Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Werewolf

Artwork by Jim Perez
Dir. Henry MacRae

A Navajo witch-woman believes her husband has deserted her, but unbeknownst to her, he has actually been killed. When she is rejected by his family, she raises her daughter to hate all white men. The daughter grows up to become a werewolf and she seeks revenge on those who killed her father and wronged her mother.

While now believed to be a lost film, destroyed in a fire in 1924, The Werewolf is thought to hold the honour of being the first ever werewolf film. It also marks the first cinematic appearance of the female werewolf, a figure who, until relatively recently, was often overlooked (in cinema) in favour of her male counterpart. Interestingly, The Werewolf can also be seen (perhaps rather tenuously) as the first Universal horror film, though at the time, the distributor was still known as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. It was directed by Canadian filmmaker Henry MacRae, who, amongst other things, is credited as pioneering the use of artificial light for interior filming and the use of double exposures in early cinema. The screenplay was written by Ruth Ann Baldwin, a former journalist, and is very loosely based on Henry Beaugrand’s short story ‘The Werewolves’ (1898), which tells of a band of pioneers who believe there are (Native American) werewolves prowling around outside their snowbound Canadian fort.

According to Chantal Bourgault du Coudray, author of 'The Curse of the Werewolf: Fantasy, Horror and the Beast Within', The Werewolf combined “anxiety about female sexuality with fears of racial degeneracy” and “contributed to a discourse that envisioned women as a threat to the lives and aspirations of men.” While the likes of Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941) popularised the notion of the doomed lycanthropic (male) protagonist who desperately wanted to be free of his curse, The Werewolf’s depiction of a witch-woman who uses her ability to change into a wolf to obtain revenge, is something that became quite typical in representations of the female werewolf. Female werewolves tend to be more comfortable in their wolf skin than their male counterparts, and because they generally embrace their more primal impulses, are seen as a threat to (patriarchal) order and must be destroyed. The aligning of femininity with nature, the body and the wilderness stems from nineteenth century discourse which posited women as men’s ‘other’; masculinity was aligned with culture and the mind (hence the reason why male werewolves tend to be more psychologically tormented by their condition - which often guaranteed their salvation, whereas female werewolves were usually destroyed).

Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)
As an interesting side note, various settings and themes from The Werewolf and Beaugrand’s 'The Werewolves' would be echoed in Grant Harvey’s Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004), which is not only set in The Great White North during frontier times and features a group of early pioneers coming under attack from roaming lycanthropes, but also addresses ideas concerning ‘monstrous femininity’, cultural identity and race, and the notion of cursed bloodlines, cyclical history and reincarnation…

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

How To Become A Werewolf

While researching all things lycanthropic for my book on The Company of Wolves, I came across a marvellous old tome by Elliott O’Donnell, entitled ‘Werwolves.’ O’Donnell (1872-1965) was the author of countless books concerning the supernatural and the occult, and when he wasn’t writing accounts of his own experiences as a real-life ghost-hunter battling spectres, spooks and banshees, he authored several novels, including ‘For Satan’s Sake’ (1904) and ‘The Sorcery Club’ (1912), and myriad short stories and articles. O’Donnell once claimed “I have investigated, sometimes alone, and sometimes with other people and the press, many cases of reputed hauntings. I believe in ghosts but am not a spiritualist.”

‘Werwolves’ (1912) was intended as a scholarly, encyclopaedic study of, funnily enough, werewolves, and it contains first-hand accounts of O'Donnell’s personal encounters with lycanthropes. While the facts contained within its pages are a wee bit questionable, it certainly remains one of the most fascinating, and, dare I say, entertaining resources on the subject, containing as it does, stories and sightings of wolfmen from various cultures across the globe.

While perusing an online copy of the book, I was immediately drawn to the fourth chapter: How To Become A Werewolf. According to O’Donnell, in cases when lycanthropy is not hereditary, it may still be acquired through the performance of certain ancient rites ordained by Black Magic. Phew! Before detailing these certain ancient rites, O’Donnell suggests that whoever intends to perform them must first of all find a suitable location, and secondly, be “earnest and a believer in those super-physical powers whose favour he is about to ask.”

He then goes on to suggest that "a spot remote from the haunts of men" is best, and that "The powers to be petitioned are not to be found promiscuously - anywhere. They favour only such waste and solitary places as the deserts, woods, and mountain-tops."

"The locality chosen, our candidate must next select a night when the moon is new and strong. He must then choose a perfectly level piece of ground, and on it, at midnight, he must mark, either with chalk or string - it really does not matter which - a circle of not less than seven feet in radius, and within this, and from the same centre, another circle of three feet in radius. Then, in the centre of this inner circle he must kindle a fire, and over the fire place an iron tripod containing an iron vessel of water. As soon as the water begins to boil the would-be lycanthropist must throw into it handfuls of any three of the following substances: asafoetida, parsley, opium, hemlock, henbane, saffron, aloe, poppy-seed and solanum; repeating as he does so these words:

Spirits from the deep
Who never sleep,
Be kind to me.

Spirits from the grave
Without a soul to save,
Be kind to me.

Spirits of the trees
That grow upon the leas,
Be kind to me.

Spirits of the air,
Foul and black, not fair,
Be kind to me.

Water spirits hateful,
To ships and bathers fateful,
Be kind to me.

Spirits of earthbound dead
That glide with noiseless tread,
Be kind to me.

Spirits of heat and fire,
Destructive in your ire,
Be kind to me.

Spirits of cold and ice,
Patrons of crime and vice,
Be kind to me.

Wolves, vampires, satyrs, ghosts!
Elect of all the devilish hosts!
I pray you send hither,
Send hither, send hither,
The great grey shape that makes men shiver!
Shiver, shiver, shiver!
Come! Come! Come!

The supplicant then takes off his vest and shirt and smears his body with the fat of some newly killed animal (preferably a cat), mixed with aniseed, camphor, and opium. Then he binds round his loins a girdle made of wolf's-skin, and kneeling down within the circumference of the first circle, waits for the advent of the Unknown. When the fire burns blue and quickly dies out, the Unknown is about to manifest itself; if it does not then actually appear it will make its presence felt.

Coaxing out the beast within...
There is little consistency in the various methods of the spirit's advent: sometimes a deep unnatural silence immediately precedes it; sometimes crashes and bangs, groanings and shriekings, herald its approach. When it remains invisible its presence is indicated and accompanied by a sensation of abnormal cold and the most acute terror. It is sometimes visible in the guise of a huntsman - which is, perhaps, its most popular shape - sometimes in the form of a monstrosity, partly man and partly beast - and sometimes it is seen ill defined and only partially materialized. To what order of spirits it belongs is, of course, purely a matter of conjecture. I believe it to be some malevolent, superphysical, creative power, such as, in my opinion, participated largely in the creation of this and other planets. I do not believe it to be the Devil, because I do not believe in the existence of only one devil, but in countless devils. It is difficult to say to what extent the Unknown is believed to be powerful by those who approach it for the purpose of acquiring the gift of lycanthropy; but I am inclined to think that the majority of these, at all events, do not ascribe to it any supreme power, but regard it merely as a local spirit - the spirit of some particular wilderness or forest."

O'Donnell opines that this is not the only method of acquiring lycanthropy. If you haven’t been able to obtain all of the ingredients and accoutrements to enable you to commune directly with the Unknown (cat lovers, I mean you), O’Donnell suggests ingesting a wolf's brain. If your vegetarianism or love of wolves (understandably) prevents you from doing this, try drinking water out of a wolf's footprint, or drinking out of a stream from which three or more wolves have been seen to drink...

Monday, 7 March 2016

Women in Horror Annual

Edited by Paracinema Magazine alumnae Christine Makepeace and C. Rachel Katz, the Women in Horror Annual (WHA) is a collection of horror fiction and nonfiction written by women. While not unique in the horror literary landscape, the WHA counts as one among a scant handful of women-only anthologies. The annual promotes and celebrates female voices in horror, and the stories and papers contained within - penned by new and emerging literary talent - represent a diverse group of writers, each with their own unique vision. Some of these writers have published previously, while others are just starting out.

Women are often under-represented in the horror market, and this anthology is a step towards providing more female voices with a chance to be heard/read. The nineteen original stories featured in the annual run the gamut from melancholic to erotic; some are violent, brutal affairs, and others are more psychological. The essays include cinematic and literary analysis, touching upon themes of blood, motherhood, and insanity.

The WHA is available in print and digital formats through Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo, and a host of other digital retailers.

For more information contact

Sunday, 6 March 2016


Dir. Jaron Henrie-McCrea

AKA The Gateway

The humble shower curtain holds a rather iconic place in horror cinema. Its presence in one of the most shocking and undeniably influential moments in all of cinema helped to create tension and a sense of vulnerability; a thin layer separating normality from chaos and carnage, a veil between life and death. Since Psycho (1960), countless horror films have featured scenes in which shower curtains are whipped back to reveal murderous marauders poised to thrust sharp implements into the naked flesh of the unfortunate showerer. In Jaron Henrie-McCrea’s low-budget, oddball delight, the presence, or to be more precise, the disappearance of the shower curtain once again serves as a harbinger of foreboding doom. But in a very different way indeed…

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review

The Telephone

If you heard it ringing, would you be prepared to answer what lies at the other end of the telephone? 

The Telephone is a brand new psychological horror short from Nine Ladies Film. Written and directed by Stuart Wheeldon, it stars Nigel Barber (Mission Impossible 5, Spectre), Bern Deegan (Hideaways, The Honeymooners) and Rachel Prince. Shot on location at The Black's Head pub in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, over three days in February 2016, The Telephone follows the story of Richard, a reporter, who, after receiving a strange letter and an ornamental glass fish, travels to a remote small town to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young woman. While staying in a room in the local pub, the last place the woman was seen alive, Richard is disturbed by an old telephone that seems to ring endlessly. A chance encounter with the spectral image of a young woman follows, plunging Richard into psychological mayhem. Is the ghostly figure seen late at night the missing girl? What dark secrets are being concealed by the landlord of the pub? Could the telephone just be a figment of Richard’s imagination?

The trailer for The Telephone is due in early April, and the film is expected to hit in June. For updates and information, follow the filmmakers on Twitter and Facebook

Speaking of the sinister nature of telephones, head over to Senses of Cinema and check out this great essay on the role of telephonic communication in slasher films. You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Landmine Goes Click

Dir. Levan Bakhia

Landmine Goes Click is one of those films best viewed without knowing anything about it.* Echoing the likes of Phone Booth (2002) and Buried (2010), and indeed Levan Bakhia’s own debut feature, 247°F (2011), it holds much promise with its high-concept premise. Boasting a constantly twisting plot which intrigues as much as it infuriates, the film explores how the lives of three American friends are altered forever when, travelling through Eastern Europe, one of them steps on a landmine...

Unable to move for fear of detonating it, he and his friends are the captive audience of unveiled secrets, shifting dynamics and the darker side of human nature.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review

*My review is spoiler free and I've tried to be as sensitive as possible regarding plot details. Well, beyond the obvious, anyway. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The X-Files FAQ

The X-Files FAQ by John Kenneth Muir (author of, amongst a staggering array of other titles, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi, Eaten Alive At A Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, and Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999) is an in-depth exploration of Chris Carter's phenomenally popular cult 1990s science-fiction TV series.

Muir's book explores the series in terms of its historical context - the Clinton era - and how this influenced the myriad story-lines involving conspiracy theories and a deep mistrust of the US government. The author looks at the show on a season by season basis, explores its key episodes, overarching themes and concerns, its creators, antecedents (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), descendants (Fringe), spin-offs (The Lone Gunmen) and cinematic outings. 

The X-Files FAQ is an indispensable tome, not only for new fans of the series, but for established aficionados and anyone considering revisiting the series; a much less daunting prospect with John Kenneth Muir as your guide. As someone currently re-watching The X-Files (I’m a few episodes into season 8 now) I’ve found Muir’s book to be consistently entertaining and revelatory.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Frankenstein (2015)

Dir. Bernard Rose

An unflinching modern-day re-imagining of a timeless classic, Frankenstein tells its tale entirely from the point of view of the Monster (Xavier Samuel) as he is created by a husband-and-wife team of eccentric scientists (Danny Huston and Carrie-Anne Moss) and then left for dead. Confronted with aggression and violence as he attempts to make his way in the world, the Monster must get to grips with the horrific nature of humanity as he searches for his own.

Like his previous genre offerings, including Paperhouse (1988) and Candyman (1992), Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein is a compelling, fascinating and immensely thought-provoking yarn.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review and win a copy of Frankenstein on DVD. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Navy SEALS vs. Zombies

Dir. Stanton Barrett

With its elementary plot-by-numbers, pallid execution and rudimentary story, Navy SEALS vs. Zombies is a highly unremarkable film indeed. It tells of a crack team of Navy SEALS charged with extracting the Vice President from a situation gone bad in New Orleans. What the team doesn’t know is that the ‘situation’ is a viral outbreak that turns the infected into flesh-hungry hoards of ravenous zombies.

Even the appearance of Eighties action legend Michael Dudikoff, who features in a glorified cameo, can’t save the day, as this film ultimately possesses no discernible qualities to elevate it above, or even help tell it apart from any other mediocre straight-to-DVD zombie flick.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

RIP Richard Gladman

The horror community has suffered a sad and sudden loss with the death of Richard Gladman, founder of the Classic Horror Campaign and editor/publisher of Space Monsters. Richard was battling cancer and undergoing treatment when he passed away in hospital at the weekend. Perhaps best known to some by his online username, Cyberschizoid, Richard was, amongst many other things, a huge advocate of the UK horror scene; he founded the Classic Horror Campaign, which sought to reintroduce vintage horror double bills to BBC 2, and Frighten Brighton, an annual horror film festival based in, you’ve guessed it, Brighton.

A life-long fan of horror and sci-fi cinema, Richard contributed to myriad print publications such as Shock Horror, Scream and Rue Morgue, as well as many online publications like Haunted and Spooky Isles, and he hosted various film screenings in London, Manchester and Brighton. 

While I never met Richard personally, we exchanged emails over the years and I was always really inspired by his boundless passion and enthusiasm for horror, and by his tireless advocacy of the British horror scene. He was one of the first people I became friendly with online after I set up this blog, and he always seemed to be working on a project he cared deeply for. I think I'd always just assumed we’d meet one day, and I’m sorry that never happened. He was very highly thought of and will be sorely missed.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Diabolique Magazine - Issue 25

Diabolique is a bimonthly magazine covering every aspect of the horror genre, including film, literature, theatre, art, music, history and culture. Lavishly illustrated in full colour, each issue is packed with entertaining and thought-provoking articles.

Issue 25 is now available. A very special issue indeed, it is entirely devoted to celebrating the life and work of Sir Christopher Lee.

Inside you’ll find essays and features such as:

A WICKER MAN’S MAN - Jennifer Blair examines Christopher Lee’s iconic role as Lord Summerisle in Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror masterpiece, The Wicker Man.

COUNT PERVERSION, THE WHIP AND THE LIVING DEAD - Kat Ellinger champions Christopher Lee’s oft-overlooked mainland European genre films, from Uncle Was A Vampire to Horror Express and everything in between.

CHRISTOPHER LEE: METALHEAD - Joseph Schafer speaks with Luca Turilli of the symphonic power metal band, Rhapsody of Fire, on Christopher Lee’s headfirst dive into the world of Heavy Metal.

Also included is my essay THE LIFE-BLOOD OF DRACULA, in which I explore the sex, sin and sensations of Christopher Lee’s unique spin on Dracula and the vampire archetype.

Indulge your passion for the macabre and pick up issue 25 of Diabolique Magazine here.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Interview with 'Suspiria' Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s Suspiria needs little introduction. A nightmarish, hallucinatory carousel of a film, it is known to admirers of horror cinema for its exquisite cinematography, ear-shattering score, opulent production design and fiendish violence. Any sense of conventional narrative or characterisation takes a back seat to a full-on assault on the senses as the viewer is plunged head-first into a neon-Gothic nightmare of light, colour, sound and shadow.

Regarded (and rightly so) as a horror classic, Suspiria is the subject of a new book by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a film critic from Melbourne, Australia. No stranger to extreme cinema, Alexandra is the author 'Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study' (2011), and 'Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality' (2014). She is also co-editor of the film journal Senses of Cinema, and a critic on Radio Triple R’s film programme, Plato's Cave.

Alexandra very kindly agreed to a quick chat about her new book on Suspiria.

What influenced your decision to write a monograph on Suspiria?

This sounds like such a straightforward question, but it oddly demands quite a complex answer. I am sure it's not just me, but as a critic I often find it hard work to draw a line between the films I find interesting from an objective, professional perspective, and those I love on a deep, instinctive, personal level. Sometimes these of course overlap - we often love an interesting film precisely for the unique ways it finds to hold our interest. But there are other films that for me personally at least I never wanted to think about or attempt to unpack on that kind of critical level: I love them for what they are, and almost dread the idea of opening the intellectual Pandora's Box in case it metaphorically 'kills' the mystique.

If you had asked me even a few years ago where Suspiria fitted into this picture, I would have comfortably answered that it was - along, perhaps, with Andrzej Żuławski's Possession - exactly the kind of film I meant. But over time it was the precise slipperiness of Suspiria that kept drawing me to it as a potential large-scale writing project. As many have argued - including myself - there is something about this film on a molecular level that demands we engage with it in different, and sometimes quite challenging new ways, approaches strikingly different from how we've been culturally 'trained' to understand cinema, particularly in terms of things like the dominance of narrative and character. In this sense, then, to answer your question I guess that writing at length about Suspiria was for me in many ways almost inevitable for precisely these very reasons.  

You said that with this book you really wanted to take a step away from the more academic style of your first two books: Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study and Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality. How did you approach writing it and how much did your method of approach differ from your earlier projects? 

In practical terms regarding the basic research mechanics, both of my previous books were surveys of categories or subgenres. This involved a lot of work on the hunter-gatherer front - sourcing primary and secondary material and, more time consumingly, watching literally hundreds and hundreds of films. The Suspiria project was quite the opposite, focused as it was on a single film. My previous books were about not only just looking for patterns but - more interestingly for me from a critical perspective - finding the glitches, and exploring where patterns deviated and what that might mean in a broader context. These formations form historical narratives, and it is from these that the 'stories' I tell in those books found their shape.

But aside from focusing on one film as opposed to hundreds of them, Suspiria itself is a film that warns us about over-investing in narrative, and a dizzying, intoxicating reminder of the supremacy of our senses. It wasn't simply a case of changing the focus of my critical gaze from a broader category of film to a specific one, but more significantly, about finding new ways to write, watch, think and feel.  

You mentioned to me a while ago that you had built your monograph around something Argento once said: “When you watch a movie, you understand your truth.” What truth does Suspiria hold for you and why is it a film you hold so close to your heart?

I believe on a fundamental level that Suspiria demands a kind of intense subjectivity from us as viewers: it is an unrelenting incitement for us to let go of the previous way we have been taught to watch and understand cinema. These "truths" that Argento talks about here are to me vital not just to our relationship with culture, but to the experience of being human: that deep, indefinable sense of personal sensory experience is something so unique to our own individual lived experiences that language often struggles to capture it.  

Suspiria boasts a largely female cast of characters which, as you point out, is built on 'robust personalities rather than cup size and age'. How do you think Argento’s difficult reputation has maybe over-clouded this, and do you think it’s fair to say that he doesn't get as much recognition or attention for his strong female characters as he does for the way in which he murders them? Where would you rank Suspiria in terms of feminist horror?

I have a pretty major bugbear with the broader tendency in cultural discourse to draw binary distinctions between categories of "progressive" and "regressive": I honestly feel that these ideas are too complex and important to allow a successful and productive simplification. Take, for example, Brian De Palma, who has long been on the receiving end of accusations of misogyny: while I absolutely would not be prepared to go on record as stating that this particular director is 100% ideologically progressive in terms of gender representation especially, for me he's a hugely important filmmaker. Carrie might be for many a textbook case of the problematic 'monstrous feminine' category, but for me it was the first film I ever saw where a woman menstruated: this was - and still is - radical cinema for me, and it made me really sit up and think well beyond notions of positive or negative representation. The question for me then, as it is now, is "this is such an ubiquitous, everyday thing: why don't I see this more in cinema?"

So back to Dario Argento. I argue quite forcefully in the book that this same tendency to define an artist in terms of a clear-cut binary distinction between "progressive" and "regressive" is just a dead-end when it comes to Argento. Absolutely he has said some pretty ghastly things about the representation of women in his films, but he has also said some remarkably insightful, profound and important things, too. As I discuss in the book at length, what I think is perhaps just as important - and is often ignored - is how important Argento and a film like Suspiria has been to female audiences. Famous fans of the film like Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto, who I interviewed for the book, and feminist icon, writer Kathy Acker are not alone in their love of Suspiria: Argento has said himself that most of his fans are women, and I can back this up just anecdotally. A large percentage of women I know who are really into horror got into it through Argento and Suspiria in particular.

Is Suspiria feminist then? Again, I hesitate with a simple "yes" or "no" answer, because I don't believe feminism is a singular, stable concept: there are absolutely no doubt women out there who self-identify as feminists who would find the depiction of violence against women in this film offensive, and I don't want to dismiss their right to those opinions. But what I will say is this: Suspiria is almost solely a female ensemble film, with only a few very minor male characters. Women are shown to be weak and strong, good and evil, old and young. As an early example of Carol J. Clover's so-called "final girl" figure, Jessica Harper's Suzy doesn't end the film shaking, traumatised and distraught like later examples, such as Laurie Strode in Halloween or Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Suzy doesn't merely just survive, she is victorious: the last shot of the film is her leaving the burning school in the rain, grinning. Suzy's story is one of strength, determination and triumph.  

"Suspiria exists in a sphere beyond mere language" - Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Was there a common thread of any kind that ran through all the things you’ve read about Suspiria and all the things people have said to you about it?

Absolutely: its intangibility. There's a real hunger I've seen manifest in almost all my conversations about the film and my book project. People really share my almost obsessive drive to try and put their finger on precisely what it is that makes Suspiria so special. This book is at its core I guess a declaration of the fact that we can never fully articulate this in words, because Suspiria exists in a sphere beyond mere language. I often return to this incredible quote from the remarkable film theorist and academic Patricia MacCormack, who articulated this idea so beautifully on the 2010 Cine-Excess DVD release of the film: "Suspiria is one of the most radical horror films that has ever been made, and the precise reason for this is that it is unapologetic in the way it expresses horror and the way it demands the opening up of the viewer to take pleasure in things that they cannot describe".

What is it about horror cinema, and, given your prior book titles, other forms of 'extreme' genre cinema, that appeals to you so much? 

Initially I guess at first it was that this was the kind of stuff that was forbidden for me as a kid: I remember seeing these movies on the shelves of the video store near the house where I grew up, and they had a kind of mystical aura to them, extending from their taboo status as 'dangerous' movies. From a research perspective, in many ways I am still unpacking this precise idea: what precisely makes these films so dangerous, why are they considered such volatile cultural artefacts? What do they do that is so threatening, and how do they do it in a mechanical, formal sense? What are the legacies of this volatility, what are their histories? These are the kinds of questions that I find reveal a lot about the broader workings of the cultural imagination well beyond cinema. In terms of pure subjective taste, however, I also find that the kind of low-budget aesthetic these films tend to adopt is just beautiful: when people are strapped for cash, they can often find breathtaking alternatives to create their impact. I find a lot of exploitation and b-grade film comes as close to the idea of pure cinema as anything more highbrow or canonical.  

In your conversation with Luciano Tovoli you reference the absolutely beautiful moment when Argento went up and physically touched the screen upon which Tovoli was projecting some tests he’d filmed. How much do you feel Suspiria owes its groundbreaking reputation to Tovoli’s cinematography?

I cannot speak more highly of Luciano Tovoli, both in terms of his impressive career*, and as a person. He took a lot of time to speak to me when I was writing this book, and his insight opened up new ways into this film for me.

One of the most striking things about Sig. Tovoli was that unlike a lot of cinematographers I have spoken with, he used a language less technical than it was poetic. That moment you describe is one I first read about in an interview with renowned Argento expert Alan Jones, and it devastated me - this idea of Argento walking up and touching the screen when seeing Tovoli's initial colour tests is to me still one of the most poignant descriptions of what it 'feels' like to watch Suspiria, this immersive, bodily attraction through the senses.

That being said, I was very moved by Sig. Tovoli's unrelenting praise of Argento in our correspondence: his acknowledgement of Argento as the driving creative force behind the film was a constant drumbeat, and he continually voiced gratitude to Argento for allowing him an opportunity to experiment the way he did on the project. I have no hesitation at all to suggest that Sig. Tovoli was a key creative force in this project and in part responsible for its remarkable legacy, yet I would emphasise, as he himself did so many times, that his achievements were the result of constant positive encouragement from Argento himself, the true visionary of the project. This might also be an important place to flag the huge importance of Daria Nicolodi to the project, also, who co-wrote the film and played a major part in its development - her important work on Suspiria sometimes unfairly gets lost in discussion about her well-publicised personal relationship with the director.  

What’s next for you?  

Something similar yet different! I'm currently finalising my first draft on a monograph about Abel Ferrara's 1981 cult film Ms. 45 for Columbia University Press' Cultographies series. A very different film than Suspiria, it is one that I hold a similar affection for, particularly in terms of its gender politics. In 2011 I wrote a book about rape-revenge films and of course talked about Ms. 45 there; Zoe Lund's character Thana is even on the cover. But a few pages wasn't enough to get this film out of my system, and writing an entire book about it is an extraordinary privilege.

'Suspiria' by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is available now and can be purchased here. It is published by Auteur, a leading independent Film and Media Studies publisher, and part of the Devil's Advocates series devoted to exploring the classics of horror cinema. 

Contributors to Devil's Advocates come from the worlds of academia, journalism and fiction, but all have one thing in common: a passion for the horror film and for sharing that passion. 

*Read Alexandra's in-depth essay on Tovoli's career here

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Interview with 'Dead of Night' Co-Author Jez Conolly

Released just days after the end of the Second World War and a dozen years ahead of the first full-blooded Hammer Horror, the Ealing Studios horror anthology film Dead of Night featured contributions from some of the finest directors, writers and technicians ever to work in British film. Since its release it has become evermore widely regarded as a keystone in the architecture of horror cinema, both nationally and internationally.

A new book from Auteur Publishing, written by Jez Conolly and David Owain Bates, marks the first time a single book has been dedicated to an analysis of the film. Co-author Jez Conolly has also written a monograph on John Carpenter’s classic chiller The Thing and is co-editor, with Caroline Whelan, of three books in the World Film Locations series (Dublin, Reykjavik and Liverpool) published by Intellect. He regularly writes for The Big Picture magazine and website and has contributed to numerous other cinema books and journals. He very kindly agreed to have a quick chat about Dead of Night.  

What made you decide to write a monograph on Dead of Night?  

Even before I wrote my first book in the Devil’s Advocates series (on John Carpenter’s The Thing, published 2013) I’d thought that if I were to get a second bite of that cherry I’d pick Dead of Night to write about. In fact I remember having a conversation with David, co-author of the Dead of Night book, in which we both thought it would make for a great entry in the series. I think we felt that it really deserved its own volume, it’s such an important film in the horror genre and we discovered that surprisingly little had been written about it previously, at least not in the form of a substantive dedicated monograph.  

What is your method of approach to each writing project?

In the case of the Devil’s Advocates books I have to love the film I’m writing about, so my starting point is consciously subjective. I do seek to avoid taking an ostensibly academic approach, that way lies a dry read. Not that the books lack rigour or research, but I guess I try to capture as much of my emotional response to the films as possible. My aim is to either encourage people who haven’t seen the film to seek out their first viewing of it, or to help devotees of the film find something new in it.  

You’ve co-authored a number of books. What do you enjoy most about collaborating with other writers? 

I co-edited three books in another series - World Film Locations published by Intellect - with my wife, Caroline. Those books were highly collaborative, using the talents of dozens of writers. I really liked the community feel to those projects; each book focused on a city location, in the case of our three books 'Dublin', 'Reykjavik' and 'Liverpool', and each provided an opportunity for people actually living in those cities to write a little bit about their home in relation to film. It also felt right to work with David on the 'Dead of Night' book, partly because the process reflected a little of the multi-director collaborative nature of the film itself. It also proved expedient to share the process of writing it to ensure completion within the timescale that we had to work to.  

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this monograph?

Lack of time. I have a full-time job and tend to allot myself an hour of writing time between 7am and 8am each morning, Monday to Friday, before my day job hours begin.  

Is it fair to say Dead of Night is a film you hold close to your heart? What is it about the film that most appeals to you? Can you remember your response to it the first time you watched it?

We talk quite a bit about our first time with Dead of Night in the book's introduction. For both of us it was one of those old movies screened late on a Friday or Saturday night during our early teens when staying up late to watch the midnight movie was a rite of passage. Without revealing our ages, that was back in the days before video recorders, so we were watching these films 'live' as it were. It was one that clearly made its mark on us all those years ago. I remember the film's 'Moebius strip' story loop freaking me out a little bit!  

Given the various segments they’re comprised of, portmanteaux films can be tricky, and they’re often criticised for their uneven tones. What does Dead of Night get right in this respect? 

Crucially, its linking story works brilliantly. In fact it’s arguably the strongest story element in the film. Without wishing to be unkind to the numerous Amicus horror anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s, which were hugely inspired by Dead of Night, the link stories in those films were frequently fairly routine affairs that served to glue the succession of nested stories together. By comparison, Walter Craig’s story in Dead of Night is sustained brilliantly. Each time we return to it between the other characters’ stories, our understanding of Craig’s predicament is enriched and each link propels us forward.  

Is there a particular segment within the film you find to have the most impact? 

People usually say either the 'Ventriloquist’s Dummy' story or the 'Haunted Mirror' story, with good reason, but my favourite has always been the first individual story, 'Hearse Driver'. It’s very brief compared to the other stories but it sets up the kind of scares that we then expect from the rest of the film. It has the film’s first real ‘goose bump moment’, when time seems to freeze and the protagonist has his strange vision. The creepiness starts there.

What is it about horror cinema that appeals to you so much?

My father was a cinema manager for many, many years, which meant that I got in to see quite a lot of films for free from a very young age. I recall once seeing a trailer for one of the later Christopher Lee Dracula movies - I couldn't tell you which one although I vividly remember a close-up of his bloodshot eyes - I couldn't have been much more than 9 or 10. I can't remember what the main feature was that I was there to see, probably because I couldn't stop thinking about that Dracula trailer! So from then on it was horror all the way. I got given a copy of Denis Gifford's 'Pictorial History of Horror Movies' soon after - some of the images in that flipped my lid - and I was down the joke shop most weeks buying stick-on scars and various other horror make-up effects. I had a whole collection of lopped off plastic body parts; from memory I had a finger, a thumb, a hand and even a whole arm, which I used to brandish in front of my easily startled aunties! I do have a broad and abiding interest in most areas of cinema but I keep coming back to horror. For many it will never provide anything other than lurid cheap thrills, but I think horror movies reveal a great deal about the times in which they were made.  

Do you feel the influence of Dead of Night has been particularly strong on any horror titles throughout the years?

I mentioned the Amicus anthologies previously, which owe a great deal to Dead of Night. It's not so easy to spot a link to the Hammer horror films that started appearing a dozen or so years after Dead of Night, although the dark Gothic sumptuousness of 'the room in the mirror' in the 'Haunted Mirror' story has elements of typical Hammer set dressing. You can certainly see aspects of the film in more recent horror films; the idea of cheating death in 'Hearse Driver' is there in the Final Destination films, the horror of sleep and dreams informs the Nightmare on Elm Street series, haunted mirrors keep cropping up - check out Oculus for a good recent example - as do dummies - directly in Richard Attenborough's Magic, but also, in a way, through the Child's Play/'Chucky' films, Annabelle and very recently, The Boy. We also suspect that Hitchcock was influenced by Dead of Night when making Psycho; dual personality and mirrors feature prominently, but also the whole 'Ventriloquist's Dummy' story is a big influence. Look at the way that story ends and compare it to the ending of Psycho.  

In his recent review of your monograph, Stephen Volk described Dead of Night as “An unforgettable classic of the genre.” In your own opinion, what elements of the film combine to give it its ‘classic’ status? 

Coming out of the Ealing Studios stable doesn't hurt its reputation. Many of the people who made it either already were, or subsequently became synonymous with a golden age of British filmmaking. Within the horror genre it deserves to be highly regarded as a major precursor of what would come later. So we'd certainly argue that any budding horror film historians should recognise it as a key stone in the architecture of not just British, but also world horror cinema.  

What’s next for you?

I've just pitched a proposal to Auteur, publishers of the Devil's Advocates series, to write a monograph about a specific film for a forthcoming companion series of books that will focus on Science Fiction Cinema. Early days on that one but I'm keeping my fingers crossed!  

'Dead of Night’ by Jez Conolly and David Owain Bates is available now and can be purchased here. It is published by Auteur, a leading independent Film and Media Studies publisher, and part of the Devil's Advocates series devoted to exploring the classics of horror cinema. 

Contributors to Devil's Advocates come from the worlds of academia, journalism and fiction, but all have one thing in common: a passion for the horror film and for sharing that passion.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Reading Ghost Stories at Christmas...

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house 
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse... 

I recently stumbled upon this beautifully old-fashioned advice* on the proper way to consume ghost stories at Christmas:

"If during the Yule-tide you wish thoroughly to enter into the spirit of the season, procure a good tumblerful of creature-comfort, steaming, with a trifle of powdered nutmeg in it, some thin lemon peel, and a grain of sugar, place it on a small stand beside your old arm-chair, in which you will have comfortably deposited yourself, and well gently inhaling the Virginian fumes in the presence of a cheerful Yule-log fire commence reading the 'Ghost Stories of an Antiquary', by M.R. James… On rising to retire to bed, say, when the clock is striking the hour of midnight, you will be heartily glad of a brave companion, who will assist you in ascertaining that all bolts and bars are scrupulously fastened, that all doors are locked, that there are no weird arms coming out from behind any curtains."

*This advice was originally printed in the Special Collections’ edition of James's 'More Ghost Stories' in 1911. I read about it, and other spooky reading recommendations for Christmas, here.

Behind the Couch Turns 7 Years Old!

Behind the Couch turned seven years old this month.

Celebrations have been somewhat sedate though, as it’s been a pretty quiet year in terms of blogging. That said, looking back over the last twelve months, it looks like I enjoyed some damn fine slasher films and rejoiced in some new titles which were lauded as ‘future classics’.

Away from blogging, I reviewed DVDs aplenty for Exquisite Terror and was lucky enough to interview a couple of fantastic film composers for Paracinema: I chatted to Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpiece) and Jonathan Snipes about their scores for It Follows and Starry Eyes, respectively. I also contributed essays to the likes of Eurohorror fanzine Fang of Joy and was nominated for a Rondo Hatton Award in the Best Article category. The article, 'Family Man' (a look at Tobe Hooper’s meaty representations of the family unit in all its deadly, dysfunctional and dynamic forms), was published in issue 20 of Diabolique Magazine in March/April, 2014. 

Things will continue to be fairly quiet around here as I’ve just started working on another book. I shan’t say too much about it now, except that it’s a monograph on a film I love dearly; a film that features many of my favourite things, including werewolves, fairy tales, gender issues and folklore…

To everyone who has dropped by over the last year - thank you! I hope you'll continue to do so.