2.01.2013

Epistemology and the horror film


One of the clues in Night of the Demon's supernatural detective story.

Above: an image from Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), one of the most highly-regarded of horror films, and one of the most snooze-worthy.  Tourneur was adept at building atmosphere into his films, and Night of the Demon does have a few chilling moments.  But it’s talky and stiff, and its plot owes more to detective fiction than the horror genre: although it hinges on the sinister doings of an effete devil worshiper, it follows the conventions of a standard mystery and, as such, is driven by a narrative logic grounded in epistemological certainty.  Its supposedly “open” ending, in which the rationalist convictions of its detective-scientist hero (an utterly boring Dana Andrews) are supposedly shaken, registers as little more than a gimmick: this is a horror film that affirms rationality even as it claims to argue against it.  Its rationalism is built into its very aesthetic, with its familiar scenes of conversations in drawing rooms and offices in which people say things like “But you must believe me!”  I’m still convinced that the classical Hollywood style, with its rigidly conventional editing patterns and narrative structures, was not set up to accommodate the horror genre, which requires a certain decadent lushness.  The genre really could not come into its own until the transformation of classical filmmaking by the art film movements of the 1960s; as I noted in earlier posts, the best horror films made before 1960, like Freaks, Vampyr, and The Fall of the House of Usher, were anomalies, and many of them came out of the avant-garde tradition.

I proceeded to check out Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (dir. Jaromil Jeres), an absolute mind-fuck of a Czech horror film from 1970 that proved a welcome antidote to Night of the Demon’s conservatism.  (Watching these two films back to back is to see just how radically filmmaking changed during the 1960s.)  In Valerie, we see the horror genre freed from the straight-jacket of classicism, allowed to roam through a kind of dream-world.  The film doesn’t even bother with a straight-forward plot; instead, it throws vampirism, eroticism, and magic together into a beautiful and eerie mélange.  Like Epstein’s UsherThe Company of Wolves, The Innocents, and the underseen Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, to take only four examples, Valerie could be classified as “lyrical horror.”  But my point is that most really great horror films are lyrical insofar as they plunge us into sensuous, unnatural atmospheres, lulling us into states of terror and pleasure.  The best horror films remain fundamentally illogical, or operate according to a dream logic.  They’re felt rather than thought about, which is why Valerie is such a completely absorbing and chilling film in spite of its failing to make any kind of real “sense.”  In its final sequence, as monstrous wraiths beckon to us (and Valerie) in a sun-dappled forest, it feels like we’re trapped within the most delicious nightmare, and we don’t want to wake up.     

"Lyrical horror": glimpses of vampires in the woods in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

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