Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Kill Bill Vol.1 - Quentin Tarantino

In an attempt to get better aquainted with the subject I have decided to do a film review of each screening and try to relate it to the content of the weeks lecture.  This is slightly outside my comfort zone as I prefer to analyse and mull content over before forming my own opinions (an inbuilt defense mechanism perfected to stop me looking like an idiot) however as I am a product of a postmodern age my views should, in theory, be my own reality and therefore as valid as my tutors!

I lifted the following quote directly from the lecture and in picking its content apart I hope to gain a greater understanding of how Kill Bill sits within the term postmodern.

Postmodernism - a disputed term that has occupied much recent debate about contemporary culture since the early 1980s. In its simplest and least satisfactory sense it refers generally to the phase of 20th
century Western culture that succeeded the reign of high modernism, thus indicating the products of the age of mass television since the mid 1950s. More often, though, it is applied to a cultural condition prevailing in the advanced capitalist societies since the 1960s, characterized by a superabundance of disconnected images and styles, most noticeably in television, advertising, commercial design, and pop video. In this sense…postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals… the term is notoriously ambiguous, implying either that modernism has been superseded or that it has continued into a new phase. Postmodernism may be seen as a continuation of modernism's alienated mood and disorienting techniques and at the same time as an abandonment of its determined quest for artistic coherence in a fragmented world: in very crude terms, where a modernist artist or writer would try to wrest a meaning from the world… the postmodernist greets the absurd or meaningless confusion of contemporary existence with a certain numbed or flippant indifference, favouring selfconsciously ‘depthless’ works of fabulation, pastiche, bricolage, or aleatory disconnection.

Superabundance of disconnected images and styles - Kill Bill is Quentin Tarantino's fourth film preceded by Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997).  His films are now instantly recognisable for their distinct format and flavour, they are also known for their depiction of extreme violence.  Tarantino's unconventional storytelling has the film shown out of sequence (in retrospect or in chapters) so you are never completely comfortable where in the story you are.   Add to this his tendency to flit from black and white (the opening scene of the bride) to animation (the origin of O-Ren Ishii) to silhoutte (fight scene at the club) and this film definately has an abundance of disconnected styles and images.

Eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra and promiscuous superficiality - Tarantino borrows from film genres in either a deliberate homage to previous directors or to create mood, his genius is in how he mashes them together.  In Kill Bill he pays homage to the martial arts film, action films, Star Trek and japanese anime.  The soundtrack continues this eclectic mix with 60's pop tracks mixed with spanish guitar evocative of the mexican standoff in western films.  This review from the website Jumpcut - A Review of Contemporary Media shows just how intricate and layered this is:
Nearly everything in Kill Bill operates in part as homage to other films. For instance, the opening credit sequence and music evoke memories of Hong Kong’s legendary Shaw Brother’s films of the 1970s. Several actors were chosen in part because of their links to famous martial arts stories. In particular, Bill is played by David Carradine of Kung Fu television series fame—even Bill’s flute in Kill Bill is the same instrument Caradine played as Caine in that series. Hatori Hanzo is played by Sonny Chiba—who played several incarnations of that same character in the 1970s series Shadow Warriors / Kage No Gundan; in fact it was Tarantino’s intention that Kill Bill’s Hanzo would essentially be the “100th incarnation” of that same character. And the characters Jonny Mo and Pai Mei are both played by Gordon Liu—of The 36 Chambers of Shaolin fame; there is also an additional significance that some film fans might note in that some of Liu’s early films with Shaw Brothers involved his fighting against the same character Pai Mei that he plays in Kill Bill. There is thus a certain connoisseurship at work even in the casting. In this way, Kill Bill is strikingly postmodern in the sense that it deliberately plays with the audience’s knowledge of its source material. For certain audience members, a large part of the pleasure of watching the films is therefore the sheer frission of recognizing the references. As one review of Kill Bill: Volume 1 noted:

“While you don't have to recognize a single reference to enjoy the movie, the very nature of the film also makes it a parlor game for hardcore film geeks. Ooo, is that strikingly designed shot from Hideo Gosha or Seijun Suzuki?... There’s an element from Once upon a time in the West... that fight concept is from King Hu... Wait a minute, what is an early Brian De Palma scene doing here???” (Klein)
http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc47.2005/KillBill/2.html   (accessed 27/9/11)

I was not certain what disposable simulacra might be let alone how it might fit!  So I looked up the meaning.

Simulacra or simulacrum - a copy of a real person/place/object often altered or distorted to make it appear more real or true than the original.  Examples of this could include trompe l'oeil, virtual reality, reinactments, caricatures, disney theme parks and robots.   Modern French social theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real but becomes truth in its own right, the hyperreal.  Certainly in its use of copying genres and exaggerating their traits, such as the fountains of blood in the fight scenes building on the already bloody genre of martial arts films, the impossible numbers of foes the bride has to face building on the action film and indeed in its one dimensional caricature like characters Kill Bill can be said to use simlacrum.

All of Tarantinos films certainly have an abundance of superficiality, the story lines are basic; in Kill Bill the Bride seeks revenge against her attackers, she recovers from a coma makes a list and kills them all, simple non cerebral stuff, the magic happens in the mixing of the story, the soundtrack and the referencing.  Tarantino's films make it cool to be a geek.     

Fabulation, pastiche, bricolage, or aleatory disconnection - The very definition of these words make it clear how they label Kill Bill as a postmodern film so I have not elaborated further.

Fabulation - To engage in the composition of fables, especially those in which the element of fantasy comes into heavy play.  Fiction that delights in self-concious verbal artifice, thus departing from realism.

Pastiche - an artistic work consisting of a medley of pieces taken from various sources.

Bricolage - something made or put together using whatever materials happen to be available.

Aleatory - relating to or denoting music or other forms of art involving elements of random choice or chance (sometimes using statistical or computer techniques) during their composition, production, or performance.

Kill Bill also superficially embraces the Postmodernism empowerment of women, previously marginalised in both life and action movie/martial arts genres as the 'love interest', his female characters are strong, independant and sexy.  Gogo Yubari, O-Ren Ishii's personal bodyguard, dresses as a Japanese schoolgirl (also the costume of a popular sexual fetish). She is also one of Kill Bill’s most psychopathic characters, her slaying of the man at the bar is disgusting, liberating and very darkly amusing. 

This trend of showing women as empowered and powerful only through their ability to do violence is a recurrent theme in not only Tarantino films but other postmodern films such as The Matrix.  In its recognising of different truths and realities postmodernism supposedly empowers previously marginalised cultures and people such as Afro-Carribeans, Indians and women.  While the former have an ever increasing role both in government and film depiction it seems that women are only emancipated if they can get their weapons off.   

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Essay for Time Machine


Figure 1 – Poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde


In my essay I am going to look at the book The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Loius Stevenson.  Focusing on the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment era that would have influenced the content of the book and the theories of persona and alter egos that have been richly documented in film and literature since its publication.

The Story

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a story by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, reputedly written in three days following a dream in which two scenes of the story came to him, first published in 1886 in England and the following year in America.  Stevenson had long been intrigued by the idea of how to incorporate the interplay of good and evil into a story, Claire Harman in her introduction to The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde describes Stevenson’s fascination with duality in the Scottish criminal Deacon Brodie.

‘The story of Deacon Brodie held a particular fascination for Stevenson.  Brodie was a famous criminal in eighteenth century Edinburgh; by day an upright tradesman and town councillor, by night a common thief.  A carved cabinet made by Brodie was in the possession of Stevenson’s family and stood in his own bedroom, a constant reminder to an impressionable small boy of this doyen of the double life.’ (Introduction p.xi)  

The book was an  immediate success and one of Stevenson's best-selling works, the story lent itself to the stage and adaptations began within a year of its publication, it has gone on to inspire scores of major film and stage performances.  Its impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ coming to mean a person who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next. The book has also been described as an accurate insight into the Victorian era with the hypocrisy of outward respectability and inward lust.

Synopsis of the Story

The story is about a London lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson who investigates strange occurrences between his friend, Dr Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde.  Hyde is seen doing despicable things, paying off one victim in gold and a cheque written by Dr Jekyll.  When questioned Jekyll tells them to think nothing of it but acts increasingly strangely.  It is when Hyde murders an MP by bludgeoning him with a cane that he disappears altogether leaving a note with Dr Jekyll apologising for all the trouble he has caused.

For a few months Jekyll seems more like his old self, engaging in charitable work, but then increasingly he becomes more and more of a recluse eventually shutting himself completely in his laboratory.  The one person to have seen him in this time, Dr. Hastie Lanyon, dies suffering from shock, leaving a letter only to be opened if Dr Jekyll dies or disappears.  His butler eventually goes for help as the voice in the laboratory does not even sound like Dr Jekyll anymore.

Utterson and the butler break into the laboratory to find the body of Mr Hyde in Dr Jekyll’s clothes and a letter from Dr Jekyll promising to explain all.

Lanyon’s letter describes how he saw Hyde transform back into Jekyll after taking potion, the shock of which caused his deterioration and death.

Jekyll describes his experiment with potions to create a good version of himself but the original ingredients were impure and created a creature of evil, Mr Hyde.  He describes how elated he felt initially with the moral freedom it gave him but soon the experiment got out of control.  He begins to transform spontaneously in his sleep, then in his waking hours, requiring more and more of the potion to become himself again. 

Eventually the potion began to run out and Jekyll was unable to find a necessary ingredient to make more. His ability to change back from Hyde into Jekyll slowly going, Jekyll writes that even as he composes his letter he knows that he will soon become Hyde permanently, and wonders if Hyde will face execution for his crimes or choose to kill himself.  He ends the letter (and the novel) saying "I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end."


The various plays of the story soon became detached from the original plot with romantic interests added and the dual characters of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ceasing to look physically different and only donning a wig or wild expression on transformation, thus removing a lot of the mystery as to whom Hyde could be.  Claire Harman gives us Stevenson’s reaction to an early stage adaptation he saw in America in 1887 which depicted Hyde as an unbridled womaniser.

‘Great Gods!’ he wrote to one John Paul Bocock, ‘a mere voluptuary.  There is no harm in voluptuaries…..The hypocrite let out the beast in Hyde….who is the essence of cruelty & malice & selfishness & cowardice, and these are the diabolical in man – not his poor wish to love a woman.’ (Harman Introduction p.viii)

Figure 2 - Richard Mansfield as Dr Jekyll from the stage production 1895

This story can be said to represent many things, the inner conflict of humanity's sense of good and evil, repression of homosexuality in the Victorian era, the mental condition of split personalities, an examination of the duality of human nature (that good and evil exists in all) and that the failure to accept this results in the evil being projected onto others.

William Ian Miller, author and Professor of Law, touches upon this dichotomy in his book ‘Faking It’ 

‘Don’t we wonder whether our self control is in two parts cowardice – the fear of getting caught and rendered ridiculous – and one small part virtue?’ (p.16) 

With this quote he examines the duality of our natures, we are good not because we are naturally good but because we are afraid to be bad.

The Enlightenment

The book draws from the great explorations into human nature, human ancestry and medical breakthroughs of the Enlightenment Era of the 18th Century. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science.  Popish superstitions and practices were rejected and long held beliefs in the right of rule that had been supported by the church were called into question. 

Describing this climate the philosopher and mathematician d’Alembert (1717-1783) wrote in 1758;

 “ ……..from the principles of the natural sciences to the foundations of revealed religion, from metaphysics to taste, from music to morals, from theological disputes to questions of trade, from the laws of princes to those of peoples: everything has been discussed, analyzed, or at least brought up” (Eitner:3)

Their ideal was a renewal of society through the application of scientific methods and a return to moral health.  This desire to start anew and the belief in the perfectibility of man were reflected in both theories and art.  In his famous essay "What is Enlightenment?"(1784), Philosopher Immanuel Kant described it simply as freedom to use one's own intelligence.  Developing simultaneously in Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and the colonies, the movement culminated in the French and American Revolutions.  Ideas were quickly spread due to the Industrial Revolution which allowed consumer goods to be produced in greater quantities at lower prices, encouraging the spread of books, pamphlets, newspapers and journals. 

Debate was encouraged at formal gatherings such as the Royal Society of London and the French Academies, debating societies that were open to all and also at informal coffee houses or penny universities as they were sometimes called.

Robert Boyle

One leading natural philosopher of the time whose ideas would have influenced the portrayal of Dr Jekyll was Robert Boyle.  He was a founder of the experimental world in which scientists now live and operate, best known for his Boyle's Law on the behaviour of gases, Boyle's method based knowledge on experimentation, which had to be witnessed to provide proper legitimacy.   He was helped by The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge which he cofounded in 1660, who spread his experimental philosophy around Europe.  The society’s motto was ‘Nullus In Verba’ – Take Nobody's Word For It.

This extract from an article in The Telegraph by Richard Alleyne about the display of a wish list made by Robert Boyle in the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary exhibition details how far reaching Boyles ideas and the ideas of the Enlightenment were.    

‘Boyle's own handwritten "wish list" was found in his personal papers which had been donated at his death in 1691 to the Royal Society.

They range from the more obvious and sensible such as "The Prolongation of Life", the "Art of Flying" and "perpetual light" to the more bizarre – "Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing" – scratch and sniff – and "attaining gigantick dimensions" – supersizing.

Boyle also predicted Kevlar body armour with "making armor light and extremely hard" and unsinkable motor boats – "A ship to saile with All Winds, and a Ship not to be sunk".

Navigation at sea was predicted with the "practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes" as well as sleeping tablets, artificial stimulants and antidepressants with the "potent druggs (sic) to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory and other functions and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams etc".’

Cataloguing Mankind

The interest in natural science extended not only to the elements of nature but to the elements of mankind.  Studies of skulls and phrenology resulted in categorizing and cataloging mankind. 

In 1857 Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Gliddon wrote ‘Indigenous Races of the Earth’.  In the chapter The Cranial Characteristics of The Races Of Men they tried to show through scientific demonstration of measurements of the skull that a negro is as distinct from a Caucasian as a chimpanzee. 

They are often identified as proponents of “scientific racism” but their key concept was that of the permanence of types…..they more or less agreed in presenting man as a genus divided into types which in effect were species. They believed that each type was permanent and was suited to a particular zoological province of the earth’s surface, but they recognized that the actual races of the contemporary world were all mixed. They accounted for this by arguing that hybrids were ultimately sterile so that though because of human foolishness, races might deviate from their type, nature kept the deviation within bounds. (Theories of Race and Racism:p80)

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 putting into writing his theories of evolution from a common ancestry with natural selection as the basis for evolution.     He further explored this theory in 1871 with The Descent of Man.

Francis Galton an anthropologist, explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, and statistician was gripped by The Origin of Species and devoted himself to exploring variation in human populations and its implications.  He wanted to know if ability was hereditary and explored the question of heredity and environment , nature versus nurture by devising a questionnaire for the Fellows of the Royal Society publishing his findings in his book (1874) English Men of Science: their nature and nurture.

Sigmund Freud

Building on these ideas and further exploring the workings of the mind in the areas of dreams and psychology was a contemporary of Robert Louis Stephenson’s, Sigmund Freud.  Freud’s theories would have had a deep impact on the formulation of the double character present in the book. 

In early Freudian Theory there was the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, the thoughts and desires banished to the unconcious mind motivate the behavior of the conscious mind. If someone banishes all evil to the unconscious mind in an attempt to be wholly and completely good, it can result in the development of a dark aspect to that person's character.
Later Freud expanded his theory to include three layers to personality;  The Id, an unconscious drive that wants instant gratification to instinctual basic drives, anger, hunger and lust; The Ego, present in both unconscious and conscious, an organised realistic part who seeks to please the Id’s drives in realistic ways that will benefit rather than bring grief; The Super-Ego, sometimes referred to as the conscience, the Super-Ego aims for perfection in ideals and spiritual goals and punishes misbehaviour with feelings of guilt.  All three are in a balancing act with the Id opposing the Super-Ego and the Ego trying to reconcile the two.

This idea of a layered personality resonates throughout Stevenson’s story with the potion supposed to turn Dr Jekyll into an idealised combination of the Ego and Super Ego, but infact creating merely a creature of the Id, Mr Hyde who eventually succeeds in defeating the others in the war for control.  

Yet the book has more subtleties than this straight comparison, it explores the roles that we play our ‘persona’ that we present to other people.  The Victorian era was full of hypocrisy and double standards which are explored in the book through the character of Richard Enfield a gentleman man about town who is by day accepted into polite society and by night trawls the brothels and opium dens.

Even the term polite society has double meaning, in the words of William Ian Miller taken from his book Faking It;

‘Politeness is the most acceptable form of hypocricy.  It means making a show of attention, veiling boredom, wearing a mask that manifests amiability or routine concern for their concerns.  It means making the interaction safe for others, with the expectation that they will return the favour.’ (Miller p.36) 

One person can have many personas that they choose to use throughout the day depending on whose company they are in.  Personally I am Fiona the mother, lover, student, entertainer, farmer, reluctant cook, daughter, sister, widow, gardener, stylist and granddaughter.  Erving Goffman discusses the roles we present to others as being actors on or offstage in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ and how we are hemmed in by who we pretend to be.

‘The individuals initial projection commits him to what he is proposing to be and requires him to drop all pretences of being other things’ (Goffman p.22)

Wiliam Ian Miller also discusses this in Faking It ‘We find ourselves at times feeling put upon to play an allegorical version of ourselves because that is what the company expects from us.  Time to be the me they invited me here to be, and that means, generally, they want an overstated version of the type, just to make sure that it is utterly recognizable and what they bargained for.’ (Miller p.123)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are of course not the different faces of one person but a split personality of two separate identities and this has perhaps been the major influence of the book on modernity.


The use of an alter ego, one person presented as two different people has been fertile ground for story writers and film makers since The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published. 

Figure 3 – Marvel Superheroes

The split personalities of comic superheroes have used this theme to great effect with characters such as Batman, Spiderman and Superman being one character in their everyday life and a superhuman character fighting crime when they are needed – a force for good – however they like Mr Hyde are forced to live a lonely existence feared as much as they are admired for their abilities.   

The story is most closely mirrored in The Hulk with a scientist, Dr Bannister, taking a potion to develop superhuman strength, the experiment goes wrong with Dr Bannister unable to control his metamorphosis into the Hulk every time he gets angry.  Unlike Mr Hyde the Hulk is not the embodiment of evil but rather a noble savage, a child like mentality with a superhuman body, Id not completely in control.

Alter egos have been used in reality to confound the labels that we have placed upon us and give us a chance to escape.  Artists have used alter egos to present radical work in this way they are able to make their statements without any fear of reprisals or critical analysis of their art work.

Figure 4 – Rrose Selavy picture taken by Man Ray

Marcel Duchamp submitted his Fountain, a radical new idea in 1917 of a ready made piece, under the name of R.Mutt to avoid the scandal that was created.  He also developed a female alter ego called Rrose Selavy in 1920 as a chance to not only change identity but change sex.  He used her to explore his interest in androgeny, make art and write explicit bon mots, spoonerisms and puns that were occasionally published. 

This freedom is also enjoyed by modern Street Artists such as Banksy whose real identity is unknown, allowing him to deal with an array of political and social themes outside the law.

The freedom that this gives us is commented upon by William Ian Miller ‘ Something about openly donning masks or posing as another frees the character from moral constraints.’ (Miller p.202)

Modern computer gamers also create their alter egos in the shape of Avatars, living their fantasies of perfection or domination in a fantasy environment.  This freedom is a double edged sword however, in cyberspace the creation of alter egos is not only used for creative urges but darker ones with paedophiles stalking their prey posing as a friend, a true reflection of the Mr Hyde that Stevenson wanted to portray.

This cynicism in action is discussed in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman.

‘At one extreme, one finds that the performer can be fully taken in by his own act; he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality………At the other extreme we find that the performer may not be taken in at all by his own routine……Coupled with this, the performer may be moved to guide the conviction of his audience only as a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception they have of him or of the situation…..we may call him cynical….It should be understood that the cynic with all his professional disinvolvement, may obtain unprofessional pleasures from his masquerade, experiencing a kind of gleeful spiritual aggression from the fact that he can toy at will with something his audience must take seriously.’ (Goffman p.29)         


In conclusion with his book Stevenson tapped into our fascination for the difference between our true inner selves and our outward personas.  What would happen if we decided to let it all out?  Our modern potions of alcohol and soft drugs allow us to go wild every now and again with the safety net of redirecting the blame, ‘it wasn’t me it was the booze talking’.  What if there was no sobering up, no control, a frightening thought indeed. 

The novel contains no reference to God or Satan as being the source for good or evil, in the portrayal of Hyde he makes it clear that both good and evil are contained within ourselves.  This, as much as the scientific experimentation he explores, is a product of the philosophies of the Enlightenment, where reason rather than mysticism was used to answer questions of life.

The theme of the novel is repeated with endless comics and films rehashing the symbol of the alter ego to magnify both good and evil in superheroes or supervillains.  Its impact is such that it has become a part of the language with the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ meaning someone who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next.


  • Stevenson, R.L :The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories (Selected and Introduced by Claire Harman) (1992) Published by Everymans Library, London 
  • Miller, William, Ian: Faking It (2003) Cambridge University Press, New York
  • Cohen, Stanley & Taylor, Laurie: Escape Attempts – The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Everyday Life (1976) Penguin Books Ltd, London
  • Goffman, Erving: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1990) Penguin Books Ltd, London.
  • Eitner, Lorenz: Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750 – 1850 Vol 1 Enlightenment/Revolution, (1971) Prentice-Hall International Inc, London
  • Manco, Tristan: Street Sketchbook (2007) Thames and Hudson, London
  • Gombrich.E.H, The Story of Art, (1995), Phaidon Press Ltd, New York
  • Honour, Hugh: Neo-classicism (1991) Penguin Books, London
  • Dawn, Ades; Cox, Neil; Hopkins, David: Marcel Duchamp (1999) Thames and Hudson Ltd, London
  • Cassirer, Ernst: The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1979) Princeton University Press, USA
  • Solomos, John; Back, Les: Theories of Race and Racism : Reader (1999) Routledge, USA (http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ucreative/Doc?id=10017837&ppg=80)
  • Darwin, Charles: The Illustrated Origin of Species: Abridged and Introduced by Richard E. Leakey (1979) Faber and Faber Ltd, London
  • Mink, Janis: Duchamp (1995) Benedikt Taschen, Germany


  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7798012/Robert-Boyles-prophetic-scientific-predictions-from-the-17th-century-go-on-display-at-the-Royal-Society.html

(Accessed 1/5/11)


·         Figure 2 - http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_zAoyoHwC5IQ/TDtEMvXOgEI/AAAAAAAAInk/uDinhvTIirg/s1600/Dr.+Jekyll+and+Mr.+Hyde+-+stage+(1887)+Richard+Mansfield.jpg

Essay on Psychological Terror - Year 1

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

- Scottish saying


In my essay on psychological horror I will examine what makes a film fall into this category and the main themes contained in the genre.  Comparing the films that we have watched as part of this unit on an individual basis with both those definitions and my own reactions to them.

Ghosties and Ghoulies and Things that go Bump in the Night

We like to be frightened, it heightens our perceptions and makes us feel very alive, being frightened in a safe way such as watching a film gives us the thrill of this experience and the pleasure of relief in knowing it was not real.  Carlos Clarens in his foreword to ‘An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films’ touches upon this need;

‘The landscape of the mind does not always correspond to external circumstance.  Rather there seems to be inside us a constant ever present yearning for the fantastic, for the darkly mysterious, for the choked terror in the dark.’ (Clarens p.xvii) 

The genre of Psychological horror in a film is one that is related to the mind, they are mental rather than physical, quite often lead characters are quiet, neat and self contained – such as Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs or Eleanor in The Haunting - normally the characters must resolve conflicts within their own minds in an effort to understand something that has happened to them, often battling for a return to normality.     

Suspense can be created from two or more characters preying upon one another's minds, either by playing deceptive games with the other or by trying to demolish the other's mental state.

There are often repeated themes within this genre, the uppermost being reality. 

  • Reality - often in the story of the film the character and the audience have to determine what is real and what is not, this is not made easy as the characters often do not know what is real themselves.   
  • Mind -  another main theme, often as a source of conflict with suppression of memory by the subconscious and a loss of identity – who am I? 
  • Death – closely associated with horror the characters either fear or have a fascination with death.
The rise of the horror movie is closely associated with theories of the mind and particularily psychological horror.  Alan Jones in ‘The Rough Guide to Horror Movies’ explains this link:

‘It is no accident that the birth of the horror movie in Paris in 1896 coincided with the public acceptance of psychoanalytical theory (and especially the teachings of Freud), which for the first time openly discussed the ambivalence of human desire – horror is a direct conduit to unconscious fears and thoughts of love, pain and loss.’ (Jones:p.ix)

Alfred Hitchock an acknowledged master of suspense often applied Freudian concepts to his thrillers such as Psycho and Rear Window and the idea of a damaged mind or split personality has proved fertile ground ever since the publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886.

The Machinist - Brad Anderson (2004)


Figure 1.

This is a film starring Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik a man who has not slept in a year and begins to suffer paranoia and hallucinations brought on by this and his extreme weight loss. He seems disfunctional in his relationships with his only close ties being to a waitress and a prostitute.

The Machinist is a jewel in the crown of psychological horror and in the art of story telling. The film opens on Reznik trying to dispose of a body rolled in a carpet and at the point of him being discovered jumps back in time to the beginning of the tale. There are so many elements that inspire me in this film that I will deal with them one by one.
The physicality of the film immediately puts you on edge, it is apparent that there is something very wrong with Reznik and his appearance is painful to see. I admire the dedication that led Christian Bale to systematically starve himself for this role and the pain of it is alive on the film, he is utterly believable as a tormented soul. His effect on the characters in the story, uneasiness among his co-workers and pity from the women are also totally understandable immersing you completely. He looks hauntingly like victims of the holocaust or an animated corpse.
Figure 2.

The lighting is very cold with a prolification of blues and greens giving a feeling of night closing in, you are never completely sure if it is night or day, he seems to exist in a perpetual twilight which gives you some idea of how the Reznik himself must feel. This all adds to the claustrophobia and sense of impending threat created by the darkly lit machine shop in which he works.
The character himself seems diametrically opposed, he acts kindly showing sympathy, affection and remorse leaving large tips for both the waitress and the prostitute he visits, yet his actions speak of something else, obsessive hand washing, frantic cleaning as if Macbeth like he is trying to wash away the spots of guilt with bleach.
There are clever clues built into the film that snowball as the story unfolds, every time he meets the waitress the time is 1.30 no matter where he is, the mysterious Ivan who causes the rapid deterioration in the mental state of Reznik drives a car with the reverse number plate of Rezniks own, phrases are repeated out of context both verbally and visually such as the theme of the split path, the road to salvation or perdition. These clues allow you to piece together the mystery of what is happening to Trevor Reznik as he himself discovers them, you travel with him through paranoia and doubt and final revelation but never too soon, there is no easy route in the twists of the story.
This is also a moralistic tale of guilt manifest, eating away at the fabric of your being, denying you any rest until you put right the wrong and then, only then, can you rest. A powerful modern morality play with Ivan as the Super-Ego, emaciated Reznik as the Ego and healthy Reznik as the Id. However after all is revealed I am only left with a feeling of pity, for his torment was caused by his inability to deny his conscience and relief that he has finally managed to sleep.

Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock (1954)  

Figure 3

James Stewart plays Jeff Jeffries a freelance writer who has been injured in a car race and has to rest in his flat for six weeks with a broken leg in the middle of a heat wave. His girlfriend Lisa Fremont is played by Grace Kelly a socialite who would love to make their relationship permanent. Almost the entire film is seen through the eyes of Jeffries as through frustration and boredom he begins to watch his neighbours and concludes that a murder has been committed.

This film is a timeless classic and one I have enjoyed watching a few times - but never in the role of analyst! The beauty of the story is the time that it takes to set the scene, long pans of the set take in every detail of the courtyard and the residents behind their windows. We are teased into being interested in the lives of the neighbours with glimpses into their private lives as the heat wave causes all the neighbours to leave their blinds and windows open. Hitchcock allows us to be both prudish about Jeffries spying and voyeuristic in our eagerness to find out more, the movie taps into our secret desires to spy and gossip. The sound in the movie comes from the everyday noises that are made such as arguments, piano playing, records playing and conversations these all serve to immerse the viewer into the world outside the window.
The film makes great use of the Male Gaze, we see only the subjects that Jeffries is interested in and his reactions to them. He first views them dispassionately almost as specimens in a jar, giving each a label and diagnosis, the attitude is arrogant and detached. He enjoys the power of seeing without being seen. This attitude is reflected in his relationship with Lisa as he tries to dispassionately analyse the reasons why their relationship must end. Initially she is often seen flouncing in a wonderful dress, pure eye candy, a person with no substance who can be dismissed and forgotten, it is only as she is also drawn into the conspiracy that her personality, reasoning and bravery are fleshed out.
As the film continues Jeffries becomes less detached, as his interest in their daily activities grows he begins to grow suspicious when the invalid wife of the travelling salesman disappears and he is seen taking large cases on trips late at night and cleaning a large knife and a handsaw. As the audience you are not sure at this point if the heat and inactivity of his situation have caused him to become paranoid and indeed this view is shared initially by both his nurse and his friend Tom Doyle a detective whom Jeffries asks to check his suspicions, this is reinforced by Doyle finding nothing amiss.
Soon after, a neighbor's dog is found by a woman dead from a broken neck, her screams draw everyone to their windows to see what has happened, all except for Thorwald. This convinces Jeffries that he is guilty and has killed the dog because it was digging up evidence. Having exhausted his friend the detective's patience Jeff asks Lisa to help him discover the truth.
He puts her in increasing danger, first to slip an accusatory note under Thorwald's door so Jeff can watch his reaction when he reads it. Then, digging up the flowers to find out why the dog was killed and finally breaking into Thorwalds flat. It is almost like they are playing a game of dare, Jeff acting as though it was a murder mystery and not real life and Lisa not quite believing it is real for different reasons because she thinks Jeff is paranoid. It is only when Thorwald returns and grabs Lisa; Jeff calls the police who arrive in time to save her; that he seems aware of how much she means to him.
The film reaches a crescendo when with the Police present at Thorwalds flat, Jeff sees Lisa with her hands behind her back, wiggling her finger with Mrs. Thorwald's wedding ring on it. The wedding ring means that she is definately dead and puts all thoughts of paranoid delusions out of the audiences mind. Thorwald seeing this, realizes that she is signaling to someone, and finally notices Jeff across the courtyard.
Jeff phones Doyle, now convinced that Thorwald is guilty of something, and Stella heads for the police station to post bail for Lisa, leaving Jeff alone.
He soon realizes that Thorwald is coming to his apartment and with this realisation comes the fact that he cannot escape due to his broken leg. When Thorwald enters the apartment and approaches him, Jeff repeatedly sets off his camera flashbulbs, temporarily blinding Thorwald. Thorwald grabs Jeff and pushes him toward the open window as Jeff yells for help. Jeff falls to the ground just as some police officers enter the apartment and others run to catch him. Thorwald confesses the murder of his wife and the police arrest him.
This is a clever, suspense building, incredibly detailed film that keeps you thinking until the final twist unravels.

The Tenant - Roman Polanski (1976)

Figure 4

"The unpredictable Polish director Roman Polanski once remarked that he would like to make a movie that has only one character. 'The Tenant' the story he is now filming in Paris is not quite that - the cast includes Shelley Winters, Melvyn Douglas, and Isabelle Adjani, who won acclaim in Truffaut's 'The Story of Adele.H' - but the hero, a man in the grip of a particuarily distressing, untimely fatal paranoia, is in almost every scene. And that hero is played by Polanski himself who, as well as directing, also collaborated on the script."
Polanski in Paris by A. Alvarez

In Paris, the shy bureaucrat Trelkovsky rents an old apartment without bathroom where the previous tenant, the Egyptologist Simone Choule, committed suicide by jumping out of the window. The unfriendly concierge and the tough landlord Mr. Zy establish stringent rules of behavior and Trekovsky feels persecuted by his neighbors. Meanwhile he visits Simone in the hospital and befriends her girlfriend Stella. After the death of Simone, Trekovsky becomes obsessed with her and begins to suspect his landlord and neighbors are trying to subtly change him into the last tenant so that he too will kill himself.

This movie was the equivalent of having my teeth pulled out while listening to an untuned violin. The indulgence of directing and acting in the movie seem to have allowed Roman Polanski to became overindulgent and overdone in the film - to the point of tipping the feel from thriller to comedy.

The long shots of all his neighbours seemingly mesmerised in the toilet, the characatures of good neighbour bad neighbour played out by Trelkovsky and his boorish friends, the mummification of Choule (an egyptologist) while in the hospital and the worst cafe bar owner in the world; refusing to serve what the customers want all combine to create an almost pythonesque humour - I am reminded of Fawlty Towers. However these are only a warm up to the laugh aloud climax of Trelkovsky throwing himself not once but twice out of the window.

On the plus side the sets were masterful, grubby, dingy, shabby chic and unmistakeably French. The narrow rooms that he lived in enforced the feeling of claustrophobia that the character was experiencing and the almost feverish scenes while he is asleep (reaching for a bottle of water that is not there, it is shown but he is unable to clasp it) and when he is witnessed attacking thin air by the concierge are cleverly depicted. This nightmare quality and the growing feeling of tension between him and his neighbours are highlights in an otherwise unbelievable story.

We are not given any clues as to why his mental health deteriorates, surely moving into an apartment with prior knowledge of the occupant would not be enough to cause it. His visits to Simone are prompted by morbid curiousity but again why would this cause concern, her screaming can give him no reason to doubt the other tenants. His neighbours are indeed irritating and would make anyone paranoid about noise but the connection to the cross dressing and the eventual suicide is one I am not able to make.

Similarily I cannot fathom why Simone’s friend Stella would have wanted anything to do with such a miserable man as Trelkovsky. He is a monosyllibic conversationalist, pathetic lover and violent houseguest the only conclusion I can draw is that she is too unintelligent herself to realise all this.

In summary, overly long, indulgent shots of exteriors and incomprehensable relationships are lifted by fantastic lighting, superb sets and accidental humour.

The Shining - Stanley Kubric (1980)

Figure 5

The film is based on the novel of the same name, by Stephen King, about a writer with a wife and young son who accepts the job of off-season caretaker at an isolated hotel. He is a recovering alcoholic who stopped drinking because he hurt his son Danny. The hotel is built on an Indian burial ground and becomes isolated during winter. The manager warns him that a previous caretaker got cabin fever and killed his family and himself. The son, who possesses psychic abilities, is able to see things in the future or past, such as the ghosts in the hotel. Soon after moving in, and after a paralyzing winter storm that leaves the family snowbound, the father becomes influenced by the supernatural presence in the haunted hotel; he descends into madness and attempts to kill his wife and son.

This adaptation of a Stephen King novel is one I find genuinely disturbing. Having watched it when I was younger (late teens) and again as part of this project (early fourties) the film has not lessened its effect. In fact now I am a mother it has become worse - I am actually sitting at my computer as I write this, scared of the dark outside the door!!!!

The film deals with the subject of abuse and betrayal as well as the supernatural. Jack Torrences deterioration into madness only magnifies his personality (much as alcohol would do) by turning off his inhibitions. He has already hurt his son in a drunken episode, alluded to by his wife Wendy and when Danny shows up injured and visibly traumatized after going into room 237 Wendy's first thought is that Jack has been abusing Danny. It is clearly a habit of his to take out his frustrations at failing in life on someone else rather than face the fact he is to blame. The ghostly encounters he has at the hotel only reinforce these beliefs and the isolation ensures he can act on them.

His wife Wendy is portrayed as paradoxically very capable and at the same time very hysterical. She is obviously self sufficient in doing all the tasks at the hotel and entertaining both herself and her son but seems incapable of following her instincts and removing her son from danger when he starts to suffer from terrifying visions. Like wise when she is being attacked by her husband although she manages to fight him off on both instances it is preceeded with much screaming and ineffectual waving of weapons.

Neither parent is overly concerned their small child is roaming the kitchens, corridors and rooms of an extremely large hotel unsupervised. Indeed it is through the camera lens of Danny that most of the atmosphere is built. The long low shots of him riding his bike through corridors that telescope away into the distance are masterful, as your anxiety of what could happen to him builds, and his visions of the blood and gore connected with the hotel occur more and more frequently as his fathers sanity unravels. He is obviously not only a gifted child, both intellectually in outwitting his father and psychically, but a disturbed one and his mantra like utterances as the third party 'Tony' are both pitiful and frightening.

It is ultimately the musical score that best documents the deterioration. It jars your senses like nails on a blackboard and does not let you rest. Crescendos are mixed with whispers and the silent moments only serve to shred your nerves further as they wait for what will happen next.  It is this mastery of discomfort that defines a Stanley Kubric film.

The film does not make it clear if Jack is going mad or if there are ghostly presence's until he is released from the food store by the ghost of the previous caretaker. However I do not feel it is the supernatural element or the gory flashes of Danny's visions that make The Shining so powerful, it is the ultimate horror of the betrayal of trust a child has in its parents and the unnatural desire to kill your own that is the true horror.

Carlos Clarens agrees completely in his book ‘An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films’ and expands further:

‘The ultimate Horror in Science Fiction is neither death nor distruction but dehuminization, a state in which emotional life is suspended, in which the individual is deprived of individual feelings, free will and moral judgement.’ (Clarens: p.134) 

The Haunting – Robert Wise (1963)

Figure 6

The Haunting was prompted by a renewed interest in Extra Sensory Perception in the 1960’s and follows a small team of psychic investigators led by Dr Markway as they investigate a house born bad. 

The maker of the house Mr Crain deliberately avoided any right angles when he made the house (unfortunately the film lost me there – surely it would fall down!) and all the wrong angles add up to a massive distortion allowing the spirit to find a home.  His wife never lived in the house as her carriage crashed in the grounds killing her immediately and the house has since been the centre of many deaths both suicide and accident. 

Where Polanski’s the Tenant left you bewildered as for reasons why this film is the direct opposite, irritating in its over explanation of the plot and hand holding of the audience.   The repeated ominous warnings by the staff about noone will hear you scream ooo arrr let me say it again noooo one will hear you scream are more Rocky Horror than Psychological Horror.

As irritating as this is it pales into insignificance against the annoyance of the main character Eleanor, a neurotic virgin haunted by the trauma of being less than perfect when nursing her dying mother, who just wants someone to love her, and who ends up falling in love with the house.  She spends most of her time screaming, sulking and wafting about in a slightly deranged ethereal manner.

There are some fantastic touches hidden among the plot however, the menace of the house is never seen but manifests itself as banging rage against the walls of the rooms and palpitating doors, a menace that is allowed to grow in your imagination.  Alas it is the only thing that is and it is a mercy when finally Eleanor is killed driving her car on the exact same spot that the wife was killed all those years before.

Supposedly Stanley Kubrick was hugely influenced by this film in the making of The Shining.  Kim Newman in his book ‘Nightmare Movies A Critical Guide to Contemporary Horror Films’ draws parallels between both:

‘Kubrick draws heavily from previous screen hauntings, particularily that of Eleanor (Julie Harris), who finds in Hill House the home she has never had, but has to die to stay there.  The Shining becomes a love story between Jack and the Overlook Hotel and like Eleanor he has to die to take up residence.’



All of the films that I have watched as part of the unit and reviewed above have key elements of the themes present in a psychological horror, the loss of reality, obsession with death and damaged personalities.  The only one that does not sit squarely is Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock which despite its masterful build of suspense and attention to detail is less psychological horror and more Thriller.  This genre is one that does not require you to be a believer, you do not need a faith in God or the Devil or to suspend your disbelief to be fully immersed in the story.  Charles Willeford sums this up nicely in his chapter ‘When Company Drops In’ from the book ‘Reign of Fear The Fiction and Film of Stephen King (1982-1989)’:

‘He proves that the horror of reality is much worse than anything that smacks of mysticism and the undead.’ (Herron:p.55)      

Newman, Kim: Nightmare Movies A Critical Guide to Contemporary Horror Films (1988) Harmony Books, New York

Herron, Don: Reign of Fear The Fiction and Film of Stephen King (1982-1988) (1991) Pan Books Ltd, London

Jones, Alan: The Rough Guide to Horror Movies (2005) Rough Guides Ltd, London

Clarens, Carlos: An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Film (1997) Da Capo Press, New York


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