Hill House

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“No organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

– First paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
-Image from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963)

The Black Cat: Revenge. Murder. Incest. Satanism.

An essay I wrote on Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic The Black Cat in relation to a dual screening I programmed at Nitehawk Cinema (in conjunction with the On the Desperate Edge of Now exhibition I’m curating)…


The-Black-CatSupernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.

The displaced American in Europe; Henry James made a literary career out of it, so did Hemingway, and filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer made one of the most brilliant conflations of the new-and-old worlds in his explosive 1934 film The Black Cat. Himself an émigré from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire working in Hollywood, Ulmer was all too familiar with cultural outsider-ness and he uses it to great effect when he features the misfortune that befalls two naïve Americans traveling through central Europe on their honeymoon.

This Black Cat is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “immortal” classic but, aside from the fearful presence of a cat that is black, it bears little resemblance to the short story. Instead, there is a complexly interwoven story with much at play: revenge, love, treason, psychological disorders, incest, Satanism, and architecture. But at the core are the eruptions caused by historical trauma caused by World War I with the film asking: what does war make men do? What is surviving or even living? Do free men make their own prisons? Who are the “good” guys? Ulmer’s film places together the past and the present, America and Europe cultures, and the traumatized with the innocent.

blackcat6The story takes place in an imposing Bauhaus-inspired architectural structure that has been built upon the graves of a battlefield by Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff). The two Americans, Peter and Joan Allen, and a Hungarian psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (played by Bela Lugosi) wind up at the modernist house after a deadly accident in their shared car. But whereas the couple is taken off-course and enters a world unfamiliar, Werdegast is exactly where he intended to be – at the former site of war that he fought alongside Poelzig. Home. He is there to kill Poelzig as retribution for abandoning their battalion and for stealing his wife while he, loyal until the end, was a prisoner of war for fifteen years.

Of course, the war being echoed here is World War I (the Great War) that, with no doubt, had a significant impact on European culture and on Ulmer himself. “The force of their struggle symbolizes the shattered and corrupted humanity left in the wake of World War I. Their personal desire for death, then, is a natural extension of wartime patriotism, and duty: a desire for destruction adopted and internalized.”1 This intensely rich back-story embodies the The Black Cat and forms the underlining profound sense of loss echoed throughout the film; everybody has lost something and has been the walking dead for all these years, coping in different ways with the effects of the war. As a result, both men are mad and self-destructive. As Poelzig says shiningly, “Even the phone is dead here…even the phone is dead.”

the+black+cat+1In the battle of Karloff and Lugosi (it was the first time the two huge stars of the time had been onscreen together), it’s Karloff’s Poelzig who becomes the void in which trauma has been funneled into. Deeply guilty about his treason and about surviving, Poelzig is never-the-less a calculating and evil monster. He abandoned his team, stole his friend’s wife, killed her (and other women) while she was still young to retain her beauty, married his step-daughter, and is a Satanic high priest capable of human sacrifice. Living in his Gothic mansion, albeit a modernist masterpiece, he has isolated the outside world and remained living in his own contamination. So it is with little surprise at the vehemence in which Werdegast attacks his nemesis; he destroyed his life, the world destroyed them both.

the-black-cat-boris-and-belaConsidered the original “King of the B’s”, the mysterious Edgar G. Ulmer notoriously made his films on the cheap side (mainly do to the fact that he was blacklisted in Hollywood after marrying the already married woman of a Universal Studio chief). Along with The Black Cat, his films Damage Lives (1933), Bluebeard (1944), and Detour (1945) are an incredible combination of horror, noir, and German Expressionism, near perfect in their expression of loneliness, pain, and failure. In fact Detour is rightly considered one of the best films in cinematic history. What makes Ulmer films so special is how seemingly anachronistic they are, utterly daring in narrative, cinematography, and acting they are. It’s difficult to come to grips that these films were made in the 1930s and 40s! The Black Cat is particularly bold in showing a satanic mass (something more 
culturally associated with the Anton Lavey 1960s) and Poelzig being tied up then flayed alive (who can come to terms with a shirtless Boris Karloff being skinned?!).

Brutal in its subject matter while inventive in its depiction, The Black Cat is, and should be rightly considered to be, one of the classic forefathers of horror cinema. The inclusion of two young Americans symbolizes the culture clash of the time and, as Paul A. Cantor writes in his essay The Fall of the House of Ulmer, “The Black Cat suggests that, unfortunately, Americans would not recognize a European horror story even if they wandered right into the middle of it.” But would we now? Through its self-reflexive (and explicitly meta-texual) combination of histories (personal and cultural) played out on the big screen, it is possible that as the horrors of past wars continuously haunt us through cinema, we are being forced to comes to terms and deal with these traumas still today. 

Psycho House: representation and repetition

The fine line between imitation, homage, and influence in artworks and horror movies isn’t just reflected in the works of today’s filmmakers. In the early 1960s, the now iconic house featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller Psycho was the preeminent site of all things horror. In fact, it still quietly looms on a hillside at Universal Studios California as frightening and distant as ever to the tourists who ride by. And although Hitchcock had done something similar twenty years earlier in Rebecca (1940), using the house as a near character full of anxiety and memory, that film was all about interiority of space and of mind. Psycho, on the other hand, was a full-on exterior explosion, everything on the outside, the lure to a deadly trap. 

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The slippages again occur here, reaching further back into art history, as the bones for the Psycho house were inspired by and modeled after this 1925 painting, House by the Railroad, by American realist painter Edward Hopper. Not horrific by any means, Hopper’s paintings reveal static moments shared between an architectural space (diner, movie theater, room) and those creatures who inhabit them. 

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Thanks to the Horror and Architecture  (the new-to-me but still-awesome-after-zero-updates-for-two-years blog).

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Mike Nelson

Mike Nelson scares me. His installations are claustrophobic and isolating and while no one thing in the elaborately constructed spaces is particularly frightening (clown masks aside), it’s the immediate convergence of all the things that produces an overwhelming intense experience. And I can’t get enough.

I feel like I shouldn’t be in one of Nelson’s rooms, touching and opening doors, searching my way through the maze (not in the literal dark but the tension is just the same). The sense of something being off is palpable and yet, during this feeling of disorientation, I feel totally within my element. Like a good horror film, I feel both displaced and engrossed, enjoying not knowing my way and appreciating the sensory overload provided to me. Indeed, Nelson’s work has a lot in common with the aesthetics and structure of horror cinema such as his employment of architecture and interiors, particularly in the usage of a succession of rooms.

In her essay on Nelson’s Coral Reef (owned by Tate and recently on display at Tate Britain), Helen Delaney says: “Nelson’s use of suggested, open-ended narratives is influenced by filmmakers Sergei Parajanov and Dario Argento, whose ambient, non-linear films present tableaux that absorb and envelop the viewer. The movement from one room to another produces a kind of filmic ‘cut’ between one scene and the next, allowing narrative possibilities to proliferate without coalescing into anything fixed. It triggers a growing sense of unease.”

I could only wander, stop, and stare when encountering his Studio Apparatus for Camden Arts Centre… (1998/2010) at Camden Arts Centre’s now closed exhibition Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts). Consisting of three rooms (dirty entrance walkway and a small reception/office room that led to the larger backyard object extravaganza. In an attempt to focus, record, and re-live the experience I just wrote down all I thought I saw: selection of motorcycle helmets with raccoon takes; slices of science fiction mags; fake flames; slouched body with paper bag head; log fire with face shield, fur, gas cans, wood planks and concreted blocks; space constellations of hubcaps, wire, and balls; latters; antlers; Mickey Mouse with devil antlers; chicken wire; humming radio; fabric mountains; the list goes on.

Each new work I encounter of Nelson’s is a new adventure. I have a long road of discovery ahead when it comes to his work and I’m looking forward to the journey.

Mike Nelson will be representing Britain at the 54th Venice Biennale this summer. Image is from Camden Arts Centre, courtesy of the artist.