Sinister Footfalls on a Darkened Stair: Hitchcock and His Continuing Sphere of Influence

More than any other studio system director, Alfred Hitchcock has influenced an amazing international collection of postmodern movie makers.

Few directors have been as influential as Alfred Hitchcock. His lasting impact on the genre he more than 'mastered" over the course of nearly five decades -- the thriller -- is undeniable and for generations of devoted filmmaking followers, his carefully constructed, mesmerizing set-piece sequences continue to be studied... and mimicked. Moreover, he is one of the rare directors who almost everyone knows, from studied scholar to your average Joe Pony Keg. To them, his name is synonymous with a certain style, a specific artistic approach, and more than one example of cinematic brilliance in his personal portfolio. When you look over his life behind the lens, his astonishing accomplishments speak for themselves.

While all can claim to have learned from him, a select few have made Hitchcock their main muse, their benchmark for crafting dread and the measure by which its success is calculated and considered. Within all their work is reference -- some even border on outright worship -- but it seems to go deeper than mere homage. In fact, when confronted with the work of such diverse directors as Dario Argento, Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, John Carpenter, Kathyrn Bigelow, and Martin Scorsese (just to name a few), it is apparent that Hitchcock's aesthetic reach goes far beyond an expressionistic shower scene, or a spine-tingling foot chase across the face of Mount Rushmore.

As far back as his heyday, Hitchcock was always being differentiated from his peers. During the New Wave, such French luminaries as Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut used him as a prime example of their burgeoning "auteur theory". Centering on the concept that a filmmaker's work clearly reflect his or her own personal passions and vision, it seemed tailor-made for the larger than life director. Throughout the '50s and '60s, as he reached one creative zenith after another, Hitchcock was embraced by a new breed of artist, individuals in front of and behind the lens who wanted to explore all avenues of what the medium and artform had to offer. Their updates would literally redefine cinema.

One of the earliest examples of this can be found in the work of Italian maestro Dario Argento. With his unintentional "animals" trilogy -- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Cat O'Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) -- the fright filmmaker with a penchant for as much flash as fear used Hitchcock's work as the basis for reinventing the beloved "giallo" genre in his native land. Named after the yellow book jackets these pulp chillers typically derived from, it was Argento who applied a more artistic approach to the otherwise sleazy example of cinematic exploitation. In his defining masterpiece, Profundo Rosso (1975), the director practically channeled Hitchcock, from a stylized opening sequence suggesting a Christmas season massacre to a last act walk through a deserted house that reveals more than mere motive.

Otherwise known as Deep Red, Argento's bravura performance behind the lens is clearly the result of studying every part of his influence's films. The movie opens with a psychic reading, the claret colored drapes as the backdrop striking within a theater setting (one of Hitchcock's favorite locales). Later, the death that spawns the storyline is played out in an apartment adorned like a lost episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. As one horrific canvas after another fills the frame, we can see Argento beginning his dedication to "The MacGuffin" -- Hitchcock's favorite description of the mystery element that's necessary to the narrative, but not the approach. Who the killer is in Profundo Rosso is far less important than how the movie gets to said conclusion, and the death scenes argue for the influence of similar staged murders like in Psycho or Frenzy. In fact, Deep Red could be viewed as the bastard child of Hitchcock's later period, an era filled with cheeky cruelty and mass audience manipulation. Argento would even go on to create a 2005 TV movie entitled Do You Like Hitchcock? , an outright personal paean to the fabled filmmaker.

Though he too became a student of the original "Master", John Carpenter also argued for Argento's place in his pantheon of influences -- especially in his mid '70s period of surreal shockers such as Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Halloween (1978), his mainstream breakout, can easily be seen as a combination of Hitchcock and his able Italian student. From perverse POV and lingering tracking shots that start the seminal slasher film off on a gory note, to the use of ineffectual authority figures and oppressive unseen threats (another Hitch hallmark) Michael Myers journey back to his hometown of Haddenfield represents the post-modern precipice of suspense, the combination of old school techniques (the veiled threat, viewer involvement in the chase and reveal) and new wave reinterpretation that would jumpstart an entire subgenre.

Sometimes, the reverence was more like a rip-off. Brian DePalma practically forged his entire early career out of taking something akin to Hitchcock's Greatest Hits and turning them into entire films. It's easy to look back and see how Obsession (1976) mimicked Vertigo down to the Bernard Herrmann score and the romance with a look-alike subtext. Later, he would use Norman Bates cross-dressing tendencies for a sexed up version of Psycho known as Dressed to Kill (1980). All throughout his oeuvre, DePalma was more than a mere apprentice. Many considered him a thief, constantly cribbing from betters like Hitchcock as a means of avoiding his own lack of creative invention. With brilliant efforts like Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), and Scarface (1983) however, it's a difficult case to make. But it's clear that DePalma's generation, like the French before them, understood the magic within Hitchcock's methodical madness -- and wanted to explore each and every avenue.

Even unlikely candidates such as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola were clearly drawn into the devious director's combination of form and functionality. Jaws (1975) is a veritable primer in Hitchcock technique, from the brilliant (if technologically necessary) decision to keep the shark -- the MacGufffin -- under wraps until the last minute to the use of camera tricks like the focus pull on Sheriff Brody during the Alex Kitner attack. In fact, it's so clearly Hitchcock at times that you'd swear the elephantine English genius was sitting off shore at Martha's Vineyard, calling the shots. As for Coppola, his own operatic sense of drama merged effortlessly with the Master of Suspense's shortcut suggestiveness during the climatic gangland assassinations at the end of The Godfather (1972). From the victim trapped in a revolving door to Moe Green getting it right in the eye, it's yet another example of how pervasive the Hitchcock ideal became.

With his death in 1980, the critical community kept watch on when "the next Hitchcock" would arrive. Carpenter had already abandoned the thriller for more gut-wrenching fare (moving from Argento to Fulci, one could argue) while DePalma was still defending himself against charges of planned artistic plagiarism. Some pointed to foreign filmmakers like George Sluizer (who offered the re-inventive classic The Vanishing -- 1988) while some saw British directors like Ripley Scott and his brother Tony toy with the notion of dread before going off on their own calculated commercial benders. By the end of the decade, no one was sure if the genre was still viable. Silence of the Lambs may have started off the '90s by picking up multiple Oscars (the first tagged 'horror' film to do so), but for many, the needs of suspense far outweighed talent and tenacity.

For genre jumper Danny Boyle, however, the category was ripe for a UK positioned return to form and his effortless Shallow Grave (1994) seemed like a sure step in the right direction. With its simple, strategically sound premise (three roommates run into a dead flatmate, a suitcase of cash, and their own insatiable greed) and its gung-ho fetish with all aspects of film, it was the closest thing to Hitchcock since the director himself left his homeland six decades previous for the siren studio call of Hollywood. Boyle would go on to embrace all aspects of the medium, returning to the type for The Beach (2000), 28 Days Later (2002), and certain elements of his Oscar winning effort, Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

He was matched, hype for happenstance, by a student of Spielberg and the old studio mannerisms -- M. Night Shyamalan. With The Sixth Sense (1999), the Indian-born, American-raised wunderkind played Hitchcock perfectly, from the carefully crafted script that never once cheapened or challenged the last act "twist" to the understated means of manufacturing and manipulating dread. It would soon become his overwhelming approach of choice, a moviemaking means he would explore again and again with Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004). Unlike Hitchcock, however, who seemed to have critical carte blanche to tackle anything he really wanted, Shyamalan saw the success of The Sixth Sense as much a burden as a badge of honor. He would eventually strain under the stress, creating undeniably bad efforts like The Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008).

And still the search raged on. Many pointed to James Cameron and his technically precise epics as possible inheritors of Hitchcock's mantle, but the comparison, while compelling, remains a reach. Similarly, Robert Zemeckis has shown a deft hand at chills, but with such uneven examples as What Lies Beneath and Cast Away (both 2000), it's hard to champion him as well. About the closest anyone has come recently to bringing back the type of terror that Hitchcock handled flawlessly was Hurt Locker (2009) helmer Kathryn Bigelow. Her take on the Iraq War and a daredevil bomb disposal unit was rich with elements taken directly from the Master. The moment Jeremy Renner's Sergeant First Class William James uncovers a veritable web of anti-personal devices directly under his feet, you could practically hear Hitchcock giggling with envious delight.

In fact, the most compelling element of his obvious lasting legacy might just be on the indirect desire by directors to impress the artform and one-up themselves. Quentin Tarantino, who is about as far removed from Hitchcock as any modern moviemaker can be, obviously enjoys coming up with sequences that will shock and stupefy his viewer. Even if they appear lifted from a dozen different sources, he wants to make sure that you walk away from his experience satiated and satisfied that you've never quite seen his cinematic combination before. It's chest-thumping of a celluloid kind, ambition directly tapped from Hitchcock's own meticulous desire to amaze. The same can be said for the rash of "found footage" films, movies asking us to merge real life and the forms of fiction to create a kind of aesthetic "other" -- a place where truth meets the mandates of motion pictures to blur the edges of what's authentic and what's artificial.

This was what Hitchcock strove for -- a different cinematic genuineness. When Tippi Hedren's reaction shots were held, like still portraits, over the impending explosion of a gas station pump (and the man standing next to it), he wasn't trying to make The Birds feel more 'real'. Instead, he wanted to impart the gut reaction impact of seeing such carnage, of witnessing death stand up and demand attention right in front of your very eyes. He would constantly tweak this idea, from the fish-eyed glass lens moment from Strangers on a Train to the beat-for-beat bravado of a Notorious Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman attempting to uncover a devious Nazi plot. Events like this could never honestly be witnessed in real life. For his part, Hitchcock took his camera and cleared out all the barriers and boundaries. What we found instead were moments of heart-pounding horror and edge of your seat chills.

Recently, American auteur Martin Scorsese dabbled in the dark side with his supremely effective 2010 thriller Shutter Island (his first since the remake of Cape Fear nearly twenty years ago). While he was always an admirer of Hitchcock (his title sequences often referenced -- and frequently utilized -- the director's favorite architect of same, Saul Bass) and played within his world of arcane angles and clever camera tricks, he'd never really paid homage to the man's moviemaking. But with the story of a mysterious insane asylum and a police investigation that might just be one massive psychological game all its own, Scorsese set out to show Hitchcock's spirit a thing or two -- and delivered on every account.

So when you consider that the man hasn't made a movie since 1976's Family Plot, died four years later, only ever won an Oscar as part of that notorious career overview labeled "Honorary", and often called filmmaking "the worst part" of the entire process (he dearly loved almost everything about pre-production), such a mighty, massive mythos is impressive. Indeed, to instill in even the most accomplished director a desire to stretch his or her own Hitchcockian wings (an actual word, mind you), to find their own personal Suspicion or Rear Window is a continuing testament to the man who almost singlehandedly inscribed the entire thriller handbook. While others have tried to inherit the title of 'Master', there is only one true sage of suspense. With a graduating class as impressive as his, there is no doubting Alfred Hitchcock's enduring sway. More than just a household name, he's a brand -- and a brilliant one at that.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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