Like being strapped into an amusement park ride, sitting in the darkness as a horror movie begins there is a mixture of giddy fun and an often embarrassing dread of what we are submitting ourselves to — will it be a fun rush of the senses or a stomach churning sort of emotional litmus test?
Does the rollercoaster that tilts and sends on a loop turing us upside down at a high speed offer more fun than one limited to fast turns with slow accents followed by forced down hill trajectory offer more satisfaction?
The answer is subjective. There is no right or wrong.
But what is it about some horror films that not only frighten us, but linger long after the house lights come back up? Most horror films offer a quick intensity that leaves us fairly quickly. Sometimes, however, a horror film comes along that offers something a bit more jolting. The kind of jolt that leaves us entertained, afraid, shocked and unsettled. This is the sort of jolt that comes back to haunt us as we try to fall asleep or walk down a dark corridor.
In 1965 Roman Polanski delivered a new sort of horror film. Repulsion shocked audiences upon initial release. It still upsets many. Why? Catherine Deneuve plays Carol. A beautiful but seemingly perpetual daydreamer who discovers that she is to be left all alone in the large apartment she shares with her older sister. What happens to Carol and those who venture into this apartment while the sister is out on a brief holiday is more than unexpected, it is lethal. Carol is not a daydreamer, she is clearly suffering with some sort of emotional problem. Is this an issue related to some form of sexual trauma? Is this mental illness? Is this some form of depressive exhaustion? What is wrong with Carol?
Repulsion wastes no time in establishing something clearly: the camera’s perspective is simply off. We are following Carol through her mundane life as a beautician, then walking through the streets of London and finally at the apartment she shares with her sister. Roman Polanski and Cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, carefully set each shot from strange angles. As the film progresses, the camera’s perceptions become more odd. We are seeing reality through Carol’s perception of it. As Deneuve’s character slips into reality filled with threat and menace, we are not entirely sure if what we are seeing can be trusted.
Surely those are not arms slipping out of the walls to grab and molest Carol. Right? Or have we just entered some twisted sort of paranormal horror? Before long the audience comes to understand that we are witnessing a psychotic break. A break that slips so far into the darkest corner of human psyche that no one is safe. Repulsion stays with the viewer.
But the threat filled menace of human perception would take on a far more ambiguous stance in Polanski’s 1968 horror masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby.
At first glance or after an audiences’ first viewing, this would appear to be a full-on exorcise in Satanic horror at it’s most dire. An innocent woman has been set up to procreate with The Devil and deliver The Anti-Christ. As Rosemary’s life in her new home begins she is faced with a creepy basement laundry room, the death of a new friend and an uncomfortable forced friendship with nosey and eccentric neighbors.
Polanski and Cinematographer, William A. Fraker, begin to establish an interesting camera perspective almost as soon as Rosemary and her husband move into their new apartment. The use of cinematography is not immediately noticeable, but it is there from the beginning.
Halls and doorways take on a suspicious and curious perspective. As Rosemary’s paranoia and fears begin to mount, the audience becomes pulled into a literal sort of maze of unanswered perspective. The first of Fraker’s shots that really grabs our attention is the use of Rosemary’s front door peephole. Ruth Gordon’s Minnie Castevet is truly iconic movie character. At first comical, then slightly annoying — and slowly she shifts to something altogether horrifying. When Rosemary looks out her peephole, we gain a distorted perception of Minnie that is warped and unsettling. She no longer looks like the kooky old bat next door. She looks suspicious and vaguely reminiscent of a clown. Not the kind of clown at whom you might laugh, the sort that would make you pull your child back and avoid at all costs.
A building suicide, nosy people and a dear friend’s creepy stories related to the old building which contains her new apartment — Rosemary is understandably more than a little shaken. But after the wacky Minnie creates two cups of chocolate “mouse” for Rosemary and her husband, she finds the taste feature an unpleasant aftertaste. Her husband almost becomes angry that she doesn’t want to eat it. She only eats a bit. Soon she is feeling drugged. Once again slightly tilting the perspective, Rosemary passes out.
We are then brought into Rosemary’s dreams. We have already been here briefly before when she dreams of a childhood incident with a Catholic Nun yet hears the annoying banter of her odd neighbors, Minnie and Roman. Their voices take the place of the Nun’s. But this time Rosemary’s dream is far more articulated and disturbing. She dreams of a sort of sexual ritual wherein all of the old neighbors of her building are standing around her bed.
They are nude. Suddenly a demonic animal is running it’s claws across her body. Rosemary is in dream state. She observes and follows instructions without objection. But suddenly, she is alarmed and seems to have awoken.
“This is no dream! This is really happening!”
But then she does wakes up and it is the next morning. She is nude and she has long scratches across her back. She quickly realizes that her husband has ravished her in what is an inappropriate sexual encounter. Filmed in 1967, while her character feels her husband has raped her, she pushes this feeling down. But we can tell Rosemary almost hopes it was all just a bad dream rather than face the fact that her husband had her while she was passed out ill. Alas, this is not an option for Rosemary. Her husband has violated her. Trauma much?
William A. Fraker’s masterful camerawork continues to pull us back. Perceptions are never quite right again. in one of the cinema’s best shot scenes, Ruth Gordon’s Minnie rushes to Rosemary’s bedroom to phone Manhattan’s top Obstetricians. From a filmmaking perspective, this entire scene is one elegant and fascinating manipulation of the medium. Faker’s camera only allows us to see a bit of Minnie as she makes this call. I dare a viewer of this film on a big screen to successfully fight the urge to tilt his/her head to see what is going on in Rosemary’s bedroom.
Masterful and perplexing: we are now officially and fully immersed in Rosemary’s paranoia.
The truly magical aspect that has helped Rosemary’s Baby to not only remain valid but alarmingly disturbing is the fact that perception of reality is so skewed that we are never fully certain that Rosemary’s paranoia is valid. Upon the first viewing of Polanski’s film, one is likely to walk away with a bit of a chuckle that Rosemary was quite right: She has given birth to The Anti-Christ. All we saw was true.
All of them were witches united to trick Rosemary into being fucked by Satan.
If one watches Rosemary’s Baby again, and watches it a bit closer — something odd emerges.
This creeping idea is one of the reasons this film is a true cinematic masterpiece that refuses to go away from our subconscious. At no point in this horror film is the validity of Rosemary’s paranoia and fear fully confirmed. As the movie pulls us into the final act of the story, the question of whether or not what we are seeing is “correct” or “real” is brought into question. This could all be a fever dream of exhausted and terrified human psyche. Rosemary’s world has been rocked enough to understand how her perceptions of reality might be pushed into subversion.
Her husband has essentially raped her while sick, this results in a pregnancy. Hormones surging and her choices and opinions constantly challenged — she soon finds herself in a great deal of pain. Everything in Rosemary’s reality has derailed. Death and darkness seem to envelope her. Her husband is distracted by new career opportunities and possibly some guilt. Whatever the cause he is distant.
Rosemary feels trapped. She must escape. She runs away to her original first choice Obstetrician. A very pregnant woman carrying a heavy suitcase on a record-setting hot Manhattan day arrives to this younger and far more modern doctor’s office. She insists he “save” her and her baby. She spouts a rant about Satanic witches and elaborate plans to harm both her and her baby. She pulls out an old book on the supernatural. The doctor calms her down. She finally relaxes and her official Minnie-hired Obstetrician arrives with her frustrated husband to take her home.
But, she did seem to slip into a dream prior to the “betrayal” of the young doctor.
As we enter the final act of the movie, how reliable is Rosemary’s perception? Every single thing is from her perspective?
Is Rosemary’s reality real? Is this a perspective we can believe and trust?
There is no clear answer to be found in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. We will never know for sure if she has delivered The Anti-Christ “To 1966! The year One.”
This level of unresolved tension doesn’t even need to fully register for the viewer to pick-up on it at some level. The truth of what we see is questionable. Rosemary’s perception (as well as our own) has been altered and put into a state of limited and distorted vision.
What is scarier? The reveal that human fear and paranoia is fully validated or the understanding that we are simply unsure. The fear and paranoia remain unresolved.
For years I used to debate this opinion with friends. Everyone seemed split down the middle. Some felt I, myself, was reading too much into the movie. Others agreed.
Finally I was validated when Roman Polanski himself stated that his goal was to present a depiction of human perception skewed to leave the audience wondering if Rosemary was seeing the “truth” or imagining some grand conspiracy.
Warning: TO AVOID ANY SPOILERS RE: TO THE FILM, LYLE, DO NOT READ FURTHER.
Which brings me to Stewart Thorndike’s 2014 but newly-released film, Lyle. As much a tribute to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as it is a low-fi re-working of the same sort of diabolical idea, Thorndike and her Cinematographer, Grant Greenberg, have created an intense psychological horror film. Or so we might think…
Greenberg’s camerawork is simple, yet carefully articulated. Like William A. Franker, he has paid close attention to perception. Doorways, large open-spaces, halls and angles are all designed to make us look closely. Visual information is provided in a suspect manner. More than a few times in this tightly-edited film, we want to see beyond the boundaries established by Greenberg.
Also of great credit to both he and the film’s director/writer, Stewart Thorndike, Lyle features the best use of a Skype-like call I have ever seen. Limiting the audience view to the shared computers’ perceptions is a brilliant device.
As any sensible film-buff would expect, Gaby Hoffmann is brilliant in the film’s leading role. As the mother, Leah, Hoffmann delivers a perfectly nuanced and powerful turn toward hope, grief, fear, paranoia, panic, sheer horror, desperation and ultimately rage. Unlike Mia Farrow’s passive Rosemary, there is nothing oppressed about Gabby Hoffman’s Leah. A devoted wife and mother, she fully embraces her role in the family. She also places correct value to her identity and worth.
Yet she senses something “removed” or “distant” regarding her wife. Played by Ingrid Jungermann, June is appears to be the family provider. One gets the feeling that June is either ambivalent about parenting or is deeply upset that the newly pregnant Leah is carrying a girl child. June was clearly hoping for a little boy, but her frustration is both uncomfortable and suspicious.
Moving into a swank new Brooklyn apartment, Leah loves their new home. She does not love the new landlord. Rebecca Street is the only other actor in this film who can rival Hoffmann’s skills. Street is cast in a role that is somewhat similar to Ruth Gordon’s Minnie. Excepting that Street’s Karen is quite a bit younger. Younger, but not young. Leah is immediately concerned to discover that her landlady who she suspects is entering her 60’s claims to be trying to get pregnant. In fact, before long Leah (and the audience) catch limited glimpses of Karen pregnant and then not but expressing milk through her top.
Like Rosemary, Leah is constantly having to re-evaluate her perception of reality. After suffering the loss of her firstborn child, she is aware that the loss of Lyle has caused an understandably confused and disoriented emotional chain of reactions. As the circumstances around Lyle’s accidental death grow more suspicious to her and as she discovers increasingly worrying information about her home and the people who live in and near it — Leah becomes more than a little paranoid. To Stewart Thorndike’s credit, this film packs a great deal of suspense and tension.
Running just a little over an hour in length, Lyle does not let the audience down. The film is encaging, disturbing, creepy and solidly entertaining. The only issue I noted with this sinister little movie is the director’s decision to fully resolve the paranoia and fears of the lead character. At the moment we discover the validity of the mother’s fears and the fact that she has not been paranoid, the horror of Lyle becomes mutedly blunt. All answers are resolved and Leah is left to do what she must in an attempt to save her child. While Lyle is a potent little film, it loses his grip by giving us too much.
To what point has Grant Greenberg’s cinematography served? Do we feel relieved or all the more dire that Leah’s darkest fears turn out to be true? Lyle leaves the audience with an uncertain future for Leah, but there is no articulated logic to the dark pact with Evil for career success. It isn’t clear.
The aspects of the paranoia that are not fully revealed or explained leave a sort of emotional hole where a cinematic “pay-off” should have been. The intention is unclear, but not the human perspective. In what felt like the shaping of horror reveals itself to be more aligned with a taught thriller minus logic.
Unlike Polanski and Frakers’ manipulation of paranoia and character perspective, Lyle has teased the audience. And the emotional result is one of frustration. Lyle is not likely to scare the audience. Instead it plunges us further into darkness without any room for ambiguity. Stewart Thorndike is a flimmaker with a a strong future ahead of her. She has a great deal of skill in telling her story. But the question for me remains, is it more effective to bring a story of paranoia and human fear to fully articulated explanation or better to limit the audiences’ ability to fully know? From my perspective, Lyle gives an unsatisfying ending.
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is an example of a horror film that leaves the audience unsure. Alex R. Johnson’s Two Step fits more toward Thorndike’s Lyle. However, Alex R. Johnson’s film is not intended as a horror film as much as a modulated thriller that escalates far beyond audience anticipation. Within that mode of operation, a fully resolved ending makes sense.
Perhaps the best example of current cinema that illustrates the idea of ambiguity is Alex Ross Perry’s polarizing examination of identity and insanity, Queen of Earth.
While this film may not be a straight-up horror film, it does depict the most horrific aspect of being human: Insanity. The idea of not knowing when what is perceived is “reality” or “delusion” is oddly effective. Much like Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston will be forever stuck in a sort of nightmarish mire of rage, distrust and warped perspective.
We do not have all the pieces of their puzzles.
It pulls us further into the ideas of the films.
Most of all, these stories of human frailty, fear and possibly insanity stick with us. The ambivalence sears into our shared subconscious.
Life is a mystery and is forever full of “WTF” moments. It is in those moments where we are least sure and are forced to go into “full alert” that the uncertainty of our realities become the most worrying.
In a strange way, Roman Polanski’s Art Horror remind us of life.
They jolt us into the present of our mind. And we are forever a bit unsure.
Matty Stanfield, 10.1.15