The Artist in Horror Cinema.

We all have an idea in our minds of what constitutes the “Artist”: a tormented, misunderstood outsider, compelled by an almost otherworldly drive to create. We recall images like those of Vincent van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with bandaged head, concealing the wound that resulted from severing his own left ear, or we envision the distorted figure of Edvard Munch’s magnum opus The Scream, it’s creator checking himself into a private sanitarium later in life after hearing voices. While these biographical details of Van Gogh and Munch are true and verifiable, this notion of the Artist as a mad, tormented genius is a cultural construction originating from the 19th-century Romantics, as described by scholar Pamela Fletcher in her Victorian Studies text Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century:

[Michael] Wilson’s title essay traces the myth of the artist as a unique genius, alienated from society both by his own commitment to the demands of his art and a philistine public’s inability to value or understand it. Wilson rightly notes that the idea of the artist as a melancholic genius dates back to the Renaissance, but he locates the full flowering of the myth in the Romantic era. — excerpt from “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century”, by Pamela M. Fletcher.

The Romantic era (approx. 1800-1850) reconfigured the artist as a tragic hero who, in the best case scenario, is a darkly brooding and cynical Byronic hero or, in the worst case, is a half-lunatic hermit who lives on the very fringe of society. Though most-assuredly a myth, this notion of the artist as a crazed — and possibly even dangerous — outsider has persisted even into the modern era.

The genre of horror is fed by our psychological and cultural fears. One of our collective fears is our fear of the Other: those individuals who, whether through a transgression of gender, physical deformity, or mental illness, deviate from the “norm” in terms of their appearance and/or behaviour. (See my previous series of posts on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, which addresses the topic of women as the Other). These types of individuals tend to make the majority anxious, and therefore they are ideal to occupy the role of the “monster” in horror fiction. Given the Romantic notion of the “mad artist”, it’s hardly surprising that artists have served in this role of the feared Other in horror cinema. Below are a few examples of horror films that have featured visual artists in such roles.

Film still from "Blind Beast" (1969

Film still from “Blind Beast” (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura).

1. Blind Beast (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura) is a masterpiece of ero guro nansensu from Japan that is based on a story by Edogawa Rampo. A blind sculptor kidnaps a beautiful young model and takes her back to his home to act as his model and muse. He and his mother live in a warehouse which he’s transformed into a surreal sculptural installation of giant body parts, dedicated mainly to the female form. At first, the model only wants to escape from this bizarre scene, but eventually she succumbs to his strange vision and even surpasses his obsession. In true ero guro style, they develop a curiously erotic, sadomasochistic relationship that eventually leads to the crazy, horrific and over-the-top violent finale. Below is the entire film posted on Youtube, though regrettably it lacks English subtitles. Worth watching, if only for its beautiful and bizarre visuals — such as the two protagonists cavorting atop a giant (foam rubber) sculpture of a reclining female nude.

2. As an artist myself, I can fully understand the urge to find the exactly correct hue for a project. On many occasions I’ve paid a princely sum for tubes of Cadmium Red paint because, well, no other pigment is as brilliantly, intensely red (the toxicity of the metal cadmium notwithstanding). Hershell Gordon Lewis, the notorious exploitation-film director who singlehandedly created the splatter-gore film, used this notion of the dangerously obsessive artist to splatter his signature gore in Color Me Blood Red (1965).

"Color Me Blood Red" (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis.

“Color Me Blood Red” (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis).

Artist Adam Sorge struggles to find critical and commercial success when he accidently discovers that blood smeared across his canvas provides his paintings with the vibrancy they previously lacked. This discovery provides the rationale for Sorge (and Lewis) to bloodily dispatch a couple of bikini-clad beauties in this lesser offering from Lewis’s “Blood Trilogy”. Low-budget and poorly acted (Lewis often relied on non-actors), what this film lacks in craft, it makes up for with its campy, rough-hewn B-movie charm. You can watch the entire, uncut film on Youtube. Considering that it was made in 1965, it truly is subversively gory.

3. Cauldron of Blood (1970) is a terrible film. That said, I kinda have a soft spot for it. Also known under the title Blind Man’s Bluff, it was cobbled together over a few years, repurposing footage from different films. One reason for this cinematic mess is the fact that its star Boris Karloff was in very poor health, and couldn’t appear in a number of scenes (he died in 1969, before its release). Thus, its creators were obliged to pad the film with previously shot footage. Karloff appears frail and sadly diminished — but even a diminished Karloff is still pretty good. Here’s the short synopsis from IMDB: “A blind sculptor works on his magnum opus unaware that the skeletons he has been using for armatures are the remains of the victims of his evil wife and that he is the next target”.

Again, the entire film is available on Youtube (one assumes distribution companies don’t care about these older films). My advice is to forward to the 1:27 mark and watch the final showdown between Karloff and his gloriously evil wife, where she meets her comeuppance in a vat of acid.

Nostalgic for sleaze, part III: more grisly than ever in Blood Color!

Print advertisement for Herschell Gordon Lewis’s splatter-gore classic, “Blood Feast.” (1963).

Sex sells. So, evidently, does violence. When the two are paired together and offered up as a form of “extreme” entertainment, the results can be problematic. Throughout the horror genre, as well as within exploitation cinema, the naked bodies of young women are displayed, initially to arouse, and then to be victimized by violence. But why? Granted, there is a small segment of any population that are sexual sadists, and by which I mean truly pathological individuals and not your garden-variety, suburban married couple who dabble in spanking and other types of weekend sadomasochism. But this type of individual is not the norm, and is certainly not indicative of the fan base for horror & exploitation cinema. Most horror geeks — and I include myself in this grouping — are people who have a taste for that which is not typically found in mainstream, non-genre entertainment: the shocking, the trashy, the absurd and the downright nasty. These are also the mainstays of that close relative to horror, the exploitation film. Exploitation films of the 1970’s competed with each other over an ever-shrinking audience at drive-ins and grindhouse theatres, and this competition resulted in a kind of oneupmanship in terms of sex, violence and gore. Advertisements tantalized by promising the most shocking, the most sickening, and the most racy content available at a cinema.

The average consumer of horror and exploitation films in the 1970’s was young and male. The majority of men like to view attractive women in states of undress, and if they are horror/exploitation fans, they also have a taste for gore and violence. Hence, sexualized violence towards women — like the naked torture victims in nunsploitation, naziploitation, and WIP (Women in Prison) films —  became an accepted, and even expected, feature in these films. I rather suspect, though, that the male audience that flocked to see Pam Grier play a sadistic lesbian prison warden in Women in Cages were more interested in the physical attributes of Grier and her onscreen cohorts than the plights of the prison inmates.

However, this “boys will be boys” explanation doesn’t let either the filmmakers, the producers, nor it’s audience off the hook that easily. One can’t help but draw a parallel between the social changes propelled forward by Second Wave Feminism of the late-1960’s and 1970’s and the corresponding cinematic “backlash” against women in exploitation films. The same could be argued for the equally controversial blaxploitation film for its reinforcing of negative racial stereotypes at a time in history when the civil rights movement had advanced equality for African-Americans. Do I think there was some organized conspiracy against gender equality amongst B-movie filmmakers? No, of course not. The Roger Cormans of the world cared about bums-in-seats in movie theatres, not sociopolitical agendas. One thing that exploitation cinema has certainly never promised to be is politically-correct or enlightened — in fact, the inverse is often true. However, there is an undeniably strong anti-feminist ethic to many of the aforementioned films, best characterized as a “who the hell does she think she is? Let’s teach her a lesson” response to the burgeoning political power of women in the 1970’s.

“Tokyo Gore Police” stars Eihi Shiina as a member of Tokyo Police who exterminates creepy mutants, ninja-style.

You might now be asking yourself the question: why does Lady Lazarus, a woman and professed feminist, enjoy watching exploitation films? Well, apart from enjoying the trashy, campy fun of it all, it is only in the speculative fiction of horror, science fiction & fantasy that women can truly stand in equal footing with men — and by “equal footing”, I mean in terms of physical strength and prowess. Female characters can be imbued with superhuman strength, have magical powers, be kick-ass ninjas or fight off the zombie hordes. For every repellently misogynistic film like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974), you have the blood-drenched, splatter-gore lunacy of Tokyo Gore Police (2008), a contemporary Japanese horror-exploitation film with a sword-wielding female protagonist. While this film is replete with very disturbing and sexually-charged body horror imagery — most notable being a headless ‘human chair‘ — I did not sense the same level of sadism targeted specifically at women as I did in the Ilsa film. Everyone in Tokyo Gore Police — men, women, chairs — gets the slice ‘n’ dice treatment.

Take that, Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Mother’s Day REPOST: “Your mother ate my dog!”

“Definition of  Freudian slip: when you say one thing, but meant your mother.” –an old joke, as immortalized in Urban Dictionary.

Ever since the days of Sigmund Freud, mothers have endured the brunt of blame for the neuroses of their offspring. The psychologically-complex relationship between mother and child served as the dramatic foil against which the existential angst of Shakespeare’s melancholic Hamlet played out, not to mention innumerable tales of dysfunctional families in horror fiction. There are countless examples of horror movie villains, like Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series, who have a rather intense and, um, complicated relationship with their mother. In these films, the character of the mother is the creator — both literally and metaphorically — of the monster. Let’s honour Mother’s Day by paying homage to the most memorable mothers in cinematic horror.

Margaret White (Piper Laurie) presses her traumatized daughter against her "dirty pillows" in De Palma's "Carrie."

1. The abusive Margaret White (Piper Laurie) from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) torments her teenage daughter with her ferocious piety. Unfortunately for Mrs. White, her daughter happens to possess telekinetic powers and a strong desire to attend her high school prom. When the latter proves disastrous, and Carrie finds herself soaked in pigs blood, things go from bad to worse. Convinced that she is “possessed by Satan,” Margaret stabs her daughter in the back before being summarily dispatched by a shower of kitchen knives flung at her by Carrie’s telekinesis. The knives pin Mrs. White against the kitchen door frame in the highly appropriate cruciform stance, offering horror fans one of the most memorable and satisfying death scenes in the genre.

Vera "Mum" Cosgrove gets bitten by the nasty Sumatran Rat-Monkey in Peter Jackson's "Braindead".

2. Long before he ventured into the realm of Orcs and Hobbits, New Zealand director Peter Jackson was much beloved in the horror genre for his “splatter” films. His infamous 1992 horror-comedy Braindead (released in North America as Dead Alive) still holds the title for being one of the bloodiest, goriest zombies films to date. Even highly adept and accomplished splatter-gore directors like Takashi Miike don’t quite attain Jackson’s zany, hilarious, and way over-the-top levels of gore. As if in counterbalance to the excessive gore, Jackson’s Braindead offers an equally excessive character in Vera Cosgrove. She epitomizes the thoroughly controlling, ball-busting mother who simply cannot allow potential happiness to enter the life of her beleaguered son. Once “Mum” is bitten by the Sumatran Rat-Monkey and infected with the virus that transforms her into a zombie, Jackson revels in the sadistic pleasure of having various parts of her matronly body impaled, injected, dismembered, consumed, and otherwise compromised. Packed with many memorable quotes, including “I kick ass for God!” and, one of my favourites, “Your mother ate my dog!”, Braindead is a gloriously gory, campy romp. Just don’t watch it soon after eating.

Nola (Samantha Eggers) gives her newborn a clean -- with her tongue -- in Cronenberg's "The Brood."

3. Procreation doesn’t get more bestial than in David Cronenberg’s 1979 Canadian horror classic The Brood. Samantha Eggars (best known for her role as TV-mom to Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Nola Carveth, a mentally-ill patient who opts for an experimental, and highly controversial, psychotherapy treatment. This unorthodox  “psychoplasmics” treatment causes the patient’s mental illness to manifest physically on their bodies — in the case of Nola, she parthenogenetically births strange, mutated children. This film has all the themes that typify a Cronenberg film: abjection, body horror, bizarre sexuality, and an anxiety/horror over female biology and reproduction. A degree of sympathy exists for Nola, as she’s evidently the victim of childhood abuse perpetrated by her cruel and self-centred mother, although this sympathy soon diminishes once it is revealed that Nola is, herself, abusing her daughter Candice. The ‘birthing’ scene, where Nola licks her offspring clean in the manner of a mother cat, is classic Cronenberg.

“Your mother ate my dog!”: Lady Lazarus’s favourite ‘Mommies of Horror’.

“Definition of  Freudian slip: when you say one thing, but meant your mother.” –an old joke, as immortalized in Urban Dictionary.

Ever since the days of Sigmund Freud, mothers have endured the brunt of blame for the neuroses of their offspring. The psychologically-complex relationship between mother and child served as the dramatic foil against which the existential angst of Shakespeare’s melancholic Hamlet played out, not to mention innumerable tales of dysfunctional families in horror fiction. There are countless examples of horror movie villains, like Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series, who have a rather intense and, um, complicated relationship with their mother. In these films, the character of the mother is the creator — both literally and metaphorically — of the monster. Even though Mother’s Day is still several months away, let’s pay homage to the most memorable mothers in cinematic horror.

Margaret White (Piper Laurie) presses her traumatized daughter against her "dirty pillows" in De Palma's "Carrie."

1. The abusive Margaret White (Piper Laurie) from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) torments her teenage daughter with her ferocious piety. Unfortunately for Mrs. White, her daughter happens to possess telekinetic powers and a strong desire to attend her high school prom. When the latter proves disastrous, and Carrie finds herself soaked in pigs blood, things go from bad to worse. Convinced that she is “possessed by Satan,” Margaret stabs her daughter in the back before being summarily dispatched by a shower of kitchen knives flung at her by Carrie’s telekinesis. The knives pin Mrs. White against the kitchen door frame in the highly appropriate cruciform stance, offering horror fans one of the most memorable and satisfying death scenes in the genre.

Vera "Mum" Cosgrove gets bitten by the nasty Sumatran Rat-Monkey in Peter Jackson's "Dead/Alive".

2. Long before he ventured into the realm of Orcs and Hobbits, New Zealand director Peter Jackson was much beloved in the horror genre for his “splatter” films. His infamous 1992 horror-comedy Braindead (released in North America as Dead Alive) still holds the title for being one of the bloodiest, goriest zombies films to date. Even highly adept and accomplished splatter-gore directors like Takashi Miike don’t quite attain Jackson’s zany, hilarious, and way over-the-top levels of gore. As if in counterbalance to the excessive gore, Jackson’s Braindead offers an equally excessive character in Vera Cosgrove. She epitomizes the thoroughly controlling, ball-busting mother who simply cannot allow potential happiness to enter the life of her beleaguered son. Once “Mum” is bitten by the Sumatran Rat-Monkey and infected with the virus that transforms her into a zombie, Jackson revels in the sadistic pleasure of having various parts of her matronly body impaled, injected, dismembered, consumed, and otherwise compromised. Packed with many memorable quotes, including “I kick ass for God!” and, one of my favourites, “Your mother ate my dog!”, Braindead is a gloriously gory, campy romp. Just don’t watch it soon after eating.

Nola (Samantha Eggers) gives her newborn a clean -- with her tongue -- in Cronenberg's "The Brood."

3. Procreation doesn’t get more bestial than in David Cronenberg’s 1979 Canadian horror classic The Brood. Samantha Eggars (best known for her role as TV-mom to Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Nola Carveth, a mentally-ill patient who opts for an experimental, and highly controversial, psychotherapy treatment. This unorthodox  “psychoplasmics” treatment causes the patient’s mental illness to manifest physically on their bodies — in the case of Nola, she parthenogenetically births strange, mutated children. This film has all the themes that typify a Cronenberg film: abjection, body horror, bizarre sexuality, and an anxiety/horror over female biology and reproduction. A degree of sympathy exists for Nola, as she’s evidently the victim of childhood abuse perpetrated by her cruel and self-centred mother, although this sympathy soon diminishes once it is revealed that Nola is, herself, abusing her daughter Candice. The ‘birthing’ scene, where Nola licks her offspring clean in the manner of a mother cat, is classic Cronenberg.