Friday, August 2, 2013


Some genres, like crime and horror, have a relationship so symbiotic they intertwine like helical strands in cinema's DNA. Common cinematographic elements like low-key lighting and asymmetrical compositions have their origins in German Expressionism, a movement that shone chiaroscuro light on the macabre and the subaltern. There's a common patrimony for existential themes and oneiric logic in Franz Kafka's magic realism. The publication in 1978 of William Hjortsberg's novel Falling Angel saw a more reflexive blurring of stylistic boundaries, paving the way for a Satanic supervillain like Keyser Soze to invest Bryan Singer's crime film The Usual Suspects with Gothic menace.

Like Angel Heart, Alan Parker's 1987 adaptation of Hjortsberg's novel, the 2011 British thriller Kill List has its protagonist increasingly unhinged as he's drawn under the influence of dark conspiratorial forces. But director Ben Wheatley goes beyond noir pastiche in his pan-generical approach, rendering army veterans turned contract killers with contemporary verisimilitude. This stylistic conglomeration isn't a Loach-noir mash-up, nor a period piece as effective as Hjortsberg's rendering of the tropes and cadences of Raymond Chandler, but a strong contemporary story, stylistically multi-layered yet unified in effect. The film achieves a rare claustrophobic power for aligning social realism with a philosophical core of horror usually neglected in favour of genre conventions like giant monsters, sexy vampires or the ubiquitous living dead.

Neil Maskell's portrayal of hit man Jay builds on a menacing persona he started fashioning with Wheatley in the BBC comedy series The Wrong Door and further developed in Nick Love's The Football Factory (2004). In the great cinematic tradition of the baby-faced psycho, his boyish features act as a palimpsest for wounded expression, something prematurely aged and fractured lurking behind the eyes. (His portrayal of Arby in Dennis Kelly's conspiracy theory TV series Utopia is like a combination of Jay and a lobotomised office worker character from The Wrong Door. Another great character, but Maskell's in serious danger of being forever typecast as the psychotic hitman if he isn't careful.)

The film opens with Jay in the middle of a vicious dispute with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring, an alumna of The Wrong Door). He's been unemployed for eight months and the family (Jay, Shel and son Sam) has gone through their savings. He says he's got a bad back; she says it's all in his mind. He could be any male provider in recession-hit Britain: worried about his occupational limbo and impending destitution, increasingly alienated from his family - a source of pressure as much love and support for him. His best friend and business partner Gal (Michael Smiley), a fellow Iraq War veteran, comes to dinner one night with new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) who's been told they're travelling salesmen. Shel, also ex-army, is the manager of what's really a contract killing operation. Their last failed mission in Kiev has sent Jay into a spiral of depression, probably the real cause of his job shyness. We never learn what happened there, but there are suggestions a child was killed. 

Jay is persuaded to return to work, but not without one last defiant outburst. As a response to Shel and Gal's jibes about his negligence of filial duty, he overturns his still food-laden plate on the dinner table and pulls the table cloth out with a sarcastic "Abracadabra!" Its childishly off-hand, almost unconscious aggression; a frightening revelation of Jay's mental instability. He's like a puppet of his own emotions. 

Their new client (Struan Rodger) knows about the Kiev mission and insists on sealing the contract with his and Jay's blood. Gal suspects they've been working for their new employers for some time under different guises when he discovers files in the homes of the hit targets containing information about their activities. There's an unreal contrast between the anonymity of the settings in which they go about their work and the targets' puzzling familiarity with Jay. All of them seem to welcome their deaths and thank Jay for the honour of being dispatched by him. 

These plot details create an atmosphere that unsettles exponentially, an affect complemented by Laurie Rose's cinematography; as hyperreal and skewed a perspective on Britain's urban and rural environments as the work of Rob Hardy, Igor Martinovic and David Higgs for the Red Riding trilogy. Deserted suburban landscapes, wind energy props lazily spinning, evoke Michelangelo Antonioni's cinema of alienation. A rainbow's arc spans the screen, radiating surreal menace. Wheatley incorporates other semiotics that act as clues to occult conspiracy, just as author Ira Levin and director Roman Polanski used the contemporary detail of the 1966 Time magazine 'Is God Dead?' cover in a doctor's waiting room to suggest a wider anomic milieu in Rosemary's Baby. In Kill List, there are intertitles for each of the hit targets - The Priest, The Librarian, The MP - that conjure up social archetypes and the nomenclature of Tarot cards. 

Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley are often referenced when the film enters weird fiction territory, but there are more contemporary parallels. Horror writer Ramsey Campbell's black magic realism similarly encompasses paranoid schizophrenic revenge killers (The Face That Must DieThe Count of Eleven), evil cults (The ParasiteThe Nameless) and subliminal connections between urban decay and the supernaturalBritish genre filmmaker Philip Ridley's Heartless (2009) set out with a promisingly Campbellian mise en scene (the orange glare of sodium street illumination, graffiti-lined underpasses, nightmarish figures half-glimpsed in the windows of abandoned houses). But Ridley's preference for the played out trope of the Faustian bargain, territory better handled by Hjortsberg and Parker, felt like a betrayal of promise. Kill List is the most effectively Lovecraftian British film since Clive Barker's Hellraiser. Its hand-held realism reflects the assimilation of the American writer's documentary technique in the Blair Witch Project/Cloverdale/Quarantine/Apollo 18 'found footage' tradition. Its lingering connotative tension has a match in the atmospheric density that Campbell achieves in prose.
JK Potter's photomontage illustrations for Ramsey Campbell's The Face That Must Die

In his cultural survey Danse Macabre, Stephen King categorised H. P. Lovecraft as a writer of 'outside' horror': his mythopoetic pantheon of demonic Old Ones are vast, pan-dimensional beings, capable of destroying the human race in the fulfillment of some obscure agenda with far greater ease than we annihilate other terrestrial species in the pursuit of our interests. This tradition taps into fears of the unknown that are as old as the religious impulse itself. King contrasts this with the 'inside' horror of aberrant psychology as explored in the works of Thomas Harris; a literary sub-genre that stretches from Robert Bloch's Psycho to James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 'Outside horror', in King's reading, deals with externalities over which the characters have no control and therefore needn't feel any complicity. 'Inside horror' deals more with moral issues of free will, the choice of evil over good. 

King has incorporated cosmic horror elements effectively in his own fiction, notably in 'The Mist' and It, but his Providence idol's oeuvre isn't suited for this critical dichotomy. Lovecraft wasn't just a fantasist, but also a 'deterministic materialist' whose grim universal stance was informed by evolutionary theory and space-time relativity. His protagonists don't just experience their horrors in the form of some transcendental Kantian Sublime, as Bradley Will has it, but realise them immanently as well, as Gilles Deleuze knew. For Lovecraft there is no clear separation between inside and outside, between subjective will and objective reality; they're attributes of the same materiality, its ultimate nature unknowable and utterly alien. 

The cult that manipulates Jay and Gal is either peopled by deluded adherents of a sociopathological neo-pagan groupthink or that belief system is real within the film's fictional borders. Jay's character is a dualistic synecdoche for political or supernatural influences. His exponential mental destabilisation can symbolise a parallax diffusion of power and violence, one of multidirectional volition and shifting agency, as well as a paranormal traversal of ontology. 

In Lovecraft and Campbell's fiction, supernatural force is more often than not intimated; the reader senses its influence in the description of setting or character behaviour rather than manifested in action. The only significantly magical element depicted in Kill List is the occult symbol that appears with the film's opening credits and drawn by one of the characters on the back of Jay's bathroom mirror. Nevertheless, there's a cosmic menace. Jay may be cracking up from a combination of psychological factors: lingering damage from wartime experience; whatever happened on the Kiev mission; financial pressures. But what manner of gateway is that symbol's harsh geometry intended to unlock?

Wheatley's bold lack of exposition allows the viewer to experience the characters' perspective and something of their predicament, pulled along by the undertow of circumstance and conspiratorial machination. Kill List's eerie sound design enhances this effect; there are moments of aural dislocation that recall another Warp Films production, Shane Meadows' Dead Man's Shoes. Sound keeps the film's vertiginous shifts in genre seamless, its tonal momentum organic. One of the recurrent motifs in Jim Williams' score is atonal whistling: a potent signifier of psychosis. For horror fans, its spookily evocative of the mad piping made by the acolytes of Azathoth, the blind idiot god - Lovecraft's metaphor for the random forces of evolution.  

Supernatural horror and political metaphor fuse in Kill List against a background of economic catastrophe, fertile ground for what Slavoj Žižek calls the 'parallax nature of violence.' In his Living in the End Times, the Czech philosopher argues "an economic crisis which causes devastation is experienced as uncontrollable quasi-natural power, but it should be experienced as violence." The GFC spreads waves of its own mutating brutality, just as an avalanche of social and political repercussions saw the Great Depression transform into World War Two. This metamorphosing energy can manifest in directionless criminal activity like the 2011 London summer riots. Or entrepreneurial offshoots of the shadow economy like Jay, Gal and Shel's contract execution business. Human resources specialist Fiona, a paragon of the official economy and all its bureaucratic dissemblance, tells them there's a lot of "dirty work" to be done in a recession. Gal jokingly calls her a "hatchet man", but she assures them there's nothing personal in her duties when out 'de-forcing'. Jay asserts it is nothing but personal for the families of the employees whose jobs she terminates. The fear of unemployment is raw for him, a personal abyss he doesn't dare stare into.

Jay's gradual absorption into a conspiracy of violence - his agency undermined by forces both seen and unseen - recalls the fate of Warren Beatty's investigative reporter in The Parallax View. The symbolic centrepiece of Alan J. Pakula's 1973 political thriller was a short film the undercover reporter has to watch as part of his training to become a corporate hitman. A semiotic montage of still photography and comic book panels depicts cycles of oppression and heroic vengeance. In a feat of symbolic paranoia beautifully reflective of the movie's fractious time, this film within a film is a psychic map of America: a deterritorialised maze of violent, ego-driven impulses. Hideous snuff pornography discovered in The Librarian's lock up seems intended to engineer a psychotic reaction in Jay. Gal has to look away, but Jay is transfixed, his tortured features twisting in the monitor's reflected light. He goes off-list to target the video's producers, triggered into action by a violent collective hatred of those who would disseminate such detestable material. There's a transition from helpless depression during his period of unemployment to increasingly unhinged retributive agency as working hitman. He justifies the act to Gal as rough social justice; but does he also need to redirect perverse feelings the video has provoked?

Camped out on the MP's estate as they prepare for their final hit, Jay sounds genuinely forlorn when he tells Gal he doesn't understand where the anger inside him comes from. Its a scene that registers as political metaphor for the internalisation of parallax violence, invisible until seen from the proper vantage point. It's also a signpost for the film's supernatural undercurrents, foreshadowed by the unsettling juxtaposition of childhood reverie and slow-motion flames as Jay and Gal dispose of the pornographers' remains. 

Casual political conversation during the dinner party implies a wider nexus of moral decay, of social progress set in reverse. In a discussion about the recession and 'de-forcing', Jay raises the Nazi regime's readiness to eliminate 'extraneous' social elements, foreshadowing his rationalisation of off-list activity. His isolation may be palpable, but in no way do we feel his are isolated views. Every parent can sympathise a little with his expressed desire to exterminate all child molesters. But there's phenomena conveyed within such a statement that offend liberal conscience: the 'taking out the trash' argument of right-wing vigilantism, the race-to-the-bottom moral posturing that passes for political debate by shock jocks or the virulent bigotry often visible in internet commentary; what sociologists call the online disinhibition effect in overdrive. A pervading sense emerges of a dystopian polity on the rise, poised to grant utilitarian equivalence to Jay and Gal's execution service and the death squads of police states. 

The Nazi reference also evokes, within the film's wider thematic structure, a mythology that evolved in the latter half of the twentieth century around the Third Reich's fusion of totalitarianism and the occult. First disseminated in Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwel's The Morning of the Magicians, it's a popular trope in James Herbert's novel The Spear, Campbell's The Parasite and Spielberg and Lucas' Raiders of the Lost Ark. Politico-occult evocations reach their zenith in the pagan ceremony Jay and Gal discover on the MPs estate. The ritualistic hanging of a young woman dressed in pound notes carries echoes of the Californian occult site of Bohemian Grove, that obsession of radio host Alex Jones. For him the yearly gathering for the Sacrifice of Dull Care is a Luciferian ceremony, symbolising the freedom of political and financial elites from social conscience. 

The worldwide web's viral spiral amplifies a millenarian zeitgeist. The end-of-the-world scenario of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (another cinematic highlight of 2011) reflected hysteria generated by Internet doomsday groups around Earth's orbital rendezvous with Planet X/Nibiru and the significance of December 21, 2012 in the Mayan calendar. Paranoid conspiracy theories about the Illuminati seem to underline Kill List's intimations of a corrupt elite exerting demonic control over an atomised society. 

Melancholia had its own transgression of outside and inside boundaries: Justine's misanthropic depression finds its wish-fulfillment in the titular planet's collision course with Earth. Apocalyptic denouement unfolded at a measured pace, the relativistic scale of cosmological force looming over family drama. Kill List's speedier narrative pacing and jump-cut editing suit an even darker eschatology. Psychological desolation hurtling through a serrated continuum of cinematic time. A nightmare plunge into a moral void something like Michel Houellebecq's crystallisation of Lovecraft's vision: the delineation of "universal laws of egoism and malice."

Wheatley, in writing and editing partnership with wife Amy Jump, is a filmmaker with considerable skill in being able to pull at several different affective strings in his viewer at once. It's this emotional dimensionality, exemplified in character ambiguity and wry humour, that keeps a bleak film like Kill List from being as dispiriting as the preceding exegesis might suggest. Jay and Gal may be a couple of murderous thugs, but they're also funny guys and as affectionate as their damaged psyches allow.

Canny musical choice is also integral to this director's method. Wheatley's cult cool credentials were boosted by the use of classic krautrock as extra-diegetic music in his next film Sightseers (the opening bars of Neu!'s 'Lieber Hoenig' as repeated motif and a kind of theme tune for one of the characters is an appealingly strange touch). Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'The Power of Love' was used in a crucial moment with obvious ironic intent, but there's the hint of a romantic sensibility behind the jest. 

Joan Armatrading's 'It Could Have Been Better' plays on Kill List's soundtrack when Jay and Shel attempt to reconnect after the dinner party's ructions. It's an emotional ballad suitable for a film that up to this point has been a form of domestic drama. But this scene represents more than just a lull in marital conflict and the song takes on a powerful elegiac quality. It's a lament for England's social contract (a major theme as Wheatley and cast have emphasised) and for all its post-traumatic stress disordered war veterans and economic refugees. A moment of fragile, shared empathy, illuminating the movie's darkening psychological terrain with almost Gnostic intensity. 


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Masterpieces of 70s TV Horror: 'Baby' from Nigel Kneale's Beasts

More often than not, it's a losing game when the adult fan of horror-themed films and television tries to recapture childhood thrills. Images and concepts that were once deeply impressive are now mundane. Special effects or monster designs that a kid will buy into completely are an unconvincing rip-off to the grown-up who tries to rediscover their frisson. Rarely, a jewel with staying power can be found amongst the dross, rising above technical limitations or mediocre performances.

During a recent YouTube search for BBC adaptations of M. R. James stories, I stumbled across a video package someone's put together of scenes from classic 70s British TV horror.  At the end of the montage is the terrifying, culminating image of a teleplay that disturbed me profoundly when I first encountered it as an eight-year-old. For years, unaware of the name of the program or its author, this scene would sometimes come to mind like a beacon of possibility after viewing horror fare that failed to satisfy. The teleplay is called 'Baby', produced in 1976 as part of a series of Nigel Kneale stories called

Kneale remains one of the most revered of British screenwriters and was the author of the esteemed Quatermass quartet of science fiction-horror television programs. The film based on the Quatermass and the Pit series made by Roy Ward Baker for Hammer Films in 1967 fits the categorisation outlined above perfectly; the special effects are a bit ropey, the acting can be a bit off the mark, but there's an enduring philosophical gravity in its premise, a compelling atmosphere in the story's structure and execution. On recent reacquaintance, 'Baby' has lost very little of the power it had for me as a youngster. It's a reminder of a time when creators of terror for the small screen, often with limited budgets, relied on their faith in a good story rather than CGI effects and flashy editing (a tendency that sometimes spoils recent, more ostensibly professional television productions like American Horror Story).

Beasts was a six-part horror anthology with a double meaning in its title: each story has a particular creature as its focus, but they're also metaphorical examinations of man's bestial nature, our capacity for the inhumane. 'What Big Eyes' has an insane amateur scientist attempt to reveal the truth contained in legends about lycanthropy, but it also deals with a father's psychological cruelty towards his daughter. 'The Dummy' tracks a downtrodden actor's descent into madness and ultimate identification with the monster he plays in exploitation films. On one level, these televisual plays work fine as psychological dramas rather than strictly genre-based pieces. There are two episodes in the series that are pure horror stories - 'During Barty's Party', in which a rat invasion occurs that is all the more terrifying for being unseen, and 'Baby' which deals with pregnancy and the occult.

'Baby' is a ghost story in the M. R. James mould, but there's also some parallels with American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft's 'Dreams in the Witch House'. Interestingly, Kneale said he'd never read Lovecraft - he came up with his own distinctly British version of cosmic horror through the influences of James, H.G. Wells and the culture of myth and superstition in his native Isle of Man. A Ramsey Campbell short story of the same name was published in 1976, the same year Beasts was aired, but originally written two years earlier. Campbell's 'Baby' also centres on the theme of the witch's familiar, but it's an urban pulp shocker in the EC Comics tradition, set in his native Liverpool. Kneale's 'Baby' draws in a Jamesian fashion on the occult eeriness of the English countryside.

Campbell and James are masters of terror glimpsed from the corner of the eye and, to use a term Campbell uses for what he admires in the best of Lovecraft's work, the 'orchestration of effect' through the accumulation of oblique, suggestive detail. The 'glancing phrase of fear', to quote Campbell again, is a phenomenological approach to horror, capable of greater psychological resonance than the sensational tactics of the jump scare and gore: along with the apparitions and unearthly sensations, there are also queasy insights into the obscure workings of our own brains. The Kneale story features a young pregnant woman who, like the Mia Farrow character in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, may be suffering from a severe case of prepartum paranoia or undergoing a genuine encounter with the occult. Simple, unadorned camerawork and editing create the feel of real time pacing despite frequent transitions; this Bazinian sense of reality in John Nelson Burton's direction, combined with the ambiguous nature of the story, produces a distinctly unnerving atmosphere.

Peter Gilkes (Simon MacCorkindale) wants to contribute his veterinary skills somewhere he can be of real benefit rather than treating pampered city pets, so he and pregnant wife Jo (Jane Wymark) have moved to the country. An earthen pot containing a mummified animal is discovered during the renovation of their old cottage. Peter can't work out what the creature is and neither can his partner Dick Pummery (T.P. McKenna) or the two workers who are carrying out the renovations, Stan Biddick (Norman Jones) and Arthur Grace (Mark Dignam). It's described variously as a piglet, a cat, a lamb with claws and a monkey, but all agree it's a deviation from natural processes of conception and birth. Peter suggests some random farmyard inter-breeding was involved. It looks to him as though the thing was never actually born.

Jo's immediate maternal uneasiness is heightened when Arthur, a local with knowledge of ancient lore, posits that the creature was brought into being to harness occult energies by "someone wise in them powers." He suggests its purpose would have likely have been harmful. Even more alarmingly to Jo, he's certain it would have had to have been suckled by a human. Through Dick, the couple learns the last childless owners of the house failed to establish a dog breeding business. In fact, no animals have been born in the surrounding land for generations, an anomaly the two vets put down to persistent outbreaks of contagious abortion.

Like the haunted meadow in Clark Ashton Smith's story 'Genius Loci', the environment around the farmhouse seems to be under the influence of something inimical. Jo's cat flees from the house as soon as it's brought into it. When she tries to locate her pet in a nearby forest, Jo, in turn, flees from a shadow that comes spreading across a pond towards her. It moves in a way suggestive of a bird in flight over its prey, but without any definite form or origin; a disembodied cloak of darkness that emerges out of the surrounding landscape. It's probably the most basic optical effect, and an eerie evocation of cosmic power, as though some patch of interstellar space, some zone of entropic negation, had been tethered by magic and made to crawl along the forest floor. The shadow's accompanied by a sound like a dove's coo, but more threatening and unreal, simultaneously maternal and malevolent. Jo starts hearing this sound around the house and sees other unreal phenomena - a rocking chair moving by itself, the outline of a black cloaked figure disappearing around a corner.

Full disclosure must be made that the special effects in the climax have all the limitations of the age - the important thing is, it doesn't matter. What has been built up in terms of suspense, suggestion, an impression of inescapable doom, is so powerful that you don't perceive the effect. Your mind goes straight to what is being represented: the embodiment of alien wrongness, of unholy perversion. In 'My Roots Exhumed', a chapter in S. T. Joshi's 2001 study, Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction, Campbell has written about the impression a viewing of the cover of the November 1952 edition of Weird Tales in a newsagent's window made on him as a seven-year-old and on his subsequent career as a writer. Upon finally acquiring the edition a decade later, he realised the surreal vision he thought he had seen was largely a product of his imagination. The actual illustration was much more conventional and his subconscious had acted out of some transformative urge for the other-worldly. Seeing the climax of 'Baby' again recently made me realise that something similar had happened to me with this program. What's gratifying is that my invention was still there in a sense, superimposed on the prosaic actuality. I was able to appreciate once again how effective the teleplay was in creating a sense of horrified anticipation, jolting my youthful imagination into perceiving something more purely nightmarish than what was actually there on the screen.

The story's strength also overcomes slightly substandard acting. Simon MacCorkingdale, in particular, is overly forceful in his performance, but youthful brashness is in a way apposite for the arrogance and insensitivity of the character. At least John Cassavettes' Guy in Rosemary's Baby had the sense and the skill as an actor to pretend to be caring towards his wife. Peter Gilkes comes across as particularly self-obsessed and pig headed. He rarely expresses any real warmth towards Jo unless there's some intersection between his interests and hers. This marriage is very unstable and the young woman has already experienced one miscarriage; the strained domesticity accentuates viewer unease. Jane Wymark's acting is also a little green and nervous as the pregnant woman, but this actually helps the performance in a way - we feel the vulnerability in the character and sympathise with her growing fear and isolation. Wymark's performance may not be in Farrow's league, but there are compensating character strengths - Jo Gilkes is feistier and more liberated than Rosemary Woodhouse - and they share a similar quality of doomed, youthful beauty. Mark Dignam is good as old Arthur, his vague intimations of ancient sorcery a source of frustration for Jo who, like one of Campbell's unfortunate heroines, is left trying to sort truth from apocrypha in his rural wisdom.

All the really great authors of horror fiction that deal with the occult - James, Campbell, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen - are concerned with the perennial human questions of evil and power. Somewhere in the past, some person (or what was once a person) has sold his or her soul for access to abominable energies, the repercussions of this act reaching ineluctably into the present. Kneale, who at his best can definitely be counted in the aforementioned literary lineage, manages to compress themes that he had already dealt with on a grand scale in the Quatermass stories in a short form that is all the more potent for its simplicity. They play out in 'Baby' against an aural background of hypnotic quietude - one of the great strengths of the teleplay is the complete absence of music from opening to closing credits. There are no manipulative cues keeping us alert. There's just the oppressive silence of a rural environment, punctuated by the cawing of birds that may well be malign psychopomps.

The dreamlike Jamesian approach to the ghost story, where the supernatural and the everyday traverse with alarming inevitability, has parallels with the style of Japanese horror films, particularly Hideo Nakata's Ringu and Dark Water. The J-Horror sub-genre has in turn influenced some of the better recent works of American horror cinema. Scott Derrickson's Sinister has an element of gore, but it resides far more in suggestion than the redundant repulsiveness of torture porn. A sustained atmosphere of occult evil lingers in the viewer's mind with greater effect than blunt visceral strategy. 'Baby' is a powerful exemplar of this tradition of subtle, insinuated fear and it's one of the finest works of television horror.

Text: (C) JONATHON KROMKA 2013. All rights reserved.