respite, until I came to a dark wooded section of the walk. To make matters worse, the darkest part was also up a hill. I walked as fast as I dared, surrounded by night rustlings of various bunnies, badgers, birds, and who knows what else. Until I heard a sound not unlike a person feebly yelping. I quickened my pace, fleeing like Isabella from Manfred’s dread embrace, although my pursuer was most likely a screech owl.

At the top of the hill, the road was paved, streetlamps were numerous, and residence was in sight. I glanced back at the Castle once more. In the fog, it looked ethereal, stuck in time. During the day, it was a gorgeous place to learn; at night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something walked there, and it walked alone.

This was originally published as an assignment for ENGL 499, Queen’s University, Prof Yaël Shlick, October 12, 2012.

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"A naked American man stole my balloons" An American Werewolf in London

No matter how many times I see this movie, I will never grow tired of it. I’m going to write this with only a few minor spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe I can convince you to do so.

If you are a fan of horror or comedy, especially that of the late ’70s/early ’80s, this movie is necessary viewing. The film was written and directed by John Landis, the man behind The Blues BrothersAnimal House, Coming to America, and others. As such, while it is most assuredly a horror movie, it is hilarious. I can’t think of any other horror film which so successfully blends horror and comedy. I guess Shaun of the Dead does, but I’d say it is more comedy than horror.

Let’s start out with the technical stuff. The soundtrack is great, and swings more toward the comedy aspects. Landis chose only songs with the word “moon” in the title, leading to some great, appropriate music (the scene with “Moondance” is particularly effective), as well as moments of juxtaposition (like the transformation scene and the ending). The camera work has its moments of glory, such as David’s dream sequences (which I like to call “naked running montages”), when the camera takes on the POV of the wolf running through the forest. The camera often subs in for the werewolf, so that the audience sees the characters’ reactions to the monster, and the audience must fill in the horror with their imaginations. The low shots are particularly effective in the scene in the tube station, making the hallways look too long and claustrophobic.The script gets a bit melodramatic at times, as does the acting; however, the comedy scenes are fabulously written and acted, and make up for the few slips in the dramatic bits. There are, however, some effective dramatic scenes as well, and there is a particularly sweet scene in a phone booth, which I won’t spoil.

The audience can immediately feel the bromance between the protagonists, and their conversations are always fun to watch because they seem so natural. The Brits are well represented too, with a capable love interest, and a stiff doctor as the skeptic trying to get to the bottom of the werewolf nonsense. The supporting cast is full of memorable smaller parts – the guys in the pub, the detectives (especially the incompetent one), Frank Oz’s cameo as an American ambassador – and they all add to the film.

The humour is one of the things that separates this from other horror films, because the movie never loses it; there are constant jokes and gags against the dark and gruesome scenes. Don’t judge me if you haven’t seen it yet, but there are a few scenes with a porno film that are just hilarious. Those scenes also feature some of the best dark humour in the film, from situation and dialogue. This is the only horror movie that makes me laugh as much as it raises my heart rate, and all of the humour is intentional, unlike some cheesy-thus-hilarious horror movies.

Not just hilarious, as we would expect from John Landis, this movie is scary – it is a horror movie at heart. This movie understands how to use gore. It uses blood pretty liberally at times, but always for a purpose. With a few notable exceptions, we just get snippets of gore – a bloody severed hand on the ground, and that only for an instant. When it does get gory, it isn’t always just to be frightening. The scene in the hospital room (you know which one I’m talking about if you’ve seen it) uses gore liberally to evoke a sense of the uncanny. Everything is nearly normal – the characters act like their normal selves – but there’s something a bit off, and the gore is there to keep you feeling that eeriness. You can’t get used to it, because you can’t take your eyes off of that little flap of skin… I’ll stop here lest I spoil any more, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scene in the tube station, which is one of the most intense chase scenes I have ever seen.

On top of all of that, you’ve got basically the best werewolf transformation scenes in cinema history. The Oscars invented a category for make up effects that year to award Rick Baker, the make up genius behind the movie. He just won his seventh Oscar for that godawful Wolfman  remake, wherein his talents were underused, and he worked on the Cantina scene in Star Wars. So a pretty accomplished guy. He used puppet and make up to make this excruciatingly long and painful transformation which is still impressive today. You actually get that feeling of “how did they do that” which is so rare now, unless you can understand the computer programs used to create CG effects. You know how nerds (like me) complain about CGI these days? It’s because of movies like this. (Here is an example of his effects, but it’s pretty gory, I don’t want to scare anyone who’s squeamish).

I guess I should admit now that I have a soft spot for werewolf movies, mainly because they tend to consolidate antagonist and protagonist. What’s more frightening than realizing that you are the villain, in a not-split-personality kind of way? These days, you’ll see many tortured vampires with guilty pasts as protagonists, but those movies tend to have evil vamps as well, and the broody vampire is the good guy who has to fight them. Werewolf movies like this one are a bit more ambiguous, I guess. He’s a sort of Jekyll/Hyde figure, where you know that the werewolf isn’t technically the “human” character you see the rest of the time, but that character is still violently killing people at some point in the movie. So what do you do about that? If evil is the nice guy next door, that’s scary – you find yourself questioning or not trusting other people. But if evil is YOU… How do you deal with that? It all becomes very morally ambiguous, and I love that.

I love good werewolf movies, and I’d say that this is the best one I’ve ever seen. Check it out.

"A boy’s best friend is his mother" A Love-Letter to Psycho

Last night my housemates and I watched Psycho together, providing me another reminder of why that movie rocks. It is especially fun/scary watching it in our house, since from our couch, you can see our neighbour’s creepy window:
“As if I could do anything but just sit and stare”
When Te and I watched the movie on Halloween, the lights were all out, we were huddled together under a blanket because it was freezing, and suddenly the light in that window went on – and someone was standing there, terrifying both of us. We have referred to it as “the Psycho window” ever since.
Since I have nothing else to write about at the moment, I will write a love letter to Psycho.
*HERE BE SPOILERS*
 If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, stop reading here. And go watch it now.
First of all, Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of the greatest, most recognizable in film history. From the opening credits, you get this immense sense of foreboding – even though it doesn’t seem much like a horror movie for about half an hour. The violent violins, paired with the choppy, fractured opening sequence, foreshadow the fragmented villain’s mind, and create tension right from the beginning.

The camera work is also stunning. The infamous shower scene has been written about a hundred times, but with good reason. It may not seem as frightening by today’s standards, but for its time, it was horrific. The rapid cuts and Herrmann’s score gives it a sense of crazed urgency, and it’s still tense to watch, even though we all know it’s coming before we see the movie. My favourite scene for camera work – actually, my favourite scene period – is the parlour scene, where we really get to see Norman’s crazy side. The room is full of birds, which are framed differently, reflecting the conversation. When Norman begins talking about his mother, an owl hovers over his shoulder, and doesn’t leave until the conversation changes again. By the end of the scene, a crow looks over Marion’s shoulder, and birds of prey frame Norman’s face. After Marion’s death, Norman knocks over the picture of a small bird in her motel room, and he uses tentative, bird-like motions at many crucial points in the film. If you haven’t already, watch the film again, and watch out for any references to birds, whether visually, like stuffed birds and suggestive gestures, or audibly – Marion “eats like a bird”, and her last name is Crane.

The script has some flaws (notably the exposition scene at the end, but more on that later), but over-all it is wonderfully quotable, and perfectly paced. The aforementioned parlour scene is a perfect example: through dialogue, Norman goes slowly from awkward but sweet boy-next-door too insane dude with serious mommy issues.  There is a lot of subtext, both in the dialogue and in the camera work, but the incestuous implications really keep this movie disturbing. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think that Norman and his mother (or her corpse) ever engaged in actual sexual acts, but there was undoubtedly sexual jealousy there.  He was still “all Norman” when he murdered his mother and her lover – while they were in bed together – and I severely doubt that he was just jealous of the attention/time she was giving this guy. Unfortunately though, “a son is a poor substitute for a lover”.

The Macguffin and its usage in this film is one of Hitchcock’s best, in my opinion. The $40 000 dollars (about $2 million today, or so I’m told) drive the plot for the first half of the movie. The assumption is that it will continue to do so. However, the main antagonist doesn’t only ignore the cash, he doesn’t even know about it – and it goes down in the swamp with his victim’s car. Hitchcock just takes all of the viewers’ assumptions and expectations about where the film is going, and chucks them out the window. You’ve watched this mostly sympathetic everywoman as the protagonist, and she’s suddenly dead – so what happens now? We don’t notice on a conscious level, but that is upsetting for movie viewers. The twist ending (even though most of us know it now, whether we’ve seen the movie or not) is respectable, and hadn’t been done to death when the movie came out. The skeleton spinning around in the chair is still effectively chilling, even if you know it is coming.

The acting is mostly quite good. John Gavin is pretty wooden, but Sam isn’t a particularly interesting character anyway. Janet Leigh makes Marion sympathetic, but not weak or helpless – despite the fact that she’s a thief, you’re rooting for her. She’s wonderful in the shower scene too, especially the final shot where it zooms out from her eye – so unsettling. Vera Miles and Martin Balsam do their jobs as Marion’s sister Lila and a private detective investigating her case. But this movie is really all about Tony Perkins, who carries it beautifully. I don’t think I need to say much about why – if you’ve seen it you know how he is scary and crazy and sympathetic and kind of cute the entire time.

I also like both of the Crane sisters – they’re feminine, but without being the helpless damsel-in-distress types. They make their own decisions, and contribute to the plot beyond being love interests/murder victims.

My only complaint about the film is the awful expository monologue by the detective at the end. It’s poorly written, poorly delivered, and mostly unnecessary. I can understand wanting to explain some of the psychology to viewers, but I feel like most of it was pretty obvious. Not to mention, it’s written like a bad detective movie from the 40’s, and is delivered in the same manner, which feels hugely out of place. However, apparently some disagree with me, and feel that it is helpful in summing up the movie, so maybe it is useful. Either way, the scene is followed by the “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene, with Perkins staring psychotically into the camera – and the superimposition of Mother’s skull over his face leaves you feeling chilled, negating the effects of that crap detective scene.

The final shot of the car being pulled from the swamp means that Marion’s family can recover her body, the money can be returned, and the status quo essentially resumed. But Norman Bates is still out there, so who’s to say something like this couldn’t happen again? With no ghosts or evil birds, this is one of Hitchcock’s scariest but also most plausible films, and certainly a classic in his oeuvre and in all of horror film.