The Terror Test: Test Prep #3

Posted on July 15, 2016 by

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Hitch Me Up! Hitch Me Down!

The oldest memory I have of terror involves the piece of music “The Lonely Man” by Joe Harnell. My body electrified with fear when I heard the first four notes of the melody. And then I would run. I didn’t have to see Bruce Banner’s eyes turn white or light green. I didn’t have to see Lou Ferrigno jump out of a parade float or closet reducing it to splinters like a mutant stripper exploding out of a cake. Just four notes from the theme of the TV series The Incredible Hulk was all it took. Scream. Run. Hide.

Sometimes my dad would make me watch the show until I cried and ran. Sometimes he would tell me he was watching something else and then those light green contacts would appear and I would disappear. I teach my students about notions like the sins of the fathers being revisited on the sons, eternal recurrence, the return of the repressed, often in terms of ghost stories. I found out later that my dad did this because my grandfather made him sit and listen to the theme of a show that terrified him. That piece is Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette,” but it is better known as the theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

I wasn’t even a decade old when the 1985 revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired. I loved the original run of the show I saw in summer reruns. While I reveled in the grim and goofy theme that echoed perfectly Hitchcock’s dark wit, my dad, who had been in the military, who boxed at an amateur level, and who was a police officer, got up and left the room every time that music played.

Hitchcock may have been the first director I understood as an auteur, though I didn’t know that word. I started spotting his cameos in the films. I picked up on the “innocent man wrongly accused” theme. I loved Bernard Herrmann’s music and still do.

When The Terror Test announced a Hitchcock episode, I was excited, but unlike my early Fear-of-the-Hulk years, I didn’t know in which direction to run. I kept thinking about how when I had read or saw references to Hitchcock lately, they were often negative. Not sure what to do with that, I called in reinforcements and talked to Murray Leeder, a critic whose writing I enjoy. He is an Instructor in Film Studies at the University of Calgary and author of Halloween (2014) and editor of Cinematic Ghosts (2015). He has also written numerous articles, mostly about horror films and ghost films.

When I was brainstorming ideas for this piece, I kept coming back to the idea that Hitchcock’s status has declined. And then I couldn’t really figure out what I meant by “status.” Maybe what I was thinking was that he doesn’t seem to influence as many writers and directors and I certainly feel like I don’t hear him referenced as much as he used to be. I feel like John Carpenter and Michael Mann have been regaining status and Ozu is more appreciated than Kurosawa these days. I feel like part of the interest in Carpenter comes from his Lost Scores records and filmmakers using synths in scores again. I’m thinking particularly of Adam Wingard’s use of music and the music in Drive.

Perhaps Hitchcock’s status has declined, though not as noticeably as Howard Hawks’s or even John Ford’s. Here’s an example: where I teach Film Studies, the consensus towards the introductory class is that two filmmakers strictly need to be represented on it: Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein. With Welles, of course that means Citizen Kane; it’s not like anyone’s likely to drop Kane in favour of The Trial or Othello anytime soon, but with Eisenstein there are several viable choices. There’s also a need to show a French New Wave film, probably by Godard. No specific mandate to include a Hitchcock film, although I have done so (Rear Window, to be precise).

Carpenter most definitely is gaining in status, a rather fascinating process since he has not directed a film in many years now. Lost Scores has helped establish him as a kind of celebrity at large, his persona circulating in ways less and less attached to his films all the time. And as you note, one can have a Carpenter-esque film not by Carpenter (Neil Marshall seems to have that one down, too), just as there’s a slate of Hitchcock films not by Hitchcock (Charade, Obsession, etc.).

What are we talking about when we talk about “status” in terms of directors? Is it something that we have to define differently based on a particular context? In what ways is it valuable and how is it not? Ultimately, is it useful? Does it even matter?

Among the French critics of Cahiers du Cinema and Andrew Sarris and his followers in the States, the idea of the great director served as a kind of legitimizing force for the medium of film itself. At that time, there were still many who sniffed at cinema as a low medium — but if it had great directors in it, it must be a great medium, no? It’s an appeal to the Romantic conception of the great artist. I wonder if we have reached a time where that way of thinking about film directors as great artists is less necessary.

That said, though the auteur theory has been critiqued, sometimes very devastatingly, from all directions, it’s also not really going anywhere. After all, somebody makes the thing.

If there is a way to talk about Hitchcock’s status here, do you have a feeling that he’s not as important as he was or seemed to be? What would be the causes of this? I wonder if his films seem “old” to younger viewers.

Hitchcock is still one of the few classical Hollywood directors who are household names. Who else? Welles, perhaps. Certainly Disney. But Ford, Hawks, Preminger, Zinnemann, Cukor, Wyler, etc.? Not too likely. Maybe even thinking Hitchcock is still well-known is wishful thinking. But my experience is that when they sit down and watch Psycho or Rear Window or Vertigo, younger viewers get it: they look past what’s dated and find that these films don’t just play as old curios. I always like to look back at the classroom when Lars Thorwald looks into the camera in Rear Window and a collective gasp comes up. The movie has them!

In thinking about this piece, I was wondering what I could add to the discussion on Hitchcock’s films, particularly Psycho or Frenzy. What’s important about these films to the genre and do you have any particular thoughts on them or Bloch’s novel?

It’s funny, I’m currently proposing a collection on the films of William Castle, and a senior scholar who submitted an abstract noted that he’s always resisted writing about Hitchcock directly, but instead has done so obliquely, like writing about Castle’s Psycho knockoff Homicidal instead. I rather feel the same. There’s something awfully daunting about writing about Hitchcock. Like writing about Shakespeare, it’s amazing that anyone finds anything new to say . . . yet they do.

The confluence of Psycho and Frenzy is interesting as they together constitute Hitchcock’s bloodiest and grisliest films. Hitchcock claimed that he saw Psycho as a comedy, and a streak of black humour is more evident in Frenzy — Bob Rusk searching for the missing hand in the potatoes and all that. I sometimes wonder if people without a working familiarity with British wit grasp that part of Hitchcock.

As a critic, where do you see Hitchcock’s influence these days?

It’s a good question and I’m not sure I see it at all at the moment: I don’t know if people haul out the adjective “Hitchcockian” as much as they once did, and I don’t know if there’s a director out there who is, like Brian De Palma of old, consciously positioning themselves as an heir to the master. I’m not sure if there are still very Hitchcockian French thrillers being made, like With a Friend Like Harry, and I’m just not aware of them. There’s still Michael Haneke, though his last couple do not evoke Hitchcock as clearly as Funny Games or Cache.

As a horror critic, what are you working on? What are you thinking about in terms of the genre? What keeps you interested?

I’m currently working on an introductory-style book about Horror Films, as well as some work on the history of ghost films (horror or otherwise). This is exciting to me in part because I keep finding myself needing to write at least a bit about canonical films that I’ve never really written about before, like The Haunting or The Shining.

As a horror fan, what have you been excited about recently and what are you looking forward to in the genre?

I’m not as up on recent trends in the genre as I have been in the past, but I think there’s a mini-renaissance on, with films like The Babadook, It Follows and The Witch proving that there’s plenty of life left in horror.

What are your five favorite horror films?

So hard to choose! I guess I’ll have to start with Nosferatu (1922) as it was the film that got me interested in film history to begin with. Halloween (1978) is the film I’ve written most about, easily, and I’m still happy to watch it again. Dead of Night (1945) has a special place in my part as a thoroughly classy film that is also terrifying; it’s the one that really always gets my students, who are amazed to find a film that old can contain anything as intense as the ventriloquist dummy episode. The 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers always sucks me in with its slow build of paranoia. More of a sentimental favourite, but it was The Legend of Hell House (1973) that got me interested in studying ghost films specifically and I feel unduly proud of my essay about it in Horror Studies.

 

Thanks to Murray Leeder for his thoughts, energy, and time. Check out his work! Come back next week to find out if Psycho and Frenzy pass the Terror Test!