Lore Report: “Sleight of Hand” (Episode 160)

In the worlds of literature and pop culture, magicians have typically been the hero. From Merlin to Gandalf and everyone in between, so many of our stories have leaned on the powers of the almighty sorcerer. But that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for a very long time, these magicians were feared and hated. Not because they were seen as charlatans, although that was sometimes true, and not because they were viewed as practitioners of some new and dangerous cult, since magicians had been around for thousands of years. No, they were feared for a much more simple reason: because just about everyone was convinced that their powers were real.

There’s magic in the air, and (probably not coincidentally) magi in the narrative of this Christmas-week episode of the Lore podcast. Host Aaron Mahnke covers the long and storied history of magicians, starting with their origins in ancient Zoroastrianism. He outlines the seven types of magic practiced in medieval Europe, giving special attention to the last and most controversial type: necromancy. Global in his approach, Mahnke does not just address familiar figures such as Aleister Crowley, but also invokes lesser- known magic wizzes like Abe No Seimei, the “Merlin of Japan.” The episode’s most entertaining element, though, is the extended discussion of a certain 16th Century German magician whose name has since become synonymous with ill-fated dealings with the devil.

Don’t be fooled by the title: there’s no trickery in “Sleight of Hand,” an episode that clearly presents listeners with plentiful nuggets of sorcerous lore.

 

The House Wins

Thanks to the video-pirate’s cove that is YouTube, I was able to watch last night the 1979 made-for-television version of The Fall of the House of Usher. Admittedly, the acting isn’t the greatest: Martin Landau hams it up as the hypersensitive Roderick, and Robert Hays (the protagonist Jonathan) is as wooden as the timber his character uses to reinforce the fissured façade of the Usher mansion. But Dimitra Arliss is a blood-crying, morningstar-wielding, white-haired nightmare as the resident menace Madeline. And while some of the alterations to the plot of Poe’s original story are borderline ridiculous (here the house becomes the embodiment of the Usher-cursing Devil!), the film does feature a thrilling and spectacular climax.

What really distinguishes this effort, though, is the setting. The House of Usher is an absolute Gothic marvel, replete with winding staircases, secret passages and hidden chambers, creepy portraits, copious cobwebs, and candelabras galore. This is as good as it gets in terms of Gothic mise-en-scène; Collinwood seems quaint and 1313 Mockingbird Lane looks ultra-modern by comparison.

I can remember being mesmerized as a kid watching The Fall of the House of Usher when it first aired, and I found myself surprisingly entertained seeing it again nearly forty years later. I wish more of such unabashedly, classically Gothic fare premiered on the small screen today.

 

Gothic Topic

Came across this interesting post on Screen Rant: “10 Gothic Horror Movies That Should Be at the Top of Everyone’s List.” The survey strikes a nice balance between classic and modern examples, and I love that it included Tim Burton’s Hammer-evoking Sleepy Hollow. The piece does contain errors factual (Horace Walpole’s seminal Gothic text is titled The Castle of Otranto, not A Gothic Story), orthographic (some guy named Edgar “Allen” Poe is cited), and syntactic (I’m still trying to grasp the logic of this sentence: “Creating a dream world based in the small town of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, a New York City policeman faces romance and fantasy in this eerily gothic moving picture.”), but these can be overlooked, given the fine choice of topic.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked: #21, #20, #19

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

21. “The Life of Death” (from Vol. 6)

Barker evokes Poe in this tale centered on death and transgression (a minor character is tellingly named Bernice, while the male antagonist fixates on the female lead Elaine’s “beautiful teeth”). When morbid curiosity causes Elaine to explore an excavated crypt, her investigation triggers a sudden onset of spoilage: “Now, with the violation of this secret chamber, the heat of decay had been rekindled, and the tissues were deteriorating afresh. Everywhere she saw rot at work, making sores and suppurations, blisters and pustules.” The Gothic begets the grotesque, as the underground crypt proves to be a plague pit, and Elaine’s unwitting “pestilential education” turns her into a carrier of deadly disease. The narrative is also ripe with dark irony: the stranger Kavanagh, whom Elaine mistakes for Death personified, ultimately exposes himself as “a common killer, a street corner Cain.” Nevertheless, Elaine’s climactic murder and postmortem violation transforms Kavanagh, elevating the mundane predator into a contagion-spreading Grim Reaper. An unsettling tale in and of itself, “The Life of Death” strikes as even more horrifying when read during the present coronavirus pandemic.

 

20. “Human Remains” (from Vol. 3)

Arguably the most uncanny story in the Books of Blood canon, as a London street hustler named Gavin sees his looks and his life usurped by a doppelganger (a Roman Britain artifact that turns out to be more than a dead relic). Barker once again displays his facility for melding horror and noir, perhaps best illustrated in the scene where Gavin is accosted by the vicious pimp Preetorius (“Allow me to rearrange your face for you. A little crime of fashion,” the razor-wielder menaces, believing that Gavin is responsible for the bloodletting of one of his male prostitutes). Gavin is saved from mutilation by his double, who savages Preetorius: the trumping of an everyday villain by an extraordinary creature. Gavin considers the thing as a “fantastic vision,” a “painted miracle”; he “begins to see the creature not as a monster terrorizing him, but as his tool, his public persona almost.” The irony, as Barker’s narrative critiques Gavin’s vanity and superficiality, is that the imitation ultimately forms a better specimen than the original (when posed an existential question by his double, “Gavin shrugged. What did he know or care about the fine art of being human?”). All told, “Human Remains” is a fine addition to the tradition of the Gothic doppelganger established by writers like Shelley, Poe, Stevenson, and Wilde.

 

19. “The Yattering and Jack” (from Vol. 1)

Hands down, the most outrageously funny entry on the countdown. Barker’s variation on the Faustian-pact narrative pits a petulant demon against an infuriatingly stoic Englishman (whose soul was pledged to Hell by his Satan-worshipping mother). The titular (whimsically-named) Yattering no doubt is a perpetrator of “ridiculous horror,” no more evident than in the unforgettable scene in which it sets Jack Polo’s Christmas turkey dancing: “Headless, oozing stuffing and onions, it flopped around as though nobody had told the damn thing it was dead, while the fat still bubbled on its bacon-strewn back.” This is not to say, though, that this tale of a high stakes cat-and-mouse game is devoid of graphic horror. The Yattering spectacularly destroys Jack’s cat after tiring of the animal’s constant nail-sharpening on the nylon carpet: “The noise put the demon’s metaphysical teeth on edge. It looked at the cat once, briefly, and it flew apart as though it had swallowed a live grenade.” This highly entertaining story is noteworthy as one of Barker’s earliest ventures into the lower depths and depictions of the infernal Powers that be (“long may they hold court; long may they shit light on the heads of the damned”).

 

Lore Report: “Close By” (Episode 159)

Over the centuries, humans have learned to use the underground like a tool, hiding away more than just treasure. From bodies to bunkers, we’ve been putting reminders of our own failures and mistakes into the ground, hoping that out of sight can truly be out of mind. Sometimes these things are hidden far away from prying eyes and never see the light of day again. Every now and then, though, someone with a  shovel digs in just the right place, and forgotten history is uncovered, exposing a story to the world that paints a tragic and sinister picture. And of all the locations with a buried past, few can hold a candle to the dark history of one city in particular: Scotland’s very own Edinburgh.

 

The latest episode of the Lore podcast does not offer some sunny tour of Edinburgh; host Aaron Mahnke unsurprisingly highlights the underground and the otherworldly. Mahnke ventures first into the sordid, squalid underworld that arose within the stone vaults beneath the city’s bridges. He also explores Mary King’s Close, a hidden urban warren where plague victims were walled in during the mid-1640’s (in the public interest of containing contagion). Such locales–dismal in nature and marked with dark history–easily accrue a haunted reputation, and the Edinburgh underground sports no shortage of ghostly tales (Mahnke recounts one unnerving narrative that features the best who’s-hand-was-she-holding moment this side of The Haunting). Rich in interesting detail (e.g. the purpose of the plague doctor’s beaked mask) and strong in Gothic impulse (“No matter how deep we try to bury it,” Mahnke reminds listeners, “the past will always try to find a way to return”) “Close By” is an episode that Lore-lovers are sure to hold near and dear.

 

The Legend of Creepy Psycho

In my recent essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (included in my e-book The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I traced various post-“Legend” career moments of Washington Irving’s galloping Hessian. Here’s one more (surprising) example of a text that I would argue falls under the shadow of Sleepy Hollow: Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho.

The surname that Bloch gives to his (seeming) female lead, Mary Crane, echoes that of Irving’s famous character Ichabod Crane. Such connection might seem facile at first, but grows more intriguing when one considers Mary’s death at the hands of Norman Bates (in a scene that plays out quite differently from Hitchcock’s film adaptation):

Then she did see it there–just a face, peering through the curtains, hanging in midair like a mask. A head-scarf concealed the hair, and the glassy eyes stared inhumanly, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be. The skin had been powdered dead-white and two hectic spots of rouge centered on the cheekbones. It wasn’t a mask. It was the face of a crazy old woman.

Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream.

And her head.

Just as Ichabod is primed for Brom Bones’s ostensible prank by the dark tales told earlier that evening at the Van Tassel party, Mary Crane’s mistaken perception of her murderer as a crazy old woman is influenced by her previous discussion with Norman of his mentally ill mother. The apparently floating head in the shower steam recalls the Hessian’s disembodied noggin that Ichabod spies. Mary’s sudden beheading (vs. the multiple stab wounds to the torso suffered by her filmic counterpart Marion) forms a more graphic version of the hapless fate of the brained Ichabod in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The felling of the schoolteacher comes at a great surprise to Ichabod (and the reader), since he believes he has survived the Horseman’s midnight chase by crossing the church bridge. In Bloch’s novel, Mary ironically believes that she has Norman to thank for her “safety” and “future security” (her conversation with him convinces her to return the money she has stolen). Her path for moral redemption mapped out, Mary promptly decides to “take a nice, long hot shower. Get the dirt off her hide, just as she was going to get the dirt cleaned out of her insides.” Alas, Mary never gets the chance to “come clean”: before she can shampoo with some Head & Shoulders (as it were), the cross-dressing Norman removes her head from her shoulders.

So by employing the surname Crane, Bloch embeds a clue that in hindsight foreshadows a climactic act of terrible head trauma. I imagine that Irving’s masterful melding of the comic and the macabre in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” naturally appealed to Bloch, perhaps the genre’s most notable figure when it comes to the mixing of humor and horror. A hint of Bloch’s wicked wit can be detected, for example, earlier in this chapter that concludes with Mary’s beheading. When first shown her motel room, Mary notices “the shower stall in the bathroom beyond. Actually, she would have preferred a tub, but this would do.” And it does just fine, at least in terms of the blood bath it soon encompasses.

 

Psycho After Six Decades

In preparation for my last post on horror noir, I recently re-watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Since 2020 marks the 60th(!) anniversary of the film’s release, I also couldn’t help but consider how the film holds up after all these years. Some thoughts:

A particular scene that has not aged gracefully is the one in which Marion overhears Norman’s mother berating him for wanting to invite the motel guest up to the house for dinner. Marion is listening through a closed motel window during a rainstorm, yet the conversation (which is riddled with stilted dialogue) inside the house up the hill sounds as if it is right in the next room. Hearing Norman’s mother speak is necessary for the misdirection the film deliberately creates, yet the execution of this scene is jarring in its lack of realism.

The famous shower scene has burned its way into public consciousness, but the subsequent scene (Norman’s cleanup of the gruesome murder) arguably has not garnered the appreciation it deserves. It forms a brilliant study in contrast: the shower scene (with its screeching string music and rapid cuts) plays loud and shocking, but the aftermath is muted and methodical. All that relative quiet is disquieting, as Norman (for nearly eight minutes) washes away the blood spill and diligently covers up the crime. As startling as Marion’s fatal knifing was, her postmortem fate presents more protracted horror to the viewer. Marion’s entire existence is erased as she’s wrapped in a shower-curtain shroud, set in a car-trunk coffin, and given an ignominious burial-at-swamp.

In another sense, though, the cleanup scene is clearly dated. Watching it from a current perspective, it’s hard not to consider the shoddiness of Norman’s efforts: his use of simple mop and running water to remove evidence of the murder would never pass the test of modern forensics. But it’s not just from a far distance that Norman’s negligence can be critiqued; a glaring lack of shrewdness is evident within the narrative of the film. A week and a half after the murder, Norman somehow has still failed to replace the shower curtain. Worse, he has not noticed the scrap of paper still floating unflushed in the bowl of the toilet (why the paper has not disintegrated long before Lila Crane discovers it there is another head-scratcher).

The private detective Arbogast certainly accentuates the film’s noir qualities (his echo of hard-boiled lingo is terrific: “You see,” he tells Norman,  “if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling.”). Nevertheless, his sleuthing proves curious: if Arbogast is presumably employed by Tom Cassidy to track down the $40,000 that was stolen from him, why would the detective feel obliged to call up Lila and fill her in on what he has learned about her sister? His ready updating of the case seems a mere plot contrivance, a means of leading Lila and Sam to investigate the Bates Motel themselves.

Suspension of disbelief is further challenged in the scene when Arbogast gets killed. The bloody slash running down his face makes for a wonderfully grim touch, but his backwards glide all the way down the staircase is too stylized–and, ultimately, silly (Arbogast acts as if the steps were a sequence of banana peels). An ungainly tumble down the staircase (assuming such a stunt could be pulled off in 1960) not only would have been more believable, but it also would have helped to preserve the film’s big mystery. Based on the way the death scene is filmed, the viewer has to wonder how Norman’s old invalid Mother could have flown so quickly down the flight of steps after the falling Arbogast.

In hindsight, Norman’s stuffed birds (and preserved Mother) are not the only disconcerting pieces of his collection. Viewers in 1960 might easily have overlooked them, but a more modern horror audience is more attuned to the presence of creepy dolls. A pair of them can be seen lying in the background as Lila explores Norman’s bedroom, and their unsettling nature extends beyond the question of what they are doing in a grown man’s bedroom in the first place.

Psycho might not have been a perfect film, and certain of its aspects do not hold up well in six-decade retrospect, but it remains an indisputable classic. The marketing of the film at the time of its release was also ingenious: Hitchcock’s insistence that late arrivals would not be admitted to theaters, and his efforts to keep the film’s surprises from being spoiled (which worked to lure moviegoers with the promise of thrilling mystery). No doubt the film would face a much tougher task if it premiered in the present day, when social media is such a dominant factor. Then again, it’s intriguing to imagine the tactics that a master like Hitchcock might have been able to employ if he had all the tools of the 2020 mediascape at his disposal.

 

Harrowing Shadows: 11 Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

At its darkest, noir naturally shades over into horror, as countless genre films have demonstrated over the years. In honor of “Noirvember,” here’s a list of eleven exemplary works of horror noir:

 

Freaks (1932)

Steeped in dark-carnival atmosphere, Tod Browning’s controversial shocker is also driven by a noir narrative. A scheming pair of lovers (the trapeze artist Cleopatra and the strongman Hercules) plot to seduce the dwarf Hans, to poison him following his marriage to Cleopatra, and then steal his wealth. The climactic scene in which the titular sideshow performers carry out their vengeance against the conspirators during a driving rainstorm forms a classic combination of horror and noir.

 

Psycho (1960)

No director mixed mystery and suspense with terror and horror better than Alfred Hitchcock. This seminal cinematic adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel conveys a strong noir vibe: driven by love to a desperate act of robbery, a fugitive woman suffers bloody comeuppance at a lonesome motel (at the hands of a quite violent “femme”). The private detective who subsequently searches the old dark house overlooking the Bates business doesn’t fare much better.

 

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers’ debut effort signals its dark leanings in its very title (drawn from a line in Hammett’s Red Harvest). This tale of marital infidelity and attempted vengeance (by the cuckolded husband) features shocking acts of murder, premature burial, nightmare visions of revenant return, and one frightfully rogue private detective. The sense of horror is only intensified as randomness and misunderstanding precipitate a series of catastrophic events. My all-time favorite film noir.

 

Angel Heart (1987)

Alan Parker’s adaptation of William Hjortsberg’s genre-splicing novel, in which a hard-boiled detective stumbles onto the occult, delivers some truly horrifying visuals (the blood spill seems almost as copious as the rainfall). It also offers one of the most stunning plot twists this side of Chinatown. Throw in a frightfully good performance by Robert DeNiro as the sinister Louis Cyphre, and the quintessence of horror noir is achieved.

 

Cape Fear (1991)

De Niro rears his psychotic head here in this remake of the 1962 film, playing the Robert Mitchum role like a redneck Hannibal Lector. Any notion that De Niro’s Max Cady is your basic criminal stalker is destroyed the second he bites a hunk out of Ileana Douglas’s cheek. There’s also a great set-piece in which he grimly outwits a private detective on a stakeout. Director Martin Scorsese underscores the horror noir nature of the film in a harrowing, protracted climax that transpires during a raging squall.

 

Basic Instinct (1992)

Ok, calling this one a “masterpiece” might be overstating the case, given the abundance of sleaziness and cheesiness. But the horror here extends far beyond the gratuitous glute-shots of a butt-naked Michael Douglas. Sharon Stone is a modern-day femme fatale guaranteed to turn wet dreams into sweat-soaked nightmares. After the savage, in medias coitus icepicking in the film’s opening, the recurrent sex scenes splashed across the screen utterly terrify even as they titillate.

 

Se7en (1995)

Much of David Fincher’s work qualifies for this list, but none of the director’s other films can surpass this one’s combination of the gritty and the grotesque. In lesser hands the basic premise (a serial killer with a baroque schema) might have seemed derivative, the stuff of made-for-cable movies, but Fincher crafts a masterfully-atmospheric film filled with viewer-traumatizing tableaus (the crime scene for the “Sloth” victim alone places Se7en in the horror noir hall of fame). Even when the narrative leaves the seedy confines of the city for sunny expanse in the climax, it heads off into shocking, devastating territory.

 

Dark City (1998)

The best and darkest of the numerous future-noir films that followed in the wake of The Matrix. Alex Proyas’s stunning cinematic vehicle starts with standard noir elements (the main character finds he has lost his memory, as he awakens in a room with a dead prostitute sprawled on the floor) and then takes the idea of urban entrapment (in a rain-slicked nightscape) in a whole other, mind-bending direction. The film’s human-corpse-wearing alien “strangers”–extraterrestrial Cenobites engaged in bizarre experiment–are as unnerving a group of villains ever to form a criminal underworld.

 

Shutter Island (2010)

Scorsese sways toward the Gothic in this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thrilling twist on a detective novel. As if an island asylum for the criminally insane (where illicit, secret experiments might be taking place) wasn’t creepy enough already, the film adds some spectacularly heavy weather, rat-infested caves, and a protagonist haunted by visions of scarred monsters and corpses come to life. I would also argue that the gut-punch of a climactic plot twist here hearkens back to Angel Heart.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A moody, highly-stylized piece shot in black and white and melding street crime and the supernatural, director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film checks all the appropriate boxes. The female of the title is more fearful than someone to fear for: an antiheroic Iranian vampire who prowls the stark wasteland of Bad City (and who leaves quite a mark on a drug-dealing pimp). Calling this one the lovechild of Nosferatu and Sin City isn’t some pithy pitch, but rather an acknowledgement of two of the works that ostensibly influence Amirpour’s artistic vision.

 

True Detective, Season 1 (2014)

Technically, this is not a theatrical film but an HBO series, yet a perfect addition to the list nonetheless. Show creator Nic Pizzolato invokes weird-fiction writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and Thomas Ligotti, as he scripts a gripping narrative in which a murder investigation uncovers conspiracy and depraved ritual. Season 1’s Louisiana mise-en-scène is at once haunting and haunted, and the killer’s discovered lair in the finale makes the Sawyer abode in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like it belongs in Better Homes and Gardens.