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…