Repulsion’s Inversion of Psycho, or: The loss of narrative concern and the cracks in Polanski’s Code

By Daniel Spada

Just five short years after Alfred Hitchcock changed the discourse on the horror film with the release of Psycho (1960), Roman Polanski responded with a film containing more explicit sex and more explicit violence, not to forget an ending that was equally as disturbing but in a wholly different way. Repulsion (1965) was his first English language picture (as well as Catherine Deneuve’s), released by Compton Films, a small British film company specializing in soft-core pornography. At the time of its release, critics noted its surface similarities to Psycho, including Kenneth Tynan, writing for Life magazine, who said, “The difference between the two pictures is that Repulsion is Psycho, turned inside out. In Hitchcock’s film we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims–in Polanski’s our viewpoint is the killer’s” (22). There are parallels to be drawn between the oft-analyzed dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene with the landlord near the end of Repulsion. Norman and Carol’s vulnerability is turned outward and manifest in explicit acts of violence. Polanski understands this eruption of violence as consequential of a prolonged withdrawal from society, from oneself – this is reflected in his homages to Hitchcock, expressed in his ideological underpinnings, thematic preoccupations, and film form.

The other similarities between Repulsion and Psycho are very clear: the opening shot of Deneuve’s eye matches up with the shot of Marion’s after she is murdered, they are both blonde (which brings to mind the image of the “Hitchcock blonde”), there are two murders that occur throughout the duration of each film (Colin and the landlord in Repulsion, Marion and Arbogast in Psycho), and they both end with a “secret” being revealed to a community of people (a secret which brings great discomfort to each community in different ways[1]). Their differences are also easily noticeable: while Psycho could, and has been read as a mystery-thriller (the killer’s identity kept a secret until the end), Repulsion cannot be read as such (or in a similar way). There is a certain lack of narrative concern in Polanski’s film that does not exist in the world of Psycho, not to mention Polanski’s refusal to lighten the affair and offer a baseline diagnosis of Carol’s illness.[2] In both films, physical space is important (both of the major set pieces act as a literal and metaphorical prison, containing the action and the characters): Carol and Helen’s apartment in Repulsion, the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Although Kenneth Tynan is accurate in his description of Repulsion as an inversion of Psycho, it is only at a very basic level of narrative detail. His assertion that Polanski, “simply presents it [his heroine’s behavior], and if we choose to identify with her fears and her irrational ferocity that is our business, not his” comes off as resoundingly false if we look at the particulars of Polanski’s film form, and how he posits Carol as, what Ivan Butler calls, “authentically tragic” and “herself the most pitiable victim of the evil she does” (78). It is almost as if Tynan has completely overlooked the shots that bookend the film: the first, starting from such a close-up on a human eye (Carol’s) as to be indistinguishable until the zoom out, and the final shot, an extended zoom-in on a family photograph, the light cutting the photo up and a parallelogram enclosing a small girl in the background, until it zooms in all the way on her face, and then the darkness in the corner of her eye overtakes the frame. Throughout the film, the audience experiences all of Carol’s hallucinations with her, thus creating empathy for her character, even if it is simply the illusion of empathy. It is impossible not to identify with Carol, and it is absolutely Polanski’s job to make this identification possible.

There is rich thematic and visual analysis to be gleaned from the bizarre dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene at the end of Repulsion with the landlord; there is even richer analysis that can be read between the lines when comparing and contrasting the two. Rather than extending an invitation to enter Carol’s personal space (unlike Norman, who requests Marion to eat dinner with him, quickly bringing her to his lair filled with taxidermied animals), her landlord unlocks the door, forcefully moves her poorly constructed blockade (a single piece of wood), and begins to roam around the apartment, quickly happening upon Carol in a white dressing gown cowering in the doorway to her living room. Throughout the scene Carol does not say much, other than insisting her landlord to not open the window curtains, and in this way, it is dissimilar to the dinner and shower sequence in Psycho. Polanski’s restless camera is constantly following the landlord as he wanders around the apartment, unlike Hitchcock’s mostly stationary camera.

As for similarities between the two films, Marion’s comment about institutionalizing Mother parallels Helen’s boyfriend’s comment about Carol seeing a doctor, to which Helen responds “She’s just sensitive, that’s all.” There is a hint of understanding in her response to him (she even gets a little defensive), a hint that this might be the way Carol has always been. Norman’s response to Marion is much more defensive, before it devolves into him talking about how Mother needs him and how she just “goes a little mad sometimes.”

There is a moment of resistance in Psycho when Norman enters the house and stops at the stairs for a second, then goes into the kitchen and sits at the table, in deep contemplation. This is mirrored in Repulsion when Carol stays seated on the couch up until the landlord has attempted to sexually violate her. Then, when she sees his second attempt coming, she does strike him, many times, hunched over like an animal with a razor blade in her hand, slice after slice, blood everywhere. The music becomes intense, like that in Psycho’s shower sequence and the camera cuts back and forth between Helen and the landlord, like the camera cutting back and forth between Marion and Mother.

Seeing is essential to cinema; both Repulsion and Psycho utilize the gaze, which ends up creating distinct graphic matches between them. There are two prominent instances of this, the first being in Psycho with Lila’s tracking gaze up to the Bates estate and in Repulsion with Carol’s walks around London’s South Kensington area. The second pronounced illustration of this gaze match is when Norman looks through the peephole at Marion undressing and when the landlord comes to Carol’s apartment to collect the money. These scenes, looked at against each other, show Hitchcock’s influence on Polanski, and their shared preoccupation with seeing and the gaze.

Hitchcock and Polanski alike refuse to make a conclusive statement on their characters’ conditions. Unlike Hitchcock, Polanski does not offer any solace in explaining away Carol’s behavior, even though the ending of Psycho alludes to a gender instability more frightening than the one espoused by the psychiatrist.

Psycho and Repulsion deal with the idea of sexual repression, but in very different ways. While it is explained that Norman’s sexual repression is somehow indebted to Mother, Carol’s is never explicated upon, but only shown visually. Norman and Carol are both incredibly lonely characters, their loneliness reflected in their living spaces. Norman’s maintenance of the ever vacant Bates Motel passes the time, but also traps him. With Repulsion, Polanski frequently shoots Carol’s apartment in a way that shows what a big empty space it is. Carol’s apartment is both that which is eating her alive and that which she cannot escape: the sound of her sister making love, which assists the audience in understanding her sexual repression at a deeper level, and her hallucinations of hands emerging from the walls and a man attempting to attack her are ways for Polanski to show her gradual mental disintegration.

It could be argued that both Hitchcock and Polanski subscribe to the Foucauldian conception of madness as changing and historically situated.[3] When the psychiatrist makes his speech at the end of Psycho, it is almost as if Hitchcock is poking fun at the idea of madness being eliminated on the basis of a principle of explanation or reduction external to the psychological dimensions of madness. With the following scene of overlapping a highly feminine voice and Anthony Perkin’s calm veneer, Hitchcock is drawing attention to the absurdity of that idea. Normality, in relation to mental illness, is less reflective of psychiatry or psychology than philosophy. Polanski’s approach to Carol’s condition is less clear because he never offers an explanation of her behavior, thus making the ending and film as a whole disturbing in a completely different way than Psycho. This refusal to diagnose her and also the refusal to explain her past could be an indication of his agreement with Foucault’s conclusion that psychology can never master madness.

The subversion of audience expectation is a tactical maneuver employed by both Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. With Psycho, it was killing off its star, Janet Leigh, within the first hour of the film and the refusal to restore order. With Repulsion, it was an aversion to the classic narrative structure, the lack of a character arc, and, like Psycho, the refusal to restore order (or even offer a baseline explanation of the chaos that ensues). Repulsion is clearly indebted to Psycho, however, it can be seen as bringing the horror film into a new direction: from the outside to the inside.

[1] In Psycho the community believes they understand Norman and his condition (as per the diagnosis by the psychiatrist), while in Repulsion there is no intervention by a doctor so there is an even greater discomfort within the community.

[2] Something I found particularly confounding when doing research for this essay was how more often than not critics and theorists alike did not understand the function of the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman’s condition in Psycho, mis-characterizing it as “glib”, “hasty”, “tacked-on”, etc.

[3] How ironic that for my birthday this past October a friend got me Foucault’s Madness: The Invention of An Idea. Who could have known I would be using it for this comparative essay between Repulsion and Psycho, really?

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Eraserhead: In Heaven, everything is fine

By Jordan Danner

I have always been attracted to both the surreal and morbid in the arts. Watching strange and disturbing films became almost like a “chasing the dragon”, in which I would try to seek out something even more odd, until I reached the likes of directors such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Shinya Tsukamoto, and David Lynch. One of the granddaddies of all of these midnight cult surreal films was Lynch’s feature-length debut film Eraserhead (1977), an incredibly difficult film to watch, but not one without merit. Partially funded by a fresh out of Carrie (1976) Sissy Spacek, The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry deemed it “culturally significant” and selected the film in 2004 for preservation. The Criterion Collection just reissued a beautifully restored print on DVD, along with another release of his short films, and Mel Brooks was such a fan that he helped produce Lynch’s next film The Elephant Man (1980), which went on to receive eight Oscar nominations, including best picture.

Shot in gritty black and white, Eraserhead is more about creating an uncomfortable atmosphere than relying on dialog to create its nightmarish feeling. Noteworthy is the fact that the film does not feature much dialog at all. A large portion of the beginning of the film is just establishing the setting of this industrial wasteland that Henry (Jack Nance) inhabits. Trademarks of Lynch began in this film with his often-used ominous flickering of lights and rumbling basses, which create an incredibly uneasy environment that one almost feels the tension that the character is. Such settings would be explored in later films such as Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).

Throughout the next hour of this film, we are introduced to Henry’s grim reality. We find that Henry and his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) have had a child together. We discover that this child is a hideous mutation, most likely the result of the industrial wasteland that they inhabit and the genetically modified food that they eat. Henry soon finds himself alone after Mary is driven away by the constant screams and cries by their child. Henry begins to find a sort of solace in the visions he begins to experience. After staring into his radiator, he begins to witness a stage inside where a girl proceeds to dance while sperm-like beings fall to the ground. Things start get even weirder (don’t ask me how he manages this!) with more visions, including Henry losing his own head.

Loosely based on his 1970 short The Grandmother, Lynch wanted to capture what he called his own version of The Philadelphia Story (1940). While Lynch is notorious for not revealing his methods or his meanings, there are still some hints that he has dropped over the last few years. At the time, Lynch was a student at the American Film Institute, which helped with production of the film. Anyone with knowledge of rust belt cities such as Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh could inform you that the urban decay of these former manufacturing hubs were a huge influence on the grim setting of the film. Another aspect Lynch has mentioned with the film is that it does address the apprehensions he felt as a new father in a strange time to be alive in America. This period of time had seen events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, which caused a huge loss of morale in the nation, along with many divisions between people. The “me” generation of the 1970s was seen as a stark contrast to the “peace and love” era of the late 1960s.

The many years I have spent watching this film (secluded and in the dark is the best way to experience it in my opinion), I have often found new things to discuss, whether it be in the aesthetics of the film itself, or the story behind it. Growing up in a time with similar turmoil has made me find appreciation in the environment that Henry is around in this film. The rust belt has only continued to increase and swallow more cities whole. As factories close, jobs are lost, people flee, and budgets shrink. One can only hope at least that the song in the film is correct when it says that “In Heaven, everything is fine.”

Five Underrated Horror Films from Some of Today’s Biggest Directors

By Jordan Danner

Autumn is making its return as the temperature drops and the leaves begin to fall. As soon as that first cold day in September arrives, I look forward to pumpkin everything, organizing all the frumpy sweaters I’m going to wear and of course, Halloween and all of the horror films that go with it. When I find I enjoy work from a director, I often try to see as many films in that director’s filmography, even though some may not be worth viewing. Watching an artist (I regress in some cases) is always fun to see as one finds their niche. After a recent subscription to Hulu Plus, I’ve begun to raid its Criterion Collection section (the one area of the service without commercials!), along with my own personal collection and started my marathon of horror films with a few overlooked works by some of today’s most critically acclaimed directors.

1. Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)

Before making films about organized crime such as Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), De Palma was beginning his career with a string of horror films and psychological thrillers. Sisters tells the story of French-Canadian model Danielle (Margot Kidder), whose separated conjoined twin Dominique is suspected of murder by her neighbor and local reporter, Grace(Jennifer Salt). Upon discovering no trace of a crime scene, Grace continues to investigate both the area and Danielle and Dominque’s past, resulting in a shocking twist.

As a member of the New Hollywood group of filmmakers, De Palma pays tribute to both Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) in both story and aesthetics. Visually, the film is full of brilliant split-screen, point of view and iris shots. De Palma even managed to get Bernard Herrmann, one of Hitchcock’s favorite collaborators to compose the harrowing score. An interesting twins-themed double feature (all puns intended!) would be with David Cronenberg’s (a director I will also talk about in this list) Dead Ringers (1988).

2. Martin (George A. Romero, 1976)

When it comes to horror filmmakers, Romero is one of the most influential. Romero gave us the modern zombie film, complete with social commentary when he released Night of the Living Dead (1968), along with five more “living dead” films in a franchise over forty years. My fellow horror film buff friends and I often like to discuss our favorite films of Romero’s that do not involve zombies. The one film we often like to bring up is Martin, a criminally underrated film and an interesting take on the vampire genre.

Martin (John Amplas) appears to be a regular young man on the outside, except for the fact that he is convinced that he is a vampire. Martin doesn’t let his lack of fangs or a hypnotic gaze prevent him from feasting on blood, he just uses the aid of razor blades and sedatives to procure his next meal. After the death of his family, Martin is sent to live with his cousin (Christine Forrest) and grandfather (Lincoln Maazel), a Lithuanian immigrant and strict Catholic that believes Martin truly is a vampire. Martin works for his grandfather’s butcher shop, being threatened with a stake to the heart if he feeds on any of his customers.

Despite being a horror film, Martin is still full of dark humor as well. Martin’s grandfather tried to repel him with garlic and crosses, to which Martin is unaffected, telling him that magic is not real. Since being a young vampire is tough on your love life, Martin becomes a hit guest known as “The Count” on a radio show that he frequently calls to express his difficulties with women as a vampire. All in all, Martin is an overlooked, but worthwhile entry in Romero’s filmography, especially for those that are growing tired of the same vampire storylines.

3. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

One of my all-time favorite horror/sci-fi directors, David Cronenberg created his own genre of horror known as “body horror”. Common themes in Cronenberg’s earlier films involve biotechnology and other invasive things taking over one’s body, often representing a physical manifestation of one’s psychological state. Nowadays, Cronenberg has toned down on the horror (though not the violence) a bit with films such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007).

Max Renn (James Woods) is the president of a television network that specializes in pornography and sensationalist programming, always on the lookout for the next big thing to shock his audiences. Max’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) exposes him to a pirate signal he has discovered involving snuff and torture footage coming from Malaysia known as “Videodrome.” Upon seeing this, Renn realizes both the minimal costs of production and being a new level of entertainment and decides to start pirating the program. Appearing with Max on a talk show discussing the media, we are introduced to radio host Nikki (Blondie’s Deborah Harry) and Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a media philosopher loosely based on Marshal McLuhan that insists he only appear on television if he is shown on a television. After Max and Nikki go on a date, they watch Videodrome, with Nikki even expressing interest in auditioning for the show. The more Max watches Videodrome, the more he notices himself having bizarre hallucinations and growths in his body, taking him down a path of learning the truth about the grim and nefarious origin of the program.

Besides being a straightforward horror film, Videodrome’s deeper meanings go into commentary on both the state of the media and its possible future. In 1983, cable television was in its infancy, the internet was reserved for the department of defense, virtual reality was more of a concept and the closest thing we had to reality television was Candid Camera and An American Family. Brian   O’Blivion states in the film that television will become our new reality, a statement that rings true in today’s media saturation.

4. Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)

Guillermo del Toro is an exciting face in the world of horror. His films often contain the Gothic imagery one would find in the writings of H. P. Lovecraft or the classic horror films to come out of Universal and Hammer, but with the gore you would expect from a film released today. I’m excited to see that del Toro will soon be releasing an adaptation of Lovecraft’s (an author usually not translated well on film) novella “At the Mountains of Madness” If anyone can make a faithful adaptation, he’s the man for the job!

Cronos is del Toro’s debut film, released in his native Mexico about the discovery of a 450 year old golden scarab with a still-living insect inside of it. Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) is an antique dealer, who discovers the piece in a hollowed-out bottom of an archangel statue in his store. After messing around with it, the scarab sprouts legs, injecting him with an unknown substance that begins his transformation into a vampire.

We discover that a dying businessman (Claudio Brook) has been collecting these statues in search of the scarab with the help of his nephew (Ron Perlman), who offers to purchase the statue, thinking the scarab is still inside. As Gris starts to notice more changes, he decides to visit the businessman, in which he explains to him that his skin will soon turn to marble. The businessman tries then to make a deal with Gris to have a “way out” of his condition in exchange for the device. Little does he know, this way out will be as a result of the businessman and his nephew trying to kill him!

While not my favorite of del Toro’s films, Cronos is still a strong debut from a director who has continued to make some of the most stylized horror films this side of Dario Argento and the releases of Hammer Films. These last twenty years, del Toro has managed to tackle everything from the ghost story in The Devil’s Backbone (2001) , the comic book in Hellboy (2004), the nightmarish fairy tale in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and even the Japanese Kaiju/Mecha films I grew up watching in his latest work Pacific Rim (2013), all while maintaining his unique gothic aesthetic.

5. Dead Alive (Peter Jackson, 1992)

Growing up in the 90’s, I was one of those horror geeks that lived at the remaining independent video stores on Long Island. I discovered the good, the bad and the ugly, along with the film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at these establishments. Those oversized clamshell VHS boxes of various Giallo films and Video Nasties, boasting scenes of gore and warnings about being banned in multiple countries intrigued my morbid self. One of my favorite splattercore directors to show people as a teenager was Peter Jackson. Most of you know Jackson from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but before Heavenly Creatures (1994), Jackson’s films were over the top gore comedies that gave Sam Raimi a run for his money.

Set in the 1950s in Jackson’s native New Zealand, we are introduced to an explorer looking for a “Sumatran Rat-Monkey” (animated in my favorite medium, Claymation!) on Skull Island. After being bit by the monkey, he is killed by his associates after them exclaiming that he has “the bite”. We are then introduced to a very meek Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) and his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody). While on a date at the zoo with an employee at the local grocery, Vera follows them and ends up being bit by the same monkey that is now residing at the zoo. Vera begins to act even more erratic than usual, along with her skin peeling off and ear falling off. After killing a nurse, a chain reaction starts by which Lionel instead decides to keep his mother and the growing body count locked in his basement while giving them tranquilizers. As one can imagine, he cannot keep this under control for long as he is soon faced with a house full of ravenous zombies.

While being an extremely funny dark comedy, the film is also incredibly gory, albeit in a comic book manner. Once upon a time, the film boasted a record in gore, including 300 liters of fake blood being used in just one scene of the film. My eyes always light up, when I expose friends to this film, not only due to them not expecting it to be Peter Jackson, but because it really is that funny of a horror film and still cracks me up to this day.

The House of the Devil

By Daniel Spada

Minimalism in horror films has the distinct possibility of undermining the genre altogether. Not so much the absence of such an approach, but the lack of popularity reflects the need for instant gratification that is so deeply embedded within our culture. The more recent iconography that defines the horror film genre emphasizes grandiose conceptions of evil and reveals the trouble and reservations with which Western audiences grapple when viewing such a film. Horror film directors whose intent is to reinvent or consciously revise the genre are scarce because audiences are content with simply acknowledging the classic iconography that this particular genus of filmmaking has evoked, and are privy to ironic tendencies that would certainly offset their appreciation or enjoyment of the film and make them wary to come back for more.

The simple title of Ti West’s The House of the Devil explicitly puts the ownership of the house at the forefront. It would be reasonable to assume that the audience is not totally unaware of the macabre hiding underneath the woodworks of said abode, but that they are more concerned with the physical representation of the evil that is clearly lurking behind those closed doors. The rhetorical underpinnings of West’s authorial style and play with realism (making this markedly an art-horror entry) show a reverence for the genre (at least in the classical sense), with nothing in the film hinting at a satirical or mocking tone. West is neither imitating nor parodying horror, but paying homage (akin to Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s engagement with the American genre films they so heavily revered)  and playing with the audiences’ expectations of what is appropriately categorized as horror. By doing so, he “implicitly critiques contemporary horror cinema” while also creating a new future life for the film genre commonly known as horror.

West begins the film strategically, with text on the screen that hints not only at the physical Satanic ritual that occurs at the end of the film, but also the theoretical underpinnings regarding beliefs in the existence of such cults. Therein lies part of the importance of the era in which the film takes place. In American culture, the 1980s were marked by a major rise in people who actually did believe in the existence of Satanic Cults so this is factually correct information supplied by Mr. West (he consistently refers to it as “Satanic panic” paranoia in interviews). However, there is no evidence to show that the events in the film are based on some sort of unexplained truth to which the text alludes. This is not uncommon with horrors film from the 1970s and 1980s; some of the most popular ones purporting fact-based events include The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It is important to note that this is a just simple rhetorical device used on West’s part to engage with both the genre and the viewer.

The common horror genre tropes are all there: a haunted house, the presence of evil in some form, an innocent young girl (whose decisions, although some would call stupid, are realistically conceived and depicted), etc. It is also impossible to miss the iconography that defines the film as horror: the creaky and creepy Victorian house in which Mr. and Mrs. Ulman live, the extensive use of shadows and low-key lighting when Samantha is roaming around the house (knife in hand), and the discovery of evil at the climax of the story. Ti West reinvents and revises the horror film genre by skillfully emphasizing the cognitive response of the audience, in addition to the aforementioned movement towards realism and implicit critique of the current state of horror cinema (which acts as the cultural commentary of the film).

Before continuing on to what West achieves and how he does it in relation to the genre, it is important to consider The House of the Devil’s narrative framework, coupled with its aesthetic style, to give a sense of what exactly the audience is dealing with, because it directly relates to how they view the film and react to certain shots and sequences. The House of the Devil only partially follows the requirements of the Discovery Plot  — there is no talk about what Samantha might find in the rooms of the Ulman home, but there is that basic overarching narrative ploy of discovery and confrontation that defines the first two essential movements of the Discovery Plot structure. However, in The House of the Devil the discovery and confrontation are combined in the climax.

It is not until 39 minutes through the film that the first violent, bloody act occurs (and images henceforth depicted on-screen), the intention of which is to evoke a cognitive response of shock and awe in the viewer, although the act is not entirely surprising. The setup is a tip-off: a young woman driving through a cemetery stops to light her cigarette. When a young man comes up to her window with a lighter, seemingly out of nowhere, her fright is directly mirrored by the audience’s – it is a “jump” moment, but not in the manipulative sense. The gunshot is sudden, but not completely unexpected. The execution is perfectly calculated for optimum audience response. West states that the importance of it “was what it would accomplish to the audience’s emotional response for the rest of the movie.”  The viewer now explicitly knows more than Samantha, and possibly fears for her safety. The initiation of a sexual discussion by Mrs. Ulman puts her at unease (and the audience as well). From the moment that the Ulmans leave, to the point at which they are reintroduced, West lets his film breath, and simultaneously breathes new life into the horror film genre.

The current state of horror cinema is largely characterized in part by throwing victims into horrific scenarios and showing how they deal with them. What sets The House of the Devil apart from present trends and its predecessors is that it is rich with characterization. Throughout the film, Samantha becomes an empathetic figure. We watch her stress over money (a familiar problem with college students, which plays toward the realism of the film) and become apprehensive when Mr. Ulman tells her that there is no child she will be watching after. We watch her explore the house, dancing around to the The Fixx’s 1983 hit “One Thing Leads to Another” on her giant Sony Walkman. The audience becomes concerned with her wellbeing.

The film, in essence, is not very suspenseful because the audience is aware of information not available to Samantha. Since Samantha is the main character and the bulk of the film is filled with sequences of her doing mundane human activities, like watching television and eating pizza, the viewer is forced to either accept said circumstances or reject them (the most common backlash thrust upon the film has been people calling it “boring” or “slow”). What makes West’s technique so effect is the contrast between the disparate sources of fear: Samantha walking around an ominous empty house versus Samantha surrounded by a Satanic cult and a deformed figure pouring blood into her mouth; the horror of not knowing versus the horror of discovery and confrontation; finally, routine versus ritual.

When the strobe lights and flashing kicks in around the one hour and 17 minute mark (with less than 20 minutes left remaining), the viewer is plunged into a disorienting state – the same state which Samantha is surely in. Samantha’s “felt agitations” are reflected in the audience’s “analogous emotional state”  as a distinctly physical response. Samantha’s physical state and reaction to being tied up (trying to break herself free) is caused by her fearful cognitive state. Samantha’s response is one of fear, disgust, and repulsion. It only worsens when her vision clears and she sees the deformed figure standing above her (she is situated on the pentagram at this moment) who is about to cut its own wrist and pour its blood into a skull as a sort of funnel going into her mouth.

Samantha’s response to the Satanic ritual she was the unlikely participant of and the deformed figure’s impurity partly define The House of the Devil as an art-horror entry. Samantha’s repeated flashbacks to the deformed figure after her escape from the pentagram, and the subsequent slowing down of her ultimate escape from the house, shows a preoccupation with its monstrous façade (which she, undoubtedly, will never forget). Her complete aversion to its physical being creates a tension within the viewer.

Critics of the last 20 minutes of the film cite the change in tone and pacing to be problematic. This analysis shows more about them than it does West. The switch from meditations in a minimalist setting emphasizing minimalist actions to maximum intensity (but still in a minimalist style) is done in a way that draws attention to itself – and that is exactly the point, to stress and heighten the contrast. By the time the Satanic ritual begins, we care enough about Samantha to root for her. We want her to shoot Mr. Ulman at the end. We want her to get help and get away.

The conditions under which Samantha’s character is built are believable and realistic, which make the last shot all the more sad and terrifying. Being a college student in need of cash is not a foreign prospect, especially in today’s economy. She likes pizza. She enjoys listening to music on her walkman and dancing. She isn’t averse to snooping around a house that is not hers. She is a curious, intelligible young woman who just needs money to make rent.

The fact that the monster (well, monsters if you consider Victor and Mr. & Mrs. Ulman) of the film is both more human than expected (and much less “big” than what Western audiences, if they do, usually conceive of the devil or evil) and does not appear until the last 20 minutes is a testament to the will of Ti West’s filmmaking. He realigns what we fear (implication versus reality), how we fear it (cognitive versus physical), and makes us challenge the actual fear itself and how we conjure it up. The movements of the film are dissimilar insofar that what we have been told about meaning in horror films is a cop out: what usually has meaning (the physical presence of evil or the devil, violence, blood and gore, etc.) is comparable to what usually doesn’t have meaning (mundane human activities, what precedes the physical presence of evil or the devil and the violence, blood and gore, etc.). This strategy is barely, if ever, used effectively in the horror film genre.

The lack of dialogue is supplemented by Jeff Grace’s piano and orchestral heavy score. The mix of quiet piano keys and orchestral music (the intensity of which rises throughout to the climax of the film) carries a certain power that parallels the action. The score becomes a language unto itself, not unlike the language of the cinematography or editing. West again tips his hat to some of the forefathers of the genre and the bygone era in which the film takes place: the opening credits (shot in 1970s/early 1980s style, using the zoom instead of the dolly and yellow-font title credits over by freeze frame shots) echo the electronic synthesizer music of John Carpenter and Goblin (who frequently collaborated with the master of Italian giallo films Dario Argento).

Extended long takes are efficiently used to show Samantha performing aforementioned mundane human activities and they are effectively used in the sense that they show her at a remove (akin to the perspective of a documentary) and enhance the realism of the film. The house of the title itself looks like any old Victorian home you might find Upstate.  However, the way the film emphasizes the temporal (interior and exterior) space of it adds to the eerie atmosphere already been established.

The theme of innocence is explored in a way unlike most horror films today. Since the viewer spends so much time with Samantha, we are much more in touch with her innocence than if she had just been thrown into the Satanic ritual right at the onset of the film. In an inversion of expected genre conceits, it is the adult talking about sex rather than the adolescent (Mrs. Ulman rather than Samantha, who is not very receptive to the conversation at hand – and there is rarely talk of sexual interest or identity even between Samantha and Megan, only a fleeting mention of a boy Megan is seeing and Samantha’s roommate having sex). This aspect of the film shows discipline and reserve, with which most horror directors struggle (sex is so commonly exploited in horror films it seems commonplace and natural).

The House of the Devil also subtly engages with sub-genres of horror, in particular that of the slasher film and the haunted house film. Characteristic of the slasher film (which was popularized in the late 70s and early 80s by such films as Black Christmas, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, etc.)  is that of a younger generation being the target of an older generation, the showdown between the main character and the force of evil (usually a killer, but in the case of The House of the Devil it is a Satanic cult), and the eventual freedom of the protagonist, which the audience later finds out is not truly freedom (in Samantha’s case she is impregnated with Satan’s child). On the other hand, the haunted house genre has been around since the advent of the horror genre itself, most popularly seen in The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980), and the more recent, independently made hit Paranormal Activity (2007). The House of the Devil maybe a little too obviously lends itself to the haunted house genre, especially when reflecting on West’s exploration of the interior and exterior space of the Ulman’s house and its surroundings.

To make an object that is ordinary and common into something that should be approached with apprehension and even “fetid disgust”  is an incredible feat which Mr. West accomplishes. Pizza, now known as some sort of qualifying college cuisine, becomes a harbinger of doom. This should make the viewer reflect on the ontological root of fear and consider the multifarious possibilities of where it may hide (unconsciously), including what we need to survive (food).

About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.

Abject Bodies and Gender Instability in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)

By Dan Spada, originally published on Raving Through Dark Nights. Republished with permission.

The way performance functions in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” reflects a deep, abiding preoccupation with gender roles and the truth economy that is generated therein. The oscillation between masculine and feminine, and the instability of gender is depicted in the construction of characters that do no satisfy ideal, conventional roles regarding sex and gender, but rather expose a profoundly unsettling inconsistency in respect to bodies, both abject and normalized. The gender role reversal in Psycho is blindingly obvious, particularly in the scene where Lila goes to explore the house and find Mrs. Bates, while Sam acts as a decoy to distract Norman. This scene and the following one, in which it is revealed that Norman has been preserving the skeleton of his mother and dressing up in her clothes, stress the transience of gender, and how it is not always in sync with biological sex. Sam’s aggressive homo-social taunting of Norman in this sequence, and Lila’s exploration of the house, leading up to the discovery of the skeleton and Norman’s performance as his mother, all hint towards an inherent gender instability within the characters of the film and a masculine/feminine malaise that is developed throughout the course of the film.

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Before Lila begins to look for Mrs. Bates and Sam distracts Norman, they search through the cabin one for any clues. They find a slip of paper Marion wrote on regarding the stolen money (just numbers and equation signs) that missed the toilet when she flushed the rest down. Lila becomes desperate to search the house and speak to Mrs. Bates, and Sam fulfills the typical role of male protector by saying, “I don’t like you going into that house alone.” This dialogue is in line with the heterosexist ideology of the time, and an ideology that Sam’s character clearly held true. He sounds resigned when he says that he’ll find Bates and keep him occupied.

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It is important to note that Sam’s gender performance, like everyone’s inside the world of the film (and outside, according to feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler), is a failure. He cannot provide for Marion in the way that she wants and needs him to (as evident from the first scene); ironically, right after Norman watches the swamp swallow the car with Marion’s body in it, Sam is seen writing a letter to Marion professing that he doesn’t care if they are poor, cramped, or miserable – at least they’ll be happy (and alive). This could be why he overcompensates when in pursuit of the truth about what really happened to her, and this overcompensation comes on particularly strong throughout the scene in which he keeps Norman occupied. His hyper-masculinity in this scene is almost to be expected, especially with someone as weak as Norman.

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However, Sam’s hyper-masculinity does not surface until after they enter the office. Norman is already suspicious of the couple, and Sam is clearly nervous, at first (before entering the office), to be diverting Norman’s attention. He knows that he is a potentially dangerous person, although he is not yet sure in what way. The sexual tension between the two is immediately felt in Norman’s body language. His confidence (both in body and speech) when he asks, “You looking for me?” slowly begins to dissipate shortly thereafter. His body then enters a visible state of unrest, and Sam’s teasing line, “I never can keep quiet enough for her, so I thought I’d look you up and talk”, with all its erotic undertones, hints towards a fluctuation between homo-social and homoerotic interaction – that also begins to dissipate after those few seconds.

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Sam then begins to try to bully the truth out of Norman, which, although it does not work (in regard to what he wants to hear – about the money and Marion), puts him in a progressively more distressed state over the duration of their conversation. It seems that Hitchcock implies that when Sam says “Buy a new one, in a new town, where you won’t have to hide your mother,” when talking about the hotel and the money, that Norman is actually thinking about himself and his gender identity. Hitchcock is also suggesting the possibility of Norman thinking Sam is aware of his secret, which makes him noticeably tense up – his jaw muscle begins to contract faster, and his speech begins to tremble.

In the office scene, the frame is split perfectly in two. Sam inhabits one side (the left – customer), Norman the other (the right – owner): one proper body, one abject; one (normalized) heterosexual identity, one (shamed) queer; one searching for what he will not find, and one hiding something everyone is looking for – but also the opposite, something no one expected to find. Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman also could be looked at as a gender role reversal – why is it Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman? Shouldn’t they use Lila’s female sexuality to keep Norman’s attention while Sam (born explorer, essence of man) searches the house? Or were they already unsure about Norman’s sexuality? They certainly were not given any clues to his gender trouble at that point.

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The revelation of Norman as Mrs. Bates is a different kind of performance when looked at against those outlined by Judith Butler. Butler offers drag as the ultimate portrayal of gender instability. However, almost always, drag offers some sort of comedic edge (whether it be inherent in the participants/the performance or reactionary from the audience) and her syllogism that if one understands drag as a portrayal of gender instability, then they must believe gender to be socially constructed, is reductive and unrealistic. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock offers his character’s gender trouble in a less deductive and more effective/affective way: Norman is not a sideshow, a circus act for the people from within the film or the audience to laugh at (up until the end, when a feeling of camp arises). Hitchcock is not setting it up so that once the audience witnesses the wig falling off Norman’s head in the big reveal that they will instantly be convinced of gender’s contingent foundations. Hitchcock is, however, offering a deeply troubling ambiguity that confounds the characters within the film, and finds the audience feeling a deep unease in regards to what they have just seen. It’s the slippage between masculine and feminine, the undeclared sexuality of Norman that is emphasized by Hitchcock and felt by the audience; it is that uncertainty which functions as the crux of the film and is the key to its understanding. With drag, you only get the performance. With “Psycho”, you get more: the visage of the boy next door and the spirit underneath the skin of Norman Bates – the creation of a monster a little too human for our liking.

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About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.