Reviews

Experiments in Terror (2003)

John G. Nettles

It's rather like being invited over to watch David Lynch's home movies.


Experiments in Terror

Director: Noel Lawrence
Cast: Peter Tscherkassky, Lloyd M. Williams, Kerry Laitala, J. X. Williams, David Sherman, Damon Packard
Studio: Other Cinema
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2005-09-27
Amazon affiliate

One of the benefits of age is the ability to separate one's personal tastes from the demands of art. I understand now why Henry James is considered by many to be America's greatest writer, and I can graciously acknowledge his keen insight into the human condition rendered in elegant and portentous prose. I can also say that Henry James bores the righteous fuck out of me and I guiltlessly thank God that I'll never have to read windy crap like The Ambassador or The Bostonians again.

My younger self, the eager would-be intellectual of my college years, would not have been so sanguine. Having fled the burbs for Athens, Georgia at the height of its cool years, I lapped up whatever my professors fed me by day and immersed myself in all the proper pursuits of the young hipster by night. Listened to the right records, saw the right bands, read the right books, had the right kind of existential angst.

The me of those days would have gotten into Experiments in Terror, a collection of six short experimental films from the 1960s through 2002, linked thematically by their attempts to achieve a certain horrific, dreamlike quality -- six nightmares in search of an exit. I would have been rapt by the daring technical flourishes and swept up in all the unrelenting phantasmagoria. I also would most likely have been baked out of my mind on weapons-grade sinsemilla while watching it.

The me of today can still appreciate the efforts to create hypnotic and disturbing atmospheres. But horror is an incredibly organic genre; it evolves with its audience, which is why the Gothic frights of the '30s, the aliens of the '50s, and the psychological screamers of the '60s and '70s have, with few exceptions, lost their ability to creep us out. We find many of them quaint now, and horror should never be quaint. Similarly, this collection offers a few creepy moments, but the films remain so firmly rooted in their eras that the result is little more than sour eye-candy. It's rather like being invited over to watch David Lynch's home movies.

German director Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space (1999) attempts to subvert the conventions. Taking footage from Sidney J. Furie's 1981 groaner The Entity (one of the many ugly scenes of Barbara Hershey being assaulted by the poltergeist), the film processes and reprocesses it until it's a spastic, strobey, noisy montage of triple-superimposed images and sputtering soundtrack. As Hershey bounces around her house trying to escape, Tscherkassky allows the film's perforation holes to appear among the images, to create a metafiction wherein Hershey's character is not only trapped in her house but also in a horror film.

Kerry Laitala's Journey into the Unknown (2002) and David Sherman's Tuning the Sleeping Machine (1996) also incorporate scenes from existing films into their experiments -- snatches of noir in Laitala's (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920]) and Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) in Sherman's. Both directors wash over the footage with garish colors and disorienting jumpcuts to approximate "dreamtime." But to what end? Why the multicolored lingering on the neon sign reading "Paramount" in Journey? Why the endless liquid imagery filling the screen in Tuning? Yes, these look like dreams, but terror is supposed to attack, not drift.

The titular heroine of Lloyd Michael Williams' Ursula (1961) is also trapped in a horror film. Unfortunately it's one of those scary-old-lady films that were a mainstay of that decade (to be fair, this film predates Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? [1962], Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte [1964], and Die! Die! My Darling! [1965]). Little girl Ursula, disturbingly voice-dubbed by a grownup, tears her pretty dress and oversleeps, to the chagrin of her psychotic mother, who punishes Ursula by chopping up her pets. Ursula goes insane in a slow parade of hallucinogenic film effects that call to mind early Mario Bava.

The Virgin Sacrifice (J. X. Williams, 1969) is a different case from the other films in this collection: the nine minutes here are all that remain of a feature film haunted by misfortune. Several deaths, a maiming, and a fire in the film lab hang over this production, the last claiming the negative, leaving only the film's opening: a mute newcomer rents a room from two girls who startlingly resemble Marcia and Jan Brady; they casually let drop that they're practicing Satanists (one of Anton LaVey's crowd was the chief investor). Cut to yet another phantasmagoric montage, psychedelic effects swirling around naked people who appear to be alternately dancing and performing open-heart surgery.

In Williams' case, the absence of context can be forgiven -- one can only assume that the elements that make these scenes cohere ended up as puddles of celluloid goo. The other filmmakers cut their films adrift from context deliberately, in the name of "surrealism." Therein lies the problem. Horror is about the surreal, but in the literal sense of the term. "Sur-real," or "above and beyond real," they induce fear with such overwhelming immediacy that it overrides reality. Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) did this by unleashing Surrealist artist H. R. Giger's indestructible and implacable monster on the helpless space crew. Clive Barker did it in spades with the Cenobites in the first Hellraiser (1987), beings from another dimension who play by their own horrific rules -- Lovecraft cubed.

Both films are fine examples of surrealism in action, terrifying because they conflict with consensus reality. Most of the films represented in Experiments in Terror seem to confuse surrealism with abstract expressionism, which by definition exists in its own space rather than intruding on ours. We must come to it, and that ain't horror.

Damon Packard's Dawn of an Evil Millennium (1988) ain't horror either. It's comedy, though it takes a few minutes to get that across. In fact, it's not a film per se, but a 21-minute trailer for an 18-hour movie about goofy-ass demons from Alpha Centauri battling each other in downtown Los Angeles for dominion of Earth by means of muscle-car chases, telekinetic duels, and gallons upon gallons of red- and purple-dyed corn syrup while law-enforcement types in bad wigs and fake mustaches attempt to stop them. The film riffs on Scanners (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Flash Gordon (1980), and numerous other films with all the cheesy posturing of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video. If you can deal with a steady flow of fake blood and ichor that would make a Fangoria reader cringe, it's a hoot.

Working horror clichés for shits and giggles, Dawn is a nice segue into the collection's archival material, all grade-A hunks of cheese. A trailer explaining the subliminal messaging, dubbed "Psychorama," in Harold Daniels' A Date with Death (1959), is followed by selections from director Jenni Olsen's 1995 examination of camp in old movies called, appropriately, Trailer Camp. Huckster director William Castle plugs his film Homicidal (1961) with one of his trademark gimmicks, your money back if you're too scared to watch the ending, followed by trailers for Cannibal Girls (1973), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), and the best blaxploitation film ever made, Blacula (1972). The collection wraps up with The Haunted Mouth, a 1973 educational film by the American Dental Association in which Cesar Romero's voice stars as plaque.

The best stuff in the collection is the funny, campy stuff. While it's great that Other Cinema archives this work (every film should have a home, after all), this DVD set is most effective if you're a 20-year-old Goth with access to really good drugs. Those of us with some mileage may just want to skip ahead to the part where the Joker tells us what he's going to do to our teeth.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image