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