Criticised for decades of increasing mindlessness, paper-thin characters, cheap-loud-noise-scares, lazy writing, and gratuitous use of violence, horror movies had to get smart. Specifically, they had to get meta. Again. Cue last year's The Cabin in the Woods: a gloriously extravagant send-up to the creatures that haunt our dreams - most of which were granted an exhilarating frame or two in the bombastic finale. That the closing spectacle is so effective is, I argue, due to its embodying the apotheosis of the realisation of horror: by showing, literally, everything (demons, giant reptiles, pale-faced young girls and myriad other horror clichés), Cabin neutralises the aspect of fear and elides the comedic – even farcical – despite its inclusion of frequent, very bloody scenes. Simply put: horror dissipates when dragged, un-obscured, into the field of vision.
The movie ends with the 'destruction' of the world by the Dark God: a cataclysm suggesting the (artistic) death of the genre and the concomitant punishment of an audience reduced to a baying, bloodthirsty horde that would put the Aztecs to shame (fittingly, Cabin's deity bursts forth from the depths of an ancient temple). Given horror's symbolic 'death', then, we must ask ourselves, again, that most primal of questions: what is it that makes us afraid? And how can the visual medium of cinema work to relay these anxieties? It is time to restore the horror genre to its full potency, to reorient it in the territory of the frightening; for that, we turn to the past. Audiences, as Cabin satirises, have been reduced to spectators of the suffering body - and we must ask why, and for what purpose horror cinema mediates and produces such intoxicating effects. Put simply, there is something troubling at work in the psyche, and reflected in the psychic affect of cinema.
Les Yeux Sans Visage and Onibaba are two films that, literally, restore the mask of the repressed unknown and present deeply unsettling cinematic explorations of the horrifying. It is not surprising that both incorporate beautiful – mostly, female – aesthetic forms in often jarring juxtaposition with scenes of realistic violence. However, in contrast to the contemporary taste for hyper-realistic depictions of prolonged human suffering that repulses as much as frightens the viewer, the films bring beauty closer to the frame – as in the blurred view of Christiane’s mutilated face, the heroine of Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage – and places it in jeopardy, revealing it as a veneer for the horrors beneath: horrors held in the psyche, the libido, and, cinematically, the visage. Both dramatise the strain of suppressing the yearnings of the soul – and the often murderous need for self-expression, for self-realisation, at all costs: see my face.
Georges Franju, Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), 1960
Dr. Génessier returns to his opulent estate, having 'identified' the mutilated corpse of his daughter at a local morgue. He passes through endless doorways, ascends two flights of stairs, pauses before a door, and enters. A woman is lying face down on a bed, her face concealed; a bird swings madly against the bars of its cage. Thus the film's 'monster' is revealed.
The masterful transition between physical space builds character in its own right, and mirrors the equally winding moral and thematic turns of the narrative. The juxtaposition of the opening nocturnal scene, in which a young girl dressed in a man's coat is brutally hurled into a canal, with a lecture by Dr. Génessier that immediately follows, at once demarcates and blurs the boundaries of the beautiful and the horrifying. For Dr. Génessier is attempting nothing less than the 'recapturing of youth' - and his sombre lecture, exposing the dangers of his 'heterograft' procedure in which bodily tissues are transplanted from one host to another, thrills the elegant, and mostly female, audience. Génessier's procedure culminates in the exsanguination of the transplant host; this somewhat furtive admission is greeted with rapturous applause. But in reality he experiments to restore the face of his daughter Christiane, who he has incarcerated within his mansion: a daughter whose face he caused to be destroyed in a car accident. She is the dark heart of the film. Christiane: the masked, wraith-like figure, the woman on the bed, the 'eyes without a face.' But what eyes!
Actress Édith Scob beautifully balances innocence with murderous intent; her hands flutter to her chest, her cherubic head tilts as she surveys the latest victims of her father's ghastly operations: girls whose faces will be cut from their bodies and grafted onto her own. We feel there is danger in every scene inhabited by the character, despite - perhaps, because of? - her unnerving beauty. Franju's frequent close-ups of Scob's face let her eyes speak their depths of grief: they seem oceanic, light curving over the glassy depths of gigantic pupils, but just as easily glaciate in chilling deadpan.
Franju utilises powerful, if slightly overt, symbolism to hint at, and finally realise, Christiane's emancipation. In an early scene, one of Génessier's victims, having just arrived at his residence, looks away from the imposing building; Franju reveals the dark, mist-shrouded forest beyond the gates in a rare shot that teases the possibility of freedom beyond the infinite doorways and corridors and stairwells of 'Vila de Génessier'. Christiane, wandering through the deserted mansion, pauses before a painting of a beautiful woman holding a white dove. Every detail is painstakingly presented with a true auteur's eye.
There is violence, too, as well as beauty. The surgery scenes are shot in a lingering and surprisingly realistic manner that is excruciating to watch. Faces are cut from their hosts, blood pooling about elegant necks. The dogs imprisoned by Génessier - and that we learn serve as test-subjects for his transplant experiments - are released by Christiane at the film's climax and devour the doctor in another disturbing and realistic sequence.
But the film chooses beauty as its ultimate triumph. Christiane, circled by doves, ghosts past her father's corpse and out into the darkened forest. The operations have failed. Her mask is still in place - but she is finally free. "What interests me is not the macabre," admits Franju, in Labarthe's documentary on the director, "but the lyricism that follows." This interest evokes the familiar power of the sublime: the flawless surface of the mask, the achingly elegant lines of Christiane’s garments (designed by Givenchy, no less), the circling of doves and the final view of the mist-wreathed forest work in powerful asymmetry with the horrors of the narrative, increasing the cathectic effect of the carefully-orchestrated scenes of graphic violence when they occur. The strong fantasy and symbolic element is shared by Onibaba, with the mask motif holding together the paradox of a friable and murderous and beautiful human subject that will not be contained: a human presence far more terrifying than any spectre, on its journey to self-actualisation.cIt is a journey that, in Franju’s hands, is rendered truly breath-taking.
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Kaneto Shindo, Onibaba, 1964
Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba is a compelling psychodrama that centres on a woman and her daughter-in-law eking out a perilous existence in feudal Japan. They live within a vast field of grass, preying on travelling soldiers and selling their goods to a local merchant. All seems to be well, in a bloodthirsty sort of fashion, until the arrival of Hachi: a muscled, coarse, but nevertheless seductive deserter who informs them that the woman's son (and her daughter-in-law's husband) has been killed in the war. Settling into a nearby habitation, Hachi proves a catalyst for the ensuing mayhem to come, disrupting the precarious stability of the women.
Jealousy, sexuality, and violence combine in a heady mélange. The older woman, 'Baba', is tormented by the proximity of sex and the very real exposure of her own impotence. Sensing the danger of her daughter-in-law's seduction she confronts Hachi and presents herself to him in exchange; the ruse fails. Salvation comes in the form of a masked samurai, whose fellows have been killed in conflict. He has lost his way. Leading him through the grasses, Baba begs him to show her his face, which he claims to be 'the most handsome' in Kyoto. In an interesting, revision of masculinity, he has kept his mask on for fear of marring his features in combat. 'I've never seen anything really beautiful since the day I was born', spits Baba, poignantly. Refusing her, the samurai is led to his death, falling into the 'hole': an ancient feature of the landscape in which the women dump the remains of their victims. Shindo exploits the human need to witness in this sequence; the samurai pauses and torments Baba with the possibility of unmasking himself, before ultimately refusing. The climactic unveiling of his corpse yields horror in the place of beauty: a face buried beneath hideous sores.
The very landscape, too, serves a similarly obscuring function. Shindo very rarely presents shots above the level of the endlessly rippling fronds, with glimpses of sky, and birds in flight, providing welcome and desperate relief at key, usually post-coital moments in the narrative. Baba ambushes the daughter three times, waiting out in the grasses with the demon mask stolen from the samurai's corpse to bar her from running to the tent of Hachi.
Interestingly, the three 'apparition' scenes are treated somewhat impressionistically, with the onibaba rising mechanically upwards or gliding towards the camera, lit in flickering spotlight. However, the inevitable confrontation with the younger woman leaves her unable to remove the mask. In this especially brutal sequence, all whirling camera and frightening close ups of the young woman's contorted face as she takes revenge on her tormentor, the latter has to break the mask from Baba's face using a hammer, having made her promise that she can see Hachi 'every day and night'. Blood oozes from the mask's bottom.
The film finishes where it begins, with a freed Baba pursuing her appalled daughter-in-law through the grass in a climax as moving as it is unsettling. Baba's face, too, is now wracked with sores from where the mask has been torn, a sign of the 'samurai's curse'. The chase leads them to the hole... The young woman leaps... As does Baba. Shindo leaves her there, suspended, her last cry echoing across the grasslands: 'I'm a human being!'
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This final admission of human frailty is, perhaps, the strongest vindication of all for the horror genre. In a Nietzschean flourish, Baba’s donning the demon mask and ‘performing’ her desire to stem the sexuality of her daughter-in-law pays testament to the power of the mask – of the actor – to ‘safely’ channel negative emotions; the mask of Apollo, god of music and merriment, supposedly manages the dark Dionysian impulses that rise from the depths of the unconscious. The effectiveness of these two films lies in their showing that this mask, too, is itself horrifying: the effort to suppress or conceal the true self is strenuous, murderous, and inflicts violence in its own right. ‘My face frightens me, my mask terrifies me more!’ cries Christiane, significantly. Make no mistake: this is not to advocate a return to that most well-known of horror clichés: ‘what is most frightening is that which is unseen.’ Onibaba and Les Yeux Sans Visage, eliding beauty, drawing upon the poetic symbolism of the sublime, remind us that the failings of the repressive effort can be just as, if not more, frightening than a relentless cinematic bombardment of suffering bodies. Try to contain me, hide my ugliness, lock me away, wreath me in beauty they seem to say... Like any ghoul, I will not be contained.