Rev., Mar 30, 2017.
Note: This entry is part of Retrograde in the 80s: Retrograde trope formation in 80s horror movies (mss).
In the not bad 1988 movie, Black Roses, where heavy metal rock band visits upon the little town of Mill Basin Satanic psychokilling possession, Vincent Pastore is a concerned dad, upset about the garbage his son is listening to. But when he tries to turn off the record, the vinyl will not go quietly. It, in facts, begins to bubble up into a form
and then with a burst of formative energy given it by the woofers and tweeters of the son’s stereo set up, out pops a classic rubber 80s extravaganza, a cockroach something that attacks dad
Two things here. In my critical thinking, there is incidental, conventional, instrumental and inspired enacting of the agency of a property or trope. Only the last two will get positive reviews from me, but even knowing what the convention is and doing a good job with it is nothing to sneeze at. But I have also toyed with the notion that when the whole array of potential is bracketed and fixated upon by a cynical exploitative mindset, which kills actual agency, then instrumentation can strain to become active, but do so only from a propulsion of the presence of a fixity, in which case it becomes mere nervous agitation or activation of the object. This is what happens a lot in the rubber 80s, not only did the bodily Unitarianism of the decade demand that every object, if haunted or possessed, metaphorphized into a monster, and a monster entirely gooey rubbery something, but that this was presented as if a figural-active exaggeration of the capacity of the mind by pareidolic connecting the dots see physiogonomies in things, but in the 80s they did not just stay there, they had to come alive. The further extension of physiognomies I will call physiognomes, or tetraphysiogomies. When in the case of objects they figuralize and then activate, that is so 80s, and those are physioprops (Stephen King was, of course, the godfather of 80s activation of every object in life, setting the tone for the whole decade). This is what happens here.
Second, in the 80s, these were movies made for the eyes, no longer of 20 year olds born in the early 40s, but 20 year olds born in the early 50s. I have explained why this age group, the latter half of the socalled Baby Boomers, had a shadowed, cynical mindset with regard to the tropes of hippie America, and it is also true that something happened, perhaps by early exposure to life by the fact of growing up in the shadow of older siblings, that this age group was much more grounded in and fixated upon the imagery of the nursery. The pink rose on black fabric upholstery on the couch echoes off of the same pattern in so many dresses worn in movies of the time, it evokes a primal urge, a back to the nursery desire, which then seeks to obliterate all of the forces which have disturbed that preexistent peace. The nursery then becomes one of the “pits” or preexisting, backstoried prototypes before the prototype, that pulls on the depiction of life, and makes its representation more primitive. And, so this is plausible.
And then right on cue, just as in Legend of Hell House, the lamp falls to the floor, indicating that total chaos has broken out
And then he is pulled at, by the speaker
And then pulled in, with his shadow cast, interesting enough, on a ripoff variant of Arnold Fribergs Prayer at Valley Forge
and the original Friberg, a very popular print in the 20th century
And, it is actually that image that I am writing about in this essay. Why? Why would it be there? Why would an image of such explicit patriotism be located in a house like this? It is not common.
A hint may be provided, and the idea might be nominated as an authentic 80s trope, by referring to another movie of the time, where the same sort of thing comes up, Blood Harvest (1985). In that movie, a local banker has been chased out of town because he began to do his job, foreclosing on farms
that is, in the bigger picture, he violated the tacit contract of AngloAmerican rural life, he put the banks before the farms, that was un-American. As a result, an effigy of him being burnt at the stake was hung in his foyer, this is hardcore pitchfork politics, the mob working its rage against the scapegoat
the daughter, Jill, is frightened, because someone else is throwing bricks in her window. This is a nice shot in that it contrasts the violation of ugly graffiti with the benign disarming whimsy of tasteless garden art, a mule pulling a cart being a classic genre motif (see my writing on Annabelle) on the state of normalcy, in doing one’s work, in middle class life
we also see that inside this humble country farmhouse is some ersatz art, the kind of things middle class people put on their walls, like the Last Supper
but then in the middle of the living room, with not very fancy living room wallpaper, is a strange landscape that is beclouded and gray
it is hard to make out what it is, but I suppose this shot means that it was beclouded in order to warn us of the presence of a nylonstocking killer
there appears to be a couple, naked, in the center foreground, meaning, again oddly, that this is some sort of Adam and Eve country fantasy, in the manner of Maxfield Parrish, for example and, strangely, it is under that picture, that, when her fiancé shows up, he tries to fuck her on the carpet in front of it, in the living room, I suppose a kind of territorial conquest thing
and then later crazy boy tries to sleep rape her on the couch under that picture
and it should also be noted that the carpet’s shagginess is made much of, and she does at one point do a workout in the living room, profiled by the Last Supper
and this does include a seemingly gratituous shot of an 80s style power crotch (a trope)
so, in a weird way, while she does spend a good deal of time upstairs in her bedroom, where she hides with her teddybears, relapsing into childhood, this room, the parlor, old fashioned style, in defense of her parent’s homestead, is really operation central for her grown up defense and her violation, with houseplants, spooky pictures and, then, her getting naked in there two and half times, it is fair to say the room in whole has been envaginated as the contested chamber of her battle against the forces of evil.
But all this is but a prelude to the room that is the most interesting. At some point, while he labors under a load of red herring throughout, Tiny Tim, as Mervo, the mad brother of the mad killer, brings her to an outlying house or wing of the house, where dad apparently has his mancave, and where he has set up a display of the truth, clippings of what happened to her parents, and then evidence that she is being stalked, the illicit polaroids psycho took of her after cutting off her bra and tieing her spread eagle on the bed
rarely is the display of evidence so elaborate as this, and I suppose it is an indication of Mervo’s mad efficiency, and perhaps as a cult shrine to the parents, who he reveals have killed themselves. But the pictures of her half nude are there too, she is shocked, family pictures, one of the oldest tropes of horror, carrying on the family being one of the drives of life against horror, corrupted and polluted by this mad violation of her modesty and privacy
these are related to earlier pictures that were taken of her, when she was drugged, and tied up and then pinned up on a wall with paneling on it, presumably in her house, to terrorize her by informing her someone broke in and did that to her
I thought possibly in her bedroom, parts of which were in fact paneled, as shown here, with some odd images on the walls
but then we see the room. It is entirely wood paneled (so I thought, the polaroids were put here, only for him). Like the house in Silent Night, it represents a redoubt that might at one point been secure, because woodpanneling was considered stylish, and hip, and with it, therefore sufficient security, but now has the distinct air of King Tut’s tomb, and a flimsiness too, not able to keep people safe, dowdy, crotchedy. But then the weakness of the wood paneling was apparently felt because the keeper of the room, I am assuming the dead father, began to put up classic little winter landscape paintings, and then, even more so, patriotic paintings, behind Tiny Tim on the left is a classic print of the First Thanksgiving
and then round over a sideboard is a nice Petolike trope doeil of a gun, like I said, mancave
Peto Fish House Door is close enough
and it is also in front of, as if staged by it, the picture of the First Thanksgiving, that mad brothers will contend anxiously against each other, Tiny Tim, having been the mad one throughout, now revealed to be almost less mad than the other, though Jill does not know this yet
(the print is of Pilgrims Going to Church, by George Henry Boughton, collection of the New York Historical Society
she then runs round to the other side of the table, the lamp standing now, we see, in the very center of the room, as the symbol of the intense intimacy of the proceedings, that deep secrets will be revealed, and, surprise, on the wall, is ANOTHER super patriotic ersatz traditional painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware
which is obvious
and then while the brothers fight it out in front of the Pilgrims Going to Church
she edges around the corner and there is another, ANOTHER patriotic image, the Hasty Pudding march of fiddler and fifer during the revolution, and there on the sidetable she finds a gun, to shoot Tiny Tim with (not tuned in yet as to what is happening)
this is the Spirit of 76 by Archibald Willard
The original of which is in Abbott Hall, Marblehead, Massachusetts
and then right as she shoots, backdropped as well over panels of winter hunting scenes, of no special provenance, she knocks the drummer askew, the tilt the screen, we are in chaos
and then the other paintings go crooked too (another trope, bespeaking chaos)
she all but screams away from it, backing up into the painting of the drummer
and then in the space between her and Gary, she not yet knowing he is the mad one, the painting comes to signify the deception
and as he feels he has pulled off the masquerade, we see yet another, identifiable painting in the corner
and then the movie proceeds on its way. So, in two 80s movies, Black Roses, and then in Blood Harvest, the action is backdropped by a super patriotic, and traditional, but so traditional as to almost be an image in popular culture, and no longer viewed as a work of art, an image that exists entirely in the public domain, so the question is why? why would this kind of thing be put on those walls?
On simply an expedient level, it could be argued that iconic images are put up on the walls of horror movies, simply to be recognizable, and simply to recognize that the character has undeveloped low-class taste that only knows of a few major, easily recognizable works. More expedient still, one movie may do it because another does. In Salem’s Lot (1979), there is both an ersatz Mona Lisa, obviously not the original, on the wall of the unhappy wife playfully cooking up an affair for the night in her short shorts
And then when Lew Ayres fights off a vampire in his house, he has a heart attack, in his bedroom, no less, to Trumbull’s picture of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but in this case he is a true blue All American so the picture truly bespeaks his grounding in American values, I am an American, no fooling. It is possible that 80s movies just followed the template of Stephen King, and added in the trope, not clearly understanding what it meant
This IS the Trumbull, strange painting to profile a heart attack by (perhaps a tacit tribute to Lew Ayres)
But, for those movies discussed, I think there is a purpose. Theory one, in Black Roses, it did seem as if, overall, there was an effort, as indicated by the comedic overtones, to parody 60s small town life as it persists in the 80s, so it might be so simple as this is what they imagined corny parents had on their walls back then. But as this mood is definitely not in place in the much uglier present day of Blood Harvest, that idea does not travel. The fact that the pictures exist in a mancave, where one’s deep pleasures are cultivated, usually of an escapist nature, but also, possibly, of a mad nature, including reactionary politics, indicates to me that these are what I call an I am American trope painting, that is, it says to the visitor, and the town, I am an American. In Black Roses it is funny that actor Vincent Pastore, soon to become famous as Big Pussy Bonpensiero in The Sopranos, likely thought he needed an I am an American trope picture on his wall, to demonstrate to the town that he is, Italian American, an American, one of them, a good assimilator, an honest, hardworking guy who has agreed to assimilate in to the ideals of Yankee America. The fact that a protestant church gets involved to curse the Black Roses, that the teacher, who is skeptical of that approach, but still teaches Whitman and Emerson, and is profiled with his Brady Dad hair and moustache with pictures of Mark Twin, means that he too believes in the small town ideals of Yankee WASP life. A house trying to assimilate, then, would try extra hard to reassure outsiders, and maybe even himself, that I Am An American, and that is why the picture is up there. What the music does to Big Pussy is reject that attempt at assimilation, it says, no your’e not, and, by the way, your’e kids are not either, they’re not buying it, they’re being seduced by evil out of it, and in order to get you out of the way the vinyl beast is coming alive to suck you and destroy you, and as your last shadow of a hope, and of you, is cast in life, it falls on your eidol, your image of self-confidence building, your hope and a wish image, praying like George Washington, please, let them accept me as a true American, and that’s that.
The same thing apparently is going on in the mancave in Blood Harvest. Remember, the father has been ostracized and even terrorized, on account of his banking duties. He would no doubt have to get defensive, as, now, the daughter does. It is also conjectured that Tiny Tim, the neighbor, whose farm went out, also went crazy, and now lurks around like a sad clown, the ruin of a man, in America. So the mancave is where the father goes to refuel, to get his bearing, to resist, to claim for himself that he is an All American, and to reassure himself, he changes the art, so that all of it is iconically, even emblematically American, even Americana, to tell him, hourly, even if they doubt it, I Am An American. At the same time, it is taken for granted that all of them are reproductions, likely prints disguised as paintings, that is, “fakes” but known fakes, the kind of thing middle class people hung on the walls of their home to make a statement, not to appreciate the art per se. So, like all these things, they also evoke a certain degree of selfdelusion and depletion.
For the mad son to then fly under the flag of convenience, using these pictures as a stage on which to display his defense of Jill’s homestead, depletes them, and makes them topsy turvy symbols of all that turned upside down, ersatz images, bereft of any meaning. That she fires from one, and tilts one, also means she has violated the lore by trying to kill family members. And then that Gary is later revealed to be the deceitful mad one, means that these pictures bespeak the opposite of what the father attempted, in the context of the movie, they knock down the fantasy and hope of their installation, and like a Blue Boy picture in a family album, promise the destruction of the family line, and the UnAmericanness psychoness of it, and the fact that, on a broader, racial level, the Anglo Saxon race, which allows cute blonde boy to be given the benefit of the doubt, because he looks like the perfect All American farm boy, is corrupted, and undone, all the father’s illusions destroyed by what is really happening in the fight on the stage they made. Thus, in general, I will argue that I Am An American trope pictures represent the same thing a Blue Boy trope picture represents in the context of a family line, the danger to and destruction of the family line, but expanded to a social and national level, with the question relating to nationality, loyalty and patriotism, that is, being an American. And this is why when Big Pussy was sucked in, that ended his pretentions, he was exorcised, and when Tiny Tim was shot in front of them, he too was ostracized from the line, but in both cases, the pretext of the hanging of the pictures is undone, and the fight and death represent the movie’s view that this is a fable of the decline of the morality and values of the Anglo Saxon race in America, and the mess and chaos that happens in their decadence.