While we’re waiting for The Ditch to go into post-production properly, here’s a Flavorwire article by Alison Nastasi which slipped my attention last October. A list of notable horror films directed by women, some of which I’d never heard of and will definitely be finding out more about! (Although I’m not sure The Hitch-Hiker counts as a horror film, even though it’s good to have Ida Lupino’s directorial career acknowledged…)
Last night I had a dream. And then I went home, and had a dream.
The Drowned Man is the new production by notorious theatre company Punchdrunk, this time staged with the backing of the National Theatre. Having missed their previous London show, The Masque of the Red Death (now six or seven years ago), I was desperate to see this one. As it happens, Punchdrunk seem to have anticipated this yearning among their London audience by enormously inflating both the number of tickets available and the space in which the production takes place.
There are plenty of reviews online which will give you a flavour of the experience, without spoiling it for those who haven’t been (I do strongly recommend going, though, especially if you’re a Punchdrunk virgin). Critical opinion splits about 80:20 in favour and the show tends to excite opinion to one extreme or the other – those who love it adore it, those who hate it do so with a passion. I want to use this post to explore what the experience meant to me, and to maybe start a discussion about how cinema – especially horror cinema – might learn from what Punchdrunk is doing.
Because I (like the whole audience) had to be masked throughout I couldn’t wear my glasses. My prescription isn’t very strong, so I could manage without. This meant, however, that my vision was slightly obscured, so that everything not up close took on a blur. What made it worse was that every bit of the production space (we’re talking 100 rooms spread across four – or was it five? – floors) was filled with a gentle smoky haze. So the action unfolded in front of me in a mist, people’s expressions vague, their faces indistinguishable, the lights rendered remote yet still blinding at the wrong angle. On top of this, the soundtrack (relayed through speakers in every room, but different depending on where you were) was remorseless, varying from torch songs to half-heard snatches of music to throbbing drones and hums. Every room was fitted out in the richest detail, all of it lovingly and accurately redolent of its 1960s Americana movie setting, whether that be a suburban home, a medical lab, a foley studio, a cinema or a dingy motel. And in every room, surrounding the actor-dancers, pressing in from all quarters, were us: the audience. Masked. Every one of us in a death’s head mask which hid the mouth so not a single expression was visible. In the obscure lighting all I could see was the same face, duplicated across the darkness, its plain, greyish, blank stare confronting me. A crowd of ghosts. And my mask pressed on my face so I couldn’t breathe deeply.
Doesn’t this sound like a nightmare? That’s the idea. Punchdrunk’s trademark is bringing alive the darker, unsettling aspects of the story (and they’ve picked some pretty dark stories to display over the years – Macbeth, Peter Grimes, Woyzeck – so much so that some critics are wondering if they can actually move out of what appears to be settling into a thematic comfort zone). Hammered by the ear-splitting soundtrack, disturbed by the ghostly faces and the darkness, fearful of the unpredictable story and of being caught up against my will in the thick of the action, I felt I was living in someone else’s subconscious brought alive around me. And when I caught sight of my own unblinking, unmoving face in a mirror, it was like a threatening stranger challenging me to do something but giving me no hint what.
Those whose minds are turning to David Lynch aren’t far off the mark. Punchdrunk don’t cite him as an influence, but the shadow of Mulholland Drive, and other films (I thought particularly of Inland Empire with its disjointed, difficult narrative, fragments of scenes being played out before being abandoned) looms large over this production. Many of the details – the woods through which the characters run, the chequered dance floor, the droning hum of white noise punctuated occasionally by stentorian voices, the cabaret singers, the red curtains – are so obviously inspired by Lynch films that perhaps they didn’t feel they needed to cite him. (The title of this post? At one point, I distinctly heard the words “we lived inside the dream” being boomed out from the soundtrack. It’s a slight modification of the line “we live inside a dream” from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Coincidence? Yes, it could be…)
I went home from the production, utterly exhausted from three hours of walking (occasionally running), concentrating, staring into the blur, feeling my ears bleed from the noise, and trembling with fear and anticipation. That night, I had a dream in which the character playing Wendy – with whom I felt I didn’t spend nearly enough time – climbed up to an enormous clock near the ceiling which she somehow folded around herself. She then sang the “In Heaven” song from Lynch’s Eraserhead. Sitting here now, my head still cloudy and spinning, I’m no longer sure which parts of the experience I lived through in real life and which parts I dreamt.
Shouldn’t horror cinema leave you feeling like that? How would we, as horror filmmakers, achieve the same sense of confused reality, the same kind of disturbed mental state, the same blurring of the real and fantastic? Our audience does not move around wearing masks: it sits in padded chairs in a cinema, or in a brightly-lit living room, or in front of a computer or smartphone. That fourth wall – which Punchdrunk breaks so immediately and effectively – is always there in a film, a barrier to full immersion. How do we close that distance between us and the audience, so that they are no longer safely behind the glass looking through it?
I don’t know the answer (although I have a few ideas, which I’ll keep to myself just for now because I might want to use them). But right now there’s a sense amongst aficionados that Punchdrunk has peaked, that this is the culmination of its last ten years or so of activity. Perhaps it’s time for other art forms to think about how to incorporate some of the Punchdrunk experience into what they offer.
[Footnote: all photos on this page are shamelessly cribbed from the National Theatre’s website. I did not take any photos during my visit to the production. It’s not allowed, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone else. You have to experience this for yourself. The production runs until the end of December. Book here.]
- Punchdrunk’s A Drowned Man (mikemuncer.wordpress.com)
- Punchdrunk – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable (Preview) (secondhandnewss.wordpress.com)
- Something for the weekend: Punchdrunk and Fleetwood Mac (telegraph.co.uk)
- Drowned Man, by Punchdrunk (cinestheticfeasts.wordpress.com)
- That Time I Saw A Drowned Man… (jenniferworldtravels.wordpress.com)
- Punchdrunk (bitsnbobsofemily.wordpress.com)
- The Drowned Man, National Theatre until 13 December 2013 (myownpersonalhellblog.wordpress.com)
For those of you expecting an update on the shooting of The Ditch, there’ll be an announcement soon.
In the meantime, I wanted to explore an issue which has been on my mind for some time but which has been brought into focus by recent events. As some readers may be aware, there has been controversy in the last 24 hours, because the UK supermarket chain Asda has been caught selling Halloween costumes labelled “mental patient costume”. There’s a screenshot below.
As you can see, the costume consists of a tattered, bloodstained white coat, a plastic meat cleaver, and a mask which appears to have been modelled on Leatherface of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame. It’s a genuinely unsettling costume and one which would probably be pretty effective if you caught someone unawares on a dark Halloween night. But even if your intention was just to create an edgy, slightly troubling but fun costume which would have people doing a double-take before laughing, it would be a crude but enjoyable product to wear. After all, it’s exactly the kind of thing you expect people to wear when they go out to a Halloween party, and it saves you from finding a lab coat and tearing it up before dropping half a bottle of ketchup over it, then wrapping some bandages (or, in an emergency, some toilet paper) around your head.
But the costume has caused outrage on Twitter. Now, I know you only have to sneeze to cause outrage on Twitter, and the medium has a tendency to attract the thin-skinned and easily provoked. Nevertheless, a Twitterstorm has erupted and Asda has withdrawn the costume from sale (no word, at the time of writing, of who the manufacturer is or whether they too have withdrawn the product). If you need the reason for this spelling out, it’s because of the product description – “mental patient fancy dress costume”. (There’s some evidence, incidentally, that the product was originally intended to be called a ‘zombie’ costume.) To be brief, people have objected to the association of the words “mental patient” with a dangerous, out of control, homicidal person who appears barely human.
I, too, find this offensive, and I’m glad the product has been withdrawn (although I think I would have been content if it had merely been re-titled). Why did I find it offensive? Because, like one-quarter of the population, I have suffered from mental health problems. In my case it was suicidal depression which reached its peak about 13 or 14 years ago and came close to threatening my life. I was put on anti-depressants (largely ineffective) and given a year’s free psychotherapy on the NHS (partially effective – the therapy, that is, not the NHS which is mostly wonderful). I’m not going to go into the details of my illness, except to say that I’ve come out the other side now and I feel much, much better than I did back then. Had it not been for the professionals, however, I might not be here today.
I mentioned in my post about women horror film directors that Sheena had also written an article, from a personal perspective. This goes together with my interview with her, which I posted a couple of days ago. You can find Sheena’s article in its entirety here, but I wanted to take some of the things she said and match them up with points from my article, to try and get an overall perspective of the problem (if it is a problem – and Sheena and I both think it is).
After describing her background as a consumer of horror in many forms of media (books, films, theatre, TV) Sheena states quite simply that to her mind being a woman who likes horror is simply No Big Deal:
Throughout my life I have never really thought anything of it. I am a fan of horror, I am a filmmaker and I am aspiring to make a horror feature film. The fact that I am female doesn’t mean a thing.
Yet she contrasts this fact with the fact that representation of women both in front of and behind the camera in the horror genre is limited. After noting the limited number of films directed by women on show at last year’s FrightFest and Abertoir (something I also noted in my post), Sheena picks up on a list of the greatest horror films in Time Out:
Time Out compiled a list of the 100 best ever horror films, in their words “as chosen by those who write in, direct, star in and celebrate the genre.”
So a list compiled by a collection of people who are really passionate about the genre. Out of one hundred films listed guess how many were directed by a woman??
I spent some time in my article questioning why this was the case, and there may be good reasons why it is – if we’re looking backwards at the history of horror cinema. But when it comes to looking forward, I observed that there is a lot of output by women in the genre and that it needed light shone on it.
One thing that needs correcting is the prejudice that women can’t make horror films, or can’t make good ones. When I tweeted a few weeks ago that I thought women had a lot to offer to the horror genre, the first response I got was from a man who simply replied, “Nah.” I suppose he thought he was being funny – when I challenged him to elaborate on that, he went silent. Yesterday I posted a selection of comments made by both men and women when confronted with the proposition that ” I just don’t think [female directors] can make horror movies as dark or disturbing as male directors can.” They served to refute the accusation. But I can’t help feeling there’s still a stubborn prejudice that women can’t make serious horror films. A lot of this is doubtless confined to the sort of male horror fan who is stuck in the seventies/eighties, when lesbian vampire films were the rage, or zombie and slasher movies inevitably worked in a few female nude scenes with barely a tangential relationship to the plot. The stereotype of the overweight, long-haired young man, whose relationship with women in horror goes no further than an interest in eye candy, is a stereotype and I doubt it represents a majority. But there’s no doubt there are plenty of these guys around.*
Without thinking for too long, write down your top five horror movies. If that’s too difficult, list your top five movies. Or just do it in your head, if you prefer.
Now look back over your list. How many of them were directed by men? Chances are, your answer will be ‘all of them’. Your horror film list might include The Shining, Hallowe’en, Nightmare on Elm Street, Suspiria, Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, Alien, The Thing, The Exorcist… (or, if you’re like me, it might have included some older classics like Bride of Frankenstein, I Walked with a Zombie or Night of the Hunter). Every single one of them directed by a man.
Chances are your list didn’t include Near Dark, Chained, Pet Sematary, Ravenous or American Psycho, all horror films directed by women.
Why is this?
At this point in the discussion, if you’re a man, you might shrug your shoulders and say, “I guess women don’t make horror films.” If I pushed you as to why, you might say, “well, women don’t like horror. They prefer romantic comedies.” And, if you’re a certain kind of man, you’d probably say the last sentence with a bit of a snigger (a lot of women would probably give the same answer, only without the snigger).
If you answered this way, you’d be wrong on several counts. Click ‘Continue reading’ to find out why.
Why aren’t more horror films directed by women? It’s a simple question, but perhaps the answer isn’t so simple.
Our project, The Ditch, is a horror film written and directed by a woman with an all-female cast. It surprises me that this is something even worth noting, but apparently it is. So I decided to sit down with my friend and collaborator Sheena Holliday, director of the film, to discuss the issue.
[I’ve broken up the discussion into segments so that people with limited time can pick out the bits they’re most interested in, but you can watch the whole thing at one sitting here (runtime 9m 43s) if you prefer.]
We talked first about Sheena’s reaction to her experiences at FrightFest 2012, in which the issue of sexual violence against women seemed to be a constant theme running through the selected films. It was this experience that prompted Sheena’s interest in gender representation in the genre, and which has led her to research the issue of women’s role in horror:
(It should be noted that no one is accusing FrightFest of advocating or promoting sexual violence – at least, not intentionally.)
I went on to ask Sheena if there were any films in that festival which she did like, and she cited one example of a film which dealt with sexual violence in a more sophisticated way – and just happens to have been directed by a woman:
So why aren’t more women making horror films? Sheena thinks it’s inexplicable, given that more women than men attend horror films. She speculated on what it is women have to do to be more evenly represented among directors (since this is an issue which cuts across all genres, not just horror):
There’s an assumption, when it comes to horror, that women prefer to make films which concentrate more on psychological drama with more focus on character, as opposed to plot. Sheena agreed with this to an extent, but pointed out that horror has to be a blend of character drama with more visceral content:
Finally, we discussed the attitude which women have to face when they raise gender issues, both in this and in other areas (we filmed this discussion before the revelations of the threats made against Caroline Criado-Perez, but that disturbing story only makes our conversation more relevant):
Sheena will soon have a post up on her blog about this subject (which I’ll link to), and tomorrow I’ll be posting my own thoughts; not so much from my perspective as a man, but more as an attempt to summarise the situation and suggest advantages to having more women contributing to the horror genre.
Recently, Sheena and I were asked which films influenced The Ditch, and it got us thinking. Although we could answer the question easily enough (we cited The Ring and Witchfinder General, as we usually do when we want to pitch the film), we couldn’t help thinking there were many, many films we could pick as influences on this production, and on us as filmmakers generally. So we had a chat about it together and the more we talked, the more films we came up with. Here are just a few of them; read down the list, and find your favourite!