rev., May 29 2013
Posted May 24, 2018, to mark the fifth anniversary of rmarts blog.
The movie, The Deadly Bees (1966), has a quite thorough arrangement of white porcelain figures scattered throughout the rooms of the farm houses and pubs of Seagull Island. It has some of the best porcelain in all of British Horror, and, it would seem, makes use of porcelain to communicate tacit unspoken meaning about the character and mis en scene. These are some examples of the good porcelain. In every main set of the movie, there are good examples of porcelain. In Michael Ripper’s pub, lovely deer bookend guardians on the mantel;
in the beekeepers main parlor,
where the farmer-landlord’s wife sits unhappily, an extravagant figure;
in the agent’s office, with also a rare horror movie sighting of Beatle memorabilia (behind the porcelain lamp)
in Suzanna Leigh’s bedroom, as we see sequentially, a virgin mary,
but, then, also a faithful dog
when the police look into it
and in Findlay’s lair,
a changing exhibit of porcelain. What does it all mean? In the pub, the porcelain on the mantel is apotropaic, indicating, as much as Ripper’s wary eye, that the pub has seen a lot in its years and is always on the lookout for more. In this space, the porcelain are miniaturized guardian figures. In the parlor of the beekeeper, however, the porcelain speaks of the wife’s view that the husband has become a stone figure, her ill will, her boredom, has made him that. He represents the something gone wrong in their relationship, and he is shown quite often, coming in and out of the space. In Leigh’s bedroom the Virgin Mary porcelain only bespeaks its meaning when Leigh is lifted half naked into bed by her rescuer after having almost been stung to death by the deadly bees. She is there for intercession, for best wishes. The dog next to her adds the element of guardianship to it. There is no cult figure in the house. In Finlay’s house, however, the porcelain plays a somewhat different role. A very odd thing about his room. Leigh thinks it is lovely. But he has a very odd set up that gives him away right away, though the movie successfully misdirects us away from it: he has inserted his apiary into the window of his rooms, so that the bees cover one wall, separated only by a pane of glass. When he first shows this set up to Leigh the porcelain on the bureau below the window is a shepherdess, but when he shows her what it is really all about at the end the figure is different, it is male, and a shepherd. Probably just a continuity error, but perhaps indicating a certain falseness about his set up, that it is premediated and covering something up. These porcelain, along with the butterflies and deaths head moth, are specimens, collected, they are relics of discovery, they indicate that he is a scientist, and more likely than not the mad scientist. Just by reading the porcelain then one can tell what is going on, if one wishes to read it. In each case, the porcelain bespeaks the character of the person who owns or will live in the room shown. Finally, the fact that in every case on Seagull Island all characters have secrets, have a cold and unfeeling exterior, then hide their emotions, and do not communicate well with others, it all indicates that they are constructed porcelain figures. The figures in this case say something about their condition as human beings. After having set up the scene with these porcelain linchpins in each setting, I expected in each case the porcelain to be broken or made use of in some way to act to resolve the problem. But in fact only one piece of porcelain was broken in the movie (unlike in Hitchcock’s original, when a whole row of hanging teacups are sawed off by the bird flock). It was also somewhat disappointing that no porcelain was injured in the sense of being used in the plot, in some way. The fact that they were not indicates to me that perhaps the director did not know the language of the kingdom porcelain anymore and simply put it all in there because that is what he was taught to do, but then he made little use of them. This means that in the end while extravagant the porcelain in The Deadly Bees is conventional, and not instrumental; or, rather, it has some instrumentality, in speaking of characters, but was not instrumentalized in a creative way in the mechanics of the plot.
If Hitchcock had his birds razor of teacups, and destroy all the china, it would seem natural that a swarm of bees in a house ought to have caused the character under attack to fling their arms about in a way that knocked over all the porcelain. But this is where the Englishness of the movie and the transience of the medium of film in the B movie comes into play. Some modern cinema, in the studio style, was rooted in the unconscious of literature and books. There is an attachment to books here too, with, in fact, the bookshelf and books becoming a major instrument of the plot. That is, Finlay’s ruse is to go by the other place to get a copy of Simmons beekeeper book, but then Leigh sees that he has it right there on his shelf and he is lying. So, it plays a part: it is authority, but also reveals the true situation in terms of who is the mad beekeeper. But then there is also a second unconscoiius for modern film, the theater, and its conventions of set direction. One suspects that porcelain property originally developed on the stage for various reasons. It exists in film, then, as a carried over convention, with, perhaps, little clear sense by any film directors as to what its purpose is. It is just there, because it has to be there. As a result, it lies in the unconscious of the film, and, for that reason, communicates the unconscious of the character. Thus, when we come to the final confrontation, Finlay identifies himself as a British gentleman scholar to the end by confessing to his aggression with a cup of tea in hand.
The fact that his serving tea serves to try to keep the misdirection going and dissemble his aggression makes his picking up a teacup with hot tea in it a possible aggressive act, but, in an understated, almost unconscious way, British style. But he is embodied and epitomized in his politeness by that tea cup. It is not just that tea time makes everything right, in Britain, but that tea cups do indeed tell us whats what witt the characters in British movies. All the British need do is read the micro body language movements of his service, to tell what kind of man he is. All of this tacit body language is British, and most likely unconscious even to British audiences. Finlay has then planned a very tidily instrumented death for her. The bees are right there, in the wall, a slide of glass away. He has the formula, he was douse her with it, open the window, voila, she is dead. But she turns the tables on him by getting hold of the solution and splashing it on him: and so his bees attack him, and, in doing so, they do take apart the tidy room that he has created for himself.
Again, the movie has a very tidy instrumentation. The bees are kept in an apiary; But he has made a killer bee variant. They can be controlled by the tape recorded sound of the death’s head moth, which he has, and which hypnotizes them into stillness. But then the ammoniac smell of death attracts the bees, and they attack anything covered with it. He puts on the tape recording of the death’s head moth whir, but then she gets the smell of death on him, and that causes him to back off and knock his pictures crooked, one of the death’s head itself, the other of a picture of flowers, as if art made for the viewing pleasure of the bees. All of this way touched off by one toss of a mantelpiece porcelain, which set off the chain reaction in which the solution gets on the wrong person, but the right person for the movie.
The movie’s instrumentation is expanded upon based on his theory of the smell of fear, which attracts animals. It’s a very intimate thing for a horror movie to be based on, smell. More so, that the smell is transmitted by clothing, hands and onto skin. The contagious element of this causes a few deaths by mistake, both the dog and his wife get killed by mistake because of rub off of the smell from a rag in a bucket. But then Finlay plants the smell directly onto Leigh’s clothing, and when she strips for bed and hangs the dirty jacket on her bedpost, that is what attracts the bees. Then when Katy Wild takes the jacket out to the laundry that brings the bees through the woods after her, in a verbatim recreation of a typical Hammer vampire attack in the woods, though this time with bees (a vampire variant, then).
The most brutal attack scene in the movie involves the wife of the beekeeper getting stung to death. But the most important attack in the movie is directed of course at Leigh. It is always the outsider that brings in trouble, and, Hitchcock suggested, always the unattached hysterical woman who stirs up nature and sets it awry. The move does have a variant of the conventional shower scene. But it is not a shower scene. This is because Leigh had to have at least some residual rub off of the smell of fear still on her skin, her hands and maybe her upper chest where the sweater covered her. So, it is a brushing teeth scene, but she is in her bra.
But, when she hears the bees, the fact that she is in her underwear, gathers from the scene the sense of vulnerability that penetrates to the viewer, in any case
And then the bees fill the room
The fact that she is in her bra makes her fright a good opportunity not only to see all of her facial grimaces but to see her body, in particularly her chest, react too, and when she tries to push a towel under the door and set it on fire every push of her arm muscle causes her breasts to quiver
It is also during these attacks, that the movie fails most grieviously, perhaps fatally. The bees swarm in the foreground, the scene is in the background: it is done by superimposing one film or using rear projection. Then, spliced in with that, are a few shots where a real bee was set on a real towel, or in hair, on, one or two, on Leigh herself (earlier, with the death of the wife, interspersal went for a lot of extreme close ups of bees stinging human skin, almost as if from a medical film). And, then, in between, general unpeopled shot of bees swarming through the room. The problem with these three separations, if you will, is that they remain too far apart throughout, they never come together, and never therefore coalesce into a convincing filmic event that makes you think it is actually happening to them. The special effect therefore looks very unspecial, and fails to convincingly render the horror of a bee attack. In fact, Leigh only really succumbs at the end to the smoke, at which point she is rescued. Then, as if to recoup, or in a second thought, she immediately, in her recovery bed, has a dream sequence replay of not just her experience but the whole sequence of events. Surely the instrumentation of such a dream would be that she figures out whats what through it, but it only serves for her to re-experience it and when she wakes up, the bees gone, but she still is in shock and thinks they might be there, she responds to the room itself. And in this moment, we peel back a layer of veneer to see what we should think of the room, as she glances at a landscape painting.
These are pretty good agencies, but the sequence wraps up with the apparent villain putting her to bed, the sacrificial lamb of an island dispute between two beekeepers, the primary agent of the movie, with her body and clothing, the main agent connected to her, followed by books (not to mention a car, the dog) leaving porcelain to play a supporting role here. Porcelain in this arrangement then comes to represent the everything staying the same that country folk like, the repressed incommunicative unhappy lot they live in, day in day out, not to be disturbed by outsiders. At last, then, in these country locales, porcelain is apotropaic, but, warning, stay out, don’t bring your problems to us, leave things as they are, it’s the English way.
Which is actually epitomized by a contrast between the same shot as above, which traumatized Leigh sees, looking out into her room
and then the room again, as is, but without her, and without the bees, because they are not there anymore, though the landscape painting then free to represent place, but always threatened by things coming at it from over the horizon
in Leigh sitting traumatized on her bed, seeing the bees even when they are gone, in fact, the inadequacy of the special effect might have been better utilized, to advance beyond simply doing some Tippi Hedrun hand gestures and neck jerks of re-experiencing, if she had developed a sense that bees were still there in her purkinjee imagery, and she saw bees for a while, but she doesn’t. In any case, this exposes the wallpaper as too busy, exposes the odd pillar and the door to the bathroom as a bit threatening, because odd, making her feel vulnerable, and there she is, vulnerable, there, her raised exposed armpit suggesting the danger of that corner, and then the innocuous landscape painting is exposed as, what I theorize it is, bringing outside in, and outside fears in, an introjection, in the room, of her fear of the country, and so it attracted the bees, by one reading, and still might harbor them. It’s a good reading of the secret meaning of these apparently benign features.
One last comment about the main room property of the movie, Finlay’s apiary insert
It, at least, is not simply a structuralist reference to some other aspect of the film (as the two way picture mirror in Cabin in the Woods is, introduced, then plays no role whatsoever in the movie, it only serves to fill us in than some higher than average level of meta distance is in control in the movie). At least, this odd eccentricity of rural Brit life turns out to be the primary instrument of the movie, and its malfunction in the end results in the concluding crisis: that is, he opens it up, the bees hypnotized by the death’s head, but, then, she tosses the monkeywrench porcelain, the tape goes bad, the smell is spilled, he is attacked, all gone wrong. So, it has a high degree of instrumentation, it’s not just passing scenery.