Odds and Dead Ends : Checkmate / The mysterious death of Alexander Alekhine

In 1946, a singular event in history occurred. The reigning World Chess Champion, Alexander Alekhine, (pronunciation of his name is debated depending on who is speaking, but most would pronounce it either Al-ek-ine, or Al-yek-hin), died whilst holding the title. This was the first and only time a World Champion has passed during his reign. What makes this intriguing, and curious for discussion here on HorrorAddicts.net, is that despite the coroner ruling Alekhine’s death an accident, conspiracy theories abound to this day about Soviet death squads and secret police murdering him after WWII had ended for political revenge.

Alekhine was born in October 1892 in Moscow, to a wealthy landowner father, and his mother was heiress to a large textile-industry fortune. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, he began playing in chess tournaments in the local Moscow clubs in his younger age, and by the time he was in double digits, he was addicted, playing games in his head throughout lessons and before bed. Bill Wall notes that ‘Garry Kasparov [the 13th World Chess Champion] tells the story that once in an algebra test, Alekhine suddenly leaped up with shining eyes. The teacher asked if Alekhine had solved the problem. Alekhine responded, “Yes, I sacrifice the knight, and White wins!” The class burst out laughing.’ (Wall, 2008)

As one of the world’s strongest players, Alekhine moved to France in 1921. He played tournaments against the strongest opponents in the world, and in 1928 successfully defeated José Raul Capablanca in a championship match to become the fourth World Chess Champion. Throughout the next decade, Alekhine played in all the world’s biggest tournaments, winning brilliancy prizes for incredibly played games in five Chess Olympiads (the chess version of the Olympic Games). Around 1934 he all but retired from major tournament play. Alekhine lost his title in 1935 to Max Euwe, but regained it again a few years later.

It is in 1939, however, that things changed. War broke out across Europe, and eventually, the champion needed to find ways to escape the continent. Repeated attempts to flee to Cuba, which would also aid the possibility of a rematch with his Cuban rival, Capablanca, were denied. In 1940, the Nazis seized control of the chatellenie at Saint-Aubin-la-Cauf, where Alekhine’s wife, Grace Alekhine, was residing. In order to protect her, Alekhine agreed to participate in many Nazi-controlled leagues and tournaments, as well as write articles and literature on behalf of the party. Many of these were overtly anti-Semitic, claiming things such as the idea that Jewish chess players were incapable of creating true works of chess art.

Come the end of the war, Alekhine was declined entry into all tournaments outside the Iberian Peninsula, with several pre-war invitations rejected. In 1946, The British Chess Federation decided to grant money as a prize fund for a World Championship match between Alekhine and the new soviet superstar, Mikhail Botvinnik. A telegram was sent to the hotel in Portugal where Alekhine was staying, and it was here that, on March 24th, Alexander Alekhine was found and pronounced dead. Alekhine’s funeral was arranged and paid for by the newly-created FIDE organisation (the international chess federation: Fédération Internationale des Échecs).

Here is where the conspiracy theories begin to write themselves. The initial line of inquiry decided that Alekhine had died of a heart attack, and yet articles in chess magazines claimed that the autopsy reports had stated that a three-inch piece of unchewed meat had been found in his windpipe. Due to the high improbability that someone could have effectively inhaled a piece of meat that long without chewing it, rumours began to fly. Theories that the Soviet Union reached Alexander and killed him as payment for both his Nazi affiliation and his denouncement of bolshevism in the early 1920s emerged. Many, including Grandmaster Kevin Spraggett, suggest that it is possible the Portuguese secret police of the time, PIDE, attacked Alekhine outside his hotel room and staged the death (Spraggett, 2010). Some even maintain that the photographs of his body in the hotel room were staged to suggest a natural death.

Debates still abound as to whether Alekhine harboured true anti-Semitic feelings, or whether all of his statements were purely down to a need to keep his family safe. Some have argued both, others have argued that his statements and articles were manipulated by the Nazi to fit their regime, and that Alekhine incorrectly spelled the names of famous players of the past to prove that he didn’t believe the rhetoric he was writing. It is quite likely that this is another issue which, like the true circumstances of his death, will remain forever unknown. In either case, the one thing that nobody doubts was his great chess ability, playing aggressively for the kill with no quarter given, and his death remains a mysterious singularity in the 125+ years of the official title of world chess.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Spraggett, K., 2010. Spraggett on Chess – Part 1: Alekhine’s Death. [Online]
Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20110708045154/http://kevinspraggett.blogspot.com/2009/03/part-1-alekhines-death.html
[Accessed 05 10 2019].

Wall, B., 2008. Alexander Alekhine (1892 – 1946). [Online]
Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20091028083454/http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Lab/7378/alekhine.htm
[Accessed 05 10 2019].

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Odds and Dead Ends: A maze inside the mind / Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining, is my favourite horror film of all time. For those that (somehow) aren’t familiar with the film, it is the story of the new caretaker (Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson) and his family at the remote Overlook Hotel over the winter, where ghostly apparitions send him spiraling into madness. Based on the novel by Stephen King, a major feature of the movie which wasn’t in the book is the hedge maze on the hotel grounds. In this article, I’m going to look at this maze, and how it acts as a kind of middle-ground representation of Jack’s ever-twisted mind, as it is changed by the hotel.

Please bear in mind that, as with everything I write for HorrorAddicts.net, in a short article such as this, there’s no way I’m able to cover the wealth of interpretations and analysis and ideas on this film. This is a starting point, where hopefully you can springboard yourself into your own thoughts.

It has been well documented that the layout of the Overlook Hotel is deliberately impossible. Doors lead to nowhere, rooms move, furniture shifts position; everything possible is done to very subtly disorient the viewer. For example, in the first scene of Danny on his tricycle, we pass an exit stairwell leading down, and doors that would appear to go through the thin wall and open up onto the stairwell itself. It is, in fact, a maze of dead ends and double-backs.

Even furniture subtly moves between shots. Rob Ager has documented all this extensively, and his articles and analysis on the subject can be found at his site, which I’ll put a link to at the end of this article. One example is the appearing and disappearing chair behind Jack when Wendy interrupts his writing. Needless to say, with someone like Kubrick, this kind of mismatching wasn’t just sloppy but done deliberately. It is a visual representation of the chaos and insanity that it will try to bring Jack into.

The hotel slowly ratchets up its presence and ghostly manifestations in order to slowly drive Jack mad. This is helped by subtly-suggested alcohol issues (a carry-over from the novel which isn’t nearly as prevalent but still present), and flares of temper. Aided by the claustrophobia of the hotel (‘“what the old-timers used to call ‘cabin fever’”’), and the irritations at being unable to write (‘“Lots of ideas, no good ones though,”’) it all provides the perfect platform for the Overlook Hotel to begin to exert its influence on Jack. The reasons for the Overlook’s attempt to drive Jack to madness are as heavily disputed and debated as almost anything else in the history of fan-theories, and they won’t be discussed here, purely for length reasons.

With the Overlook trying to get a hold on its caretaker, Kubrick wants to give us a middle-ground, to understand that the links between Jack and the hotel go beyond the surface level. Here he presents us with the iconic hedge maze. As I’ve already said, the hotel is a maze in itself, full of twists and turns, and what’s interesting is that almost no two shots of the maze are the same. The map outside the entrance doesn’t match the way Wendy and Danny walk, and the model Jack looks down on doesn’t correspond with either of these. Even the entrance Ullman takes them to in the film’s beginning is on a completely different side of the maze to when Danny runs into at the finale.

There seem to be strong indicators, then, that just like the hotel, the maze changes shape and form. Wendy even says in the kitchen with Halloran that ‘“This place is such an enormous maze I feel like I’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs every time I come in,”’ so if you’re wanting verbal confirmation of this connection, then there it is. But how do we link the maze to Jack?

Firstly, the exterior shots of the Overlook at the beginning of the film don’t show a maze at all. It isn’t present until the whole family are exploring the grounds; when Jack has arrived. Additionally, when Wendy and Danny are exploring it on their own, Jack walks over to the model version in the foyer. We then switch to a top-down view showing a miniature Danny and Wendy walking around the central section. Because, as discussed before, the model and the actual maze don’t add up, we have to assume that this isn’t actually a top-down view of the real maze, but a subjective view of Jack imagining his wife and son in the maze.

By switching to a subjective viewpoint, Kubrick suggests a linking between Jack’s mind (his imagination), and the hedge maze. This doesn’t mean very much throughout the film as, for a large portion of the film, the maze fades into the background. However, right at the very end, it makes a reappearance as Jack chases Danny inside. Surely, as the maze is intrinsically linked with Jack’s mind, this makes sense for the finale to play out there. This is the point where everything combines, hallucination and reality, the Overlook and Jack. In a way, this is almost a proving ground, an arena that the Overlook has provided for their caretaker to show that he can follow out their wishes; that he ‘has the belly for it.’

Ironically, Jack eventually ends up following Danny’s footsteps, just like the trail of breadcrumbs Wendy mentioned at the beginning of the film. He follows Danny in the same way as he followed them through the model before. He has descended into a manifestation of his chaotic mind, distressed by all the factors that enabled the Overlook to push him into pliable madness.

In the end, however, Jack is eventually outsmarted by Danny and stumbles around blindly inside. Whether you believe the ghosts are real or all just a hallucination is irrelevant, because everyone can see that Jack has slipped into madness at this point. Jack is unable to find his way out of the maze, out of his mind. He never recovers, even for a moment as King’s original character does in the novel, and so he freezes to death unredeemed and forever trapped inside the Overlook’s testing ground.

In the end, there really is a simple formula to understand this discussion: Jack Torrance + Overlook Hotel = Hedge Maze. It’s a simple concept, but one probably overlooked by many people watching for the first time, especially by those who aren’t accustomed to looking out for these kinds of interpretations in popular cinema. The Shining is a deeply layered text, and the idea presented is very much a theory, which probably disagrees with 50% of fan theories and analysis of the film, but that’s the way it works with The Shining; everyone has their own idea. In any case, I hope it piques your interest in re-examining the film, and re-watching it, of course. You could do worse things than re-watching one of the greatest films the genre has ever produced; just don’t let it get into your head too much.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @KJudgeMental

-A link to Rob Ager’s site, which I highly encourage anyone interested in film analysis to check out: http://www.collativelearning.com/

-check out my other articles at HorrorAddicts.net if you like this kind of analysis; I’m sure there’ll be something for you to enjoy: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/author/kjudgeimaginarium/

 

Odds and Dead Ends: Hyde and Seek

Why Stevenson’s classic still haunts us

It’s hard to think that Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, could be anything like a surprise today, with the story so deeply ingrained in the popular conscious, at least at a basic level. But when the story was unleashed in 1886, it changed the face not only of gothic fiction but everyday thought. It altered how we look at ourselves. Its names are used so frequently as short-hands that we don’t even realise we use them. Its story is so potent because, at some instinctual level, we’ve known it all along.

That both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are two halves of the same person is so obvious to us now, that it is hard to remember that this was the novella’s major twist. Although the concept of the doppelganger had been used before; never quite like this. In an age of scientists beginning to look at the mind, Stevenson kick-started the psychoanalytic influence of popular culture. That later Freudian theories of the ‘id’ and the ‘ego’ would so closely mirror Henry Jekyll splitting his consciousness into its good and evil sides, is only to be expected. Studies into schizophrenia, insanity, and other levels of mental illness,  still the property of the scientist in the asylum, just beginning. That this madness could spill into the streets of London was unthinkable.

What I think captivates us most is that the moral dilemma proposed in the story is so deeply personal and human. After a single transformation, Jekyll gets a taste of his new, unrefined freedom. The dark activities that Hyde participates in thrill him, excite him so much that he voluntarily changes over and over again. When he realises that it’s getting harder to remain as his good side, something seems to change in Jekyll’s narrative. This is something much older, instinctual, a kind of self-possession. And when he thinks he is rid of Hyde for good, temptation strikes again, leading to the downward spiral that spells out his doom.

Therefore, we ask ourselves questions. Is evil inherent in all of us, and is it only a matter of time until temptation unleashes it? Once a single crack appears, have we set up an inevitable chain of events that will lead to our final demise? Though Jekyll’s potion may have rattled the initial cages, eventually Hyde possesses the key to his own lock. What about those of us who are perhaps weaker than he? Will one day our darker sides discover that the cell door, if rattled hard enough, will break on its own?

By now, the doubling trope is so old and worn down that it is hard to see it as new and refreshing. And yet, just like most of our movie monsters, time and time again it crops up. The reveal in Fight Club is one of the most well known in cinematic history, and even The Usual Suspects has a trace of it. Primal Fear (another Ed Norton movie, and another movie from the 90’s; perhaps there’s a follow-up article on the prevalence of doppelgangers in that particular decade?) also follows through on this concept. Psycho is perhaps one of the most influential examples of this theme being carried across, and Stephen King has used it several times in his various writings. Any ‘evil inside’ story is dubbed ‘a modern-day Jekyll-and-Hyde’. How many stories can you think of that receive this kind of treatment?

One of the best doppelganger movies of recent times is Jordan Peele’s Us. If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend you do so immediately. Peele takes the concept and fills it with additional meaning. It isn’t just evil inside, but all of our lost hopes and griefs, all of the unfilled desires. The Untethered are our lost childhoods let loose and raging at the world. Life has crushed its dreams into the cookie-cutter pattern of capitalist aspirations that never manage to satisfy.

Never before have we been so aware as a people that, sometimes, we’re just as bad as the monster’s we have dreamed up to take our place. When before we created entities to embody our fears, we now project them as altered versions of ourselves as an attempt to come to grips with the evil inside. We don’t create avatars and fill them with our darkness anymore, because the avatar staring back at us is every bit ourselves as we are right in the beginning.

Even in The Exorcist, Karras must eliminate all doubt that the disturbances in the McNeill household are not being caused by Regan herself, before he can convince the Church that an exorcism is needed. He must go into the investigation with the initial belief that Regan, as a result of the breakup of her parents, the overworking of her mother, and her journey through puberty into adulthood, has unleashed a subconscious identity with parapsychological powers. In this story, demons are less readily-believed by the Church than Regan unknowingly having a ghostly Mr Hyde.

And so the legacy of Stevenson’s story lives on. Through its dozens of adaptations, its thousands of reworkings, and the endless imaginations his characters have inspired, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has touched us all because, very simply, it gets us to ask ourselves a very potent, and disturbing, question. “Am I evil?” I don’t think there’s a person in the world that hasn’t at some point thought they had a bad side waiting to destroy the world, and perhaps this little novella is the reason we all started looking at others, and ourselves, with a little more trepidation than we did before.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Fight Club. 1999. [Film] Directed by David Fincher. USA: Fox 2000 Pictures.

Primal Fear. 1998. [Film] Directed by Gregory Hoblit. USA: Rysher Entertainment.

Psycho. 1960. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. United States of America: Shamley Productions.

Stevenson, R. L., 2006. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In: R. Luckhurst, ed. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales. New York: Oxford, pp. 1 – 66.

The Exorcist. 1973. [Film] Directed by William Friedkin. USA: Hoya Productions.

The Usual Suspects. 1995. [Film] Directed by Bryan Singer. USA: Blue Parrot.

Us. 2019. [Film] Directed by Jordan Peele. USA: Monkeypaw Productions.

Odds and Dead Ends : Scaring Ourselves Silly | Monsters and the Uncanny Valley

We all love a good monster. Be it Godzilla or King Kong, werewolves or cenobites, we can’t get enough of them. Guillermo Del Toro has made a living out of them, and nobody in their right mind would begrudge him that. But when we think of being scared, perhaps what touches the nerves more than anything else are not the big, lumbering beasts towering above us. It’s those fiends that come close to being human, just one step away from actually being us.

This concept is known in the field of robotics as the ‘uncanny valley’. Coined initially by Masahiro Mori, the basic idea of it is that there is a distinct, graph-able curve in people’s emotional responses to the verisimilitude of a robot to people. Essentially, when you start to make a robot look like a person, people view it more favourably. Then, suddenly, as you keep going, there’s a point where it’s not completely robotic, but not completely human, and it’s in this stage when we have a strong feeling of revulsion or disgust. When it gets close to being indistinguishable from us, it becomes so lifelike that we view it favourably again. This dip into disgust is the uncanny valley.

The theory of the uncanny itself was used by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay The Uncanny as a way to explain why we’re so creeped out by dolls and waxwork figures and the likes. He goes back to the original German for uncanny, unheimlich, and its roots in the word heimlich which roughly means to conceal or hide. He proposes that we find something uncanny because it is a revealing of social taboos and ideas which we try to hide in everyday life. This eventually gets linked on to concepts of the id and the subconscious, which is really the subject for another article altogether.

But what does all of this mean for our monsters? How can we link these concepts together in a way that impacts our understanding of our favourite horror villains?

Well perhaps this doesn’t apply for the big Kaiju as such, but maybe it helps explain why we’re still chilled by vampires, ghosts, and ghouls. The brain sees their general shape and recognises them as human, or at least, very human-like. Yet there’s always something just a little bit off, be it the pallor of their skin, or the sharp claws or teeth, which sets them apart and makes them disturbing to us. Going back to Del Toro, think of The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth. He’s got a recognisably human shape (based off Saturn in the painting Saturn Devouring His Sun by Francisco Goya), but with the skin stretched over the frame, the nostrils flared with no bridge, claw-like talons, and eyes in his hands. He’s started off human but been warped.

Even cursed or possessed dolls have something off about them; the animation of a human avatar is almost the very concept of the uncanny valley, with the robot being substituted for a doll, but the basic principle remaining. Toys are essentially us, preserved in miniature, and when they rise up against us, the human part of their design strikes a chord with us.

This is perhaps why we find masked killers a distressing concept. The shape is human, and the mask is human-like, but it doesn’t change, and as humans learn to see the face as the main projector of emotion when it doesn’t alter during extreme acts of violence, we slip down the slope of the valley. Masks such as those belonging to Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers, fairly blank and devoid of emotion, would, therefore, represent something uncanny. Also very often the mask represents a demon or spirit (thinking of films such as Onibaba or Scream) which conjures up concepts of possession by an unseen force. This might explain why we’re so focused on the killer’s mask in these films, because they are themselves imbued with that uncanny quality which makes them memorable beyond the killer behind them.

Think of the Scream franchise, where the mask comes to represent something much deeper, a force of evil in itself. When you see someone without the mask, they’re normal, but as soon as the face is obscured, they become terrifying, a body for the murderous will of the mask. And the mask and the murderous intent has the power to transfer its ownership from one person to another, like a spirit darting in and out of its possessed victims. Even think of the numerous killers that take on Jigsaw’s role in the Saw films. As soon as you come into possession of Billy, leading the charge of the traps, you become Jigsaw, the embodiment of John Kramer and his will to put people to the test of their drive to survive. We dip from being too human to being something slightly removed.

The idea of the uncanny valley even feeds into ghosts. Think of Kayako and Toshio from the Ju-on films. Though it sounds funny, how many of us were deeply disturbed when Toshio, a pale little boy, opened his mouth and meowed? When Kayako came crawling down the stairs, her throat croaking like a door very slowly opening? This concept of uncanniness transfers over to the sounds we make, affecting us when someone’s voice is not what it should be. This is something obviously well known to anyone who has watched The Exorcist in their time.

And so whilst the big monsters from The Ritual and Cloverfield might scare us, they don’t get anywhere close to instilling that distinct feeling of unease which those humanoid villains which nestle in the uncanny valley have the ability to do. When vampires flash their fangs, with blood in their eyes, we see something hiding inside the human form. When we see Schwarzenegger doing his own repairs in The Terminator, we find lines between humanity and inhumanity blurred. From now on, he looks just like us, but we know he isn’t.

And when we transfer over to imitation narratives such as The Thing or The Body Snatchers, suddenly we’re even more scared, because any one of us could be them. Now the uncanny transfers into paranoia, and we have to rely on looking out for the uncanny to alert us to danger. We have to fall back on something terrifying to keep us calm. In a way, we hope for something uncanny to confirm our fears. And that, more than anything, is scary.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Cloverfield. 2007. [Film] Directed by Matt Reeves. USA: Bad Robot.

Finney, J., 2010. The Body Snatchers. Great Britain: Orion Publishing.

Freud, S., McLintock, D. & Haughton, H., 2003. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books.

Friday the 13th. 1980. [Film] Directed by Sean S. Cunningham. Unites States of America: Georgetown Productions Inc.

Godzilla. 1954. [Film] Directed by Ishiro Honda. Japan: Toho.

Goya, F., 1819 – 1823. Saturn Devouring His Son. [Art] (Museo del Prado).

Halloween. 1978. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Falcon International Productions.

John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Universal Studios.

Ju-On: The Grudge. 2002. [Film] Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Japan: Pioneer LDC.

King Kong. 1933. [Film] Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack. USA: RKO Pictures Inc..

Onibaba. 1964. [Film] Directed by Kaneto Shindo. Japan: Kindai Eiga Kyokai.

Pan’s Labyrinth. 2006. [Film] Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Spain: Telecinco Cinema.

Saw. 2004. [Film] Directed by James Wan. USA: Twisted Pictures.

Scream. 1996. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States: Dimension Films.

The Exorcist. 1973. [Film] Directed by William Friedkin. USA: Hoya Productions.

The Ritual. 2017. [Film] Directed by David Bruckner. UK: The Imaginarium.

The Terminator. 1984. [Film] Directed by James Cameron. United States of America: Hemdale.

 

Odds and Dead Ends : An introduction to the Giallo

Most people have a fair understanding of the classic slasher flick. Made popular by Halloween in 1978, with predecessors including The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Black Christmas, Psycho etc, the idea of killing people off one by one has been immortalised by the formulae refined by films of this type. However, the slasher film is very closely linked to the Giallo (roughly pronounced jea-low), a type of Italian film which was very popular in the sixties and seventies, and bred a slew of filmmakers still admired and imitated today. This article won’t be a comprehensive discussion of the Giallo, as I’m a fan of the genre and not a scholar of it, but it will hopefully provide an introduction to those not aware of it, and give you a couple of movies to add to the ‘to-be-watched’ list.

Originally, gialli were cheap crime paperbacks, a bit like pulp novels, that were printed by Mondadori and trademarked with an instantly recognisable yellow cover. Hence this gave birth to the term Giallo, meaning ‘yellow’. These were mostly translations of Agatha Christie, Edgar Lee Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other similar authors. It’s important to make a distinction between the types of crime fiction, however. Gialli focused more on the graphic violence and the sleuths, rather than gun-toting noir police work. As Gary Needham says:

The publication of gialli increased throughout the 1930s and 40s, however, the importation and translation of the 1940s “hard-boiled” detective fictions from the US were prohibited from publication outright by Mussolini on the grounds that their corrupting influence and glamorisation of crime would negatively influence “weak-minded” Italians. (Needham, 2002)

Despite some of the restrictions, the Italians began writing their own gialli, and the literature boomed in the ’30s and ’40s. By the late ’50s, it had started to make its way across to film. The main mastermind behind its initial translation to the screen was Mario Bava, a film legend in his own right. After all, it was his film, Black Sabbath, which gave the band their name, who helped invent and pioneer the Heavy Metal genre of music.

Though he made a splash in ’63 with his film The girl who knew too much, it was his 1964 film, Blood and Black Lace, which really kicked things off. Dispensing with the police-procedural elements of previous films, Bava upped the sex and violence, turning the stalking sequences into major set pieces in their own right. Despite being a financial failure at the time, it has gone on to be critically appreciated and influenced dozens of filmmakers after. It set the template of what was to come after. It also introduced the killer in a black coat with black gloves, very much like Jack the Ripper, which would be the usual getup for Giallo killers as time went on.

A few years later, the most influential Giallo filmmaker would take up the mantle. Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage incorporated a twisted, convoluted plotline with stunning visuals that earned him the nickname ‘the Italian Hitchcock.’ The film was an international success, and still has one of my personal favourite twists of all time. He followed this up with Four Flies on Grey Velvet a few years later, and then release one of his masterpieces in 1975, Profondo Rosso (Deep Red).Deep Red Poster

Around the early seventies, Sergio Martino also released films such as Torso, All the colours of the dark, and the incredibly titled, Your vice is a locked room and only I have the key. Lucio Fulci also breaks onto the scene here, directing films such as A lizard in a woman’s skin and Don’t torture a duckling in the early seventies. I’ve already written an article on Fulci here on HorrorAddicts.net, and I’ll include a link to that at the article’s end.

Because of their frequency of production and release at this time, gialli ended up like the Saw films did, with each film trying to out-do the previous in terms of twists and turns. I recall hearing Luigi Cozzi talk about this in relation to when he and Argento were batting around ideas for a film in which someone foresaw their death, then had to try and explain how it happened without psychic powers. The film, Profondo Rosso, was eventually made without Cozzi’s involvement, but he does own a horror memorabilia shop in Italy named after the film.

The gory death sequences continued throughout the seventies, continuing into Argento’s most famous film, Suspiria, which had a remake released last year. The brutal opening death scene with a body crashing through a stain glass window is as in horror history as Johnny Depp’s demise in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, and Goblin’s score for the film is something you find yourself humming walking down the street. Filled with vibrant colours and haunting imagery, it’s still shocking even today.

By the time the eighties came around, however, the Giallo was beginning to fade. Fulci’s return to the genre after doing his Gates of Hell trilogy were fairly laughable (Murder Rock is just funny, and there’s not a person in existence that can’t think of The New York Ripper without saying ‘quack’. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it and you’ll understand what I mean), and Argento has been making movies to this day, but nothing of any real note after the mid-eighties with Phenomena and Opera. The American slasher had taken the spotlight, and even that was, by the late eighties, beginning to run down its original formula.

These films are still influential, however. The film Abrakadabra, released last year by the Onetti Brothers, is a wonderful homage to the giallo, nailing everything from the groove-rock soundtrack to the quick zooms and grainy footage. Gialli are a wonderful time, those made around the late sixties/early seventies especially, as they have their own unique vibe, shooting style, and soundtracks. Unlike the slasher or the ghost story, it’s something that I highly doubt will ever make a proper return, but will stay immortalised as the brilliant pieces of cinema that they are. Sleazy, shocking, suspenseful; the Giallo is one of a kind.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

FURTHER READING ON HORRORADDICTS.NET

Bibliography

A Nightmare on Elm Street. 1984. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States of America: New Line Cinema.

Abrakadabra. 2018. [Film] Directed by Nicolas Onetti Luciano Onetti. Argentina/New Zealand: Black Mandala.

All the colours of the dark. 1972. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Lea Film.

Black Christmas. 1974. [Film] Directed by Bob Clarke. Canada: Ambassador Films.

Black Sabbath. 1963. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy/France: Emmepi Cinematografica Societe.

Blood and Black Lace. 1964. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Emmepi.

Don’t Torture a Duckling. 1972. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Medusa Produzione.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet. 1972. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacoli.

Halloween. 1978. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Falcon International Productions.

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. 1971. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: International Apollo Films.

Murder Rock. 1984. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Scena Film.

Needham, G., 2002. Playing with genre: an introduction to the Italian Giallo. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/needham11.php
[Accessed 20 07 2019].

Phenomena. 1985. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: DAC Film.

Profondo Rosso. 1975. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seta Spettacoli.

Psycho. 1960. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. United States of America: Shamley Productions.

Saw. 2004. [Film] Directed by James Wan. USA: Twisted Pictures.

Suspiria. 1977. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacoli.

Terror At The Opera. 1987. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: ADC Films.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. 1970. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: CCC Filmkunst GmbH.

The New York Ripper. 1982. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Fulvia Film.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown. 1976. [Film] Directed by Charles B. Pierce. USA: Charles B. Pierce Film Productions, Inc..

Torso. 1973. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Compagnia Cinematografica Champion.

Your room is a locked vice and only I have the key. 1972. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Luciano Martino.

Odds and Deadends : The Mummy (2017): A Universal Problem

I love a good monster movie. And when it was announced years ago that Universal Studios were reviving their classic monster movies, I, like the rest of the horror world, had a small heart attack. Then Tom Cruise got attached to The Mummy and we realised that they were going all in. It was going to be mind-blowing.

Until it wasn’t.

I’m going to outline my thoughts as to why the rebooting of the iconic collection failed, and I’m going to split it into the following three categories:

1) The film itself.

2) The heritage and genre.

3) The Marvel effect.

  • THE FILM ITSELF

The MummyThat the other two categories feed into this general discussion of the movie as a whole is not to be ignored, but this first category ignores that the film is part of a larger narrative and just focuses on the filmmaking and storytelling itself.

The first glaring issue is the over-reliance on CGI set pieces used to try and carry the film. From large green screen sandstorms to a plethora of unrealistic zombie mummies, the film might as well have been completed animated. The worst part of it all is that these set pieces come thick and fast, with no rhyme or reason, or sense of proper narrative timing. You look at a Marvel movie (such as the new Spider-Man: Far From Home), and you notice that they normally break it up into three main parts. A fight early on, one in the middle, then the big wind up for the third act. It’s your basic three act structure with a large action sequence in each, and it allows the movie to have the downtime to build on its characters. Even movies such as those in the James Bond or Mission Impossible franchises will do the same sort of thing, with a sprinkling of smaller sequences here and there, but it’s still just the three big moments. The Mummy has so many that the rhythm is off. It just doesn’t feel right.

And it also means that parts, such as the desert sandstorm near the beginning of the film, are irrelevant. We saw the crows take off after the sarcophagus when it is airlifted away, and it is these birds that will bring the plane down. Why is the sandstorm needed? To add a little hint of ‘danger’? To make sure the audience doesn’t forget we’re in the desert? It makes no sense. When the sandstorm blows through London in the final act, it was a wonderfully gothic image, capitalising on the fear of outsiders and things that shouldn’t happen. But having this be a singular, major event that cut out communication lines, throwing all the heroes into confusion, would have been wonderful, and saving the sandstorm for this moment would have made it seem much more threatening. As it is, we’ve already seen a sandstorm do nothing. Why should we be scared of this one? Short answer: we aren’t.

One of my other issues was the lack of subtlety in the film in any department. The scares were ham-fisted attempts at CGI skeletons that didn’t take the time to allow the tension to build. And the amount of exposition is ridiculous. Jekyll’s opening speech gives most of the plot away, and leaves no mystery as to what is to come. It’s bad filmmaking and bad storytelling at the best of times, leading to a picture that rushes from one big scene to another, and has to have things spelled out quickly in between each blockbuster moment to make sure we’re following along. It’s nowhere near efficient craftsmanship.

  • THE HERITAGE AND TONE

When Universal said they were reviving the monster movies, audiences wanted horror. They wanted to be scared, brought back to being a kid. Universal, wanting to compete with summer blockbusters, changed their classic horror into an all-out action thriller with a few horror elements scattered around. There’s even some funny moments scattered around, such as when Jenny yells ‘Get her, Nick!’ to Tom Cruise’s character as the newly revived Princess Amanet heads towards them in the forest. Really? ‘Ger her, Nick!’? It’s not the movie audiences wanted, or were promised.

Because the movie goes for a grander scale, the horror, when it is there, never really hits. Sure, give your plagues and your zombies an apocalypse to try and bring about, but even these focus on a small group of survivors. Think Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later. Horror is deeply personal, and you have to make sure it feels personal to a protagonist we connect with, in order to make us truly feel it.

This is something Bram Stoker did wonderfully in his novel The Jewel of Seven Stars, a personal favourite novel of mine, and one I’ve already discussed on HorrorAddicts.net ( I’ll put a link to my analysis of the character of Queen Hera from the novel at the end of the article). Stoker’s tale presents an ancient Egyptian threat rising from the dead, like The Mummy, but for two-thirds of the narrative, everything is confined to one house and plays out like a murder mystery. It’s closed and confined, and because of this we empathise with the characters because we know them intimately. When the terror comes, we feel the fear because we’ve put ourselves in their shoes. As a result, the possible apocalypse after the book is finished feels much more worrying.

  • THE MARVEL EFFECT

The Dark Universe is Universal’s attempt to replicate the success Marvel Studios have had with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The trouble is that Marvel seems to be the only ones that have really cracked the format. Disney tried it out into Star Wars, but the bad reception to Solo halted their plans for possible Obi Wan and Boba Fett films. The DC Universe has its fans, but has never really caught the approval like Marvel has, and only recently has Aquaman and Wonder Woman really hit the box office hard. One can only wait to see how the Godzilla monster-verse goes on, but if the reviews I’ve seen of Godzilla: King of the Monsters are anything to go by, it doesn’t look good.

The Mummy’s primary problem is that Universal threw all their chips in too early.

The film isn’t just about the eponymous mummy, but the introduction to the whole world. But rather than sneak in suggestions and nods, and build the whole thing up slowly, whilst still allowing each film to be its own unique piece, they’re already interconnecting everything at the very heart. The beating heart of this connection is the Dr Jekyll, head of the Prodigium organisation. However, instead of letting Jekyll just be an incidental part of the storyline, or his true identity being a big reveal at the end of the film, they made him integral to the movie.

This has multiple risks. It risks sidelining the main focus of the movie, the mummy herself, and it risks, if you’ll excuse the vulgar phrasing, Universal blowing their load too early. Universal didn’t keep their powder dry. Hold Jekyll and Hyde back and you’ve got a whole other movie in store to unleash. If The Mummy goes down, you’ve got another shot. Notice how Marvel, in the first Iron Man film, only announced Nick Fury in the post credit scene. They could easily have cut it had the test screenings been bad, and simply kept it as a one-off movie that made a decent splash, whilst also jettisoning the movie from a wider connected universe if they needed to. They can even bring Iron Man back into the storyline in 10 movies time if it takes them that long to get into their rhythm.

The Dark Universe, complete with logo at the beginning of the movie, announces very plainly that everything goes together. You’ve got obvious nods to Dracula and The Creature from the Black Lagoon in the jars Prodigum has in its stores, clearly showing Universal’s intention to use them at a later phase. In one, opening movie, we’ve got four of the classic monsters together. All we needed was someone to be invisible, and Jekyll to have a daughter marrying a doctor called Victor Frankenstein, and Universal would have taken down almost every monster they had in their arsenal in one go.

In a bid to outdo Marvel with their interconnected universe, the producers relied on the fan base of the monsters of the past to carry the movie with references and nods all by themselves. In the end, when these fans didn’t get what they wanted, Universal were left canning the other projects they had set up. Their interconnected world had crashed at the first hurdle, and because the rest of their plans were integral to the first film being a hit, it set up a chain of dominos that knocked the other films down.

One can only hope that Leigh Whannell (and Blumhouse, I believe) will have the sense to work slowly, building up a series of films that are tense, scary, and operate by themselves, which have the potential, but not the necessity, to interlink later on. Whannell has already established himself (along with James Wan, ironically directing movies in another connected universe, having released Aquaman last year), at being able to bring about an interlinked horror franchise with The Conjuring universe. Let’s hope that he can learn from the mistakes that Universal made with The Mummy, and slowly bring us the spectacle we all wanted, and still want, to see.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Follow him on Twitter: KJudgeMental

My article on Queen Hera from The Jewel of Seven Stars can be found here: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/odds-and-dead-ends-resurrecting-the-queen/

Bibliography

28 Days Later. 2002. [Film] Directed by Danny Boyle. United Kingdom: 20th Century Fox.

Aquaman. 2018. [Film] Directed by James Wan. USA: DC.

Creature from the Black Lagoon. 1954. [Film] Directed by Jack Arnold. USA: Universal Pictures.

Dracula. 1931. [Film] Directed by Tod Browning. USA: Universal Pictures.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters. 2019. [Film] Directed by Michael Dougherty. USA: Legendary Pictures.

Iron Man. 2008. [Film] Directed by Jon Favreau. USA: Marvel Studios.

Night of the Living Dead. 1968. [Film] Directed by George A. Romero. USA: Image Ten.

Solo: A Star Wars Story. 2018. [Film] Directed by Ron Howard. USA: Lucasfilm.

Spider-Man: Far From Home. 2019. [Film] Directed by Jon Watts. USA: Marvel Studios.

Stoker, B., 2009. The Jewel of Seven Stars. United States of America: Seven Treasures Publications.

The Mummy. 2017. [Film] Directed by Alex Kurtzman. USA: Universal.

Wonder Woman. 2017. [Film] Directed by Patty Jenkins. USA: DC.

 

Odds and Dead Ends: Scary Shadows | Analysis of H G Wells’ ‘The Red Room’

 

H. G. Wells might be more known for his science-fiction novels, such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, but some of his short stories might as well have been written by H. P. Lovecraft. The Red Room is a straight up ghost story in the same vein as M. R. James. It’s a little gem of a story, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts as to what makes it such a delight.

The Red Room details the protagonist taking up a challenge of sorts to stay in a cursed castle bedroom overnight. The opening sets this up nicely in what might now seem a cliché. The opening line that ‘“I can assure you,” said I, “that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me,”’ is reminiscent of Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining saying ‘“That’s not going to happen to me”’ when Ullman speaks of the previous caretaker going insane.

This single line perfectly sets up the beginning of the character’s arc (from skeptic to believer), tells us the genre of story (supernatural), and the character of the protagonist. His skepticism is reinforced when he says that ‘I half suspected the old people were trying to enhance the spiritual terrors of their house’. He is ‘abbreviated and broadened to an impossible sturdiness in the queer old mirror at the end of the room.’ He sees himself as a rock, immovable against anything that passes his way. However, the mirror has changed his appearance, and just as he sees himself to be a rock in a storm, his faith is soon to be changed.

The protagonist’s disbelief in ghosts is due to a fear of age and dying. It is said that he is ‘“eight-and-twenty”’, which is twenty-eight for those who don’t speak century old English, making him a young man. This is in contrast to the three elderly people who apparently live in the castle. This fear of their age presents itself when the protagonist remarks that ‘There is, to my mind, something inhuman in senility.’ Age removes human qualities, and so something very old is to be seen as disgusting, or feared. Spirits, dead for many years, must be terrifying to him.

As the protagonist leaves the group for the room, they are described as ‘dark against the firelight’, which is one of the many allusions to shadows peppered throughout the opening. This further links them to the spirits that will eventually come to haunt our protagonist. Just a little later the protagonist himself expands on this idea, even remarking that ‘their very existence, thought I, is spectral.’

Along with this is the line ‘“It’s your own choosing.”’ This line is repeated like a mantra throughout the opening, and though it may be a bit overdone, the message is clear. By disobeying the warnings given, he brings the doom upon himself. This cliché also gets played up in The Cabin in the Woods, when the group ignore the warnings not to go up to the cabin. You get what’s coming to you.

Soon, even before we enter the room itself, Wells drops the recurrent image that will pervade the remainder of the piece, that of moving, sentient shadows fighting against the candlelight. There’s something very primal about this opposition, very simply a play of light against dark, of good against evil. ‘My candle flared and made the shadows cover and quiver.’ That the shadows are anthropomorphised, being said to have ‘came sweeping up behind me, and another fled before me into the darkness overhead’ is disturbing. Light has to be controlled by man, dependent on him, but the dark can move as it wishes.

The repetition and enhancing of this play of ghostly shadows is what drives the remainder of the piece. ‘The door of the Red Room and the steps up to it were in a shadowy corner.’ The protagonist must move into the realm of darkness if he is to attempt to hold out against it. The room itself is a ‘huge shadowy room with its black window bays,’ full of dust and ‘black corners, its germinating darkness.’ And against all this the candlelight has very little effect, ‘a little tongue of light in the vast chamber; its rays failed to pierce to the opposite end of the room.’

Despite being disturbed by ‘some impalpable quality of that ancient room,’ the protagonist tries to ‘preserve my scientific attitude of mind,’ and examines the room ‘systematically.’ He lights several candles throughout the room, illuminating all that he can, but despite this he still puts his revolver ‘ready to hand.’ Have all his efforts been in vain? He tries to maintain that he is in control of his emotions and that his ‘precise examination had done me a little good,’ and yet ‘I still found the remoter darkness of the place and its perfect stillness too stimulating for the imagination.’ All the build up at the beginning of the story begins to pay off, as our anticipation for ghosts and ghouls overrides the common sense saying that there is nothing there. Every mention of a black spot, a shadow in the rafters, is somewhere we search for ghosts in between the lines, looking for subtext. We are literally jumping at shadows.

A draught enters the room, and soon the candle in the alcove begins to flicker, which ‘kept the shadows and penumbra perpetually shifting and stirring in a noiseless flighty dance.’ An attempt to light more candles gives us his humorous remark that ‘when the ghost came I could warn him not to trip over them.’ Though this line is obviously a joke to himself, he’s brought ghosts into his everyday vocabulary, thinking of them as existing in his world. He’s begun a path away from disbelief into acknowledgement.

And then the candles start to go out.

Now that Wells has ratcheted up the tension by implication alone, he brings on the scares. The alcove, where the deepest shadow has been, is suddenly in darkness again. A candle has gone out. When trying to relight it, two more go out. The shadows do not give him time to bring back the light, and immediately move in for the kill. Again the comparison of the darkness to calculated activity is drawn, as ‘the flames vanished as if the wick had been suddenly nipped between a finger and thumb.’ The protagonist moves closer and closer to hysteria, and ‘a queer high note getting into my voice somehow.’

The protagonist, hysterical, again breaches into the realms of ghostly belief by exclaiming that ‘“those candles are wanted… for the mantel candlesticks.”’ He begins to fight against the shadows’ continuous extinguishing of the candles, ‘the shadows I feared and fought against returned, and crept in on me, first a step gained on this side of me, then on that.’ It is a fight that he can only lose because as was said many times at the beginning, it was a fate of his own choosing.

And yet the ambiguity is still maintained, because the draught was never initially shown to be ghostly in nature, and when he picks up another candle, ‘abruptly this was blown out as I swung it off the table by the wind of my sudden movement.’ Wells continually holds the reader in suspense of wanting to see something overtly supernatural, so that we voraciously follow the protagonist’s stumbling with our own clumsy speed, running headlong through the pages. It is Wells at his finest.

His escape from the room is even deliberately non-supernatural, battering himself up by his own stumbling in desperation and anxiety. And in the end, the final revelation of the nature of the malevolence in the room is a beautiful touch. ‘“Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms.”’ It is described as being a supernatural force, but it is entirely possible to view it as a kind of mass hysteria. Somewhere creepy that instills fear that causes people to essentially, accidentally kill themselves in terror. The disorientation of a sudden acceptance of the possibility of spirits, of the loss of a guiding light, combined with his fear of age and decay, all fuel a Todorovian fantastic story. It’s a wonderful touch to end the piece.

In conclusion, The Red Room is a masterfully crafted ghost story that should be remembered with the best. A great build up to a frantic fight of the rational vs. the irrational part of the brain, with memorable descriptions of the sentient shadows, in a spooky gothic castle. It’s inspired my own work[1], and I hope that you’ll find something delightfully spooky from it as well.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

King, S., 1977. The Shining. United States: Doubleday.

The Cabin in the Woods. 2012. [Film] Directed by Drew Goddard. USA: Mutant Enemy.

Todorov, T., 1975. The Fantastic. New York: Cornell University.

Wells, H. G., 1896. The Red Room. [Online]
Available at: https://repositorio.ufsc.br/bitstream/handle/123456789/157356/The%20Red%20Room%20-%20H.G.%20Wells.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[Accessed 23 06 2019].

Wells, H. G., 1897. The War Of The Worlds. United Kingdom: Pearson’s Magazine.

Wells, H. G., 1931. The Time Machine. New York: Random House.

[1] For those interested, the piece in question, The Voice-Snatcher, will be released in The Sirens Call #45 at the end of June/beginning of July.