AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THINGS THAT GO HOWL IN THE ID
Howl, howl, howl, howl!
—King Lear, Act V, Scene III
by Harlan Kennedy
When werewolves come, they come not in single snouts but in battalions. The new movie decade has ushered in a whole pack of lycanthropes, variously dispersed through The Howling, Wolfen, An American Werewolf in London, and Full Moon High, and suddenly Western audiences are reaching for their silver bullets as if time-warped back to the lupine heyday of Lon Chaney.
Miracle advances in special FX wizardry may satisfy some as the reason for this sudden Hour of the Wolf. But it takes more than a chance upsurge of jazzy genius in Hollywood's palpitating-pelt and elastic-nose departments to fully explain why so many screen stars are currently being pursued through woods, zoos, or New York streets by furry ravening mutants or red-eyed hand-held cameras.
If werewolves are loping onto the screen now – plus a fair-to-generous rear-guard sprinkling of apes and Neanderthals and other marauding incarnations of the id – it's not. just because maestros with papier-mâché and soluble rubber are suddenly at large on Sunset Boulevard, it's because the age has suddenly invoked and demanded these ogres. They're the snout-head of the New American Nightmare.
Paws a pulse-beat to ponder: that currently coinciding with the spate of lycanthropes and ids-in-sheep's-clothing is an oddly belated-looking rash of "conspiracy" movies (Blow Out, Cutter's Way, et al. ) vaguely genuflecting to the bygone rumpus of Watergate; that the American political villain of the last ten years with the most wolf-like features is Richard Nixon; and that a Gothic strain of camouflaged horror – a motif shared by both Watergate and the Vietnam war – runs through recent films as diverse as Altered States, Southern Confort, The Shining, Wolfen, and Shoot the Moon.
American cinema in the early Eighties, grappling with the injuries and images of a traumatic past twenty years, is in the grip of the most fascinating obsession with split-personality horror themes in its history. Good guys vs. bad guys have long been the staple of popular movies, but in the last two years Good and Evil have become knitted up as never so closely or obsessively before in the same skin. Violence lives thinly disguised by urbanity; still waters run deep with dangers and demons: WASPs become wolves at full moon; virgin Nature throbs with silent menace; bureaucracy wears a smiling face and secretes a sharp knife.
The vengeful enemy concealed in Vietnam's virgin landscape and the horrors just under the surface of Nixon Republicanism were the two great American nightmares of the Sixties and Seventies. In both these theaters-of-evil, the mega-threat was sewn into a camouflaged surface that gave no overt clue to the hidden menace. The werewolf's features were disguised and undiscernible under their possessor's normal face.
This post-Nam and post-Nixon nightmare imagery, rollercoasting up through the unconscious, is now working itself prolifically into American popular cinema. Raise the topic of Watergate openly today and it may be greeted with a groan of fatigue, as of a dead horse, once well and truly flogged by the media and long since dispersed to the boneyard.
Yet films like Blow Out, Cutter's Way, True Confessions, Missing, and Prince of the City, testify that the theme of cover-ups in high places is as vigorous as ever on our screens; and that free-floating anxiety, Watergate-syndrome, is not just about the little local trouble with burglary and tapes back in '72-'74 but about the whole fear of what the Smooth Face of Power, with the right make-up, can conceal in the way of dormant horrors, galloping chicanery, atavistic guilt, and pushbutton apocalypse. Watergate wasn't a once-only explosion, it was the detonator to a new Era of Anxiety. And Republicanism redivivus in Reagan – Hollywood enthroned in the White House – reminds us that the anxieties are there today. (Significantly, polls show that a majority of Americans disagree with Reagan's policies but approve of him: he's the perennial movie star the public likes no matter how many had pictures he appears in.)
Likewise Vietnam. A war that closed its military books seven years ago has only lately begun to release its demons into pop culture: in guerrilla horror films (Friday the 13th), in tales of gauntlet terror (Southern Comfort), in a Cinema of Sudden Slaughter, where sense and civilization are only a twig-snap from chaos and calamity.
The horror-thriller genre has always pitched its camp in the crossfire between the civilized and the savage, between rational reassurance and Pop-out Primitive. But in today's cinema the special new horror comes from the close elision of these opposites. It's hard to peel them apart. They're symbiotic, they share the same skin, they're faces closely superimposed one on the other.
When those oh-so-flawless American features warp into feral ferocity in The Howling or American Werewolf, it's as if maidenly Red Riding Hood has herself mutated into the Big Bad Wolf. Shining WASP decency becomes a raging Western id. It's munched on Watergate and Vietnam for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it reaches between-meals for mouthfuls of even maturer racial guilt: Indian genocide.
In both political resonance and guerrilla-war imagery, there's a clear and strong rapport between the Vietnam war and the Indian wars, and plentiful reason why films that fret about the destruction of the Indians should have swelled up in the wake of Vietnam.
Both Wolfen and The Shining feature buildings erected (or about to be erected) on old Indian territory: hunting ground in the one, burial ground in the other. Both movies release up-and-at-'em ogres seemingly galvanized by the notion that the modern age is trespassing on or violating the old. And in both films there are festoons of iconography swagged around the idea of America Past and Present: in Wolfen the Battery Park memorial windmill and weather vanes, celebrating the first Dutch settlers, in The Shining everything from the Stars-and-Stripes flag in the hotel manager's office to the Apollo T-shirt of little Danny. American history in these films is the ghost under the tower block, the vengeful dead under the luxury hotel – just as American paranoia in the more explicit Vietnam or Watergate films is the snarling id under the smiling superego.
The notion of violence or vengeance lying just below the surface of "normality" is fiercely evident in the glut of kids-to-the-slaughter horror movies: the Friday the 13ths, Burnings, and Halloweens. It's a mark of the post-Vietnam age that horror films have moved away from up-market Grand Guignol, where your course through carnage is charted by classy music crescendoes or florid lighting changes or symphonic suspense. Gothic has gone cheap, young, and outlaw. Rural or small-town settings camouflage the menace of sudden ambush, National Service-age youngsters camp in unknown territory, and tactical weapons (in the anything-goes context of guerrilla war) have a crazy, desperate, ingenious extemporaneity, anything from shears to axes to ice picks to shovels. The camouflaged menace is never more than a few trees away. Evil lurks limned in the landscape like the outline of a face in a puzzle drawing, or like the wolf-snout ready to snarl out from a normal face at full moon.
In Southern Comfort the conflation of Vietcong and Indians, hinted at in many of the horror-ambush movies, becomes even more explicit. The Cajuns are Indians by name, if not by literal genealogy, and in Walter Hill's film they're clearly spiritual scions of the soundless savages – cat-like, nature-wise, at one with the landscape, never snapping a twig – who've stalked American myth and fiction since James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper couldn't have foreseen that Indians or their likeness would rise up again in the 1960s on the opposite side of the world, hurling the specter of genocidal guilt in America's first lost war – and catalyzing a rash of guerrilla-gauntlet, vengeance-is-mine Z-movie shockers.
The oddly two-way distribution of guilt in these films – a reminder of the moral ambiguities of the Vietnam war, where violence was never validated for the U.S. by the sense of being in a "just war" – is apparent in the fact that the "hero"-victims are often presented as callow, strident, games-playing outsiders and the villains as once-injured parties. The mother of a drowned boy (Friday the 13th); the son of a killed miner (My Bloody Valentine); the witness of a murdered sister (Prom Night). So that there's an unprecedented reflexivity of "blame" between murderer and victims in the new horror genre and (usually) a degree of grisly, idiot pathos in even the most rebarbative of their ogres.
If the Vietnam war catalyzed a whole ancestry of racial quilts in the areas of genocide and bloody colonial conquest, Watergate catalyzed a slightly different set of anxieties. The id-under-the-skin in Blow Out and Cutter's Way is compounded more of fear, less of guilt: a swarm of dormant terrors about the enormities that Big Government or Top People can enact under the protective carapace and charisma of high office.
In Cutter's Way the oil-millionaire "villain" rides a tall horse and locks up his eyes behind mirror-lensed glasses. They glint from on high like the flashy, glassy anonymity of his skyscraping office block.
Blow Out, a thriller-comic summation of the whole recent S.O.S.O.S. genre (Save-our-Ship-of-State), shares the same expressive strewing of bric-a-brac Americana, historical and political, as The Shining and Wolfen (a red-white-and-blue color scheme in Vilmos Zsigmond's photography, the Liberty Day background) but the history it sculpts is more recent.
De Palma takes the dour headline realities of Watergate, and Chappaquiddick, and Dallas, and Tabulates them to create a rainbow-hued fairytale that might have been painted by Roy Lichtenstein and scripted in comic-strip speech-bubbles bristling with exclamation marks. The faux-naif style chimes with a movie which tells us how close under the surface of bureaucratic sophistication (the white-collar conspiracy bosses dealing strictly in character assassination) is runaway dementia and mad purgatorial zeal (John Lithgow as the wind-up hit-man, a Gordon Liddy act-alike, dealing strictly in real assassination).
The cover-up theme in Blow Out finds a symbolic embodiment in the Nancy Allen character's preoccupation with make-up – cosmetic camouflage. "This took me two hours," she says in her wide-eyed drawl. "It's the no make-up look." And cosmetic ingenuity has cropped up as a theme in another recent shocker, Dead and Buried, wherein gorily murdered corpses in the small town of Potter's Bluff are restored, rebeautifed, and reanimated by master mortician Jack Albertson.
Indeed the current image of American society as a schizoid, Jekyll-and-Hyde organism concealing grisly truths beneath a smooth and smiling surface spreads well beyond even films with a semi-explicit nod to Vietnam and Watergate. If the neo-Nam and the neo-Nixon movies are about the beast in the governmental machine, a film like Mommie Dearest privatizes and personalizes the same id-under-the skin dualism.
Moviegoers know Joan Crawford as a lacquered and laminated goddess who might have been modeled on the Metropolis robot. But whisk off the mask and the maquillage and the finery, and a domestic she-wolf is revealed in all her roughery – a harpy with the Harpic, a ravisher of rose-gardens and a layer-on of coat-hangers on the body of America's youth. It's a werewolf story in showbiz clothing. And in Shoot the Moon, the All-Anglo-American Dad needs only a locked door or a glance from ex-wife to lover to turn into a slavering child-beater (another coat-hanger) or a one-man demolition derby.
In the Eighties, when the Moral Majority torpedoes your cornflakes every morning with salvoes of pietistic wisdom, it's no wonder that the battle between hypocritic hygiene and human reality is fiercer than ever. Religious tub-thumping and post-Nixon Republicanism have approached the altar of high office together; and there they stand, radiant in their super ego-tism. The id, meanwhile, bashes furiously at the church doors, protesting the banns and ready to answer a wedding with a walpurgisnacht.
Iconically, it's no coincidence that werewolves have loped onto the screen in the red-eyed, sharp-toothed wake of the prolific vogue for vampirism just passed. Two or three years ago it was Icon Dracula, with his quick-change acts from suavity to savagery. But once audiences had supped their fill with Carpathian horrors – and cloak-swishings and toothsome smiles and blood transfusions – there was a clear logic in upping the ante with werewolves. The demon duality of nature is the same, but there's a headier charge in human bipeds turning into furry four-footers. They are not representatives of an older, alien, undead race; they are humans who, once a moon, go loony and lupy. It comes from something in their spirit and beyond their will.
The current vein of Hollywood moral schizophrenia where Evil is a skin-depth under Good has produced an astonishing spud of potent pop-horror imagery. The writhing palpitations under "normal skin, the chameleon killer hidden in the trees, the racial history coiled vengeful and vigilant under the new cities.
These images have erupted in their full glory just at the turning point where we leave the 1970s and enter the 1980s. We've closed the cage door (or so we hope) on a double-decade of slippery unclassifiable nightmares, and we can now look through the bars and scrutinize them. The first response is likely to be, and has been, visceral and immediate: an unleashing into legend and a pop catharsis. The Sixties and Seventies were a time of debacles for America. These films are the dream-therapy nightmares slowly sorting out the iconography.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MARCH-APRIL 1982 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.