Gray paintings in modern horror: the role of abstraction in Devils of Darkness (1964) and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).

Rev., June 20, 2015.

In the not bad 1964 Brit movie, The Devils of Darkness, it occurs to one that abstract painting is being used to communicate some tacit messages below the surface of consciousness. When the male lead is invited to an antique dealer’s swinging party, the room is what you might call a “hoot,” as it characterizes, at least to an outsider, the jazzy, exotic, druggy, sexed up atmosphere of a swinging beatnik almost hippie party. The party scene includes African art, which in modern horror signifies menace, and a wonderfully odd lamp, odd lamps always signaling having just stepped out of one’s comfort zone.

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The African art also coincided with an aura of voodoo, and exoticism verging on the occult, and in this party it comes alive as not only a bongo drum, but a big one, big enough to dance on, which is visually enticing to the outsider, the epitome of the “wild party” as a milieu engendering outofcontrolness and therefore leading to evil

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The wallpaper, a white leaf pattern on black, also signifies jazziness, and one has to also notice that behind Brit actress Tracy Reed in this shot is a ceramic, which would mean nothing except that it appears to represent Bastet, and in horror this god and its origins always represents the presence of evil.

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I make this supposition based on the fact that previously, in her antique shop, it was seen that the dealer does indeed traffic in Bastet statues, the currency of evil.

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But having set the stage for an exploration of how art was enlisted in modern horror to signify evil, a left turn is to be made, because there is one other type of art on the walls, exemplifying wildness and withitness, and that is abstract painting. From this shot, it would appear that the slashes and splashes of abstract art in the background simply shadow and therefore give filmic depth to the draping of bodies while dancing all over each other, and even, highly inappropriately, making out, heavily, while dancing, that is, it simply signifies, in the popular or niche-horror mind, wildness

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But there is also another type of abstraction, less easily represented. In this sequence, the painting that surprised and interested the most, as communicating on a deeper level of visual silence, was the innocuous gray abstract painting in back of Tracy Reed in this shot

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This image might also be reinforced by the use of full wall curtains. This was an art gallery convention through the 1950s, and apparently migrated into rooms in the 1950s and 1960s. Its possible it was the forerunner of the white cube as a device to separate and isolate art from life, to enhance its concentrated appreciation, but then the motif drifted into horror to represent the occult theatricality or danger of life on the other side. In any case, It offers a second screen inside the movie screen, it also allows for, since day one in horror, people to hide behind it, and, here, it signifies an entire scene that is in many ways a charade, a camoflague, a cypher experience where all the truth is hidden. This is figured out in person by Tracey Reed herself, who comes to the party in sunglasses and a dark hood, and remains standoffish and enticing at the same time throughout. She is introduced to the quester by the host antique dealer, who, it is obvious in retrospect, is hosting a lesbian-saturated party. What then does such a grey painting, as I will call them, mean? This type of abstraction represented the complete effacement of appearance and surface, and the making it impossible to tell what was going on. It signifies that nothing that meets the eye is real, and that all of this is deception.

I was startled by this notion, because in another movie of the period, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), the last story is also all about deception, and the surface ostensible events of the story having nothing to do with the truth of what is really going on. The amazing thing about this telling, formally, is that it is forever seeking return to gray scale, and it seeks to reduce horror once again, as in a silent movie, to shadow play. All the walls are gray, in classic Hammer style, and all the art is gray. It is a gray area. This can mean exactly what this expression means, as a grey area would be any ancillary or annexation space crawling around the outside of the real, in more haunted and depleted zones. Hammer made use of grey in its it’s most classic representations of the palliative space of the undead, between life and death, from Dracula’s castles to backstage at the Phantom of the Opera’s opera house. But here, it is another grey painting, that, like a quote mark over a turned back, shouts to us, but in a voice muffled by the hand of the director, he is lying, this is deceit.

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In the field of art, an abstraction in the modern period either served as an agent for mental transportation to a higher spiritual realm, in the spiritual tradition from Kandinsky on, or it was reduced to a visual game of chess played between the in-itself elements of the surface, center and support, or the front, middle and back, as manipulated by the expertise of the artist, inside the artist’s mind, and then in viewing the viewer simply steps into the artist’s space, and either gets it or does not. It was basically the artist having an in-itself entirely self-contained and self-determined and contained visual experience, and translating it intramurally such that the viewer could then step in and experience the same.

There is no way that actual abstraction exists in movies: in movies abstraction is reduced to a property in the background of a drama set in a designed and art directed set, and is thus a subordinated property with visual clues that can direct the action and given 3 D meaning to a 2D image. The viewer of the movie watches the whole mis en scene, and then, at the back of it, an abstract painting plays the role of a visual aid. In this capacity, abstraction is not modern abstraction, but modern abstraction seen by others in a field outside of art, and willfully misread as representing something else, or characterizing the world it comes from, the art world, and its style, thus it conventionally, culturally, represents wildness, disjunctness, something wrongness, it might even internalize in the nonetheless still straight-hung painting the crooked painting motif representing chaos, and then too in some cases it can step forward into the scene to become identified with, as an emblem, a character in the middle ground, and from that posture as a more powerful conductor of the task of communicating emotional tensions in a purely visual language, which is done in this scene by contrasting it with other forms of apotropaic property painting. I am not saying that movies understood abstract art, just the opposite, they preferred to misunderstand it, and make it stand for something diametrically opposed to what it stood for, even to preach the superiority of the filmed world over the world as represented in mere art on the walls.

Thus, the interesting thing about the painting that now appears, when Sutherland takes his new wife home to his apartment, is that while it is modern and snazzy, but entirely gray, and thus represents in itself obtuseness and twodimensionality, it also becomes a conductor of a character. And it features a nice gray tone abstract painting. This painting seems to be the conductor by which all the action and movement in the room is made. Here it’s rather blank faced front speaks the newlyweds not exactly jumping into bed to christen the apartment with sex upon their arrival

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Then, when Sutherland must attend to a domestic issue, which requires an icepick, or some tool, not only is this an example of classic foreshadowing

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As he will end up all splintered by a mania to make use of sharpened stake

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But in managing his life with his new wife he will already begin to physically contort himself and his hands into a new strangely, unconsciously defensive posture (this would seem to offer unconscious explanation, his growing unspoken concerns, for how easily he was lead to drive a stake through his new wife’s heart). In this shot, the central conductor abstraction in the place wipes away its blank face, and emphasizes its knifelife slashing quality, against foreshadowing (I cannot make out the picture on the left, representing her, but it has a look of a farmyard scene, of the type hung on the walls of the room where Abraham Lincoln died, thus, genre, quaint, but with a sense of menace by association)

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This shot itself foreshadows later when he is in bed and unconsciously asleep, feeling the absence from the bed of her body, which should be next to him, he makes this gesture of aggression

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The movie makes more explicit use of shadow play in the scene where the vampire comes after the doctor, and he chases her away by accidently on purpose putting up a shadow of a cross

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But then, as their fortunes separate out, and they go their way, and marriage settles into missing each other all the time, the painting once again changes its meaning, to represent the compensating clinginess of a wife guilty for spending her nights out as a vampire sucking blood

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There is also a male-female split in the apartment, which signifies this breakfast niche as leading to the working world, and his world, and the other side, with floral wallpaper and old fashioned pictures, as the woman’s world of domestic comfort

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In this first case of the place that she does, to see if it is all right, and with a purpose that is disencumbered from his embrace, and part of her own private modus operandi, however, a splash of silhouettes on the wall signify deeper trouble

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Silhouettes, by my analysis, in the Amityville and Chucky movies, signify death of the family, and of the family line, the reduction of members of the family to blanks. So, this is a sign that she brings not hope of childbirth, but death in to the house. Later when they have one of those impossibly formal dinners for two that couples used to stage for themselves in their private homes, the silhouettes come between them, indicating loss of sexual attraction or procreative potential, not to mention that the red candles is a sign of blood and death

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And then again when the Doctor, who turns out at the end to be not the good guy, but the bad resident vampire protecting his monopoly on the town, more, and, specifically, pointing to him, a larger silhouette, from another splash of them by the door.

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Notice too, that, as in other films, in another visual trope that I have explored, there is yet another classic Blue Boy picture, here is a better shot

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A Blue Boy picture signifies that any child born in the house will be a demon or monster, and, again, if there are no children, that the woman walking by that picture will be virtually sterilized by that passage, and this marriage will not be fruitful in the old fashioned traditional sense. And the boy, it turns out, is Sutherland himself, duped into killing his wife, the vampire, by his friend and mentor, the doctor, who is the real vampire

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But it was the gray painting that established the state of mind, the what you see is NOT what you get state of deceptive visuality in the movie, and that gray painting is represented by modern abstraction. Then in addition to acting as a property to simply alert one once to deception, it becomes the conductor, a central instrument driving a wedge between the two visually, as their relationship falls apart. And then on a broader canvas of being compared with other more traditional warning arts, silhouettes and blue boys, it becomes the emblem of his reduction to pawn in a battle undertaken by two more powerful forces. This, then, is an excellent example of how abstract painting in modern horror movies (pre-1980) were made use of to communicate not only wildness, but, then, if more monochromatic and gray, evasion, obtuseness and deception.

The Crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus: dreams and tides in Gods and Kings (2014).

rev., June 15, 2015.

At another point the treatment of Exodus (2014) of the ten plagues of Egypt, a seminal event in horror and disaster storytelling, will be reviewed. Here I only want to reinforce my favorable review (RoMMerreivews.wordpress) of the treatment of the Red Sea Crossing in the movie. The overall framework for the sequence is provided by Spryidon Marinatos’s conjecture, in the early 1970s, upon the discovery of the buried town of Akrotiri on the island of Thera north of Crete, that in so far as that town was buried by a volcano, earthquake or tsnami, that tsunami, given the date, might have swept across the lower eastern Mediterranean, and caused the tidal event in the delta area of the Red Sea. In such a case, as the world knows better since the tsunamis in Malaysia and Japan in the early 00s, the sea in fact sucks back into itself, causing an evacuation of the water from the land, and then the mountainous tsunami comes tearing in. The dynamics of this event have been enticing to many as an explanation for how the Red Sea could zipper open, leave enough room for a lot of Hebrews to pass through it, and then the whole thing sweep in again, in a wall of water, and wipe out the ill-timed following of the Pharoah’s army. The main problem with this theory, in fact, is that, in the world of facts, in the sequencing of tsunami’s the recession and then strike all happens in a matter of a half an hour, which would by no means give enough time for a whole people to transport themselves across the Red Sea. Thus the searchers ever after FACT glorious and true, reading stories as literalist explanations of factual history, now argue that Moses just was very knowledgeable about local tides in the tidal pools of the Red Sea basin, and managed through local knowledge to time a crossing to low tide, and get all his people across. And then when the pharaoh showed up, it went to high tide (but why the pharaoh would not know about high tide and save his army from destruction would be another problem). It would appear from this, and he took some criticism for it, that Ridley Scott made use of the Marinatos tsunami model to stage the entire Red Sea crossing sequence of the movie, but, then, perhaps, softened the edges of the model with the suggestion that it was all a tidal event. Since many persons in the audience would very likely be familiar will any of the thousands of different kinds of simple tidal events that can make a day at any beach exciting, or terrifying (in the case of rip tides), this was a very good idea. So, that is the first thing. It is very interesting, and very downtoearthing of the event. That is, we arrive at the beach, and it is a beach, like any other, a familiar scene

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The Hebrews, moreoever, sleep on the beach overnight, which is entirely practical and real.

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They are all up and down the beach, a scale of operation that, having worked hard to improve plausibility, makes it all, once again, rather difficult to believe. And, here, they are being asked by Moses to simply wade into a tide, or an ocean clearly undergoing a tidal event

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And then the tidal event is that…that tide goes out, and, since, “out” in one of the straits of the Red Sea would also mean out of that strait entirely, the whole passage across that arm suddenly becomes passable in whole, open desert

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And then the Egyptians see the high tide event, so ride right on out

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And, then, after the other frame is introduced, and something weird happens out there, the wreck of the army, and Ramses, is seen afterwards washed ashore as from a shipwreck, still another moment, rich in association with so many other scenes of shipwrecked persons on shores, that nails things down in the real world according to movie conventions

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All of which is fine. For greater or lesser, tidal events mark and enchant beaches all over the world. Beaching scenes, and shipwreck scenes, are also a type of movie motif common and widely used. This framework is something many people can associate with. It was a tidal event.

But, then, something more had to happen. In order to get us to that level, that is, linking a simple tidal event with an extraordinary tsunami weather event, Scott must have felt the need for a transition that altered the state of consciousness in which the whole sequence was taken in. He had to, in other words, give some degree of plausibility to Moses taking action during a sequence of events that he could not have entirely understood. And this is done through a very effective use of dreamwork, and the stages of dreamwork. The movie has Moses fall asleep on the beach, like any traveler might. But, as before in the movie, he is prone to having visions, often awake, but often in his sleep. But, once again, Moses is in the familiar position, in this telling of the story, of lying on his back, looking up, into a dream or reality, he is not quite sure.

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And now he has a strange dream event. It has been noted that there are five stages of dreaming, or rather hypnagogy. In the lightest stage of falling asleep, or the static, our eyes close, and little notions flicker back and forth, often with entoptic imagery; in the deeper, second, glass onion phase, this woozy state drops down to communication in symbols and sigils, an abbreviated world; in the third, lattice phase, one image begins to hang heavy and dominate, to just hold there; in the fourth, wormhole, one spirals down, and in the fifth, REM deep sleep, there is a full on dream. While in the modern period, dream study when straight from consciousness to exploring only deep sleep, in fact, modern horror devised a rich visual vocabulary on how one “falls into” a dream, and from that the five stage model evolved. Horror movies continue to make use of all of the phases of sleep to induce hypnagogic receptivity in the viewer. Each stage of light sleep has its own particular visual code.

But then, also, there are the complications of sudden awakenings, or radical shifts from deep to upper stage, or vice versa. For example, in these dysfunctions, sleep paralysis is when, in deep sleep, you wake up, and think you are in the static stage, thus, what you experience, while really a dream, you experience as real (it is conjectured now that the “real life” events that lead to the belief system of haunting in the Amityville Horror event was induced by a case of sleep paralysis). There is also any number of relational stages of each individual stage as it relates to each other. In a fantasmata, for example, a specific type of problem-solving that one awakes from in the morning, first devised in the middle ages, one believes that the thought one wakes with is “the answer.’ It is also to be noted that in states of altered consciousness, in the glass onion stage as emerged into from the lattice, a symbol, while surfacing, may be latched onto, and it takes on, as it emerges, the character of a solution to all the problems in the world, the answer to everything (I have these types of dreams, that is, lattice to glass onion ascendance, then waking, often). If one wakes from lattice-to-glass onion emergence, one will bring up a conclusion so certain it has the character of a prophecy. I am fairly certain that the lattice-to-glass onion sharp awakening is the structure of prophecy dream, which all ancient and traditional peoples were able to distinguish from normal dreaming. On the strength of this sudden emergence, one might act, then. It appears from the sequence of Moses’s waking, or not quite waking, that he is having a lattice dream, thinking himself awake. He looks out upon the sea at night, and sees the stars, they seem to him to have a special significance. Is he dreaming, or awake, he is not quite sure

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He sees his sword, the sword of his brother, made plausible as a “seeing things” based on the arrangement of the constellations (but the fact of it being based on constellatory form would make it even more lattice-oriented prophetic for an ancient).

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And then he must have lightly drifted back to sleep. Now, he wakes a second time. And when you awake a second time from a lattice-glass onion emergence, in a prophetic state, the certainty is often erased, you are paralyzed, you KNOW “something has happened” but at the same time you ask “what has happened?” For a moment, you do not know what time it is, where you are, even WHO you are, you exist in pure existential lost space. Horror movies make use of this motif often, usually one awakening to a sleeping or empty town (I also have had this sort of awakening often, quite chilling). Here, he is alerted to the fact that he is awake, but informed by a strange intuition something decisive has happened, by the birds. Birds are flying low in circles all over the beach, a sign of low tide. This is a moment of great authenticity in the movie, as it is entirely plausible, if one has this sort of hypnagogic experience on the beach

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But now he wakes with a new certainty. Maybe in his sleeping mind he was working out his knowledge of tides, trying to figure out, or be told by god, a way out, and he sees a second strange thing, the current is racing to the left, away from them. Something is truly happening, now. And then he wades into the solution, and finds, as dream and reality merge in a new prophetic morning, his real sword, which he had seen fall from the sky, lodged in the surf

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He removes it, it is as if he has pulled the plug on the Red Sea, and now the whole thing just runs out. Knowing that something is happening, and Moses is at the center of it, all the Hebrews have gathered at the beach, to watch, and he wades in, and says, its ok, let’s go

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And, as if his lead is also, in support of his sword, chasing the water away, they follow

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This is a beautiful transition piece, with a true to life use of dream mechanisms, embedded into lore of how prophecy worked in the ancient mind, and nicely worked out, in the context of a tidal event. It makes sense, and, in making sense, it impresses, it’s a beautiful piece of film work.

But now Scott must amp up the energy to allow for the destruction of a chasing army. As they walk into the tidal basin, emptied of water, the weather turns bad, especially on the northern horizon (one guesses)

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As the Egyptians race into the tidal basin, the mountains they have come down out of (a curious choice, but I think to elide the transition again to the tidal wave) are on the west and south of them, left behind

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but now over the north a line of thunderstorms generates a series of tornadoes. I am not sure that tsunamis are accompanied by a line of thunderstorms, but perhaps it is imagined as a front of cold weather. One has to say that the multiple tornadoes, which has become a meme in disaster movies, signifying a situation spiraling downward fast, is none too convincing, in terms of how it is connected to what’s going on

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Perhaps Scott is trying to say that the tsunami is made plausible in its tremendous scale by the fact that in addition to having travelled there from Crete, it was whipped up into a higher frenzy by a front of very bad weather, and, even, more literally (if this is possible), by a bunch of tornados, all along the wave. Here is the implication of the contribution of tornadic activity to the tidal wave

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It is this, the tsunami, now coming in, that the Hebrews must race from (as in The Ten Commandments)

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And the Egyptians must race ahead of (here backed up again by background mountains, or previously undersea rock formations)

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At this point, I was thinking, OK, Scott had devised a nice plausible tidal view of the event, then linked it with a tsunami, to reframe the Cecil be Demille zipper in a new realism. But it is at this moment, that I also was like, let me try to figure this out, and I saw that now the actual tsunami itself was what was rolling up on both Moses and Ramses. That is, it was not a mere tidal event, it a tsunami-related tidal event. The water had been sucked out to sea, back into this view, and, now, in this view, it is coming back in the form of the tsunami, and it is going to roll over that whole broad tidal basin

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And this of course now allows the CGI folks to go crazy with splash and drown wavebreaking, just like in the original Ten Commandments 60 years ago. Things get, I must say, rather surf film here

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And then it crashes down on the army, spread all out along the tidal basin

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And even, oddly, Moses and Ramses get to have a mano a mano in front of it, and each escape, because it is treated as a surf wave crash, not fatal

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And then we have the final shot of the army floating in the water, this time shot from below

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What this means is that after getting Moses to act in the glass onion stage of hypnagogy, Scott had to sink the scene back down deep in dreamlike unreality, where the final fight takes place. For the wormhole phase, then, the spiral down is represented by all those tornados, and by the curl of the crash, that’s what it was all there for, visually. And then the battle of the heroes was the unreal deep dream sequence, at the bottom of the brain. And this shot, is pulling back up to the static phase to see it as “all over” but from the perspective of an abstraction, and then pharaoh gets the final wake up, beached, wrecked, back as he was.

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All in all, it is a very deft weaving of dream theory, tidal theory (and beach experience), and tsunami theory, into a fairly convincing, but dramatically quite effective cinematic rendering of the crossing of the Red Sea. In the careful transitioning from phase to phase, Scott was able to restore to CGI that sense of momentary filmic reality, or indexicality, the “this is how it really was”, that so much CGI, lost in the uncanny peaks, lack today, and, for that, I would say that the Red Sea Crossing sequence in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) is one of the most successful visual CGI sequences in recent film.