Deathdream: Vietnam Comes Home

[Essay written for the Deathdream screening at Nitehawk Cinema on February 12, 2013 that included an introduction by Adam Lowenstein, Film Professor and author of Shocking Representation: historical trauma, national cinema, and the modern horror film).

Bob Clark’s 1972 cult classic Deathdream (original title: Dead of Night) is part of a select group of films from the era that dealt with the trauma of the Vietnam War. These films positioned this trauma back onto the United States by expressing the horror of war returning back to a place in which it originated but wasn’t fought. Deathdream visualizes this return in the ghostly form of a young deceased soldier, finding his way back to his family and to establish his final resting ground on familial soil. However, unlike the visceral explosions played out in Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Deathdream is a representation of hope in the faith of certain death; his family wants so much to believe he is alive, almost as much as he wants to come to terms with his death.

imagesThe family structure lays at the center of these post-Vietnam horror films, no matter how messed up in its depiction (re: the Virgin Spring-inspired parental revenge and/or the in-bred role-shifting dynamic). In Deathdream there is a powerful, near transcendent, relationship between mother and son. The mother (Christine Brooks played by Faces actress Lynn Carlin) refuses to believe that her son Andy could possibly be dead, even when military officers deliver its confirmation. So when Andy returns, she delights in this truth even though his father (Charles played by Faces and Godfather star John Marley) suspects something is wrong. And wrong it is. Andy has indeed died, as the audience sees in the opening sequence, and has somehow managed to find his way home. He’s not a zombie or a vampire as many descriptions surmise (although he does drink blood to retain “life”) but, rather, a restless ghost whose soul is adrift, conflicted about how and where he was killed, and who needs to find solace in his hometown, with the love of his mother.

dead-of-night--2Immediately after Andy’s arrival back to his home we (and everyone except his mother) get the sense that there is something terribly wrong. Despondent and angrily violent, his behavior mimics the dissociation experienced by Vietnam soldiers trying to acclimate when back on U.S. soil. However, it’s much more than that – Andy is deadly. He kills truck drivers, the family dog and family doctor (uttering the brilliant line – I died for you, the least you can do is die for me) along with his former girlfriend and nearly his sister. The family dynamic breaks down in these realizations over the truth about Andy, resulting in a despondent father fighting with the in-denial mother. It isn’t until the very end, when his mother’s love rescues his soul that we see what Andy needed all along; to come home to die.

deathdream01Made before Bob Clark’s nearly unwatchable debut Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1973) and his brilliant horror opus Black Christmas (1974), Deathdream is a pitch-perfect revelation of the horror of Vietnam in cinema. Perhaps it’s not so different from our current political climate as we can sympathize with the painful unknowing of why one is fighting and dying overseas and how families continue to cope with loss. Watching Deathdream now, it’s important to recognize the importance horror film has to mirror the unseen and discarded painful aspects of human existence. While we may be seeing a reference to Vietnam unfold on screen, we are really looking at a reflection of humanity: war, death, life, loss, and love. Equally full of pain and affection (with a bit of Bob Clark humor thrown in), Deathdream reveals the universal potency of horror cinema in its most beautifully basic form.

Sean Higgins Interview

HIGGINS-images“The biggest influences on my work in the beginning weren’t necessarily other artists. It was Tarkovskiy films and Alphaville. I was always more interested in that in terms of influence of subject matter.”

Sean Higgins’ work appears to be photographs of the natural world – land, seascapes, space, explosions – but they function as hermetic spaces of unknown origin, depopulated vistas. Higgins’ practice destabilizes source photographic imagery through technological and handcrafted interventions. These particular works, titled after Joy Division songs, embody the exhibition’s idea of collapsed spaces with pools of endless blackness.  

Sean Higgins, a Los Angeles-based artist who is included in my upcoming exhibition about post-apocalyptic voids is interviewed in LA, I’m Yours. Includes great studio shots. Enjoy the blackness…

Future of Film as a Subversive Act

When Amos Vogel (co-founder of the New York Film Festival and Cinema 16) passed away in April at the age of 91, I felt a great loss for culture. Perhaps though, with a re-emergence and re-interest in his legacy, we might now have the chance, with distance, to think about how his actions might inform the way we change and develop the future not just of film but of visual art as well. 

In small ways this is already happening. This essay by Douglas Fogle on the Frieze blog (a must-read remembrance of Mr. Vogel) is part of this start: 

Vogel’s philosophy was that in a democracy it was crucial to offer the public a range of films that would question, enlighten, and enervate with the goal of undermining previous ways of thinking and feeling. Disruption was the path to building new realities and new truths in his mind and his programming rigorously followed this critical methodology throughout his career.

Related: in 2009 LUX initiated a special project at the Zoo Art Fair where they presented artist films that respond to the idea of subversion and the moving image. 

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…

Network Awesome Essay on “A Bucket of Blood”

Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art – Maxwell H. Brock

My first essay for Network Awesome Magazine went up this week. It’s a re-do on a little ditty about Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood where I discuss sculpture, failure, the art world, murder, humor, and Deleuze. You know, the usual.

Read: Who Says the Art World Isn’t Scary: Roger Corman’s Classic A Bucket of Blood

Summer Horror and Art Link Roundup

As summer winds down and I get ready to kick this blog back into high-gear for autumn, here are some art/horror/curating links from the past couple of months:

James Morgart’s Hostile Rebirth of Horror: The Morality of Eli Roth’s Hostel 1 and 2 on Horror  
Many of us in the horror academia biz love to look at the classics (Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.) and with good reason: these films changed the course of horror forever and are still relevant works. However, it’s important to realize that they were made over thirty years ago and the political/social/culture relevance we ascribe to them is in retrospect and not pointed to our moment of now. Some have argued that horror today (at least American horror) doesn’t cut the mustard and, hey, maybe they’re right. Still, it’s critically important that we (and by we I mean all of us fascinated with horror film) to put into context movies of the past decade. And Morgart did that with Roth’s Hostile films quite well. It’s a much needed and appreciated beginning.

Stephen Thrower’s From Goblin to Morricone: the art of horror movie music in the Guardian: 
The usual suspects are at play again here but who doesn’t love to hear about Goblin one more time? This article also reminded me about this book in my Amazon queue (another exhibition idea down the line for sure). 

Matt Zoller Seitz’s Cut-rate budget, first-rate frights (Slide Show: 10 low-cost horror flicks that deliver more than their share of cheap thrills) on
This should really read “10 low-cost NORTH AMERICAN horror flicks” because with the exception Repulsion, movies outside of the U.S./Canada weren’t included. My two most obvious: Italian master Mario Bava and America’s European/”king of the B’s” Edgar G. Ulmer. Still, it’s a damn film list and much kudos are deserved for including Carnival of Souls.

Mario Bava Week on Network Awesome:
Speaking of Mario Bava, Network Awesome did an, ahem, pretty damn awesome series on the influential director claiming it “Mario Bava Week”. I’m going to publicly declare that it should be a celebration of “Mario Bava 24/7/365” because where would horror be without him? There would be no American slashers or John Carpenter (wait, maybe that would be a good thing). Regardless, endless credit needs to be given to Bava in scholarly horror history and props to Network Awesome for stepping forward with insightful articles and free-style online screenings of his classics like Danger Diabolik and Rapid Dogs (his last film and a true gem).

Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value:
You could hardly turn a street corner this summer without a mention of Jason Zinoman’s new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror. I still haven’t read it yet so reserving judgment but here’s a list of links you can scoop: The Critique of Pure Horror by Zinoman in the New York Times, Gore Galore: ‘Shock’ and the Birth of Fright Films on NPR, Son of Rosemary’s Baby – review on NYT, and inspired film series at BAM.

Kim Newman and Mark Kermode in Conversation at the British Film Institute:
I’ll be honest, one of the places that I miss most in London is the BFI. There’s no better place to go in the world on a dark and rainy afternoon to see The Picture of Dorian GrayRepulsion, or Eyes without a Face. I’ve even seen bizarro wonders like Miss Leslie’s Dolls to much loving fan-fare on the big screen there. BFI definitely celebrates horror history in a respectful manner. That’s why I wish I could’ve seen this conversation in person, one celebrating the launch of Newman’s “essential horror tome” Nightmare Movies: forty years of fear. Both Newman and Kermode are such visible fans of the genre it becomes infectious.

Ian White’s Invisible Cinemas on LUX:
Ian White talks about the movement of film (artist film and video) from the context of the cinema into the museum saying, “In my experience as a writer – which I think is also shared by some of those in academia, probably to a greater profit – it’s not ‘cinema’ but the museum that is publishing monographs and catalogues that are invaluable resources for research, career enshrinements and a decent contributor’s fee.” For me, I am increasingly attracted to the idea of encountering a film or video as you would an artwork – sometimes half-way through the story but this fractured exposure can break itself open to new readings and increased interest.

Scala Forever film series:
Speaking of London love, how am-az-ing is this multi-month long homage to Scala Cinema? The fact that they use Big Black in the video promo is simply icing on the awesome cake. Sigh. Began 13 August and runs through 2 October.

Maureen Dowd’s Washington Chain Saw Massacre in the New York Times:
It’s interesting how horror is not just a political commentary in-and-of itself but also a comparative tool in which to talk about today’s politics. But as I mentioned above, I think it’s a little tricky to relate what’s happening in the present with films made 30/40/50 years ago. Those films still have resonance but relevance needs to be found with what’s being culturally produced today. It takes more work but it’s going to have more urgency in meaning. Still, Dowd referencing horror is a clear indication of horror’s relevance within popular culture.

Look and Learn in Frieze Magazine:
In celebration of its twenty year run, Frieze Magazine is talking about art world developments during this period.  This conversation with Alex Farquharson, Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, Anthony Huberman, Christy Lange, Maria Lind, and Polly Staple on the proliferation of curatorial programmes addresses – but appropriately doesn’t solve – the emerging, evolving, contested, and diverse role of the curator since the 1990s. What stuck with me: How do you want to articulate what you stand for and how do you want to share that with the world? To me, that statements strikes on the core of what being a curator is.

On that note I will leave you with the funniest discovery of my summer: a horror/curator convergence featuring none other than Shaft…

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review of Survival of the Dead

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review of George Romero’s Survival of the Dead. The first paragraph is beautiful:

Romero’s horror set-ups are never about the terrifying situation and always about the trouble the characters get into by trying to solve it or escape it; if Carpenter’s horror is based on inevitability / powerlessness in the face of true horror (meaning: the value of horror in defining human limitations), Romero’s is based on how easily complications could have been averted by someone with a different personality or with fewer prejudices (meaning: the value of horror in defining human shortcomings). Therefore, it is impossible to separate Romero’s situations from his characters (see also: Season of the WitchKnightriders), and so it wouldn’t really be right to call Survival of the Dead a movie about an island full of zombies; it is, in Romero tradition, a movie about a group of hard-headed individuals and how this island of zombies they come upon is organized, ruled and dealt with.

Grand Guignol and Andre le Lord

French theater of horror, depicting the grotesque and the marginal: murderers, criminals, prostitution, and various forms of the ‘other’ from 1897-1962).

From the Grand Guignol website:

It was Maurey who, from 1898 to 1914, turned the Theatre du Grand-Guignol into a house of horror. He measured the success of a play by the number of people who fainted during its performance, and, to attract publicity, hired a house doctor to treat the more fainthearted spectators. It was also Maurey who discovered the novelist and playwright Andre de Lorde–“the Prince of Terror.” Under the influence of de Lorde (who collaborated on several plays with his therapist, the experimental psychologist Alfred Binet), insanity became the Grand-Guignolesque theme par excellence. At a time when insanity was just beginning to be scientifically studied and individual cases catalogued, the Grand-Guignol repertoire explored countless manias and ‘special tastes’: Andre de Lorde and Leo Marches’s L’Homme de la Nuit (The Man of the Night), for example, presented a necrophiliac, who strangely resembled Sergeant Bertrand, a man sentenced in 1849 for violating tombs and mutilating corpses. L’Horrible Passion (The Horrible Passion), by Andre de Lorde and Henri Bauche, depicted a young nanny who strangled the children in her care. (Like Metenier, de Lorde was often a target of censorship, particularly in England where scheduled touring productions of two of his plays were canceled by the Lord Chamberlain’s censors. The theater of the time, which delighted in vaudeville and bourgeois settings, could not abide the sight of blood or corpses on stage.)

Andre de Lord(1869-1942), the “Prince of Fear” (Prince de la Terrerur): French playwright, the main author of the Grand Guignol plays from 1901-1926. He wrote 150 plays, all of them devoted mainly to the exploitation of terror and insanity, and a few novels. For plays the subject matter of which concerned mental illness he sometimes collaborated with psychologist Alfred Binet, the developer of IQ testing.

At the Telephone play can be read here. Book on Grand Guignol here.