The complications of imaginary filmmaking: Jamie Shovlin’s ROUGH CUT

How do you remake a film that never existed?

In 1973, Orson Welles gave the world F FOR FAKE; a strange amalgam of a film, one that intertwined fakery with real life but did so with upfront honesty. His blatant proclamations told the audience that the movie would lie to them, trick them, and occasionally reveal the truth. It’s a marvel to experience this masterful deconstruction of film where the unraveling of reality actually feels really…real. Forty years later, UK artist Jamie Shovlin’s continues Welles’ breakdown of narrative and influential imagery in cinematic form with his debut film ROUGH CUT. But while Welles provides a his disclaimer upfront, Shovlin’s magic relies on a back-story that has been a part of an art project for the past few years. What does that mean? Well, ROUGH CUT is a documentary about the re-making a film, HIKER MEAT, that never actually happened. And despite what you will see in ROUGH CUT, HIKER MEAT will never exist. Confused? You won’t be…

The basic premise is this: HIKER MEAT is an imaginary film by a fake Italian director named Jesus Rinzoli that artist Jamie Shovlin, writer Mike Hart (name is an anagram for Hiker Meat), and musician Euan Rodger created in order to give scoring credit to another fake project, the band Lustfaust. ROUGH CUT is the culmination of these projects, a documentary that shows how Shovlin and his crew re-constructed scenes from infamous horror films in order to “make” the new version of HIKER MEAT. As the titles, trailer and imagery suggest, Shovlin culls from horror and exploitation genre history to reconstruct films that are easily recognizable to any horror fan: EVIL DEAD, OPERA, TORSO and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET III (amongst many others).

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Referenced and re-made as closely to the original as possible, using the English countryside as the stand-in landscape for mainly American films, Shovlin creates a metaphoric and literal combination of horror clichés. These individual scenes taken from different films share in specific genre tropes (for instance, there is the prominent fixture of the ‘Final Girl’) but they are, at their core, different stories. By showing the construction of attempting to recreate these scenes and suggesting that they will be cohesively pieced together, ROUGH CUT is more of a revelation of the mystery and magic of cinema rather than a simple montage. So while ROUGH CUT focuses on the attempt to remake parts of HIKER MEAT, HIKER MEAT is only a construct. The narrative lies in the making.

Existing only in trailer form, posters, artwork, and installation piece, HIKER MEAT is fascinating precisely because while it is present in the world, it’s not really there. As Shovlin says, “HIKER MEAT is effectively the false hand that allows ROUGH CUT to exist.” You’ll see glimpses of its potential life in ROUGH CUT, but the desire to see the outcome misses the point. Instead, we should revel in the mystery and take away what’s at the heart of the film: the joy, tribulations, complications, hilarity, and insanity that come with the territory of making a movie. The fact that they’re making something that’ll never exist in a traditional image form is what makes the film uniquely fantastic. That’s the touchstone of reality in ROUGH CUT.

This originally appeared on Fangoria in June 2014.

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The House is Bad

I haven’t updated this blog in forever but that will soon change. And what better way to start than by sharing with you all the new issue of OneplusOne Journal, Occult, Magick, Evil and the Powers of Horror. Vol II, that includes my essay The House is Bad. I wrote this essay ages ago and it explores houses in the films The HauntingHouse of Usher, and Burnt Offerings that aren’t haunted but are, instead, evil by birth. Touching upon subjects I’m very interested in (space, place, and horror), I’m thrilled to have the first concretized bit of writing from me on the subject is finally published. 

An excerpt is included below but I encourage you to read read the entire issue (downloadable here) because it includes an interview with Graham Harman on H.P. Lovecraft and the horror of politeness in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, amongst other stellar reads. Good stuff.

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Cinema was born with a house that was bad. In the late 19th century, George Méliès not only laid the foundation for moviemaking but he also established the association of horror and the home with his fantastical short, The Devil’s Castle (1896). Over one hundred years later, the idea of the “old dark house” remains unshakable; the recent phenomenal critical and commercial success of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) is but one example of audiences desiring classic ghostly interventions within the familial space. But while the ubiquity of the house as a site from which spirits, psychotic murderers, and demonic forces come forth is genre commonplace, there are a select few films that expound upon the house itself as being evil.

So, what is an evil house? The evil house is considered here as Deleuzian/Bergsonian durational space, one that exists in a temporal status where there is a collapse of pasts and presents, interior and exterior, memories and events. The beginnings for a bad house lay in its construction; the time in which all of the above became embedded into its foundation or, as Roderick Usher says, the house contains, “every evil rooted within its stones.” In the bad house, the horror is unseen. It is not a portal for ghosts nor is it the manifestation of awful historical events. It is a vibrant living being born and transformed from wicked environments that systematically lure, destroy, and, occasionally, protect its inhabitants. Read the rest…

Burnt Offerings: the vampiric house

Burnt Offerings is the second film in Nitehawk’s series THE WORKS – KAREN BLACK. It is the only horror film featuring Black in the program that also includes Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Airport 1975, Family Plot, and The Day of the Locust. The following text was originally written for Fangoria…

Burnt Offerings is pretty much the perfect horror movie. Psychological, mysterious, and haunting, it breaks away from many of the more gruesome exploitation films of the early 1970s while being very much distant from the American slashers that were to follow. Featuring an all-star cast of Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and Bette Davis, Burnt Offerings offers a truly original take on the haunted house. Rather than the home being an area that the dead occupy, as we’re accustomed to seeing in haunted house films, the home here is very much alive…and it needs to be fed.

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Fairly faithful to Robert Marasco’s brilliantly vivid 1973 novel of the same name, Dan Curtis’ (also director of Trilogy of Terror) version of Burnt Offerings retains that fuzzy, hazy, confused and uncomfortable sensation that pulsates throughout the narrative of the book. Epitomizing the phrase “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is,” the film centers around the Rolf family (Ben, Marian, and Davey) who have rented a gothic country house for the summer as a means to escape their hectic life in the city. The strange owners of the house, the Allardyce siblings Arnold (Burgess Meredith in a wonderful flamboyant performance as the wheelchair bound “brother”) and Roz (an in-control and raspy voiced “sister” Eileen Heckart), should have been the young family’s first warning. The ridiculously low rental price for the summer announcement following by the catch that the Rolfs would have to take care of the Allardyce “mother” during their stay should have been their second. But the lure of the house is too strong for Marian and so she enters her family into ruin.

Immediately Marian becomes obsessed with the house. She cleans, straightens, swoons over its interior as the life begins to drain out of her. She spends increasingly more time in the never-present Mrs. Allardyce’s room, becoming one with it. Her hair becomes gray, clothing becomes Victorian. And she’s not the only one who changes. Aunt Elizabeth, a spry swearing-smoking-cursing 74 year old (played by the powerhouse Bette Davis) literally begins to crumble before our very eyes while young blood Davey becomes the main target and Ben (the manly Oliver Reed) descends into violent madness. Ben’s hallucinations include one of the more unforgetable images in horror film: the thin, grinning chauffeur. He is the source of Ben’s nightmares (presumably stemming from the funeral of his parents at a young age) and, subsequently, the source of nightmares for numerous viewers since Burnt Offerings’ release.  

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Architecture, domesticity, and women are the narrative backbone of haunted house stories. From The Castle of Otranto on up to Psycho, the role of the woman and her downfall are often told through the relationship to the home. So, while Reed’s “Ben” is the character with whom the audience identifies with on this horrifying journey (he trys desperately to save his family even when in a near catatonic state), it’s Karen Black’s “Marian” is the one whom the story centers around. Marian – her body, soul, and mind – become absorbed into the Allardyce house and, through the deaths of her family, experiences a re-birth which places her as the new motherly soul, the beating heart if you will, of the home. One could very much view Burnt Offerings as commentary on the second wave of feminism, much like The Stepford Wives, because it firmly and forcefully re-places the woman back into her proper place as “mother” and caretaker.

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In a role that could easily be over-the-top, Black plays Marian with a quiet subtlety that has to be one of the best performances in horror film. Black establishes her obsession with the house so steadily and convincingly that when she returns back into the house, we don’t yell at her to not go up the stairs as we do in other horror films. Instead, we sympathize with her compulsion recognizing, as she has throughout the film, that what is about to happen to her is inevitable. Because we know, through Black’s depiction Marian, that the Rolf family structure has to be obliterated to preserve the Allardyce family. This can only happen through the rejuvenation of the home and this home is vampiric, sucking the blood from its victims in order to become new again, everlasting, to remain part of a mysterious other-worldly cycle.

Our mother…is back.

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):

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

READ THE REST HERE ON NETWORK AWESOME

Let’s Talk Turkey: Bad Taste and Blood Freak

Had a blast writing this piece on Blood Freak (1972) for Network Awesome’s Thanksgiving weekend program…

To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about…but one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste…To understand bad taste one must have very good taste. Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humor, which is anything but universal. – John Waters, Shock Value

Based on John Waters’ definition of “good” versus “bad” bad taste, it would be fair to say that the 1972 ludicrous quasi-morality tale on consumption (drugs, the bible, turkey, women) Blood Freak (Brad F. Grinter and Steve Hawks) falls into the latter category of bad, really bad, taste. Not that it’s exceptionally gory or gratuitous or offensive but just that it is horribly produced, horrendously acted, and has appalling dialogue. Yet still (!), Blood Freak is damn entertaining. Most likely this is because it fulfills a nostalgic desire to watch one of the worst movies ever made and to gleefully relish in its kitsch factor. Or perhaps the classic tale of a muscle-man-turned-drug-addicted-killer-turkey-man is a story for the ages.

To be completely honest, Blood Freak is a nearly indescribable film that truly must be watched to believe. But before you do, here’s a little breakdown…READ THE REST OF IT ON NETWORK AWESOME

The Dark Room: spectral space of photography and film in Alexander Nicolas Gehring’s Messages from the Darkroom and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

The Dark Room: spectral space of photography and film in Alexander Nicolas Gehring’s Messages from the Darkroom and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is an essay I wrote for the Brighton Photo Fringe Open ’11 exhibition (November 18 – December 18) as a contributing Guest Curator.

It is profoundly seductive to believe that photography can be an evidentiary medium of a realm beyond our mortal coil. Even more provocative is the idea of photography, and subsequently film, as a tool to facilitate our voyeuristic desire to see the invisible (fleeting moments, ghostly visions, and even intense fear). In his series Messages from the Darkroom, Alexander Nicolas Gehring taps into photography’s psychological strangeness by positioning its construct and production as spectral sites. This depiction of the camera as an object to channel, capture, and visualize deathly moments, as well as its function in fulfilling our desires to bear witness, was explicitly explored in Michael Powell’s controversial, and equally luscious film, Peeping Tom (1960).

What interests me is Gehring and Powell’s shared urge to confront the past via photographic means and how their work comments on what Martin Scorsese declared [in a 2010 interview with Mark Kermode celebrating the 50th anniversary of Peeping Tom] as our “morbid urge to gaze”. This cultural gaze has evolved in the decades since the release of Peeping Tom, with its nearly prophetic social commentary, into something that is at once more familiar and disturbing in our contemporary world. With this “morbid urge to gaze” in mind, Messages from the Darkroom and Peeping Tom fundamentally comment on the attempt to visualize and record the ultimate gaze: that of death. The very foundation of the photographic medium aims to preserve aspects of memory, life, and experience in relation (and perhaps in reaction) to this very personal and profound moment we will all experience. Channeled through the lens of the camera, and re-born in the haunted space of the darkroom, the spirits contained and preserved within these images have been called forth by the artist/photographer/filmmaker/mad scientist.

Based on the historical usage of photography by scientists and occult practitioners to capture the presence of ghosts in “spirit photography”, Alexander Nicolas Gehring’s Messages from the Darkroom brings to light how space, specifically the room where film is processed, functions as a site for the spectral. This series conflates the notion of “medium” in photography in that the camera produces a physical medium (a photographic image) and acts as a spiritual medium (a channel between the living and non-living). Here the camera is medium in literal form, producing a representation of what some believe to be objective documentation of ghosts, becoming a bridge between the corporeal and spiritual worlds. Still, what is most interesting about Gehring’s photographs is not the evoked image itself but the concept of a spectral site, a place where the dead are re-born and re-placed back into the land of the living.

Now revered as a British new wave classic, Michael Powell’s career-ending Peeping Tom treads similar waters in its fetishization of camera objects, the haunted space of the darkroom, voyeuristic eye, and the distinct presence of the dead. The film shows how the torturous childhood of Mark Lewis continuously haunts his adult state of mind, compelling him to use his camera as a recording device and lethal weapon. In glorious Eastman colour, the aesthetic of Peeping Tom – the visualization of the darkroom as two-toned, red and black, dark and shadowy, warm and clinical – is most noticeable in Gehring’s photographs Medium and Light Phenomenon. The camera in these works is captured as a self-contained medium and as a sculptural object. As Powell suggests by alternating viewpoints between Mark’s “special” camera with the another “outside” lens, Gehring’s confrontational camera is also shown through the unrepresented lens (an autonomous camera that functions as the audience point-of-view).

In the cellar, darkness prevails both day and night, and even when we are carrying a lighted candle, we see shadows dancing on the dark walls. Gaston Bachelard – The Poetics of Space

The darkroom (connoting the laboratory, dungeon, cellar, etc.) is a space of process and discovery. Gehring’s darkroom becomes the place of the séance. Referencing the photographic documentation of paranormal activity by notable early twentieth century German psychic researcher, Albert Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing, Messages from the Darkroom focuses on the dead returning and co-mingling with the living via photographic representation. This darkroom references an arena of scientific research where new technology is used to capture the unseen, in this case ghosts, in an attempt to be in closer contact with an extension of human existence. The darkroom and cinematic space in Peeping Tom acts as a dual place of sanctuary and fear. In this room, Mark returns to the site of his own psychological abuse by processing and consuming the films he makes by murdering women. With each repetitive viewing, these victims are repeatedly brought back to life, made to watch their own death, and be killed again.

Of course, this is the very nature of the filmic/photographic medium itself, a sensitized form capturing a specified series of events in time that can be replayed in perpetuity. As time and space collapse, that which is depicted onscreen never truly fades; always existing as it was at that very moment it was captured, frozen forever on celluloid. Furthermore, our current moment is one where the medium of film is in the process of becoming obsolete. In the wake of the quality, ease, and accessibility of digital technology, there appears to be little use for analog outside the realm of nostalgia. A near living object itself (film curator Henri Langlois firmly believed that nitrate film had to be used/exercised in order to stay alive), film now finds itself in a ghostly space within the digital realm.

Alexander Nicolas Gehring and Michael Powell are seduced by the psychic camera as evidence but wary of its ability to produce accurate visual records. Gehring engages in an obsession to document the afterlife while Powell challenges the perversity of documenting all aspects of our lives. They contest the “all knowing” camera eye because they also consider what happens outside of the frame; photographic representation inherently lays on the liminal boundary between fact and fiction. The foundation of the darkroom is what grounds these layers of suggested ghostly presence within the photographic “medium”. Itself in danger of becoming a thing of the past, this dark room provides the spectral space in which we can conjure up the unseen and indulge, repeatedly, in our collective and cultural morbid desire to gaze.