Last weekend, I traveled to Orlando for "Halloween Horror Nights" at Universal Studios, where I also had the good fortune to find James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN playing on the big screen in City Walk. Naturally, I gobbled up the chance to take in the big screen experience, though the afternoon showing I went to only had six people in attendance--and that included me, along with the two people I talked into tagging along. Still, watching Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, and Dwight Frye in larger-than-life form made the early evening drive back home very much worth it.
The big screen also gave me an opportunity to soak in one of the my favorite moments of the film, specifically when the monster intrudes on Elizabeth as she prepares for her wedding. This sequence has never lost its unsettling impact for me, as we see the monster clearly unhinged after accidently drowning a young girl, and it doesn't seem entirely outside the realm of possibility that he does something unspeakable with Elizabeth. The implication seems all the more evident when we consider the need he feels for a mate in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
I love how Whale frames the scene to look like Fuseli's 1781 painting, "The Nightmare," which features an incubus crouching atop a sleeping woman. Perhaps Whale structured the scene this way intentionally, calling upon an association with the painting's metaphor for transgressive sex. Or maybe I just want to view the film in a kinky way . . .
"On mounting a rising ground," writes Washington Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "which brought the figure of his fellow traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror struck, on perceiving that he was headless!" No story says Halloween better than this one. This year, my local supermarket decorated its foyer with a life-sized paper mache of Irving's famous spectre, and we even find new M & M television advertising featuring a pretty nifty headless Hessian. Modern readers might find Irving's original text a bit wordy, yet it still evokes an eerie magic, with its haunted church-yard and ominous woods. Reading it today still transports us into the hearth, where we live "the "marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him."
Contemporary film-makers still feel drawn to the story, and their attempts to capture Irving's magic have let to varying degrees of success, from contemporary interpretations like THE HOLLOW and HEADLESS HORSEMAN (the latter which gave the story a backwoods horror angle, not unlike THE HILLS HAVE EYES of all things), to Tim Burton's wonderful SLEEPY HOLLOW, which re-imagined Ichabod Crane as a police detective. Still, the most brilliant interpretation comes from the least likely source: Disney's 1949 adaptation.
Watching Disney's version on TV during the 1970s became one of the most formative experiences of my young imagination. Narrated (and sometimes sung) by Bing Crosby, the story stays remarkably faithful to Irving's original story. The animators use deep, rich colors to capture the horrific majesty of the horseman, and even peppered with humor, the terror that Ichabod feels on his fateful ride seems real and genuine. One of the most remarkable moments occurs when Ichabod, forced into an embrace with the spectre, peers down into the open neck hole of the horseman's tunic and sees . . . what? Something that evokes terror, something that undercuts the ambiguous ending that Irving's story leaves with us. It all might have been Brom Bones' practical joke, but Ichabod sees something that terrifies and possibly revolts him. This is a moment of genius on the part of Disney's animators, and (I mean this) one of the greatest moments of horror film history.
Reportedly, Disney's imagineers originally planned to tie its Haunted Mansion attraction in to the Sleepy Hollow legend. According to Jason Surrell's book on the history of the attraction, the original concept involved a climax in the conservatory, where spectators would witness the crossing of the headless horseman past the window overlooking the graveyard. How cool would that have been?
Here's a well-made independent film that reminds us that, deep down, beneath tons of psychic scar tissue created when we watched Disney's SNOW WHITE at a young age, many of us still find old, cloaked ladies with crooked noses and hunched backs scary. Not since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has a film indulged those old fears, taking us into a frame of mind created when the Christians of Europe sought to suppress pagan religions by portraying its practitioners as diabolical and evil--with ugly faces to prove it. Full discosure: I liked this movie, and the filmmakers did their homework, including references to Samhain, the Witches' Sabbat that falls on November Eve, as well as MALLEUS MALFICARUM, or THE WITCHES' HAMMER, which offered instructions on how to detect and effectively execute a witch. However, unlike THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, WITCHES' NIGHT taps into the fear of female sexuality that the demonization of witches ultimately represents.
With an attractive female cast and eroticized rituals (as well as violence), this is a sexy film, though without the trvialization that we might see in a Misty Mundae production. The very plot begins with male rejection, as the protagonist struggles with the anguish caused by his fiancee leaving him at the altar. To cheer him up, his three friends take him on a camping trip, intending a night of beer drinking, male bonding, and a "women, who needs 'em" mindset to get them through the crisis. Naturally, the four men choose the wrong woods for their camping trip, for a coven of ancient witches has made it the scene of their Halloween Sabbat. Capable of altering their appearance, the witches appear as seductive young women, intended to make the guys forget all about that terrible woman who left their buddy at the altar. Sexual congress with these ladies, however, results in blindness, mutation, and horrible swelling (not the good kind, either).
The film's director, Paul Traynor, effectively combines seductive images with the traditional "hag" archetype associated with witchcraft. At first we get only obscured glimpses of the witches in their true form--scurrying behind trees, glaring at the men from behind branches, adding a degree of unease to the film's overall effect. They come to represent a power beyond the male imagination, attuned to a malevolent form of nature to which the men fall prey. Modern day experts in witchcraft might rightfully remind us that the image of the "hag" represented wisdom in pre-Christian religions, its eventual association with evil a means of a reactionary effort to suppress those religions. While WITCHES' NIGHT does not make an effort to correct this--it wants to scare us after all--it tells its story well, and for an independent film, it comes across as a polished, professional effort. With its Halloween setting and use of classic archetypes, it makes for good holiday viewing.
The film is available for download or on DVD at http://www.witchesnight.com/. Considering the paucity of good horror films at the multiplex, WITCHES' NIGHT is worth the effort to seek it out.
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