Happy Halloween, 2016: NOTES ON SUSPIRIA (Part One) – An Unhinged Reading of Dario Argento’s Masterpiece of Horror



I skipped a year on my blog as, last year, I dedicated myself to a project of creating audio commentary for Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. The idea was kind of an art project. The movie itself is so well known for supposedly defying logic that I sought to undermine that interpretation with a logical psychological explanation for the film’s plot while, at the same time, my audio commentary itself almost imperceptibly devolved into a kind of irrational, trancelike, decadent, bordering-on-pretentious kind of expressionism of its own.

Unfortunately, as it’s very hard keeping anyone’s attention for a rather thick, rapidly delivered spoken word commentary lasting an hour and a half, it was not really a success for the average viewer. I was going to redo the commentary with an appropriate voice-actor, but I’ve decided that my “close reading,” with all of its analytical eccentricities and overly florid or overtly awkward turns-of-tongue made in (loving) homage to the film, works better as a combination of text and explanatory pictures. I’m removing the original video commentary from my Youtube channel: a failed experiment. Hopefully this new version, edited and slightly refined, will redeem the project and be of interest to other Dario Argento fans.

Here is part one of my scene-by-scene dissection of SUSPIRIA’s psychological symbolism presented as a kind of picture book with notations. Prior familiarity with the film may be required for full understanding, though I can’t say that full understanding is necessarily my intention.



On the soundtrack, an electronic drum roll builds violently to an orgasmic, rallying, gunshot crescendo. Whether the release is sexual or violent or both is hard to say. The little death of orgasm transgresses the defining borders of life. This intangible, liminal moment is labeled and made concrete by the title card: SUSPIRIA: sighs. The word is Latin for an open mouthed breath (as opposed to the closed breath of language and the logical narrative that language requires.)


The music box lullaby that follows, as the credits of SUSPIRIA flash by, has a childlike simplicity made ominous by punctuating sighs. The suggestion is of innocence made uncanny by the knowledge of sexuality or death. Or perhaps the sighs represent the aural memory of a pre-linguistic state that remains in childhood: a buried primal orgasm threatening the symbolic order of words, labels and organized language.

An introductory, explanatory voice-over narrative uncomfortably contrasts with the music and recalls the reassuring “once upon a time” of fairy tales that neuter the horrors of the world for the sake of the children. But the voiceover seems too artificial, too forced (almost campy,) and it slowly dissolves back to music before the narrator can complete a full sentence: a failure.


The fading voiceover also comments metaphorically upon the corresponding image of flight schedules. I am reminded of how Einstein was inspired to conceive of the Theory of Relativity by looking at the clocks in the Zurich train station. I am also reminded of how Ingmar Bergman contrasts two women at the start of his film PERSONA. One switches on and off her electric light, applying a face mask, and fretting over her personal schedule and goals in life. The other listens to music, a far away look in her eyes, while the sun slowly sinks outside her  window and her image incrementally fades, almost imperceptibly, into darkness.

Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA

The unknown cannot be oriented by the measurement of time or distance or with the force of any fixed, familiar narrative. Life spills out and evolves: messy, violent, and sexual. The drum roll returns like a force of nature and more complex forms of narrative must be contrived, new technologies developed to chart and control and render life’s passages safe and…


Argento’s films constantly return to the visual theme of framed, flat surfaces and their penetration. These flat surfaces evoke the frame of the film screen itself and their penetration often represents communication of unpleasant knowledge or emotions. As in psychological repression, or in art, the surfaces of an Argento film, in every sense of the word, are constructed so as to both reveal and conceal the truth beyond it. How these tricky surfaces provide invitation or resistance to penetration, how that is felt by the characters and expressed to the viewer, and the means by which the surfaces are penetrated, is always of great metaphorical significance.


Whether they appear as walls, doors, windows, paintings, or skin, these surfaces as portals usually represent a threatening transition from one world, or one state of being, into another. As in psychoanalysis, crossing through them can be part of a redemptive process of self-individuation even with (and perhaps because of) the dread they provoke.


In the airport at the beginning of SUSPIRIA, Suzy Banyon is made distinct from the crowd (and thus introduced as the protagonist) by her irrational precognitive dread of doors that seem mundane on the surface but open to reveal an unusually pointed, phallic internal mechanism that symbolically transforms the doors into vagina dentata.


She is leaving through this toothed vagina from one kind of womb, the familiar airport carefully narrated by storytellers and arrival/departure notices, for another darker womb. She’s now in a fairy tale version of the Black Forest: the womb of a barren, evil mother in which she must fend for herself in the face of all the chaos that life may throw at her.


A similar taxi cab is taken to the homes of the Three Mothers in each of the films of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy (of which SUSPIRIA is the first). I’ll discuss the mythology of the Three Mothers in later installments of this essay, but for now I want to note that the cab ride, for me, seems an obvious reference to Charon’s boat to the underworld and that the underworld represents the unconscious mind in Jungian symbolism.


Water is also a Jungian symbol for the unconscious and, in this case, Suzy seems to be plunging into the depths of water while still somewhat protected by the reversed aquarium of the taxi cab’s windows. Having just passed with Suzy through a symbolic vagina dentata, I think of the taxi cab as a castrated penis flushed into the heart of darkness like a fecal submarine.


This kind of Freudian free association is not too extreme, I think. At this point Suzy has just been cut off from the body of society and its protection: castrated. Language is breaking down. She must resort to visual communication with her driver through the flat surface of a window simultaneously masking her own 


I believe that, in his symbolism, Argento draws from Freud, Jung, and the combination of linguistics and psychology found in Lacan. The breakdown of language is a recurring theme in SUSPIRIA and communication itself is often presented as a mask that must be penetrated or, alternatively, penetrate another surface in order to function. It is no coincidence that Argento subliminally inserts into this scene his own face, frozen in a laugh or scream, reflecting from the glass partition that separates Suzy from her driver.



In SUSPIRIA, in particular, Argento often supplements his typical use of flat surfaces with a variety of grid patterns, parallel lines, or the quick juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical lines in sequential shots. These designs represent a kind of surface that is like a fence: resistant to the passage of most living things, but permeable to the elements of water, fire, earth, and air. It’s a selective kind of surface as portal: a screen.


One dramatic example of a screen being traversed by the elements is when the headlamps of Suzy’s cab cut through the vertical trunks of a forest and flare in the camera’s lens. At the same time, like the title card of the movie previously labeled breath into a word, a formless sigh on the soundtrack now freezes into a hissing accusation: witch!


Shortly thereafter, the unnatural fire of the headlamp, cast from beyond the screen of the woods, is balanced by the natural fire of lightning cast from behind the camera (or through the screen of the camera and viewer) throwing a shadow upon a tree trunk. It is likely just the shadow of leaves from a small bush or branch, but it is in the shape of a Grim Reaper’s blade.


Suzy Banyon arrives at the Freiburg Dance Academy:


The academy is a fairytale Gothic construction that, slick with rain, appears to have been sculpted fresh from blood. Argento built the exterior structure of the academy on a set but it is an exact reproduction of the actual House of Wales in Freiberg which is famous for having been the temporary home of the Humanist scholar Erasmus. Argento goes so far as to reproduce the plaque associating Erasmus with the real building and calling it to the viewer’s attention.


Erasmus fought against the corruption of the Catholic Church and, in his most important book, used a Platonic parable as argument for the concept that something on the inside is more expressive of its character than what one sees on the outside. In other words: appearances are deceiving. This concept is central to understanding all three films in Argento’s trilogy.

Suzy is denied entrance when she first arrives at the Freiburg Dance Academy. In a sense, it is not yet ready for her. It needs to make room for her introduction. To that end another pupil, Pat, has just been ejected from its doors, panicked, and shouting words obscured by the elements.


The memory of Pat, and her bad example as a pupil, will become central to Suzy’s own story as the film unfolds. The most important “surface as portal” to be penetrated and crossed in SUSPIRIA is the entirely internal, invisible action of recalling this one lost moment buried, seemingly insignificant, in Suzy’s unconscious mind.

Pat, as eager to leave as Suzy is to arrive, is both Suzy’s double and a reflection of her own “shadow self.” She represents Suzy’s predestined fate – everything this building and its occupants will want her to become – as well as providing the key to rebelling against that imprisoning narrative.

Unable to access the school, Suzy turns to leave in the cab and what follows is the first of many completely disorienting edits in SUSPIRIA.

From the medium shot of Suzy entering the cab, Argento cuts to a quickly panning long shot of the dark woods. The soundtrack also changes abruptly to a raucous, chaotic, multi-layered electronic score. One is unable to immediately identify what one is looking at until Pat is seen, briefly, running through the trees as if for her life. It is a complete violation of traditional editing rules: a jarring gap in narrative flow which the viewer must stretch in order to span.


I’ve watched SUSPIRIA with many first time viewers and, inexplicably, they often confuse this image of Pat running through the woods for Suzy Banyon. This is in spite of having just seen Suzy safely enter her cab and, though understandably confounded by such an abrupt edit, being helpfully reoriented visually by a cut back to Suzy, now in the cab, watching Pat flailing through the trees.

Remarkably, this one edit performs two important functions: mistakingly identifying Suzy with Pat and also giving the impression that an important part of the narrative has been skipped and must be reconstructed by the viewer.


This short sequence is quickly followed by another disorienting cut to an image of an abstract, green smudge floating in a darkness within which one can just barely make out some angular forms resembling windows. As the shadow of Pat’s foot disrupts the image, it’s revealed as a puddle reflecting the second architectural wonder of SUSPIRIA – a film in which buildings are characters – seen distorted and upside down in the water.

Pat will soon make it clear that, at this point, she has had enough of worlds turned upside-down and inside out and that this building is her best hope for escape.

The exterior of the building Pat approaches is actually Burgstraße 4 in Munich, Germany, shown here by Wikimaps in a remarkably less ominous light:


For the interior, Argento and his set designers created, as solace for the distressed Pat, an apartment lobby composed entirely of mathematical angles and uncanny symmetry. It could be interpreted as a satire of the rational mind hard at work reinforcing itself.


The elevator doors reveal traditional Islamic iconography as they close around Pat: a symbol of water as an oasis in the desert, a place of rest. The image of a fountain, repeated in the design, spouts six streams of light blue water like the Six of Cups tarot card representing childhood and innocence. However, its meaning could be interpreted as reversed by a red triangle, the alchemical symbol of fire, so as to represent naiveté and destructive nostalgia.


“You wouldn’t understand. It all seems so absurd, so fantastic. All I can do is get away from here as soon as possible.”


Not giving Argento’s work the benefit of 
the doubt, some peg his actors as laughably amateurish or just badly dubbed. Whether or not it is always intended throughout his body of work, in SUSPIRIA the slightly unnatural acting delivery works in favor of the film. The American actress who plays Suzy, Jessica Harper, has a relaxed, naturalistic style that contrasts with all the other mannered, over the top performances as stylized and unnatural as the sets they populate.

Sometimes the scripted dialogue does have an absurdist quality that can be interpreted as amateurish or badly translated into English without regard to realism. Ironically, a careful analysis of such overtly absurd dialogue suggests that it is being purposely utilized to emphasize the gap between spoken language, thought, and our perceptions of reality. This failure of language (or any form of expression) to truthfully, reliably reflect our experience is what allows it to be manipulated, decontextualized, and used as a weapon of destruction: a curse.

Pat uses the bathroom at her friend’s apartment and it soon becomes the launching pad for the film’s first ornate murder set piece. The walls of the bathroom are painted with a design inspired by M.C. Escher.


Escher used precise mathematical equations to design this slow transition of birds of the air, which is the element of the intellect and language, into fishes of the water, the element of emotions and the unconscious mind.


Pat struggles and fails or refuses to translate into language, mathematical or otherwise, the absurd, fantastic secret she’s discovered at the ballet school. She therefore cannot unite the irrational elements of the unconscious mind with the rational external world. Unlike the birds and fishes in Escher’s design, for Pat the border between emotion and intellect is a surface she cannot penetrate. Instead, she uses the intellect, represented by the apartment building and her reassuring, rationalizing friend, as a form of escape, a means of masking the terrible, emotional memories of her experience at the ballet school.

As a result, in a perfect metaphor for the “return of the repressed,” Pat finds the cast off aspects of her unconscious mind returning in the form of wind (throwing open the windows), which represents the element of the rational intellect (air) now distorted and made daemonic by its use as a tool for repression.


From the symbolic perspective of her own rebelling unconscious, Pat is shown from outside the restroom’s window through two surfaces: the transparent surface of the window and a shadow of fabric tossed by the wind.

Screen Shot 2016-10-30 at 8.25.13 PM.png

Inside the restroom, Pat frames herself in the protective, familiar safety of the rational world, but its boundaries are as transparent as a glass window and the flimsy clothing tossed by the wind on their line. It provides no secure barrier against what lies beyond.


Pat is aware of her vulnerability, of the frailty of her meager defenses, and yet she is drawn to the window. She is subject to the irrational after all. In the above still, the phallic form of the bathroom furniture is doubled in the negative space of the windows.What is solid and useful in this world, probably used (like mathematics or language) as an enclosure or storage space, is brittle and transparent when used as a defense against another world…and it is subject to penetration.


The moment depicted above – Pat’s use of a lamp to get a better view through the window – requires some explanation as, typical of Argento, it defies the rational. However, it is not so irrational as to call itself to the viewers attention as anything other than shoddy writing or a horror movie trope.


I’ve had more than one friend chuckle and ask, “Why is she holding that lamp up to the window? She’ll only see her own reflection!” Well, yes…exactly. That is the psychological truth of the situation reflected metaphorically. If, in an Argento film, the heroine suddenly trips over her own feet while running away from a killer it’s not because that’s what victims in horror movies always do, it’s because, at some level, the heroine wants to be caught. Cliches in an Argento film are another surface that must be penetrated in order to be understood.


In this case the cat-like eyes of the killer, piercing through both the window glass and the shadowy clothing hanging just outside of it, are also Pat’s own eyes, the reflection of her own unconscious mind about to attack. Clothes line. Eye line…




I’m personally amused by the ironic response to the murder by Pat’s friend. In service to the rational tempering of emotion, she had previously been nonchalant and dismissive about the process of closure, “Big deal, I always get kicked out of school…” “Hey! Why don’t you close it? It’s just the wind!” Now she finds herself desperately trying to get closed doors to open in order to save Pat’s life. Too late…


As Pat, herself, becomes a surface to be penetrated she is transported, in another completely abrupt, disorienting editing transition, to an alien location presumably outside the apartment building. It’s just her here, the hand of the murderer, and walls made up of grids and screens. Grid patterns abound. Clothes line. Eye line. Grid lines. There’s a play on linearity here.


It is a line that, through the eyes of the murderer and, in some shots, the eyes of the viewer via the camera, is reversed back upon Pat. Line of logic. Line of narrative. Here the murderer, Pat’s unconscious mind, controls the line and literally binds her within it: this is insanity by definition.



Pat’s heart is penetrated and she dies. Pats problem is that she is unable to deal with the irrational, emotional elements of her life and copes by running away into poorly defended intellectual rationalizations. Considering this, it could be considered symbolically redemptive that her heart is now pierced, like a valentine, leaving a tiny vagina-like opening seeping blood: a portal for possible entry.








From the outside in, crashing through the geometric window poised above this mathematical castle like the face of Apollo, Pat is dropped on a line into a world that is now shattered and abstracted by the intrusion of the unconscious turned daemonic. The line of the intellect has been turned into a noose and Pat’s last link to the rational world outside the dance academy, her last chance to indulge in escapism, her only outside friend, is killed along with her by jagged falling glass.


The face of her friend is divided like some Picassoesque double-headed Janus: the god of beginnings, transitions, portals and doors.

Finally, very subtly, the camera shakes as if by accident. The viewer is reminded that this is a movie. It is all artificial. It is all just an image projected upon a surface.


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Happy Devil’s Night, 2016: A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (1972), A DISTANT THUNDER (1978), IMAGE OF THE BEAST (1981), & THE PRODIGAL PLANET (1983)


Poor Patty. She just can’t seem to accept Jesus Christ into her heart. She also can’t seem to accept the Mark of the Beast. She is a wishy-washy kind of gal, it seems, and that can only end badly.

Perhaps she is sick of the two-party system and seeks a third way?

Nope. No chance…

Patty is screwed.

A THIEF IN THE NIGHT was the first Evangelical Christian horror film. Wikipedia claims it has been seen by an estimated 300 million people around the world. I have no idea how that figure was calculated…I am too lazy to check Wikipedia’s sources.

A THIEF IN THE NIGHT is by no means the first Christian horror film. Christianity and the horror genre have been entwined since the early days of cinema (and literature…and art). Christianity is, in fact, the source (or at least the cultural champion) of the most enduring horror tropes in Western culture (whether it be the image of stereotypical monsters, apocalyptic end times, the rituals of the occult magician, or the popular representations of paganism). Any fan of the horror genre, in general, owes Christianity a favor.

In spite of often placing a philosophical emphasis on the concept of redemption, Christianity has traditionally maintained a strong pessimistic streak and has never looked away, for long, from the horrors of the world. Whether or not it promotes the ideal methods for addressing these horrors is a complex issue. Christian doctrines and beliefs are diverse. I personally appreciate much of the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of various Christian belief systems. Nonetheless, any worldview, however right-headed or well constructed, becomes corrupt and dangerous when it has no regard for the paradoxes and ambiguities that any functioning ethical system must incorporate and address. By succumbing to this kind of dogmatism, Christianity has often also created the horrors it then manages, highlights, and exploits.

Evangelical Christianity has been particularly guilty, I’m afraid, of promoting a dogmatic, paranoid, and frightening vision of the world and it makes perfect sense that it would be Evangelical Christians responsible for the first truly contemporary Christian horror film series (made without concession to the Medieval Catholic horror narratives and aesthetics long since secularized.) Because of the way it broke free from traditions, A THIEF IN THE NIGHT could be considered Christianity’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, even if Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a more obvious homage to that classic horror film.

For the non-believer, A THIEF IN THE NIGHT and its three sequels are horrifying for a different reason than their creators intended. They could also be considered laughable. However, considering that the kind of beliefs that these films represent have a powerful influence upon people and governments all over the world, I would advise that non-believers stifle their giggles. No matter what belief system or religion you embrace, you must contend with the fact that a very large population of people – quite possibly your friends, family, and neighbors – actually live in the world that these films depict. It may be a fiction, but it is a fiction made flesh…and you may be the bad guy in their story.

Considering this reality, you may find yourself drawn to the simple solace of “taking sides” in the great, apocalyptic battle that some Christians insist upon. You may decide to embrace the evocative power of an imaginary devil if, indeed, those who demonize you have already cast you in that archetypal role. I would not blame you.

On the other hand, you may take on the role of a “savior,” or act in service of an imagined redemption, and seek to wipe the world clean of whatever evil you have identified and can wrestle to the ground.

Personally, I take no side in any battle with ideological conviction. I am simply saddened, and simultaneously amused, by the war of ideas. I enter into it only out of need for human connection as, after all, it is in conflict that humans often interact most intimately without self-restraint. There is no redemption there, but there is the joy of being human with other humans: enmeshed in the complex network of always compromised, always temporary moments of triumph and failure. This is the kingdom rightfully ruled by the King of The World, whether that king be depicted as a God or a Beast…

Perhaps I am wrong in taking this position. Perhaps, like poor Patty in A THIEF IN THE NIGHT and its sequels, I will be condemned and tortured for my pretentious ambivalent pose. Perhaps I am already in Hell or heading there fast…

So be it. I love things the way they are…no matter how horrible they may be.
That’s the “sin” one indulges in and embraces as a horror movie fan.
Horror movie fans always enjoy the ride even while they are screaming.
It’s not masochism. It’s not escapism. It’s not bad faith. It’s not Taoism.
It’s the way we were born.

We have our father’s eyes…





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2 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: MONKEYS IN THE ATTIC (1974) & GROWING UP IN AMERICA (1988)


By the late 80s, it was pretty clear to most people, and especially the more “radical,” intellectual youth (yah, I’m speaking from my own experience), that the ideals and revolutionary techniques of the “hippy generation,” and the political activists associated with them (rightly or not), were mostly a failure. Current critiques are more kind. The social changes that the upheavals of the 60s initiated have certainly had positive, persisting consequences. However, by the 80s and early 90s, many of the “yippies” and “hippies” of the early 70s had either been transformed into “yuppies” or were appropriated into a socially conservative, cynical mass of defensive, disenfranchised blue-collar workers seduced by the populism of Reagan’s individualistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” campaign. Which group they fell into depended entirely on how much money they had.

Those who managed to hang on to their youthful idealism seemed defeated and tired: living anachronisms struggling to align their worldview with a world that was no longer recognizable. The more powerful among them, those who had “followers” or political clout, ironically resorted to authoritarian means for realizing their dwindling, anti-authoritarian dreams.

Some embraced political compromise while others devoted themselves to the much easier task of changing the symbols of reality – language and images – in hope of a trickle down effect: the Reaganomics of Ethics. Students of the latter would-be radicals collectively formed the “political correctness” movement which has flourished like a virus within academia and has internally compromised most of the potentially counter-cultural trends that would follow in its wake. Their puritanical ideologies and rules for proper etiquette, a continuation of the Marxist obsession with purity that characterized the political rebellions of the 60s, still contributes to the infighting and blatant disregard of facts, political necessity, or human psychology that hobbles and marginalizes contemporary activism.

Those who embraced political compromise, like Bill Clinton, could at least point to direct socio-political changes that they had enacted through government. However, productive political compromise is built upon a balance of power with one’s enemy and any change in that balance means that positive social change, once initiated, cannot be controlled and maintained. As a result, so many of the “positive changes” that politicians like Clinton attempted to create were thereafter appropriated and transformed into serving the status quo. The paranoia and resentment this created has pushed many political representatives of the”Left” further and further into an authoritarian thirst for power and control that has made them hardly discernible from their stated “enemies.”

This basic cycle of “return of the repressed,” played out at the social level, is pretty easily diagnosed…and yet we all seem trapped into repeating it like automatons. One could argue that there is something more than artificial social structures and their enforcement of relations of power that keep this troubling cycle going. It all seems like so much theatrical, ritualistic enactment of a deeper, more primal aspect of human consciousness: the part of ourselves that undermines our own desires.

In the late 60s, into the 70s, there were a lot of horror movies that are sometimes, because of their themes and style, referred to as hippy horror. Often these films attempt to reproduce the experience of a “bad trip” and feature elliptical plots that make them similar to more elevated art films that were also produced during this period (see THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM).

To some degree, manifestations of the “return of the repressed” were always a recognized part of the hippy subculture. Stories have emerged of how the “free love” philosophy, for example, was used by self-described “enlightened” individuals to justify sexual exploitation and rape. In 1969, the gruesome story of Charlie Manson and his cult highlighted the barely obscured horrors that lay just beneath the utopian ideals of an entire generation of rebels and social dropouts. Fear of this simmering underbelly of the “hippy revolution,” unleashed by drugs and a thousand different kinds of amateur psychological experimentations, was used by mainstream media, and even independent horror films, in service of a conservative, reactionary media response to popular forms of social resistance. At the same time, many horror films addressed this issue more straightforwardly, without clear ideological intent, with a focus on the subjective, existential experience of embracing “freedom” while also being trapped by psychological and social conditioning that is out of one’s control.

MONKEYS IN THE ATTIC is one such film. It depicts the increasingly strange behavior of a group of tripping pseudo-radicals as they spiral ever more dangerously into a ritualistic, psycho-dramatic, and ultimately cathartic (for better or worse) enactment of their most dangerous, corruptive “hang ups.” Whether their obvious, desperate pursuit of catharsis is a radical expression of liberation or a distorted, perverted recreation of status quo power dynamics is up to the viewer to decide, although it is quite clear that this is not an entirely happy, loving, entirely positive experience for anyone involved.

This is not intended to promote the legitimacy of “trigger warnings” as an ethical obligation, but I feel the need to warn potential viewers that MONKEYS IN THE ATTIC features a great deal of sexualized violence. The extent to which this “violence” is depicted as a kind of empowering sadomasochistic play or straight-out rape is open to debate. I have my opinions, but I will refrain from providing them here. Considering that MONKEYS IN THE ATTIC was described by one internet reviewer as “WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF on mushrooms,” you can pretty much assume that, where sadomasochism is involved, no “safe words” are being used. This is not a depiction of “responsible” sadomasochistic roleplaying as practiced by most people who are involved in that sexual subculture.

The director of MONKEYS IN THE ATTIC, Morley Markson, was not incredibly prolific. His best known work is the documentary GROWING UP IN AMERICA. This 1988 documentary depicts some of the most famous, influential radicals of the 60s and 70s, now grown and more experienced, viewing footage of their old selves on a television set and commenting on how both they and the world have changed over the years. I’m including it here as I believe it shares themes with MONKEYS IN THE ATTIC and is an important film in its own right if viewed from the perspective of the horror genre.

MONKEYS IN THE ATTIC is another incredibly rare film, the final one this year, that I have edited and “fixed” in order to share with you here (for the first time) in a watchable form.

There had previously only been one streaming copy available and its soundtrack was a full five or six seconds out of synch. I’ve come across that before. Who does that? Who uploads a rare film with the sound out of synch and then leaves it there for years? What is the point? In any case…I downloaded it, synched it, and re-uploaded it to my Youtube channel. Enjoy…




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3 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: LITAN (1982)


I believe that a very important archetypal component of horror cinema – one of the fundamental elements left when you boil horror films down to their alchemical foundations – is the procession.

Previously in this blog I’ve described the procession as the “rabbit hole” portion of a horror film (with reference to Alice in Wonderland), as it often involves traveling through a series of unusual, reality-distorting physical spaces. It generally occurs toward the end of the horror movie narrative as a transition into a final confrontation, but this is by no means a hard and fast rule.

The term “procession” brings to mind a parade, a queue, or a religious ritual. All are applicable associations. The stereotypical manifestation of the procession in horror films involves the protagonist, often the “final woman” (sometimes referred to as a “phallic woman,”) actively uncovering or passively being exposed to a series of frightening images, one after another, like floats going by in a parade.

I have to be general and write that the procession is composed of disturbing “images” so as to be as inclusive as possible with my wording. The “images” that together make up a procession vary widely from film to film. Often they are a series of disturbing hidden rooms that lead to a terrible buried secret or, in a similar vein, the increasingly more dangerous territory that must be crossed when entering a villain’s secret lair.

In horror films of all kinds, the procession manifests in (or as) a specific physical space such as a tunnel or a series of gateways. During the procession, the protagonist passes through these ominous gates and passages, up or down precarious stairwells, and through a thousand different visual references to the classical labyrinth. In some of my favorite examples, epitomized by Dario Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, the procession revisits familiar locations (for the protagonist or viewer) that are transformed uncannily by odd camera angles, framing, and lighting.

In some cases the physical space is less important than the protagonist’s confrontation with a series of frightening objects that confirm the gravity of their situation. In slasher films like FRIDAY THE 13TH, the procession often involves the accidental discovery of dead bodies popping out of closets or lockers, falling from tree branches, or showing up unexpectedly in a refrigerator or the back seat of a car.

The procession may also be depicted as entirely the internal, subjective experience of a horror movie protagonist. At the end of many horror films, when the “hero” puts all the pieces of a mystery together in their mind, it is often represented visually as a series of previously disconnected images now logically edited together into a meaningful montage. The reverse is also typical: the protagonist may experience a premonition in the form of a series of images that reappear later in the story, contextualized, to prove the premonition true. Processions also appear in horror films as apparently nonsensical dream sequences filled with surreal, disconnected imagery that has no clear relation at all to the film’s primary narrative.

In some cases the protagonist is chased by a monster through the procession. In other cases the protagonist is chasing the monster. Sometimes the protagonist is just fulfilling their own fate by intuitively following their nose into horrific, monstrous realities.

The procession may reveal spaces, entities, or increasing levels of chaos and paranormal phenomena. The procession may end in death, escape, transformation, or eternal damnation.

But there is always the procession

Some eccentric horror film creators take a special interest in the procession and make their entire movie follow its serial structure: simply leading their protagonist from place to place and from horror to horror from the beginning to the end. The French cult horror film director Jean Rollin, following his own anarchic aesthetic principles, would spend up to ten minutes at a time with his characters slowly walking through Surreal landscapes as if in a trance or in performance of a mysterious, unexplained religious ritual.

This approach to presenting a narrative is entirely against the grain in cinema. Most movies tend to follow the traditional theatrical/literary conventions of a narrative and character arc. This arc sets up a protagonist within a specific context, introduces a central conflict, and depicts the character’s transformation as they confront the conflict. Traditional narrative arcs usually conclude with the protagonist’s triumph or defeat.

While many modern and contemporary filmmakers have challenged the traditional narrative arc through experimentation, there is usually at least a passing reference to tradition so as to orient viewers and, ultimately, to keep them emotionally engaged in the action while appreciating the experimentation. Unfortunately, as the traditional narrative arc is the aesthetic standard and composing a successful, engaging story seems to be a challenge for even many conventional filmmakers, completely rejecting this standard is often interpreted as a mistake or sign of ineptitude. Jean Rollin, inspired by the independent spirit of Surrealism and Individualist Anarchism, didn’t give a damn.

Less well known than Rollin, the French director Jean-Pierre Mocky has also devoted his career to making movies that reject traditional narrative formulas. Unfortunately, unlike Rollin, he isn’t particularly obsessed with filming lesbian vampires. This may or may not have something to do with his films being less available than Rollin’s. He also hasn’t dedicated the bulk of his career to films that could be classified as horror, so he suffers from not having tapped into the forgiving, anarchically oriented, cult-creating horror audience. Nonetheless, in the case of LITAN, Mocky applied his experimental film-making techniques to the horror genre full throttle and, as a result, the extremely unusual film has developed a moderate but persistent cult following.

Stylistically, LITAN is like a Jean Rollin film on speed. For its kinetic bombast alone, it could also be compared with the ecstatic, eruptive films of Andrzej Żuławski. From the opening scene, LITAN’s narrative unfolds like a Las Vegas production of a musical medley with costume and scenery changes every time the melody shifts. There is an anxiety provoking momentum to it that is in exact proportion to one’s expectation of a traditional narrative. Each scene makes one feel as if the “truth” or a “revelation” will be right around the next corner, and the delayed presentation of that concealed, explanatory truth creates an increasing pressure which the film exploits masterfully. This film is a deep (but entertaining) meditation on the horror movie procession as I have defined it, and it explores many of its possible meanings and uses in the horror genre (drawing upon its association with parades, religious rituals, mazes, and several other mythological, religious, and psychological archetypes).

I did some research into processions in religious and social history in preparation for this blog posting, but it wasn’t of much use. Processions appear to be a ubiquitous ritualistic behavior that spans time and cultures. Scholarly studies focus on the specific attributes of the procession in a particular time and place as opposed to the meanings and significance of the procession in general. Personally, in Western culture, I believe it can be traced back to the rituals of ancient religions that preceded the organized Greek religious festivals and continued to be enacted, with a meaning similar to their original intent, in the rituals of the oracles and then in the secret Mystery traditions that later became popular in the Roman empire (thereafter appropriated into Catholic traditions).

In these cases I would propose that the procession represented a concentration of the combined energies of a social group toward a specific goal: union with a representation of godhead. In this sense, the linear organization of people or symbols, in opposition to their normal dispersion (while assigned to separate, specialized roles in the web-like, interrelated operations of society), represents a kind of phallic vitality directed toward a climactic moment of generative union.

Rituals referring to death and rebirth were an essential part of symbolically enacting this climactic “generative union” as it occurred. The processions of the Mystery cults often  ended in symbolic acts of self-sacrifice, dramatic reenactments of murder, the revelation of secret knowledge, manifestations of paranormal phenomena, and the cathartic experience of absolute, blood-curdling horror.

I propose that films like LITAN (and many other horror films) continue, unabated, in this tradition. Whether you experience it as an initiatory ritual or as a failed aesthetic experiment…well…that is up to you. In any case, I am glad to present it to you here, through my Youtube channel, for the first time streaming in the US with English subtitles. Hopefully, it will not immediately be taken down by Youtube. Watch it while you can…

LITAN (1982)

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4 More Days ’til Halloween: ATRAPADOS aka TRAPPED (1981)


A reviewer at Fright.com, one of the few places on the internet where ATRAPADOS is even mentioned, describes it as “one of the world’s great unknown cult films, a shocking, nightmarish, mind-expanding apocalyptic parable.” The one user review for the film on IMDB is from a former critic for Variety magazine and states, “I….still remember the impact of the film 35 years later.” At the time of its limited release, the Los Angeles Times called it a “staggering and haunting film.”

Despite the critical acclaim, ATRAPADOS never received a video or DVD release and has disappeared into complete obscurity. The AMC website’s description of the film, limited to a plot synopsis, gets the plot wrong. A Google image search for the film brings up only two pictures and both are from Fright.com. A Google video search for the film doesn’t bring it up at all (crowding it out with other movies with the same title and news reports about people who are trapped). The only way it is even available on Youtube is because the director, himself, has uploaded a copy. Though it’s been streaming on his channel for three years, it has only received a few hundred views. Good for a cat video, terrible for “one of the world’s great unknown cult films.” The cult is apparently still small. I recommend that you join it immediately.

The plot of ATRAPADOS is fairly simple. Two people, a man and a woman, are trapped in the woman’s basement apartment when the building collapses. The man is a plumber, a stranger to her, who has just arrived to fix her broken sink. They are of different classes, but also of entirely different temperaments. He is a survivalist and a materialist. She is an intellectual with a mystical bent. As their time trapped in the basement passes from days into months, the film charts the different ways that they deal with their predicament and with each other. The evocative black-and-white photography depicting their entrapment (compared to ERASERHEAD by the Fright.com reviewer) is contrasted with their fantasies and memories of the outside world which are often depicted in bright, garish colors.

This brief synopsis, however, does not cover it. ATRAPADOS is clearly allegorical, but its meanings are not so obvious as they might appear at the beginning of the film’s slow progression toward psychedelic, metaphysical horror. At first the contrast between the man’s desire to escape and the woman’s emotionally escapist passivity seems to comment on the relations between classes and genders. The woman’s philosophical interpretations of their entrapment make direct parallels between their situation and the existential conditions of humanity in general. Their differing responses to the horror matches exactly the dubious psycho-social theory concerning different “tastes” in horror films that I mentioned in my previous post about SOLE SURVIVOR. One can’t help, considering the gravity of the characters’ crisis, sympathizing with the plumber and his more sensible grasp on reality. This sympathy on the part of the viewer may change when he begins to be consumed, in fear, by his more animalistic impulses. At the same time, as escape becomes more and more hopeless, the detached, “spiritual” tendencies of the woman seem to become more and more reasonable.

As time passes for the trapped couple, the “naturalistic” quality of ATRAPADOS is abandoned and the story passes into Surrealist territory that reminds me of Luis Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL…or THE TURIN HORSE by Béla Tarr. I was also reminded of a short story by J.G. Ballard in which a man, refusing to leave his kitchen, becomes a kind of suburban Robinson Crusoe and eventually develops the perception that his kitchen is as large and full of possibilities as the universe itself. In ATRAPADOS, the moral distinctions between the man’s materialism and the woman’s seemingly escapist spiritual pursuits begin to blur and possibly even reverse once it becomes evident that there will be no escape. The meaning of “hope” and “freedom” for the characters becomes more and more abstract and, depending upon one’s point of view, a catalyst for enlightenment or an insane disassociation that spirals into a metaphysical hell: a universal, transcendental “trap.” ATRAPADOS is the ultimate in Gothic horror. In this film space has literally collapsed and time lost all point of reference: opening into eternity.

I recently watched the new BBC documentary HYPERNORMALISATION by British filmmaker Adam Curtis. It is one of the most thought-provoking, powerful documentaries that I’ve seen in years and, for the moment, available on Youtube in full (I will link to it below). The documentary attempts to chart the development, in contemporary politics and culture, of our escapist attempts to replace the complex realities of human, political relations in the “real” world with a simulacra: a carefully constructed illusion intended to satisfy our need for understanding the world while also destabilizing the meaning of “truth.” The result is carte blanche for the immense inequalities and corrupt, exploitative representatives of power that we’re now faced with all over the world.

I couldn’t help being reminded of HYPERNORMALISATION while watching ATRAPADOS. The dynamics at play within the two films are exactly the same. Neither of the films offer any direct solutions to the problems presented, but they certainly attempt, in their own ways, to fully examine the issues we face: individual, social, psychological, physical, and spiritual.

As we enter, according to the analysis in Adam Curtis’s documentary, a “post-truth” world, it is more important than ever to explore and learn from the many representations of our current state of crisis created by perceptive, “precognitive” artists and philosophers throughout the centuries. It is harder than ever, now, to conceive of “escape” or “freedom” and truly imagine what it would entail to realize the fulfillment of these concepts in our actual lives. We question, based on our history, whether such a fulfillment is even a worthwhile pursuit or just one more illusion among many that we may choose to embrace. There are many who have addressed these questions before and carefully considered the various possible answers.

Several times, during this year’s blog entries, I have suggested there is a dichotomy between the ideological foundations of “folk horror” and “gothic horror” representing a basic, fundamental difference in how we, as humans, relate to a world that is partly constructed and thus controlled (?) while also partly “fated,” chaotic, and out of our control. ATRAPADOS represents an ambiguous world in which these two contrasting conditions are pit against each other, feed off each other, and overlap. In that sense, it is a more realistic (though still metaphorical) representation of the confused, multi-layered, frustratingly mediated reality in which we actually live.

It is a great irony that the BBC funded documentary HYPERNORMALISATION is (rightly) a critical and popular success, currently being discussed by intellectuals and radicals all over the world, while ATRAPADOS, an equally insightful and perhaps more nuanced exploration of the same topics by a talented independent filmmaker, is buried by Google algorithms and largely forgotten.



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5 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: MEDUSA (1998)


To be honest, MEDUSA is the kind of movie I usually don’t like. In the 90s, the (relatively) popular success of Quentin Tarantino, Hal Hartley, TRAINSPOTTING, Jim Jarmusch, and so on, led to a kind of fusion of self-aware “coolness,” high artiness, and adolescent boy fantasy that grew like an alien blob to take over independent cinema, populate it with rogue cops and monosyllabic, quirky loners, and infect its viewing audience with kung-fu worshipping would-be frat boys. Perhaps I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but that hyperbole makes the intensity of my aversion to these kinds of movies all the more clear. Directors like Hartley, Tarantino, or Jarmusch can’t be blamed for their imitators’ frequent sins, but I have to admit that I can no longer judge their work, or any film with the tiniest whiff of their stylistic calling cards, with a truly clear head.

The negative influence of this trend is very obvious in MEDUSA. It is a quintessential “festival” film with the requisite women in dramatic wigs, men toting guns, and short bits of dialogue that try way too hard to be quotable. That said, there is something about MEDUSA that transcends these (in my estimate) limitations. When it comes down to it, MEDUSA is entirely its own kind of movie following its own inner logic and these 90s tropes are simply a kind of drag that the movie wears so as to look acceptable in public.

At its heart, MEDUSA is a “folk horror” movie that explores the legends of the filmmakers’ home country in such a way as to make it relevant to a contemporary audience. It just so happens that these filmmakers come from Greece and their legends are therefore the source of the great majority of fantastic fiction produced in the entire history of Western culture. Considering that fact, this film certainly doesn’t stand out for attempting to make Greek legend “relevant” or updated for our times. However, MEDUSA is different from many attempts in that it also intends to make Greek legend relevant to contemporary Greeks. This film isn’t just an appropriation, it is also a reclamation. MEDUSA updates the story of the snake-headed Gorgon but also makes it an expression of tribal identity. This is above all a Greek film, filled with nods to contemporary Greek culture (some satirical) and loving depictions of Greek landscapes.

The process of discovering one’s roots is central to the premise of the film, but it isn’t depicted with the nationalistic enthusiasm of a patriot canonizing their bloodline (with a stone sculpture, for example). MEDUSA recognizes that there are emotional and psychological complexities involved with introspection, individual or collective, and it explores these complexities with a detached ambivalence facilitated by the use of Greek legends as metaphors. The ancient stories, made literal in MEDUSA, function both as a familiar, anchoring access point as well as a means of creating emotional distance. This creates a kind of tense, overarching spirit of irony throughout the film that is a far cry from the kind of irony one might expect from Quentin Tarantino or Hal Hartley.

All this is intertwined with a plot that, as would be expected considering the titular subject, also deals with the psychology of gender representation and relationships, loss, desire, and the relative value of the “heroic quest” for self-actualization. It is refreshing, to say the least, to view any film dealing with “the hero’s quest” that isn’t directly inspired by Joseph Campbell. It would be difficult to decide whose influence was ultimately more destructive to contemporary independent cinema: Quentin Tarantino or George Lucas?

MEDUSA is by no means a perfect film, but it certainly does a little to loosen George Lucas’s grubby paws clenched bloodlessly tight around the power of myth.

MEDUSA (1998)

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6 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: SOLE SURVIVOR (1983)


Horror has often been compared to pornography for being a “specialized” genre. The basis of this comparison is that the purpose of the horror genre is to frighten – an instinctual, automatic response – just as pornography is intended to sexually excite the viewer. In both cases the kind of stimuli that triggers a response is very specific to a viewer’s personal history and unique biology. However, to reduce horror (or, indeed, pornography) to this basic function is incredibly reductive. I am not alone among horror fans in that experiencing “fear,” or even pretending to be afraid, is not at all central to my attraction to horror films or stories.

I have been straightforward on my blog about the fact that many of the films I post are not overtly frightening…at least to me. I don’t think some of them even intend to be frightening though they clearly belong to the horror genre. I believe that the genre of horror is better understood and defined by its themes rather than its function. A horror film always primarily addresses the topic of fear – or at least a topic that may cause fear for some people – while not always intending to instill fear in the process. Considering this, one way by which I evaluate the quality (good or bad) of a horror film is by the extent to which it explores and contributes to the understanding of fear as a concept and an experience. I watch horror films like a scholar of fear looking for new contributions to the field of study. There is a pleasure in learning and gaining knowledge about the human experience, but there is certainly also an entirely non-intellectual, immersive emotional response to fear, as a topic, that can’t be repressed by its detached consideration. Even the most jaded, experienced forensic scientist at some point looks into the face of a cadaver and, triggered by some uncontrollable emotional association with the dead person’s features, finds themselves overwhelmed with sadness and horror. I appreciate horror that doesn’t lose sight of the “human”…or is fully aware of doing just that.

As you have no way of knowing what my intended topic was, you have no way of knowing that I’ve just strayed from it. I wanted to write about the differences in what makes people frightened by a movie. Today’s movie, SOLE SURVIVOR, is one of those movies that has developed a cult following and a reputation for being very scary. I personally find it very unnerving. And yet there is also a large proportion of viewers who find it too slow and even boring. I can’t account for this. I can’t just say that one group is, you know, culturally “advanced” and patient (perhaps more imaginative) and the other group is a bunch of neanderthals with an attention deficit. At the same time, I can’t help agreeing that there is something more “elevated” – a deeper, more significant horror – depicted by movies like SOLE SURVIVOR than the average kind of “boogie man jumping out from the closet” slasher movie (which I also love). If the latter depends upon triggering the instinctual panic of dealing with a predator, the former deals with the existential horrors of death, fate, human limitation, and so on.

If one’s emotional response to horror fiction is based upon one’s own experience, one could speculate that the extent to which a person is drawn to either the existential or the primal is based upon the kind of horrors they’ve actually experienced in their life. You could hypothesize that those who have lived more sheltered lives of safety might be more frightened by the depiction of abstract, universal threats while those who deal with the real experience of survival might be triggered by depictions of direct, physical confrontations. But this is also reductive. I truly can’t account for differences in folk’s “fright” response to fiction. It is so complicated and so personal that it is, indeed, as diverse as sexual taste. This is part of what makes the horror genre so interesting and, while other movie genres tend to fall victim to the mono-culture of majority consumers, appealing to diverse tastes for fear is what keeps the horror genre alive (like a “final girl” in a slasher movie). There is always the potential market for unique, subversive, unusual, specialized visions of horror. No matter how cookie cutter certain cinema aesthetic trends become, there will always be a horror movie resisting them.

In the slasher craze of the early 80s, SOLE SURVIVOR certainly went against the grain. Its tempo is measured, almost melancholic, and it evokes fear with the ominous, elusive presence of an unknown threat as opposed to the direct swing of a knife or chainsaw. Thematically and stylistically it was not without precedents. One can see the influence of shows like The Twilight Zone or the cult movie CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Nonetheless, it was a movie out of its time and, as a result, managed to outlive many of its competitors in the minds (and nightmares) of its audience. It had a limited video release and maintained its reputation via the clandestine distribution of bootlegs up until a beautiful, letterboxed DVD version was released by Code Red in 2008.

That DVD is now out of print and, in the barrage of the internet telepresence, SOLE SURVIVOR is slipping back into cult obscurity. It doesn’t help that another, lesser (but newer) film has the same title. Part of the problem of the internet is that, under such circumstances, the tyranny of algorithms drowns out the old with the new. I remember when a The Tomorrow People remake was recently released on a major US television station and suddenly any reference to my most beloved show while growing up, the original 1970s The Tomorrow People, was pushed back all the way to page eight of a Google search: it was out of time and so pushed out of space. Cultural artifacts are losing their power to inform (or resist) the present. They have too many competitors.

And yet SOLE SURVIVOR persists in its influence. When the 2008 DVD was released, Code Red billed it as “FINAL DESTINATION before FINAL DESTINATION.” I don’t really see the comparison with that movie beyond the fact that the protagonist is a plane wreck survivor. A more direct influence is obvious in the recent film IT FOLLOWS. The long shots of ominous, unusual characters slowly tracking and stalking the protagonists in that film seem directly inspired by SOLE SURVIVOR…as does the overall tone (if not the underlying themes). Considering the popular and critical success of IT FOLLOWS, it may be time for SOLE SURVIVOR to reemerge from the sea of horror and have another shot at cementing its reputation. Like IT FOLLOWS, SOLE SURVIVOR bores some people and horrifies others for very similar stated reasons. If you appreciate one you’ll probably appreciate the other. There’s no doubt, however, that it deserves its special place in the hearts of many horror fans. For those touched by this particular strain of horror, it goes very deep and will very likely live forever.

This is a full frame version of SOLE SURVIVOR and therefore, I hope, less likely to be taken down by Youtube. I only found one streaming copy online and it was this full frame version stretched into the wrong aspect ratio: impossible to watch for visually oriented folks like myself (all those stretched out faces!) I’ve corrected its formatting and re-uploaded it to my own Youtube channel:


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