Playable Cinematic Teasers in Frightening Loops. Playable Cinematic Teasers in Scary Loops. Playable Teasers in Loops. Be Scared of this Playable Teaser. P.T . Silent Hills
I’d heard a fair few mutterings and positive stirrings relating to the mysterious Silent Hills demo (also known as “P.T.”) but since I don’t own a PS4 I hadn’t thought much about playing it myself beyond lamenting that I never would. By chance I ended up watching someone else play on their Playstation, not the way I’d prefer to experience a horror game since the first person immersion is usually what makes horror games horrific, but it turned out to be worth the wait; P.T. is something of a milestone in videogame history, however you experience it.. It’s just a short demo, playable in a couple of hours, but it stands on its own as a complete game experience, and it’s one of the most frightening games you’re likely ever to play. It’s just a demo but it manages to effectively bridge the gap between cinema and gaming in a way that nothing else has ever even attempted; perhaps because it’s a free demo (more specifically, a teaser. “P.T.” stands for playable teaser) the developers weren’t burdened by the need to create a lengthy game experience or a predictable gaming experience that would sell.
The game throws the player into a confusing, terrifying series of loops that take place down a single short corridor, with no information about what’s happening, or why, leaving him/her free to explore and discover the games secrets. Your actions are limited in the game to simply walking around and zooming in on points of interest, a lack of input almost unthinkable in a modern console game but a design choice. Once you’ve triggered the correct event you can walk through the door at the end of the corridor and you’ll find yourself standing right back where you started The scenario is thick with atmosphere and whilst a lot of it is cobbled together from elements you’ve seen in horror games and horror movies a hundred times before – strange whining through a telephone, eerie radio news items about sinister murders playing in a background, ghostly shadows moving in the corner of your eye and walls caked in blood – the sparseness of the game design coupled with the looping mechanic leave you feeling utterly disempowered as a player with seemingly no choice but to keep marching forward into every new loop knowing that things will have subtly changed, waiting to find out how those changes will manifest themselves, how that will affect you, and realising how utterly powerless to know how to stop them. Sometimes it’s a small point of detail on a wall, other times a door rattles mysteriously, later you might happen to look up and see something ominous and eventually you’ll be hit by a massive jump scare that you’d been predicting for the past twenty minutes..
There’s cinematic inspiration here, a recent underrated horror masterpiece, Christopher Smith’s innovative triangle used a very similar looping idea to both horrific and heartbreaking effect. It’s also not a surprise to see Guillermo del Toro’s name attached to the end credits when they roll (if you can get them to roll, since the game’s final puzzle is deliberately obtuse). If cinema and video-games are to walk hand in hand into the future then it stands to reason that there are creative collaborations between those who excel in both mediums, and with movies like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth behind him, del Toro is a proven master of the macabre. Another high profile horror game that I’ve played recently, The Evil Within, suffers strongly from a lack of cohesion and discipline. The game is certainly scary – boy, is it scary – but the horror is mostly visceral and for all its grotesqueries and genuinely gut churning moments, one walks away wondering why the experience is so disjointed and so desperate to plunge you ever onwards into the next big set-piece. It’s not a candidate for the cinematic and it certainly doesn’t get under your skin. The reason is, of course, because the game is so desperate to entertain you as a game and it wants to reassure you that, despite the multiplicity of horrors you’ll come across and the tension you’ll face due to a need to conserve ammo or resources, as a player you still feel in control, that you’re able to do what you need to in order to escape the hellish nightmare that you’re stuck in. Gaming devices trump narrative devices every time and, whilst they might create a better game, they disconnect you from the story and diminish that aspect of the experience.
P.T. however, as a game, actively wants the player to fail. Not just in terms of difficulty, or through forcing the player to endure a humiliating Game Over screen repeatedly a la Dark Souls, but more in terms of setting up a situation in which the player becomes doubtful and introspective, eventually completely unsure of his/her ability to succeed. It doesn’t really care what input you might have into the game, all it wants is to heighten your feelings of fear. But this is not the vomit-inducing fear of the gory, the visceral in your face kind favoured by The Evil Within, but the slow unsettling stomach-churning dread of a Paranormal Activity (a movie which itself applied cinematic methods to very humdrum pursuits, altering them upon repetition for maximum effect).
It’s unlikely that when it’s released Silent Hills will turn out to be quite this good. We already know that the finished game won’t be based upon the ideas contained here and neither should it since it has a very different job to do. However, there hasn’t been this kind of hype or excitement around any game in some time, let-alone Silent Hill, a franchise that’s been languishing in rehash land for so long most people simply stopped caring. But now they care, thanks to this demo, and that’s a majorly exciting thing for the the computer game industry in general because it shows that innovation, thinking differently, coming up with new concepts and even embracing and meshing with the old (cinema) can garner you attention and ultimately secure sales. P.T. is an entirely unique and free product that has clearly had a wealth of love and attention devoted to producing it and it’s succeeded in inspiring confidence in a game and selling a game. Even though the final game will inevitably fall short of this nugget I’ll still be first in the queue to buy it, and I’m not even a long term Silent Hill fan. And I don’t even own a PS4.
Anyway, I’d heard a fair few mutterings and positive stirrings relating to the mysterious Silent Hills demo (also known as “P.T.”) but since I don’t own a PS4 I hadn’t thought much about playing it myself beyond lamenting that I never would. By chance I ended up watching someone else play on their Playstation, not the way I’d prefer to experience a horror game since the first person immersion is usually what makes horror games horrific, but it turned out to be worth the wait; P.T. is something of a milestone in videogame history, however you experience it…
“New Who” has made quite a big deal out of its companion character arcs, quite blatantly asking us to emotionally invest in characters such as Rose, Donna and Amy and then to weep incessantly at their exit. I make no apology for admitting that, despite the lengthy emotional drama that surrounded the departure of each of them, I neither wept heartily or felt so much as a lump in my throat at Rose getting trapped in an alternate dimension, Donna losing her memory or Amy and Rory’s exile into the past. I love New Who but am still a little frustrated by its insistence on driving the point home to its viewers sometimes.
Watching Jo Grant’s departure at the end of The Green Death made me realise that not only was this how it ought to be done, but Jo’s subtle relationship with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was exactly how I, personally, wanted to see a Doctor/Companion relationship. I’m not talking about this in terms of ideological representation of course, Jo is very much a product of 70s family viewing, a woman who can come out of the kitchen so long as she’s sure not to step in and threaten masculine dominance, and as such she can be a stereotypical dumb blonde at times, silly, air-headed, clumsy and annoying. So much so that during her first adventure Terror of the Autons, after the wonderfully liberating Liz Shaw I found her an affront to good taste and a step backwards for the show. Notably during their introductory scene the Doctor feels somewhat the same way, that she was gifted a position at UNIT and not remotely up to the task of being his companion. And yet she’s managed to work her way into the hearts of the Doctor and of fans of the show, and just three seasons later I found her departure to marry and travel the world with Cliff Jones to to be deeply moving.
Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning had undeniable chemistry together but it’s not until their second season when arguably the actual adventures started to get a little weaker that the depth of friendship between the two really started to emerge on-screen. And it’s this chemistry (alongside the clear joy fun they showed working alongside Roger Delgado’s Master) that raises up those perhaps mediocre adventures and makes this a truly great era for the show regardless of occasional scripting issues. There were many times watching these adventures when the closing theme would roll and I’d think to myself how much I’d enjoyed a little scene, a little moment shared between the two; small moments of characterisation that for all its breakneck pyrotechnics the newer show is unable to indulge itself in unless it’s in the service of driving the week’s story ceaselessly onwards. To name a few that stood out, mostly from adventures that are otherwise ill-favoured:
- Just before the end credits close in Curse of Peladon episode 4 the two have a brief exchange about seeing a coronation and the Doctor says “you know I haven’t seen a coronation since Elizabeth I’s .. or was it Queen Victoria” Jo looks at the Doctor and laughs freely “namedropper”. It’s significant because it’s not so much a joke as an intimate moment shared between the two. a minute later The Doctor tenderly strokes her face and says “I wouldn’t like to lose you” when the possibility of Jo’s staying on Peladon with the King arises.
- Jo looks distraught in the Sea Devils (I forget which episode!) as the Doctor steals a plate of sandwiches from her saying she doesn’t have time to eat them, promptly eats one, offers them around to everyone else and then hands an empty plate back to her much to her dismay. (continuing a running gag started in Day of the Daleks on a similar food theft theme)
- The well known Daisiest Daisy scene in episode 6 of The Time Monster, a ridiculously twee monologue from Pertwee which works so well because of the intimacy of the moment between the two. The Doctor apologises, saying “I’m sorry I brought you to Atlantis” and she replies determinedly “I’m not”.
- Finally, my favourite is a monologue delivered by Manning in Frontier in Space episode 4. The two are planning an escape but watched over security cam by The Master and so talk endlessly in an attempt to distract him. Jo ends up rambling for what feels like 5 minutes of screentime as the Doctor slopes off in a scene that pulls you in comedically and emotionally as Jo reminisces, talks about life at UNIT (and being considered tea-lady!) and complains about the Doctor’s attitude, even suggesting that he be nicer to The Master!
The points I’m making here are twofold. Firstly, that the classic show, Doctor Who, never once tells us that we’re supposed to care immensely about the relationship that is forming between the Doctor and Jo, it simply allows us to observe as a bond forms between them as they have adventures together and we, the viewers, share those adventures. And secondly that the way it doeshighlight the Doctor/Companion relationship is through moments that are not obsessively driving the story or plot-arc forward. Part of this is necessity of course, the 25 min episode serialised format of the show in 1972 is very different from the 45 min adventure of 2005-13 and in the former even the tightest stories have time and dead space to fill up, whereas the latter frequently struggles to get everything in. But that’s, I suppose, Serendipity…
Which brings me to the excellence of The Green Death, an undoubted highlight of the Pertwee era which provides a more than fitting closure to the duo’s onscreen relationship. The events of this serial had already cleverly been foreshadowed in Planet of the Daleks, as Thal Latep asks Jo to stay with him on Skaro. Jo sadly declines realising that she’s not cut out for a life away from Earth. The Doctor looks relieved and asks her where she wants to go and she replies “back home to Earth” The Doctor is a little confused by this, since he can’t so much as imagine her not wanting to travel time and space, but willingly obliges.
The Green Death opens with the Doctor excited about a trip he wants to make with Jo to Metebelis Three. Jo has other ideas since she’s interested in issues of pollution and corporate corruption on Earth. She defies the Doctor’s excitement and the Brigadier’s orders to go to Wales and help protest. This time the Doctor is less understanding and insists on going to Metebelis Three anyway, suggesting that it’s her loss. Episode One then sees the Doctor and Jo split and we’re actually offered a little side-plot with the Doctor journeying to Metabelis Three and having an adventure that only loosely has bearing on the Green Death plot (he picks up a crystal that turns out to be useful for resisting mind-control). What’s notable about it is that it’s both amusing, frightening and a little emotionally heartbreaking. The Doctor wanders around Metebelis Three seemingly a little lost with Jo, encountering huge scary monsters in a wild, unforgiving landscape. We frequently see shots of a monster followed by a horrified or scared face from Pertwee. The ferocity of Metebelis Three is clearly meant to represent and foreshadow the pain and loss The Doctor feels and will come to feel without Jo by his side.
That’s from episode one and the rest of The Green Death story contains no overt emotion or hand-wringing, although what’s coming is obvious if you know to look for it. Jo’s increasingly close relationship with Cliff Jones is nicely developed and similarly sees the biologist at first infuriated by her clumsy airheaded demeanour, but later enchanted by her sweet, good humoured and optimistic nature. However, it’s not essentially that different to the story of any other companion falling in love and choosing to leave the Doctor except through the way it is handled at the close of episode 6
Again, the show takes time out – but not an extraordinary amount – to allow for a quiet conversation between the two companions. There’s no flash, no forced partings, no histrionic orchestra, just a farewell conversation that is tinged with sadness and regret and which in my view is far deeper than the tear-fuelled scenes we see in the more show’s more modern incarnation.
Jo asks “You don’t mind do you?”
“Mind? Might even be able to turn you into a scientist
“Don’t go too far away will you? And if you do, come back and see us sometimes…”
…and Jo’s words could melt the iciest heart.
In conclusion The Doctor decides he should give Jo a wedding present, which turns out to be the Sapphire that he got from Metebelis Three, a fitting gift since it represents his separation from her and perhaps some of the sadness that he’ll feel from having to travel without her by his side.
They hug, Jo is pulled away and Pertwee’s Doctor doesn’t offer another word, slipping quietly out the door whilst the Brigadier toasts the happy couple. Jo turns round to see him gone, a look of sadness on her face, a long shot sees the Doctor walk up to bessie whilst music plays in the background, he gets in the car, pauses, listens and almost sheds a tear before driving off … into a sunset that now looks remarkably like the landscape of Metebelis Three.
What happened to writing as a political act?
I almost got embroiled in a lengthy facebook conversation a few weeks ago because I suggested that the act of writing should be political. The reply I received, of course, was that some people like to write for fun and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rather than launch into one of my usual tirades that generally lead to unceremonious facebook de-friendings I decided to sit on that thought for a few weeks; and a few weeks later I realised that I simply disagreed even more. Because whatever way you spin it, writing is a political act. And frustratingly authors and readers are in constant denial about the political content of their writing.
The recent self-publishing phenomenon has in many respects been one of the worst things to happen to my reading in a long time. It may be a great publishing model (I’m sure that I’ll be driven to self-publish something in my lifetime) but it has become a marketing and quality control nightmare, a constant cause of frustration and a huge reason for me to disengage with current releases. And frustrating because so many people want to engage with it for the very reasons that drive me away, they feel like they’re “sticking it to the publishing-man or something. As a fan/user of the popular reading site Goodreads and as a heavy Kindle user, one cannot avoid being bombarded every day by half-baked advertisements and half-baked literary content from a new author every day who advertises themselves as the next big thing in fantasy literature, or vampire fiction. Or romance. Or erotica. For myself I’m so staggeringly uncompelled to click, follow through or buy any of these (Kindle daily deal needs to die a death) that it just makes me loathe their very existence. Because Twilight is bad enough. 50 Shades of Grey is bad enough. The Hunger Games is … probably bad enough. I certainly don’t want to know about “The Lives and Loves of a Virgin Vampire Academy Princess” or “Fields of Thorns and Gods and Magic: The Drearily Pointless Overlong Saga of Magic Magic Magic and Dragons Part 5”. They’re not going to knock my socks off, I don’t need to read them to know I can barely get through the work of famed authors like Michael Moorcock for their derivative laziness, so “Hot Shades of Vampire Sex! Sex! Sex! vs Werewolves pt 9 for Young Adults” is clearly not going to work for me.
But it feels sometimes like that’s what the publishing – or self-publishing – industry has become. And of course someone is going to argue that popular literature is great and if people like to read it and people like to write then that’s great and we should embrace it and stick it to the man. And I do hate the-publishing industry as it stood pre-Kindle. And it is great.
Only, it kinda isn’t.
It isn’t because all of this writing is political and people are pretending that it’s not. Which means that an overwhelming ideology of not-caring about politics or society or life has flooded the book market. Readers are becoming lazy, writers are becoming lazier and reading and writing fiction has come to embody everything that I believed the act of reading not-to-be when I first opened Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre as an older teenager. Because reading Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and so on during my informative years, there’s one thing I couldn’t fail to notice and that was that reading is a political act. Reading JRR Tolkien or Stephen Donaldson and George Martin, Gene Wolfe or Robin Hobb as a fantasy aficionado there’s one thing I can’t fail to notice and that’s reading these books is a political acts. By that I mean that as both a form of literature and as entertainment the people who have sat down and written these books have an ethos, a world-view, an ideology and an interest in society that they wish to convey by writing those books, and as a reader if I pick one up and start to read it I’m subverting the expectations to conformity of those around me by allowing my world-view to engage with and be informed by another’s. Through the act of reading I can become something more than the person who wakes up, goes to work, carries out tasks like a drone, agrees with what they see and hear on the news, and then goes to bed.
This isn’t a distinction between high and low art in the sense that many literary commentators would have you believe that there should be. I’m not arguing for the distinctive turn of Joyce’s prose over the childish strains of a Patrick Rothfuss or Scott Lynch. The psychological insight into the human condition of a Flaubert or Tolstoy over the petty concerns of a JK Rowling. I believe that “popular fiction” as it is called has as big a part to play in shaping who we are as the literary giants that make up the literary canon ever did and that one ignores either at their own detriment.
But what truly bugs me is the de-politicisation of the act of writing in an effort to allow more people to have more fun more of the time at better prices. An illusion of empowerment at the expense of a genuine political voice. If anyone ever asks me why I write – which generally they don’t because I’m unpublished – I tell them it’s because literature is important to me, because I’ve spent my entire life reading and engaging with it and I want some day to influence someone else – to change someone’s life – like many authors before me have influenced and changed me. To have someone say “I just do it for fun” seems to me to miss the point in the most fundamental way because it takes the act of writing and makes it a meaningless act, in a similar way to going to watch a football match. When people ask me why I criticise sport and prefer reading, and I respond that sport is repetitive and aimless and designed to stop one from thinking or questioning, they generally add into their argument “well you read stories and watch movies that are pointless anyway. Star Wars is pointless, Harry Potter is pointless” and so on, and it’s surprisingly difficult to respond to someone who holds theworldview, that “all art I pointless.” and to convince them that art, popular or literary, always has a point. Because to this sport-afficionado, whatever way you spin it we all live, go to work and die don’t we? So why not just have fun in the meantime?
And I genuinely want those authors to have fun and to enjoy self-publishing and I want people to enjoy reading those works. Only I don’t really. And I don’t want them constantly shoved in my face like the football results are. Because there’s a world of literature out there that doesn’t involve the narcissistic egotism that the self-publishing model so readily embraces. But how is someone to know whether they should reject a certain author/work – such as Stephanie Meyer (who isn’t self-published but reads like it and has been the dominant force in dumbing down attitudes surrounding popular literature in the last 10 years) – in favour of another if we reciprocate this idea that reading is for fun, as opposed to the idea that “reading is fun because it’s interesting and rewarding” it’s the difference between killing time and genuinely engaging with your reading.
How political an act it is to ignore politics!
It’s the ultimate political act, to say that politics don’t matter, engagement doesn’t matter. To essentially say that reading and writing don’t matter. It’s like voting by not-voting, since a no-vote helps the dominant political party of the day maintain power.
When I sit down to write if I thought that it didn’t matter I don’t think that I could ever bring myself to do it. The process would be akin to my day job and I’d be helping or enriching the lives of no-one. If someone ever reads my work and says to me “it’s a flippancy, it doesn’t matter” I don’t care if they enjoyed it, I’ll feel that I’ve fundamentally failed on some level.
Apart from a highly amusing scene involving a cute stuffed dog and some fireworks, Storage 24 is not a particularly good movie. It’s the kind of unremarkable movie that you probably won’t go and see and, regardless of whether its spread of reviews is slightly below or above average (currently mostly poor), it’ll never get the marketing behind it to find an audience. And no-one will particularly be missing out.
What intrigued me about this mostly cliched monster movie was that, despite the obviousness of the setup – people get locked in a storage locker, a random monster kills some of them and they try and escape – and notable lack of any interesting themes, story lines or visual flourishes, it still managed to break the mould of the traditional schlock horror in a couple of interesting ways. Firstly, the main character was a black male who was not remotely stereotyped in any way, shape or form. Played by Noel Clarke, better known as Mickey from Dr.Who, his character Charlie is very much a continuation of Clarke’s work on that show, since he’s notable only for being an average Joe in every way possible. He’s the kind of black guy I might actually happen to meet and know rather than the socially and economically deprived problem seen in The Wire. *shock*
The point is, for once, there’s no point. Clarke just happens to be a good actor for the role. (I like him. He has charisma)
Even more irrelevant is the female lead Shelley, a character with little screen presence who remained mostly unnoticed by me until she spectacularly failed to scream. After sticking a knife into a monster, running away and holing herself up into an elevator, Antonia Campbell-Hughes plays her character as realistically tense and nervous without opening her mouth in the way I’d come to expect she would at that point. It was a relatively successful scene and none the worse for the silence.
Both of these points are very minor and it’s not like we haven’t seen characters of these kinds in genre movies before. British horror cinema has in fairly recent years done a good job of portraying strong female leads in quality movies like The Descent or Triangle, but this instance stuck out to me because it wasn’t self consciously about women (and the movie wasn’t self-consciously about black people as was last years highly praised “Attack the Block”). I began to wonder if after a number of years of strong directors – from Ridley Scott to Tarantino, to Joss Whedon – making the point that women are far too strong and far too interesting as people in their own right to be routinely relegated to the scream-queen, that the message had finally started to filter through and is starting to be applied to regular genre cinema?
– Spoiler –
Another nice, unusual, touch occurred as the movie ended. Three of the cast survived and two of them happened to be women. One of those women, Shelley, had been morally promiscuous enough to cheat on Charlie with his best friend, and then to leave him upset after their 5 year relationship. Shelley didn’t jump back into Charlie’s arms after a “manly rescue” of her, she simply offered him a lift home, which he refused. This was another nice nod towards the idea that women have a complex emotional and sexual life and are no more to blame for the tough choices in life than men are. Shelley’s behaviour towards Charlie wasn’t amazing but she acknowledged the fault and the couple began to move on. In this movie, for once, she didn’t have to die for being a slut.
-End Spoiler –
On a more negative note, this is an independent British cinema release and not a mainstream US production. These attitudes filtering through to smaller movies is not necessarily indicative of a wider change and attitudes towards Black people have never beenm quite as hostile here as they have been in the States. Regardless, it was encouraging.
Sometimes I feel like I’m stagnating. Nothing feels fresh or new and every new movie or piece of pop culture is the same as the last. Whilst I continue to enjoy my constant headbutting with movies and literature I come away with the feeling that I’ve not challenged myself in any meaningful way. Whilst internet communities at large will have you believe that movie-watching is purely about “having fun”, I also like to think that there’s a positive purpose to it that involves pushing the envelopes of our understanding and bettering ourselves as people.
What I’m trying to say is that I need a new project and I’ve been struggling to find something that isn’t either overtly intellectual or too trashy, since both become a little tiring if overindulged. Today it dawned on me that for all my bluster about watching “foreign movies” I’ve slipped away from exploring new types of film in favour of catching up on Modern Hollywood classics. Having watched and admired the duo of Come Drink With Me and Golden Swallow these last two days I felt at home with the culturally unfamiliar again. I came across an excellent list of 100 Greatest Hong Kong movies from Timeout and was shocked at how many I hadn’t even heard of, letalone watched. Sure, I’ve seen Once Upon A Time in China and The Killer and In the Mood For Love and so on, but not a lot of the movies that never received arthouse attention in the west. Westerners have a tendency to be faddy about Eastern cinema, clinging onto the genre staples and discarding the non-popular, just as we do with our own movies. It also occurred to me that I’ve dipped in and out of Bollywood the last few years but never made an effort to watch the classic staples of Bollywood cinema, so I’m going to do that too. Totalfilm have published what I understand is a very flawed list of 50 greats, but I chose this one to watch through because it does at least dare to highlight movies from 1950-2010. I’ll brush up on the others when I’m done. There aren’t a lot of good Bollywood movie lists out there, though there’s a good looking book “100 Bollywood Films by Rachel Dwyer” that should help.
I’m excited by this 150 movie project because it’s going to mean a significant reduction in the amount of Western movies that I watch over the next couple of years (I’ll still be watching new releases at the cinema and I have a rom-com thing going on right now, too anyway). It’s also going to be a challenge to get hold of some of the films and the chase is just a little bit fun too! It’s not a feminism related movie project and I’m staggeringly not qualified to talk about the role of women in Chinese or Indian society and wouldn’t dare to. I will attempt to update my progress and throw out some recommendations when I encounter some good stuff though!
I found this quote relating to the status of Jess Franco’s (reasonably) well known Euro-arthouse sexploitation flick, Vampyros Lesbos, buried on an IMDB message board:
“This is a movie that film snobs will claim to like because of it’s “substance” Bull crap. This movie is just an attempt at titalation[sic] that falls flat on it’s face.”
It’s an interesting movie to watch because I was consciously aware of my own attitudes towards it as I was watching, given that I’m a male in a male-oriented society who enjoys gazing on pretty naked women a lot more than he probably should.. It’s probably as inevitable that any movie buff is going to eventually run into the work of Jesus Franco at some point as s/he is Russ Meyer, but equally as unlikely that the casual film viewer is going to encounter it unless – as I did when I was 16/17 – they happen to watch snippets on a late-night cable channel, inevitably getting bored when the realities of a title as promisingly titillating as “Vampyros Lesbos” can’t compare to the wondrous imagery it conjures within the imagination (pornography, soft or hardcore rarely can). Softcore sexploitation movies exist on the fringes of movie appreciation, some critics unfairly dismissing them as hollow and trashy, others overpraising them as beautiful, artistic and masterful. The above quote is a little strange since I’m not sure that there’s a cult of film snobbery around Franco’s work that’s remotely equivalent to Welles or Hitchcock and frankly I’ve never personally spoken to another film buff who rated Vampyros Lesbos as one of their favourite movies (as a contrast, Russ Meyer often gets a nod). Franco and Europeon Sexploitation movies do have a reasonable body of written work devoted to them now and interest is growing all the time as genre movies – beyond Hitchcock – become acceptable as art, but it remains a comparatively niche interest. Notably Quentin Tarantino is often cited as a Jess Franco fan and it’s not difficult to see why his movies appeal to his sensibilities.
It’s certainly true that Vampyros Lesbos does set out to titillate the viewer, so in that sense this quote is correct, but the writer also dismisses out of hand the idea that sexual titillation or titillating movies can be artistic or worthwhile on any level. It’s a sad fact that most movies featuring a level of eroticism tend to stoop to the lowest common denominator, descending to the depths of dull, routine, uninteresting film-making in order to satisfy the base desires of the market it wishes to exploit.(not that different from Hollywood then!) It’s very rare that I’ve bothered or been able to watch through a work of pornography in its entirety, even the more rated examples tend to be cinematic driftwood, and yet I didn’t find myself bored at all by Vampyros Lesbos, so it must have been doing something right to justify its position as a movie with some kind of substance beyond the titillating surface gloss. It’s probably not a “great” movie in the traditional sense of the word, it’s scrappy, messy, over-exuberant, a little silly and almost entirely without narrative sense or tension. It’s these faults that lead those looking for titillation only to think it a stupid movie because it’s a compelling central narrative that most casual movie fans are looking for. If anything, any attempt to watch Vampyros Lesbos should be made in the spirit of watching a David Lynch movie, only it doesn’t remotely come close to capturing the sense or spirit of Lynch’s twisted, bizarre dream-logic worlds.(Not that a movie made years before Eraserhead, from another culture, would be trying to, of course). But there’s a compelling consistency about the themes and imagery used in the movie that tie what we’re seeing together, and scenes of lesbian eroticism make sense within the context of the film, they’re not just thrown out there as the central focus of the viewing experience. They’re just a part of it.
Franco’s image of lesbianism in the movie ultimately falls within traditional boundaries . “lesbianism is titillating for men, but a little bit intimidating in reality” The central figure, the Countess Nadine – a lesbian who has turned from men, loathing them all because a man raped her – is a threat to the patriarchal society in which, lureing away Linda from her otherwise loving boyfriend with promises of lesbian lust and sexual abandonment. Ultimately her allure is rejected, she is killed and the threat contained, the danger of lesbianism rejected. I’ve always found it strange how men can both fantasise about and be afraid of lesbian love and this film clearly encapsulates this very classically masculine dilemma (which, isn’t to say that many women aren’t threatened by lesbianism either, or titillated by it). Yet, within the bounds of this framework, Franco still manages to question our assumptions towards what we’re seeing, driving the movie beyond the bounds of pornography, titillation and misogyny into interesting explorative areas.
The most intriguing – and erotic – moment in the movie is actually a reprise of a sequence that opens the movie. Repeating a scene that the viewer has already seen is in itself an unusual structural device, particularly within a trashy sexploitation flick, and so it’s quite clear that Franco’s intentions with this particular moment go beyond the expected and the predictable. The Vampire countess of the piece also happens to be a part-time strip-show dancer (of course! No, it’s never really explained!) and as the movie opens we see her dancing erotically with her partner, a static, lifeless model we wouldn’t believe real until she eventually moves, responding to the erotic caresses of the Countess Nadine. The intent of the opening scene is not, as it initially seems, just to show skin to the audience, but also for the audience to understand her erotic allure that Nadine has for Linda – a member of the audience – and why she is compelled to visit her on her island in ways that go beyond the classic Dracula “estate management” plot. Soledad Miranda’s performance is erotically alluring and the balance between stripshow and live sex show intriguingly maintained.
When the routine is repeated later in the film it initially feels gratuitous but it actually allow for the layers of complexity to be peeled back and gives the viewer an opportunity to understand the importance of this scene. One cannot but watch a scene such as this without thinking of Laura Mulvey’s arguments concerning the male gaze. That the sequence opens with Soledad Miranda studying her gaze in a mirror before writhing around in front of it seems particularly relevant:
“A male movie star’s glamorous characteristics are thus not those of the erotic object of the gaze, but those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror. The character in the story can make things happen and control events better than the subject/spectator, just as the image in the mirror was more in control of motor coordination. In contrast to woman as icon, the active male figure (the ego ideal of the identification process) demands a three-dimensional space corresponding to that of the mirror-recognition in which the alienated subject internalised his own representation of this imaginary existence. He is a figure in a landscape. Here the function of film is to reproduce as accurately as possible the so-called natural conditions of human perception. Camera technology (as exemplified by deep focus in particular) and camera movements (determined by the action of the protagonist), combined with invisible editing (demanded by realism) all tend to blur the limits of screen space. The male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action.”1
Again, Vampyros Lesbos was made before Mulvey wrote this article, but it’s striking how cleverly this sequence questions and reconstructs Mulvey’s psychoanalytic assumptions regarding the male gaze in cinema. Certainly the gaze of the camera in this movie is that of the male and it is squarely on the female throughout, and yet, whilst the narrative of the movie conforms to that male gaze regarding lesbianism this repeated scene also asks us to question the veracity of that very gaze by having Nadine self-consciously partake in her own gaze upon herself and to ultimately show her control of it. Thus, there are several levels of gaze within this scene. The audience of the movie watching the sex-show who cannot but be hyper-aware that this scene is staged for them and not the second level, the audience within the movie who are actually watching the live sex-show (whom the camera highlights by intermittently cuts back and forth to). The rhythmic, enticing soundtrack (now considered “retro, but actually quite sultry and superb) the lighting and camera angles all markedly point out the impossibility of this scene being nearly as erotic in the flesh as it is edited through the eyes of a camera lens. Finally, there’s Nadine herself consciously watching herself in her own show. It’s the existence of this level that questions the motivations of those other viewers.
If the mirror highlights her own self-consciousness, her awareness of both her own sexuality and her allure for the multiple audiences watching her, the other trappings of the show are designed to mock their expectations. As Nadine undresses she places her clothes back onto the naked doll-like figure in front of her, highlighting the female status as sexual plaything. An obvious symbol, the doll-girl is a helpless, ineffectual part of the show there to be used as seen fit by both her partner – now, as a sexually aware female, in a position of power – and also as a piece of lesbian titillation for her audience. The big twist reveal as the sequence is re-played is that after initially kissing and caressing the girl for her audiences, Nadine lays her down helpless and rips out her throat for all to see. The audience clap politely as they would any show. The movie audience responses probably range from joy at the kill to frustration that there’ll be no lesbian sex, having been aroused by the eroticism of the dance. It’s an amazing twist, the performer, the gazed-upon , is thoroughly in control of the gaze, undermining and frustrating their expectations.
The movie is not this intelligent throughout, but it shows a level of self-awareness and more importantly an imagination and interest in the potential of cinema way beyond a casual viewer’s expectations regarding softcore titillation, beyond the natural assumptions made by the male gaze itself. I did like the film because of its substance. If it’s only sporadically intelligent, at its worst it is thoroughly well made. With sparse dialogue and haunting imagery, the movie is driven by its compelling soundtrack and a beguiling performance from lead actress Soledad Miranda, and its a perfect example of why I often seek out the unusual, the sordid and movies that are made on the fringes of popular culture. It’s also a fantastic example of how female representations in cinema can surprise you in the most unlikely places and in the most unlikely ways.
1Mulvey, Laura. “ Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/MarkTribe/Visual+Pleasure+and+Narrative+Cinema (accessed May 2012), 1975
Batman Returns is one of my favourite Hollywood Blockbusters. This unusual fact usually surfaces amidst conversations about “favourite comic book movies” (on and offline) during which Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight efforts garner continual praise to the detriment of all else. I usually bring it up because us movie-buffs like to come across all quirky, different and smart. Generally, I find that people struggle to comprehend why I would prefer this 90s Tim Burton curio; a movie made in an age when budgets were comparatively low and the appeal of comic book franchises misunderstood by producers who would rather have been making action movies whether ever increasing explosive potential. In terms of marketability, one could argue that the Hollywood machine has improved itself tenfold in the intervening decades and it’s easy to see why Nolan’s Batman is a more appealing prospect to the casual moviegoer, delivering a much slicker, glossier portayal of the Dark Knight that’s – on the surface at least – edgier and full of the requisite action spectacle and oversized fireballs. Maybe I’m just being belligerent about this one but, personally, nothing about Nolan’s vision excites me, from the modern-day urban-grit makeover, to the facile 24 style anti-terrorist plots, to the uninspired flatly staged action scenes. According to most Batfans, Nolan’s is the best comic-book adaptation of all time, yet I can find nothing in these movies that is fascinated by its comic book sources and the films simply read to me as an uninspired extension of the Reaganite action movie, although it suffers by comparison from a lack of earnestness or gleefulness.
Batman Returns, on the other hand is a rare instance of a Hollywood Blockbuster that’s not even remotely interested in playing to type or delivering on a plate the straightforward good versus evil confrontation that would undoubtedly have been expected of it. Whereas his original, successful, Batman blockbuster had been almost entirely about Batman the hero, Batman the young boy who had to contend with and ultimately avenge his father’s death and – despite some nice touches – remains fairly sluggish, uninspired viewing, Batman Returns successfully veers off into a completely different and unexpected direction. In his own sequel Batman has to play second fiddle to not 1 but 3 other main characters each vying for centre stage. A frequent complaint of the movie I hear is that Batman is nothing but a sideshow in his own film; viewers wanted a movie about Batman and they wanted to see Batman being a hero and cool, after all we go to the movies to identify with the hero, right? In my eyes this turns out to be the movie’s major strength. Batman as a hero might be identifiable, but I don’t find him inherently all that interesting. It’s the possibilities of storytelling within his psychotically crazy universe that are interesting. Burton is clever enough to realise this and in writing Batman’s character as just ¼ of the story he’s able to give the audience a much more complex cast of villainy with a more interesting set of motivations than “they’re crazy” or “they’re a terrorist”, and more importantly he can create the space to allow that cast of villains to interact with and play off of one another. However, it’s important to note that this is not a character piece. To delve too intricately into the subconscious of heroes and villains who wear costumes, invent outlandish gadgets and conjure up nefarious schemes would be a terrible category mistake. One of Nolan’s big faux-pas is to misunderstand Batman entirely, trying to psychoanalyse him and re-contextualise him as a real world style hero, when in actual fact he’s a fantasy character who is best used representationally. For all its clever character interplay, Batman Returns sees its characters as symbols rather Freudian nightmares.
From the outset the movie signals its intent to subvert viewer expectation. Its fairytale beginnings – in which the baby Penguin is abandoned by his parents for being a grotesque, the credits rolling whilst his crib floats downstream and into the sewers where he’ll grow up – quickly give way to contrasting scenes of Max Shreck’s corporate villainy, a stagy, contrived affair that in any other film would simply be the cliched “capitalism gone bad” plotline if it weren’t for the fact that Burton uses its narrative drama to offset his other quasi-tragic-melodramtic villany, to set-up the themes of corporate patriarchy that dominate the movie, and to give Catwoman concrete motivation throughout and particularly in the climactic scene. By the time Shreck sends Selina Kyle to her first death we should realise that this movie is juggling ideas that normal blockbusters can’t manage to embody. The Penguin’s fairytale grotesquerie (I’m also tempted to read the Penguin as fallen aristocracy attempting to reclaim power), Shreck’s capitalist greed and Catwoman’s anti-patriarchal revenge narrative, three profoundly different and conflicting tropes existing side by side and vying for attention. It’s a unique and fascinating set-up since it creates a very real sense of inherent instability and chaos in a very fairytale-like surreal way, that stands in delightfully for real world chaos. Batman as hero is needed to step in, not to overcome any particular villain’s nefarious plans – the most we get there is Shreck’s doomed attempt to suck power out of Gotham with his new power plant -but to create some sense of order out of the chaos that’s created by these three confused villains attempting to exist in the same space. Of course, Batman himself is a member of the corporate patriarchy, and so, rather than seeing this as a story in which the hero will swoop in and save the day, one has to genuinely wonder if things will work out well. The movie doesn’t close with feelings of euphoria at Batman saving the day (there’s no “Gotham’s Knight” rhetoric beating us over the head), or even sadness at the tragedy of it all. Rather, the film ends with a sense of “WTF just happened?” that’s rarely replicated in blockbusters or American films in general. One is prompted not to leave the cinema enthused that Batman saved the day, or identifying with him as a great hero. One is led to ponder on his place and role amidst the chaos. I’m also prompted to think that this is why the film is still not a fan favourite.
Central to understanding the nature of the chaos within the movie is correctly understanding the role of Catwoman. Interpretations and discussions of Michelle Pfeiffer’s superb portrayal of the character tend to highlight her sexiness and guys tend to note her attractiveness as one of the high points of the film. It’s easy to read Catwoman as a straightforward symbol of “negative femininity” and her actions brought on by a rampant libido. In other words, she’s a sexed-up villainess who is there for the boys. This rather flat misinterpretation seems to have been allowed to stand as the movie faded from consciousness and became one of the less admired entries in Tim Burton’s filmography Certainly the tight black costume, the whip and the sexy demeanour all highlight that part of Selina Kyle’s character, but to read her in such a way ignores both the above context and the meaning behind her many brilliant scenes in the film.
In some ways Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal is simply iconic. Or at least it had every right to be. In one scene half way through the movie, the Catwoman signals her entrance onto the Gotham stage by terrorising a department store . “I don’t know whether to open fire or fall in love,” the overtly misogynist guards quip before being swiftly dealt with and shown the door. Following which she emerges into the street, somersaulting triumphantly into the presence of Batman and The Penguin, and mutters “miaow” before a devastating explosion brings the place down. Unlike the Joker in Nolan’s Batman, Catwoman isn’t simply out to cause chaos because she’s a random terrorist who maliciously hates the system. Catwoman’s mission may be ill-advised but it’s imbued with a certain logic; to disrupt the patriarchy that never gave her a chance. Catwoman is killed three times throughout the movie (prior to her final showdown with Shreck), each time by one of the main representative members of the patriarchy within the film.
Initially Selina Kyle is killed by Shreck. Before that she’s belittled by Shreck after she attempts to offer a suggestion at a board meeting “I’m afraid we haven’t properly housebroken Miss Kyle. In the plus column though, she makes a helluva cup of coffee”. The film couldn’t signal more clearly its negative views regarding the traditional relationship between the typical male corporate executive and the lowly female secretary. There are quite pointedly no other strong women present either. When Shreck finally pushes Selina out of a window and to her death it’s an obvious signal that this type of oppression is intended by people like him to follow women to their grave. Another interesting moment occurs when Selina arrives home and plays her answer machine messages. She’s shown as a struggling woman trying to make a career for herself in the city and her boyfriend breaks up with her via an answering machine “Dr.Shaw says I need to be my own person and not an appendage”. A cruel joke given that Selina clearly needs emotional support and another signifier that men find it all to easy to belittle women in this world When Shreck kills Kyle – because she wanted to be part of the patriarchy – he ignites within her the desire and the ability to do something about it, but she never really grasps exactly what it is she ought to be doing and it becomes embodied in rage, frustration and a petty desire for revenge. By the end of the movie Catwoman has made it her primary goal to kill Shreck, whose macabre version of the glass ceiling she sees as primarily responsible for her inability to succeed in life.
However, Catwoman is also symbolically killed by Batman and Penguin and she certainly harbours no love for either. During the rooftop fight scene in which they first meet as enemies a brief exchange highlights the male/feminine discourse going on in the movie. Catwoman mocks Batman as he kicks her down “how could you, I’m a woman” and gets a rather undignified, typically masculine response “I’m sorry, I, I ….” Unimpressed she kicks him in the stomach and throws him over a ledge “As I was saying, I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted.” She goes on to lose the fight and Batman rescues her from falling. It’s undoubtedly this moment that builds on a brief exchange earlier in the film, that fuels Catwoman’s personal rage towards Batman since she stabs him in the stomach as a reward. The protection of women by men has dominated Hollywood blockbusters throughout their history, but which few – even now – are prepared to tackle head-on. In Batman Returns, however, when Catwoman saves a woman from being mugged/raped, rather than graciously accepting the woman’s thanks she chastises her with an extraordinary speech. “You make it so easy don’t you, always waiting for some Batman to save you. I am Catwoman, hear me roar.” The girl looks understandably confused and distressed. Having been rescued by Batman earlier in the movie whilst simply still Selina Kyle, both these moments help us to get a picture of Catwoman’s own neuroses. Selina Kyle is am oppressed woman and Batman the hero, who saves helpless women, is part of that system of oppression and as Catwoman Kyle is beginning to understand that buying into the myth of this fairy tale hero is part of the reason she is unable to act and to take existential control over her own life. When Batman kills Catwoman at the end of the rooftop scene it embodies his failure – or the inappropriateness – of his becoming the chivalrous knight and protecting her.
Notions that Catwoman is an unbridled, uncomplicated sexpot have to be discarded when considering her scenes with the Penguin. Catwoman forms an uneasy alliance with Penguin – a character who is shown to represent unchecked masculine lust at numerous points throughout the film – in order to destroy Batman, but she’s not remotely interested in his grotesque schemes to garner power and status. She abhors wanton murder and she also abhors the wanton lust that he represents. During the scene in which the two meet up in Penguin’s sleeping quarters, she’s not only disgusted by his sexual advances but also more than capable of keeping them in check by both physically and emotionally threatening him. This leads to frustration and envy on the Penguin’s part and is the reason that he, also, ultimately “kills” her. Penguin kills the Catwoman because he literally can’t have her.
The terrific climax of the movie sees all three plot-lines coming to a head. The Penguin captures Max Shreck and releases his penguin bombs on the city in an act of revenge, since he’s realised that his “kind” will never be accepted or given political power. He simply can’t talk the talk that Shreck can (“Santa Claus, perhaps not, I’m just some poor Shmo who got lucky …” says Shreck to an enraptured audience). Catwoman meanwhile has realised that forming covert alliances with Penguin or Bruce Wayne is destined to failure and focuses her remaining energies on killing Shreck. Ultimately, Shreck’s Capitalist power-plays (involving manipulating Penguin and killing Kyle) have destabilised Gotham City to the point that not even the villains of the show can exist within the chaos that they’ve created, their only way out being their own suicide and the destruction of the orders that are repressing them. It’s Batman’s job to restore order, but he does a pretty terrible job at it. Hoping to send Shreck to prison and appease Catwoman’s feminine rage through appealing to her better nature. In the climactic scene he delivers a weighty speech and removes his mask revealing his “real” patriarchal capitalist alter-ego Bruce Wayne “Why are you doing this? Let’s just take him to the police, then we can go home …together. Selina don’t you see, we’re the same, split right down the centre” The Hollywood audience in us all expects Catwoman to somehow relent. Bruce Wayne seems reasonable. And Kyle is not ultimately a villain, and the fairy-tale ending would see her and Bruce Wayne living together happily ever after. Batman Returns, however, denies us the ending that we want or expect to see. Selina Realises that just because they’re both split down the middle, her and Batman are not “the same” Batman’s neuroses are brought on by his own personal trauma and the failures of his benevolent capitalism, Catwoman’s by the constant trauma of of the male oppression typified by those things. Batman’s persona is partly the cause. Her retort is bitter, but brilliant
“Bruce, I would love to live with you in your castle forever just like in a fairytale…. I just couldn’t live with myself, so don’t pretend this is a happy ending.” After which she goes on to kill Shreck and herself. Batman’s heroism or naivety doesn’t save the situation, even though the situation has temporarily resolved itself. The closing scene, however, provides a little hope. Batman, noticing that Catwoman may be alive with one life left, asks Alfred to stop the car so that he can investigate. Michael Keaton, probably the best character actor to have played Bruce Wayne, looks contemplative as he speaks his closing line “goodwill to all men … and women”. Has he learned something?
It’s a shame that Burton never returned to the Batman franchise. I have a fondness for Schumacher’s vibrant, colourful, playful outings, but they lack the intelligence or daring of Burton’s masterpiece. Nolan’s Batman cannot satisfy in the same way. Nolan’s fanbase seem to think that because there’s terror and chaos in Nolan’s Gotham that the movie is a dark and edgy affair. Nothing could be further from the truth since, like most Hollywood movies, it seeks to put that chaos away into a box and to wrap it up in traditional and comforting types (the writing for women in Nolan’s Batman movies, for instance is particularly atrocious). Burton’s Batman Returns is a rare example of a Hollywood blockbuster attempting to push the audience to its limits and to break the mould of what characters should and shouldn’t represent. As Whedon’s Avengers has just hit the big screen, looking conventional and dull by comparison – disappointingly so by Joss Whedon’s standards – watching Batman Returns is a timely reminder of what one can achieve in this medium, if one dares.