Nicolas Roeg – Don’t Look Now (1973)
Alfred Hitchcock – Lifeboat (1944)
Ingmar Bergman – Hour of the Wolf (1968)
I often try to screen some classic films during my annual Horrorfest. This year my classic films seem to also honor classic filmmakers; Europeans who built respected careers with their works and aren’t really known as horror directors but just plain great directors. This year three directors make up the Master Class of Horrorfest.
Nicholas Roeg is the only of these three directors who is still living. He has not enjoyed the lifelong success of the other two, but during the seventies he became very revered for his output of “psychedelic” films which embraced the pop culture of the youth, while showing a deft handle on the craft of cinema. A renowned cinematographer throughout the 60s, his debut film as a director “Performance” starred rocker Mick Jagger in his very first acting assignment. Roeg later cast David Bowie as the lead in his alien come to Earth film “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. Perhaps his most widely praised film is the Australian outback set “Walkabout”, which he followed with another highly respected film “Don’t Look Now”.
While much of his films focus on the idea of the outcast and alien, “Don’t Look Now” was his only film to venture into the genre of horror. More of a character study drama than a horror film, the supernatural plays a large role in this thriller featuring one of the most reluctant heroes to visit the screen. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple recovering from the accidental drowning death of their daughter. He is an historic preservationist working on a church in Venice. He is a practical man with little interest in the spiritual world, even that of the church he is restoring.
Christie’s mother has had trouble copping with her daughter’s death until she meets a blind woman who claims to have seen their daughter. Her interaction with this woman changes her outlook and brings the focus of their grief on Sutherland’s father. He appears to be gifted with the same spiritual sight as the blind woman, but refuses to accept it, just as he refuses to accept his own grief over his daughter’s death. Where all this leads these characters is entirely unpredictable and in some ways utterly strange.
What makes Roeg’s film so unique is the father’s unwillingness to take the role assigned him. He refuses to see his visions for what they are. Meanwhile, the threat against him draws ever closer. The horror sneaks up on the characters in the same way it sneaks up on the audience. It seems like this is just a slightly off kilter drama, until suddenly it becomes something entirely different. To say you can’t see the ending coming is an understatement.
Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense, but he rarely dabbled in all out horror. “Psycho” and “The Birds” are the only films he made that could really be classified as horror. Most of his work are thrillers; some political, some romantic, some psychological. It is that obsession he had with the psychological thriller that keeps much of his work on the cusp of horror, even when it cannot be classified purely as horror.
His 1944 film “Lifeboat” is surely not a horror film, although less frightening films have been included in Horrorfest before. In many ways this tale of open sea survival from the story by John Steinbeck is really just a form of American propaganda to carry audiences through the end of World War II. It seems to say that Nazis are evil,with no two ways about it. Don’t be fooled by empathy. But it also dabbles in a frequent undercurrent of Hitch—the idea of normal ordinary people committing that awful sin of murder for the greater good. What does killing a man do to you, even in the middle of a war?
When a merchant marine ship is sunk in the Atlantic, a small band of survivors must make the best of it in a lifeboat. The fact that one of the survivors is a German from the very ship that sunk the merchant vessel complicates matters. Do they leave him to die? Does that make them murderers? The German captain stays, but after several betrayals the group is unanimous about his ultimate fate.
What they do breaks down all boundaries between class and status, and redefines all their moral standards. Is their decision a good one because no one dissents? Will everyone be able to live with what they have done? Would they have survived had they not done it? Hitch raises all these questions almost subversively underneath the veil of patriotism and the idea that in war everything is black and white; when in reality, these questions prove it clearly is not.
The films of Ingmar Bergman are certainly not films that would generally be considered to belong to any genre, yet almost all of them deal with the depth of human psychology that drives all three of the films discussed here. In my very first Horrorfest I looked at my very first Bergman film, “The Seventh Seal”. Again, certainly no horror flick, but with the presence of death in the story and the horrors of human psychology driving the events, I felt it fit.
“Hour of the Wolf” is probably the closest Bergman ever got to a horror film. Like “The Seventh Seal”, “Wolf” stars the great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow. Sydow plays an artist on the verge of losing his sanity. Bergman takes his time in revealing that this is what is really happening as the artist’s story is told by his lover (Liv Ullman). The two have begun an isolated existence on a secluded island, but soon find the island’s landlords to be intruding upon their idyllic environment.
Sydow’s artist seems to be strangely connected to this eccentric family. As he interacts more with the family on the island, he becomes moody and less accessible to his lover. At one point, he recalls an incident involving a young boy that drives the creep factor of the film through the roof. The boy is more of a creature than a human, and soon we discover the same goes for the island’s other inhabitants.
It is easy to mistake Bergman as a dialogue driven director, rather than a visually driven one. “Hour of the Wolf” is a wonderful example of how visual Bergman could be in his direction. Note the wordless wonder Sydow’s artist exhibits as he enters the castle for the second time and sees the family’s strange existence for the first time. Notice the man who walks up walls, or the naked woman, wonderfully focused in the background of the shot, as Sydow begins his final descent into madness. This picture could act as a class in itself on gothic images in cinema.
As I write this, I'm thinking I was wrong to claim that no film of Bergman’s could qualify as a genre film. But while the subject of “Hour of the Wolf” is a very personal character study of a particular man, this is most assuredly a horror movie. And really a good horror film often requires very personal character study. This is a film that can lead to nightmares, and isn’t that the point of Horrorfest?