From the Weimar Republic child murderer of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) via Reverend Harry Powell from the dark fairy tale The Night of the Hunter (1955) to Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho (1960) and its twitchy Norman Bates: what better way to celebrate summer with your cultural barristas than with a chat about some good, old-fashioned classic films with and about psychopaths?
We will return to the psycho well to discuss more modern movie psychopaths for our 25th episode, coming to your earbuds this August.
Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Psycho never scared me. I think the main reason for this is that I came to it too late: by the time I saw Norman Bates dressed as his mother, stab-stab-stabbing his way through various cast members, I’d seen all the quotes, echoes, parodies. (You can’t be a teenager watching several seasons worth of The Simpsons without seeing an average of 17.3 parodies of Psycho. It’s a scientific fact.) To some extent, I ended up watching the film and feeling that, meh, it’s all been done before – which is unfair and inaccurate, because so often and in so many ways, Psycho did it first. I still enjoy the film for the sheer craftsmanship that Hitchcock and his collaborators put into the film, and for the impish glee with which they establish the female lead – only to kill her off. But no, Psycho never scared me.
Halloween, though? Halloween scared the living daylights out of me.
This week I saw my first Hitchcock on the big screen. I grew up in the ’80s, which meant that I first and, more often than not, only saw the classics of cinema on TV – and in the ’80s that meant, what, screens that were 30 inches across if you were lucky? TVs were big, bulky monstrosities, but the screens weren’t particularly big – which was good, really, because television channels broadcast images that were relatively fuzzy. If you sat close enough to the screen so that it filled your field of vision (and you could smell that weird electric smell), what you saw was basically impressionist art.
You’ve probably all noticed that my blog updates have become somewhat infrequent, at least compared to the beginning, where I’d hammer out an entry a day. Don’t worry, this is just a momentary slump (I hope); things are somewhat stressful at the moment, and I don’t get to watch or read as much as I’d like. Even when I do find the time, I’m usually somewhat too tired to appreciate films, series and books as much as I’d want to.
That’s where gaming comes in. I can be as tired as I want, yet I can still get some enjoyment out of Guitar Hero (where I’ve graduated to Hard mode, meaning that I’ve now got five fretting buttons to contend with!) or Splinter Cell. Or I could be “enjoying” Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
CoC: DCotE (doncha love acronyms?) is one of the creepiest games I’ve played since… well, since Thief 3 and that Holy Grail of computer game horror, the Cradle. I’m not particularly informed when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, but for those of you who know even less, Cthulhu is this cheerful fellow:
(Any similarities to a certain crustacean Doctor are purely coincidental.)
The game has a couple of easy scares (boo! decomposing corpse!), but by and large it works with more subtle techniques: half-glimpsed horrors and whispers in the dark. Slowly going insane is as much of a threat in this game as things that go bump in the night. The game starts with the protagonist cuts his stay at an insane asylum short by hanging himself – what follows essentially is a long, drawn-out flashback – an odd way to motivate players to progress: “Just one more level and I can hang myself! Yay!” For the first two, three hours of gameplay you don’t even have any weapons, which makes for an original twist on the genre: for once, the solution to all your problems isn’t unloading a gun in some gilled horror’s face.
And the game has what is possibly the best chase sequence I’ve ever seen or played. You’re woken up in the middle of the night as a couple of shady guys (with serious throat problems, from the sound of it) try to break into your room to turn you into chowder. Your only option is to run, bolting doors behind you or blocking them with wardrobes and the like. Then, a bracing escape via the rooftops while you’re being shot at… and don’t even look down, because otherwise you’ll find out just how Jimmy Stewart felt in that classic Hitchcock movie about a guy with vertigo. I think it was called… “The Man Who Was Afraid of Heights”.
It had to happen eventually, but still… for the first time in months, the top post in this blog isn’t the one about Crockett and Tubbs. What will I attract readers with now? According to the search terms used most often to get here, Hellboy’s become more of a pull. Sorry, Colin Farrell – some big red dude with filed-off horns gets the virtual punters in the seats these days!
We’ve now finished Jackie Brown (this blogger here is getting old – halfway through JB I realised that it was way past my bedtime… and that before midnight!), and it definitely more than holds up. The care Tarantino takes with his characters is wonderful, and not a little surprising: I’m more used to Tarantino caring about his lines and close-ups of feet than about characters.
More than anything, Jackie Brown is the most (perhaps even the only) mature film Tarantino has made. Now, his appeal doesn’t necessarily lie in his maturity – in fact, his adolescent hyperactivity is part of his appeal – but it’s beautiful to see his talent put to the service of a story that is not just a fun ride. In our youth-obsessed pop culture, it’s rare to see such a perfectly executed, entertaining film that is essentially about getting old but that takes its older characters seriously.
P.S. for all the Hitchcock fans out there: Vanity Fair has done a photo shoot of iconic Hitchcock scenes with today’s actors. People might ask what the point is – I don’t. I think the photos are eminently cool. The lighting, the painterly, expressionistic colours, the actors chosen… it’s perfect. Check all of ’em out here.