Hitchcockian, Lynchian to Haneke’s domestic dystopia
“…Horror…Horror…” are the last words spoken by Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse now’ by Francis Ford Coppola. Adapted from the short story by Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness’ set in a Vietnam War setting, Coppola envisioned it as a terrifying psychological horror story about the nature of modern warfare. Kurtz is a renegade US Army Special Forces officer who formed his own army near Cambodia and is treated like a demigod by his followers but is equally feared by everyone. Absent throughout the film until the very end, his presence hovers like a living ghost.
Revelation now, in this sense is not a classic horror story, but rather deals with the effect of the horror inflicted by war, on people and nature. Brando represents the uglier side of a person who loses all sense of morality, causing someone to start enjoying terror – against the very purpose for which the war was started. A condition that can be witnessed in society, where an individual, the patriarchal system and the state inflict horror on the same people, whom they have an obligation to protect.
Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Micheal Haneke have mastered the art of bringing to light the darker sides of human beings in society. Their influence in cinema is so enormous that critics have begun to define films by their styles – Hitchcockian horror, Lynchian surreal horror or Haneke’s domestic horror. While the horror genre borrowed heavily from Hitchcock, Lynch’s surreal imagery redefined ideas of horror. In the book Lynch on Lynch, he says, “Black has depth. It’s like a little outing; you can enter it, and because it continues to be dark, the spirit comes into play, and many things that happen there become manifest. And you start to see what you’re afraid of.” He depicts horror through surreal imagery, from ants moving around a severed ear to deformed bodies to strange colored parts and creepy characters. . Unlike Hitchcock and Lynch, it is Haneke’s everyday horror that creates itself as an antidote to gore horror.
It unfolds slowly, but the ending is as chilling as any horror genre film. The sets and situations in a Haneke film are also very realistic as if showing us the horror that exists behind the closed walls of a house in everyday life. A character deals with his internal demons in his stories. Marlon Brando as Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” is more like a character from a Haneke movie, in an outside world. Coppola treats him like a living ghost, hiding him in the shadows most of the time, and doesn’t shy away from using elements of the horror genre like gore, murder, and suspense. The horror of the crimes and brutalities of war is on full display. The words Brando spoke, “Horror…horror,” as if to imply that the horror of war will never end.
This brings me to Victor Erice’s Spanish film, “The Spirit of the Hive”. It is an allegorical tale about the horror of Franco’s dictatorial regime. As Spain was heavily censored during Franco’s rule, it is interesting that Erice chose another classic horror film, “Frankenstein”, to show how he leaves an imprint on the mind of young child Ana . After the screening of the film, Ana and her sister Isabel stroll through the bewitching landscape, as if in search of the imaginary Frankenstein.
Instead of gory, straightforward brutality, Erice captures the landscape in beautiful painterly light with endless roads and gates, as if to suggest order and discipline under authoritarian rule. There is a lot of symbolism used in the film to refer to the horrors of the state. If the hive symbolizes blindly following the leader and behaving according to the rules, the father’s hive work suit represents power, and the school represents state-controlled education. Gothic horror tropes are used to counterbalance the calm that reigns in the village. The playful older sister experiments with these elements – she calmly pats the family’s black cat then suddenly tries to squeeze it. A strange toy is displayed in the background. She uses blood to color her lips and plays a risky game around the fire with other children.
At one point, as she jumps over the fire, the frame freezes, suggesting as if Ana imagined the fire had engulfed her. The father also tries to instill fear in the girls in a scene where he talks about poisonous mushrooms. The train and its sounds are used to create tension and symbolize an impending threat, very similar to Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali”. Ana witnesses the horrors of the state, when a revolutionary she befriends is killed by the police. She runs away in search of the imaginary Frankenstein who becomes real to her, as the real world creates fear in her. Fictional horror becomes an escape from the tyranny of real horror everywhere. Ana, in this sense, is portrayed as a rebel against the state. Much remains ambiguous, so that the public imagines as if the horror were in the unspoken. The film is subversive and yet very poetic, a masterpiece that inspired me to make Ashwatthama. I used the myth of Ashwatthama as a tale that left an imprint in the mind of the young child, Ishvaku, and placed it in the landscape of the Chambal ravines, famous for their rebels.
The ravines are visualized as a mysterious land. Ishvaku’s cousin sister of the same age is deaf and mute while older cousin sister Mathu receives letters from a stranger. The eldest maternal uncle who loses his mind keeps scorpions as pets and the sacred bull makes a tragic prophecy. Shot in monochrome to denote the monotony of life, color is used as a contrasting force to denote the child’s fear and dreams. Water, an invigorating element, becomes a force of terror for the child. When Ishvaku discovers an injured dacoit in an abandoned ruin, the myth of Ashwatthama becomes real to him and brings out the rebel in him. Witness of violence against women within the family, he decides to flee the horror of patriarchy and religiosity, like his cousin sister Mathu. Many of the images used in the film come from my own childhood memories. I remember as a child they created a strong sense of fear in me. Certain places and objects that featured in local myths and stories became a source of horror, and I began to avoid visiting them or going near them. This acquired memory also helped to associate similar images with horror. I continue to use them to designate fear, dread, violence or disgust in my films. The genre of my films may not be classic horror, but understanding horror has definitely helped me to suggest feelings or emotions associated with it.
Horror in cinema is something whose role is to disturb the feeling of stability. A dark area is revealed, either of the mind or of a physical space; and fear and dread of terror, terror and violence are the results. In this sense, it is very similar to the rasa ‘Bibhatsa’ of our Navrasa traditions. But accompanied by the ‘Adbhut’, it can turn into poetry, as in the films of Victor Erice.