Night of the Living Dead: Annotated Palace Collection

I wrote about the impossibility of writing about Night of the Living Dead for the Annotated Palace Collection (project by Darren Banks):


In 1968 two films were released that changed the landscape for cinema and ushered in the era of the post-modern horror film.

The first is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (an adaptation of Ira Levon’s novel) in which a young New York woman is betrayed by her husband and neighbors into having Satan’s child. With its colorful characters, saturated landscape, and lush style, Rosemary’s Baby is in stark contrast to the gritty black-and-white reality expressed in the wholly original second film of 1968 – George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. Like Rosemary’s Baby, Night fundamentally questions our ability to trust other people, particularly those closest to us but its expression of the utter collapse of society (because of an unexplained phenomena that causes the dead to walk and because of the inherently violent nature of the living) and its not-so-subtle socio-political representations, makes Night of the Living Dead a devastating experience still today.


To write something new about Night of the Living Dead is nearly as unthinkable as watching the dead rise up from the grave. This isn’t because its relevancy is relegated to the past but rather frighteningly because the issues attacked in the film are still very much apart of America’s cultural fabric. The antagonistic familial relationship as expressed between brother and sister (Barbara and Johnny: first in dealing with their dead father’s grave and then in dealing with their separation in life/death) and the nuclear family (in Night the young girl kills and eats her parents) are still familiar. Of course, Night’s famously known for its shocking representation of racism through main character Ben whose blackness is unaddressed throughout the film until the end where he is shot, killed, and burned by the redneck authorities. They may have mistaken him for a zombie but the visceral reaction to the news-footage style sequence at the film’s end – where Ben’s dead body is brutally carried by meat hooks – is a very painful visualization of America’s racism in the 1960s. Whereas then it was a representation of that turbulent time, now it’s a challenge for our generation to process these past traumas.


Pop-culturally, Night of the Living Dead marks the birth of the modern zombie. Only a slew of “zombie” (Haitian Voodoo zombies) films existed before and although interesting correlations can be drawn between the pre-and-post Romero zombie cinema (mainly in their cultural reflections), it’s undeniable that Romero constructed the near unbreakable collective notion of the zombie narrative. Now, it’s imperative to re-think the zombie in order to establish contemporary allegories however, at the same time, it’s crucial to revisit Night of the Living Dead (and the rest in Romero’s “Dead” series) as a reminder of not only what innovative filmmaking can produce but also as a reminder of cinema’s power to painfully confront life as we know it.

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. 

On the Desperate Edge of Now: Heather Cantrell

Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition,
On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here .

Founding-Fathers(Ivo)Los Angeles artist Heather Cantrell uses portrait photography as a means to construct and, ultimately, deconstruct singular and collective identity. Performative elements of her subjects as well as theatrical backgrounds function very much like a movie set in which the actions of her “characters” become exaggerated, solidified in an ever-static moment of the past.

In the very personal Corpus Battaglia (2004), Heather Cantrell set a cultural and personal stage as she identifies her familial history with the haunted battlegrounds of the American Civil War. The title itself references the “body” and “battle” and, presumably, the profound influence that one can have upon the other. As a photographic series, Corpus Battaglia entangles (our) national and (her) personal trauma by conflating public and private histories of the American South: the mausoleum-still landscapes of the Gettysburg, Antietam, and Valley Forge battlefields along with the iconic portrait assembly of the artist’s own southern “fore-fathers” (her mother’s four previous husbands).

Yankee-Bullet-HoleHere, the still landscapes of Civil War battlefields resonate with America’s collective past, now hauntingly placid tableaus but once the site of bloody horror, while the images of war memorials imbue trauma as remembrance. The Civil War, pitting family against family with cultural and political values at stake, lead to the formation of the United States as it exists today. Cantrell parallels our country’s upbringing with the turmoil of her own by juxtaposing these landscapes with representations of her four fathers who, by default, also symbolize her mother. Her biological father Ivo is the only human figure in the series, her other fathers are depicted through objects – a house, a semi-truck, and most eerily, an urn (one of her stepfathers, Sam, tragically committed suicide).

Founding-Fathers(Sam)Perpetually revealing one specific moment, photography itself is a conjuring up of a spectral past. Based on the historical usage of photography by scientists and occult practitioners to capture the presence of ghosts in “spirit photography” in the late 19th and early 20th century, the very foundational concept of the photograph can be seen as a spectral site, a place where the dead are re-born and re-placed back into the land of the living. Therefore, the idea of “medium” here is twofold: a physical medium (the photographic image) and spiritual medium (a channel between the living and non-living).  Corpus Battaglia is therefore a ghost, conjuring up America’s collective formative past when a nation was at war with itself along with the artist’s individualized experience of growing up; manifestations of America and a young American. 


The title of this project (and its inspiration) is the first episode of Adam Curtis’ blindingly good BBC series called “The Living Dead.” It’s about how the past bleeds into the present, how it cannot be ignored, and how our memory of current/past events is a construction. 


Fango Flashbacks

In November, the VHS Vault program I co-curate at Nitehawk Cinema co-presented a series of real “turkeys” with Fangoria in celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday season. In conjunction with this program, I wrote briefly on each of the films for Fangoria’s “Fango Flashback” which is their ongoing series that looks back at the “classics”. It was a bloody good time.

Fango Flashback: BLOOD FEAST (1963)
Horror cinema has many Godfathers. James Whale, Val Lewton, Mario Bava, and George A. Romero have all laid down the foundation of what we collectively consider to be the “horror film.” Mixed in with these founding forefathers of horror is the varied bunch of “B” geniuses: Edgar G. Ulmer, Roger Corman, and…Herschell Gordon Lewis. As the crowned “Godfather of Gore” and the near antithesis to Mr. Lewton, Lewis created the “splatter” subgenre in his over-the-top movies that would set the wheels in motion for future generations of American horror filmmakers. On the cusp of its fiftieth anniversary, Nitehawk Cinema and FANGORIA revisit Lewis’ first filmic foray into horror by presenting the VHS version of his cheap and charming 1963 flick, BLOOD FEAST. READ THE REST

Fango Flashback: BLOOD FREAK (1972)
Although many films in the 1970s dealt with the horror of the Vietnam War and the affected soldiers’ difficult return to “normal” life in the United States (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, DEATHDREAM, TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE), BLOOD FREAK certainly isn’t one of them.Vietnam vet / motorcycle rider Herschell certainly has some demons in his closet but this movie doesn’t really take us there with him. Providing a ludicrous quasi-morality tale on consumption (drugs, the bible, turkey, women), BLOOD FREAK is not exceptionally gory or gratuitous or even offensive. It is, however, horribly produced, horrendously acted, and has appalling dialogue. Yet still (still!), BLOOD FREAK is so damn entertaining that to revel in its kitsch should be a horror fan’s inalienable right. There is some indefinable quality here that makes this tale, one of a muscle-man-turned-drug-addicted-killer-turkey-man, one for the ages. READ THE REST

Fango Flashback: HOME SWEET HOME (1981)
Lovingly low-budget and certainly “inspired” by HALLOWEEN, HOME SWEET HOME occurs around what we can only gather is a Thanksgiving celebration at a failed music producer’s country home. It brings together all sorts of ambiguous relationships (who, exactly, is with whom?) that includes a small child named Angel (played by future EYES WIDE SHUT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES reboot star Vinessa Shaw), a wailing Latina, a mime/magician/guitarist, two over-sexed friends, a horny couple and the aforementioned producer. And all, save the two obligatory final girls, will perish in fairly comical ways by the ridiculously beefy unmasked version of “The Shape.” READ THE REST

Marnie Weber – The Night of Forevermore

If it is said that Hieronymus Bosch draws with his brush, then Marnie Weber films with her sculptures.

Marnie Weber’s The Night of Forevermore is a static space housing monsters, demons, witches, human-animal hybrids; all of which come alive with slow, repetitive gestures and sound. It’s a Hieronymous Bosch painting brought to life, a haunting world with creatures familiar and strange, each with their own woe, purpose, and revenge. Bosch’s paintings are infamously crowded, layered with forms of life and death co-mingling in this liminal boundary between heaven and hell. It is an area of foretold ghosts. And retained within the picture plain and filmic frame, Weber’s animated sculpture remain spread across the entire tableau but firmly placed on an individual stage.

Of course, the activating power that elevates the concept of a painting into a moving image in The Night of Forevermore is the camera itself. Through the all-seeing eye of Weber’s lens, the viewer is shown this world of dreams and nightmares beginning with a static shot where movement begins individually, slowly, and then all at once. This overview pans away, purposefully, to show the action and the function of each creature – the musician, the crying pig, the riding witch, the executioner – giving the audience privileged mobility. It’s the opposite of Bosch’s chaotic evocation of confusion where our eyes dart maniacally across the surface. Weber’s calculated pacing lends the bizarre, gruesome, and monstrous scene an elevated other worldly aura. The strangeness becomes tactile.

Weber’s films themselves are like dreams, with images floating from space to scene in non-linear time as her representational figures suggest eternal ramifications for questionable deeds. The protagonist in The Night of Forevermore is a young and innocent girl (played by Weber’s own daughter, Colette Rose Shaw) shown her own dreamlike/nightmarish journey to escape the darkness. She is the only one with the freedom to move, her ability traverse through these alternate realms only being because she is still fighting the evil damnation the witch (played by Weber) has subjected her to. Hers is an unexpected reality, confronting a devilish figure, escaping the witch’s clutches, waking up in strange alternate universes. Similar to the horror film heroine (aka the Final Girl), her experience is a visualize metaphor living through life into adulthood. The Night of Forevermore is a late 15th century morality tale made contemporary through the influence of moviemaking.

However, as is typical with Weber’s tales, her monsters are not safely relegated to the spiritual (film) world. Instead, the gallery space functions as a portal through which Weber brings forth these beings through objects. The painting and collage on wood works (a first) provide a literal weight to what I’ve always associated as her unique version of film stills. Furthering the narratives in the film and withholding the freedom of movement the film provides, these collage pieces segues perfectly into the sculptural versions of select characters. Haunting us with their presence, the old witch sits still in a rocking chair while watching us watch the film, a bed of fruitless trees lurk nearby. One almost expects them to begin moving, just a twitch, as the film has shown us that even paintings, even creatures in the night, can come alive, seek us out, and steal our souls.

Marnie Weber’s The Night of Forevermore at Marc Jancou Gallery (New York, September 13 – November 3, 2012) 

The cabin in the woods: representation and repetition

As I’m writing an essay about the uncanny relationship to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), I’m thinking about the slipages that occur between imitation and homage in creative forms. Where does the impulse come from to manifest a narrative, a style, an atmosphere come from?Where is the boundary border between being on the safe side of homage rather than the evil side of plagiarism? And how does this influence perpetuate the evolvement and dissemination of the horror genre?

In a collusion of similar thoughts, yesterday I looking at the cabin paintings from the 1990s by Peter Doig. Knowing his interest in horror film, seen in his culling from Friday the 13th (1980) imagery, I’ve tended to draw a correlation to this cabin series and the pervasive use of the isolated cabin in the woods in horror films. The claustrophobia of the forrest, shown frenetically and close up in Doig’s paintings, is situated around the idilic solitude of the house. This notion, of course, tends to explode in horror cinema – man is not safe, not even and especially, in nature. 

So as I look to Doig’s “homage/influence” from horror, I noticed that perhaps horror film is producing a mutual admiration. How did I come to think this? Seeing the poster for Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012) I felt something familiar. There was something about that cabin, mirroring itself, reflection both an above world and a reality below that struck a nerve. Then I remembered Doig’s cabin paintings, his layering on imagery, the spatiality he establishes in his work:

Peter Doig – Camp Forestia (1996), Oil on canvas


The similarities between Camp Forestia and The Cabin in the Woods poster suggest that visual art and horror film might just be bouncing ideas (concept and design) off of each other. Intentional or not, this type of intense self-reflexivity means that these ideas about the representation of horror are contagious. My only hope is that there is still room in which to facilitate the production of new generative images and narratives. 

Josh Azzarella: duration, the familiar, and the cinematic

Josh Azzarella is an artist whose moving image works are the result of manipulating known films within popular culture to create an entirely isolated experience. For instance, his breathtakingly immersive Untitled #105 (SFDF) (2009-2011) three-channel installation presses pause on three singular moments within the landscape of King Kong. The work becomes the place where the viewer remains in a perpetual period of waiting for the “monster” to arrive; he never does.

This tension of not-seeing but still knowing expands in Azzarella’s film modification of The Wizard of OzUntitled #125 (Hickory) (2009-2011). Admittedly an obsession of his, the familiarity of The Wizard of Oz that is embedded in American culture is profound. From its infamously troublesome production (rumors of suicide, anyone?) to its glorious introduction to technicolor to its popularity through annual television airing, the story of a young girl with dreams who travels to far only to find that what’s important is the love of home is part of America’s narrative. Throughout the world people have seen this film; it’s a universal point of reference. 

As with Untitled #105 (SFDF) (2009-2011), Untitled #125 (Hickory) makes the familiar obscure. While we cannot detect any development or movement when watching, we are made aware that it is from a 6 1/2 minute excerpt from The Wizard of Oz; encompassing the moment from when the tornado hits until Dorothy emerges into technicolor Oz and meets Glenda the Good Witch. The reason why we cannot see what we know is there is because Azzarella has stretched out cinematic space and time so that this film, his film, is 7200 minutes, approximately the same time of Dorothy’s stay in Oz. Isolating the film to be entirely represented by a single character’s experience, Dorothy, he says:

This work extends a moment of transformative transition (Dorothy’s journey to Oz) to envelop the entire time of her experience. Just as dreams which realistically occur in flashes of seconds in our brains can seem like hours or days, so Dorothy’s hours of unconsciousness take on a five day journey of transformation in Oz.

What Azzarella’s interventionist act does is abstract an image so familiar to us that we can no longer recognize it. The naked eye cannot detect movement. The film becomes unwatchable. And why is this important? Because durational films based on popular cinema (also think of Ivan Zulueta’s Frank Stein and King Kong in the early 1970s along with Douglas Gordon’s 24 hour Psycho and Five Year Drive By in the 1990s) force audiences to re-consider ways of seeing. They challenge what we think we know about narrative structure by inverting the movies we know and love as they morph into something new to critique, consider, and debate. These life of this films actually lives on in these works as both a love letter to the story and provocation regarding the fallacy found in cinema. These artists films reveal and remind us that we see onscreen is never really real. 

Watch Untitled #125 (Hickory) Part 1 (preview) here:

Recent writings on horror films

Below is a link compilation of recent writings on horror films that I’ve published on Nitehawk Cinema’s blog, Hatched (where I’m co-editor). Many of these texts correspond to the monthly VHS screenings I co-curate at Nitehawk. Click each title to read the essay in its entirety. 

The Collective Monstrosity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
 is one of a handful of films that punctuate the very life-blood of cinematic history. Intensely brutal with very little reprieve or consideration for the audience, Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out of a rift of a socio-cultural framework, bursting onscreen with the evisceration of the family structure, youth culture, and cultural fragility in a post-Vietnam United States…

VHS Vault: Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive
Everything and everyone in Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive looks like it/they need a good, long, hard scrub. The dingy dwellings, saturated coloring, and hazy lighting make an atmosphere that mimics each character’s dirtiness (both inside and out) as well as their visceral insanity.  No one here, aside from the little girl and poor pooch, is pure: sex, killing, stealing. Eaten Alive is where vice meets its crocodilian end…

VHS Vault: Flesh for Frankenstein 
Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation (often miscalled “Frankenstein”) have seen many iterations of themselves since Mary Shelley first wrote her gothic novelFrankenstein in 1818. Morphing through mediums of literature, theater, film and then television series, commercials, cereals, etc., the “monster” has become the very essence of re-generation – from his “birth” to his cultural evolvement…

VHS Vault: The Exterminating Angel
Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel reveals the slow and sudden unraveling of upper society as they experience an isolated apocalypse in their party hosts’ dining room. Like in other post-apocalyptic movie (zombie, nuclear, vampiric), the unwilling residents of this unknown disaster go through stages of discovery, collaboration, segregation, degradation, and death. Only here, there are no explanations and no reasonable revelations. Buñuel’s beautifully surreal depiction of the decline of bourgeoisie civilization remains unsolved, unknowable, and unexplainable…

Cry Me a River: Darren Banks’ I’m sure if there were a monster in the midlands we would have seen it on the telly

For the Gods and Monsters issue of Incognitum Hactenus, I wrote the following text on Darren Banks’ 2011 video piece I’m sure if there were a monster in the midlands we would have seen it on the telly. Watch the video here. 

Cry Me a River: Darren Banks’ I’m sure if there were a monster in the midlands we would have seen it on the telly

Sweeping aerial shots, panoramic images of rivers and lakes, and close-ups that push outward towards barren landscapes, Darren Banks’ I’m sure if there were a monster in the midlands we would have seen it on the telly shows nearly every possible way of looking and experiencing the forest as a literal outsider. It is an examination of non-places, obscure in their absence of the human, begging the questions: What lurks beneath? Who is hiding in the shadows? Why is this nothingness so frightful? In this world abandoned by people, I’m sure if… becomes a cinematic spectral space in its depiction of the world without us but a site where our fears are still very much present.

The conglomeration of numerous outdoor scenes from horror movies in I’m sure if there were a monster in the midlands we would have seen it on the telly establishes a singular, large-scale, atmospheric landscape; a filmic version of Frankenstein’s monster through sourcing the benign body parts from Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), The Burning (1981), Antichrist (2009), and The Wicker Man (1973) amongst nearly twenty others. Further referencing horror history, Banks gleans the title from the hospital sequence in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) in which the doctor refuses the boy’s claims that a wolf has attacked him saying that if it were true then it would be on television. Banks therefore positions our culture’s submissive reliance on media sources to collectively prove/disprove facts and fictions above our ability to trust our inherent knowledge of the world. Allegorically this gets to the heart of “man” in that desire to rely on our instincts while maintaining to control the sleeping animal/monster buried within each of us (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and George A. Romero’s Dead series).

However, any literal representation of the “monster” is denied in Banks’ version. The “telly” is not proving to us that it exists. Instead, the figure of the “monster” is implied strictly through the landscape and through the omission of any human presence or any significant action. These multiple and disparate landscapes are at once peaceful and foreboding, familiar (through the recognition of films) and strange (a world for us, but not with us). Therefore, while we don’t see anything or anyone we can still sense that something is amiss. Whom or what can we trust? Visualizing this liminal boundary between a place of sanctuary and terror through the manipulation of media sources (and Banks does this throughout his body of work) he establishes a productive tension. This tension works precisely because the concealed yet explicit absence constructed through television, film, and music ultimately becomes a revelation of the unrepresented.

I’m sure if there were a monster in the midlands we would have seen it on the telly subscribes to influential producer Val Lewton’s theory that the simplest suggestion of horror onscreen will ignite the audience’s imagination to conjure up something far more horrific than could ever be physically represented. Think of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Like any good old-fashioned horror narrative, Banks’ video relies on editorial selection, suggestion, and sound to cultivate the necessary and desired feeling of dread within the viewers. This visual journey through the “midlands” is a guided one where the framework Banks employs allows us to be privy to this world, experiencing it through his exacting means, but ultimately at a safe distance.

“Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter: witchcraft, women, and domesticity in Horror Hotel”

My latest essay for Network Awesome Magazine where I discuss the role of women in relation to historical witchcraft and domesticity in the 1960 Christopher Lee-starring “classic” Horror Hotel. Appropriately, the title is derived from the Iron Maiden song in which the video featured clips from the film.

Witchcraft is alive and thriving in the small town of Whitewood in which the atmospheric 1960 film Horror Hotel or City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey) is set. From prosecuting women as witches to exploiting traditional gender roles prescribed to women in the early 1960s (sister, girlfriend, caretaker), Horror Hotel begins in the 17th century with the rather gruesome burning of condemned head-witch Elizabeth Selwyn. This opening scenic depiction of a witch and her relationship with the devil is strikingly similar to Mario Bava’s Mask of Satan/Black Sunday (1960), however this story is deeply rooted within the Puritanical history of the United States and, in particular, the terrifying witch trials that targeted young women in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Like Black Sunday but unlike the Salem witch trails, the witches in Horror Hotel are all too real and their devotion to Satan means trouble that spans the centuries.

Obsessed with researching the history of witchcraft in New England for her term paper, college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson) ventures off to Whitewood per the suggestion of her stoic professor Alan Driscoll (played by the scene-stealing Christopher Lee). Stubborn and strong willed, Nan dismiss the concerns of both her boyfriend and brother on the quest to discover something about Satanic worship that has never been known before. Combined with her somewhat condescending approach to the small town, this pretentious ambition to be a scholarly researcher is the core of her naiveté. Nan’s lack of common sense and the inability to gauge her surroundings ultimately leads her to a bloody sacrificial demise on the infamous Candlemas Eve.

Nan’s journey within Horror Hotel parallels, in some ways, that of Marion Crane (Janet Lee) in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller, Psycho, that was also released in the 1960. Both narratives exploit gender roles and feature a determined blonde who thinks she knows better than everyone else, striking out on her own, and who ultimately winds up paying for this bull-headedness with her life. Similarly, the audience main identification is with Nan for half of the film – her journey is our journey – as it is with Marion Crane. When each character is brutally killed (both young women are stabbed), the directors make it clear that anyone is fair game for the slaughter.