Selections from Cynthia Freeland's
The Naked and the Undead

On Branagh's Frankenstein

The laboratory creation scene in Branagh’s film is brilliant….Even more frenzied and overwrought than Whale’s, Branagh’s creation scene is filmed with dozens of quick cuts, each shot full of movement across the frame. Victor races along his attic hall, cape flying before he discards it to appear bare-chested and vigorous. While pulleys move, bottles clank, and blue volts of electricity rise in glass Tesla tubes, the naked body on the gurney is raised into a copper vat. Electric eels dispense their powerful shocks, a brown sac-like bellows "breathes" air or heat, and finally Victor stares close-up at the Creature’s eyes. The eyes are seen through a porthole in the vat: this, our first glimpse of the monster occurs nearly an hour into the film. "Live, live, live, live...." Victor chants, then "YES!" (much in the old Colin Clive mode) as it opens its eyes briefly. Nothing more occurs, though, and Victor walks away in despair; but, like us, he is brought suddenly to attention by a sharp and surprising snap of the monster’s fingers, which we also see close-up through a porthole (in a clear allusion to the Karloff monster’s birth scene). The next sequence drives home the fact that this is a real birth scene, as the vat is smashed open (the "water breaks") and Victor lifts out his huge new "baby," smacking its chest to clear its lungs. We watch an extended scene of birth struggle while Victor works to "deliver" his huge, naked, and hairless "baby" by lifting it out of the slime. Giving birth is not only very hard labor here; it’s messy, too.

On Ripley in Aliens

What can an audience get out of assessing a strong heroine in a "bug" movie? As an action hero Ripley offers interesting possibilities for complex audience identification and empathy. She is simply more human than Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Steven Segal, or most other male heroes in action films. Sure, Ripley can kick butt, drive a tank, lob grenades, punch computer code, face off with the Alien, or dive suicidally into the flames. Yet she also cries, quakes, has nightmares, trembles, and is sometimes weak and deeply afraid. This emotional vulnerability makes her a more interesting and believable character in many ways than her male action counterparts (some of whom, like Robocop and the Terminator, are ironically enough in search of human emotions!). Moreover, she is a strong advocate of basic human values like companionship, camaraderie, and caring for others. Indeed, her ability to show some sympathy and caring may make her a better combatant and leader than most of the men she outlives.

On David Cronenberg's Films

Cronenberg has a taste for gory and excessive scenes; it would be hard for anything to top his early film Shivers with its nasty, slimy, creeping, fecal yet aphrodisiacal parasites! He can show bizarre and often hideous changes that affect the body in graphic detail, but he can also attempt to convey more intangible features of the new flesh, such as its altered powers of perception or of emotional expression. Changes may be depicted from the point of view of those who experience them, or they may be observed by witnesses. A common thread is that scenes of very graphic horror are highlighted reflexively as images by an inclusion of devices that call attention to the film process itself. We repeatedly see scenes in his movies of cameras, films, photographs, monitors and screens, enactments on stage, artists and galleries, scientific presentations, lectures, or devices like eyeglasses and peepholes. Internal or on-screen audiences are included in almost all his films, duplicating us as we become witnesses to the transformations or horrors that imagination can give rise to and make real through this magical medium of film. Although in these movies the catalyst for transformations may come from without--from an evil scientist for example--the horror that arrives actually erupts from within the person. Given the generally realistic style of Cronenberg’s films along with the fact that we share their characters’ experiences of transformation, our acquaintance with even quite extreme forms of horror becomes more intimate, believable, and unsettling. Through empathetic understanding of the horror in Cronenberg’s movies, we can sometimes feel or imagine what is at stake in an assault on the very nature of a person and on our human emotional and psychological integrity.

On Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

[Jonathan] Demme makes choices in his film that are quite unlike Polanski’s in Repulsion. The Silence of the Lambs never takes us into Lecter’s point of view; this is someone whose head we too don’t want to get into. But even so, the movie in effect celebrates Lecter as a creative, artistic and interesting figure; one might even guess that he escapes in the end almost as a reward for the filmmaker's identification with him. Lecter is really not appealing because of his evil but because of his artistry. We don’t sympathize with his desire to kill--we don't share Lecter’s point of view to see that his victims somehow deserve to be killed, like we do Carol’s in Repulsion. We don’t occupy Lecter’s visual awareness any more than his psychic states. Still, and despite this, Demme conspires with Lecter so that the movie's ending rather famously prompts cheers from the audience when he escapes and sets his digestive sights on the prison psychiatrist Dr. Chilton.

….Despite the fact that the moral ambiguity of Silence of the Lambs is disturbing, Repulsion is a more deeply unsettling film. It shows evil to be evil, rather than papering it over with cinematic allusions and toying with the attractions of Nietzschean amorality.

On Hellraiser's Pinhead

I find Pinhead a more interesting monster than Freddy because although he is disgusting and scary, yet we can sympathize with him--especially once we see that he has both good and evil halves. He is "one of us," a person who crossed over to the other side through temptation when he was bored and tired of living. His good half, Captain Spenser, describes himself as having been a lost soul who explored forbidden pleasures. The fact is, Pinhead is smart. He is just about the only person who has managed to get away with sin and enjoy the Hellish "life." He is also truthful, even insightful--not just an agent of evil but an informant about it. As Spenser he confides to Joey, "My evil was too strong. It lived…waited. What I was is out there in your world, unbound, unstoppable." Yet he is also cynical; as Pinhead he comments to Joey in Hellraiser III, "Unbearable, isn’t it, the suffering of strangers, the agony of friends. There is a secret song at the center of the world, Joey, and its sound is like razors through flesh." "I don’t believe you," she replies, and he retorts, "Oh, come. Oh, you can hear its faint echo right now. I’m here to turn up the volume, to press the stinking face of humanity into the dark blood of its own secret heart." In sum, fans like Pinhead because of the very particular role he plays in the graphic spectacles of Hellraiser, a role that can be played only by good monsters in horror: he both reveals and punishes human monsters or evildoers. We like about him what Spenser warns Joey about him: "he can be very persuasive…and very inventive."

On Interview with the Vampire

The erotic gets redefined in Interview with the Vampire as something that goes beyond blood, flesh and genitals, and beyond norms of heterosexual attraction and marriage. Psychological intimacy is the need that compels Lestat to create his "family" and that drives Louis into Armand's den where he feels he has at last found a mentor. In the Louis-Lestat-Claudia family nexus we can see Platonic love perversely transfigured. Whereas in Plato's account the two homosexual lovers pursue beauty and engage in "higher" form of reproduction by giving birth to something immortal, here they devote themselves to a different kind of immortal production by becoming the "parents" of the girl-child vampire Claudia. This act of supreme male vampire power supplants the female role in reproduction, but it results in something monstrous. Though Louis loves this daughter, none of them can forget that making her a vampire so young was deeply wrong. Her ageless childhood is a curse that makes their relationship inherently perverse, erotic yet filial, hence very unstable. Louis' inability to sustain this relationship or to save Claudia from the other vampires who destroy her leaves him empty in the end: "All my passion went with her golden hair."

On Coppola's Dracula

Since the character of Dracula has been so far extended and developed on film, the screen is the key place where we in the audience come to recognize and reflect upon him. In the Langella version we hear of the vampire's loneliness and search for an immortal queen to match him. This world-weariness is shifted in Coppola's film to a rejection of faith, something deemed so "bad" in the course of the film that this Dracula cannot make a proper romantic partner for the heroine. He may "fit" in the sense of already knowing and belonging with her, yet he is "unfit" in the sense that he sees himself as monstrous; he tries to push her away before consummating his seduction. This is the only ending that can both sustain the romantic illusions of the film and still be "moral": to have the vampire cleansed in ritual fashion by the woman who loves him. With Coppola's version, then, the Dracula tale has become tragic in the epic style of Milton. This Dracula is not an evil man who must be stamped out, but a mortal human man who grieved so fully that he made a mistake. He was evil, but evil can be forgiven; katharsis is possible.

On Hitchcock's Frenzy

This attack scene is extraordinary because it is so drawn out and anti-erotic. We watch as the charming and dapper Rusk becomes transformed into a crazed psychopath before our very eyes: here is a Wolfman transformation with no makeup. His movements grow abrupt and violent: he opens drawers and slams them shut; he seizes Brenda’s apple and takes a bite; he corners her and throws her down. She is no longer a capable businesswoman but a frightened-looking animal, rabbit-like with her large, soft brown eyes. When Rusk tears open her dress, one breast flops out into view--perhaps the most unerotic breast ever shown on screen in a rape or any other scene. This breast is bare raw flesh, pinky-white and doughy as the man mauls her. He makes obscene pelvic thrusts just off camera and moans a refrain in crescendo, "Lovely…. Lovely… LOVELY… LOVVVELLY!!" Then, suddenly enraged, he screams she is a "bitch" and strangles her (we are later told by the police inspector that such men are impotent and become aroused only by violence). The murder, like the rape, is shown as an uncommonly "fleshy" deed that requires sweat, grunts, and huge physical efforts. The camera alternates between the man's debased grimaces and the woman's desperate hands as she struggles to free her neck. This scene lasts for what seems a very extended time; when it is done, Rusk calmly steps back and resumes eating Brenda’s apple. Her poor body lies, splayed and inert, before him. He shows no relish, regret, or triumph, but simply walks away.

On The Shining

The camera is dislocated from its normal vantage-point in many other ways and scenes in The Shining. It almost acts as if it has a will of its own, conjuring up the independent evil forces that reside in the Overlook Hotel. As the Torrances tour the hotel’s vast lobby the camera glides sideways, moving as if it can pass through walls to follow and watch them. (Kubrick was especially pleased with the Steadicam’s ability to pass within an inch of door frames. This same technique is used again as they tour the great cavernous kitchen.) Gradually the camera’s odd perspective indicates that the hotel’s evil forces are joining Jack to prompt his ultimate acts of mayhem. A fusion occurs just after his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) discovers that Jack has not been typing the novel he’s supposed to be at work on. First we watch Wendy’s face from below as she reacts in horror to her discovery. We switch to her point of view as she fumbles through his "manuscript" to find page after page covered with the same nonsense line. At this point the camera shifts and glides in from the side along a dark hallway. What first seems to be an objective long shot showing Wendy’s distress is slightly repositioned to reveal the back of Jack’s head as he watches her. Since his head also looks dark and shadowy, it is as if Jack has blended physically with the hotel’s dark spaces from which he just mysteriously emerged. He has become one with the hotel’s ominous watchers.

On David Lynch's Eraserhead

Eraserhead is about dualities and oppositions: life/death, male/female, reality/fantasy, wife/mistress, dark/light, and good/evil. A major source of uncanniness in the film concerns the duality of solid/fluid, which takes on metaphysical and moral overtones. The spatial or physical world of Eraserhead is not dependably well-organized--the film’s physical reality does not pigeonhole objects into their usual categories. As we saw, sexual intercourse is shown as a literal dissolving of physical boundaries. Seemingly solid bodies can dissolve upon contact, like those of the squabs or the baby. Women’s bodies are particularly prone to "leakage," as we see from the spermatic excretions that float around Mary and the Lady in the Radiator. Henry’s solidity is threatened at the start when he splashes into a large puddle, soaking his foot and leg. Henry has a nosebleed at the dinner scene when he learns about the baby. His hair, always flying and floating, suggests that his head itself might simply flake away like the eraser tip of a pencil. In fact, the film’s title derives from just such a spectre in one of Henry’s nightmare visions. After his head is knocked off his neck and replaced by the fetus head, it rolls in his own blood and plops outdoors into a puddle. A small boy scoops it up and takes it away to a sort of nineteenth-century factory where it will be chopped up and made into erasers. We then see a vision of Henry in space ("dead"?) surrounded by the floating dust of pencil erasers. In short, something solid can dissolve and disappear; the living can liquefy and die. The undecidability here implies a difficulty in distinguishing between self/others, life/death, and good/evil.

On The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2

The parodic scenes in TCM 2 are too numerous to mention. They include some spectacularly gross sub-sequences, such as a scene of Stretch watching Leatherface strip off sections of L.C.’s flesh. Though we assume he is dead, L.C. later stands up, briefly and amazingly, to help Stretch out of a pinch. This, even though he is hideously injured and badly skinned. In fact, Leatherface has helped disguise Stretch by making her don the skin of L.C.’s face. Touchingly, she restores it after his last chivalric gesture. Later we see another macabre dinner table scene where Grandpa tries but fails to clobber Stretch with the sledgehammer, just as he failed with Sally in TCM 1. Further parody involves an extended sequence when Dennis Hopper’s Texas Ranger visits a used-chainsaw supply store to purchase new weapons. He selects two, swings them wildly through the air, tests them in a display of virtuoso chainsaw skill, and then slings them onto his belt like ersatz guns. Throughout the whole sequence of Stretch’s attempts to flee the family underground, Hopper is shown flailing away at the structures upholding the park. His manner and expressions become more crazed and lunatic until, wielding the chainsaw, he becomes as berserk a figure as Leatherface himself

September 11, 1999

return to The Naked and the Undead information page