I believe there are two sorts of moods conjured up at Halloween, and they are both tied to anxiety. The first involves lust for gore, fright, heart palpitations and being generally unnerved. Films in this vein do not necessarily have to reach the gruesome, cathartic extremes of Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Hooper) or Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme), although they may. What matters is not so much the content, but that the filmic form of that content effectively manipulates emotions. The mood (primal insecurity, agitation, pure fear) need not be connected to cannibalism. The same primitive human angst can be exploited through a variety of genres, including the slasher, psychological thriller, horror and even war films. What they share are momentary or prolonged emotionally manipulative sequences. I’m thinking of the gripping feeling Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock) evokes as Scottie, in an awkward sweaty panic, follows Madeline up the campanile at San Juan Bautista. Or, channeled through more grotesque visual language, the shots of Leatherface’s kitchen littered with animal skeletons, feathers and detritus; the icebox containing the body of his teenage victim in Massacre.
The second type of mood connected to Halloween is slightly more cerebral. The main driving question for this mood is not “What is the capacity for others to wreck violence against me?” but rather, “How far do I have to venture to detect the truly bizarre and unfamiliar within the familiar?” Anxiety is still a factor here, for we have to make the conscious decision to set aside normalcy, congruence and linear thought. If the slasher film relies on visceral responses and our most primal human fears, then surrealist and experimental films challenge our intellectual pursuit of narrative progression, reason, meaning and causality. Sometimes none of these exist, and sometimes they exist only to very small degrees. So experimental films are unnerving, not because they threaten our corporeal security, but because they problematize the conventional ways in which we think about the world.
Of the two Halloween “moods,” I believe the second is more difficult to achieve. Or at the very least, the industry has invested less time and fewer resources into its development. Hollywood is quite good at exploiting our instinctual, animal-like need for security. It is slightly less adept at illuminating the absurd. So, while films that agitate, terrorize or unnerve are not the exclusive purview of mainstream media, movies that venture —even briefly— into the surreal and avant-garde are generally treated as art cinema. Nevertheless, I would argue that these sorts of films are essential viewing at Halloween! Gore alone is insufficient. We also need a dose of the slightly strange — not supernatural, and not wholly divested from the objects and spaces of everyday life, but the distorted anatomy, jarring stop-action, and the playful conglomeration of store windows, shabby things for sale, reflected pedestrians and bifurcated vehicles. I’m advocating that all of you sit down and watch two shorts: The Cage (1947) and The Potted Psalm (1946), both by filmmaker and beat poet Sidney Peterson.
I first came across Peterson in Art Cinema, which classifies his work as surrealist. The point of that movement, according to Young and Duncan, was to "reestablish links with the 'primal mind.'"1 I would argue there is no more appropriate time than All Hallows Eve to reaffirm such a connection.
The Cage and The Potted Psalm function as a nice pair, diverging subtly in the mood, but also complementing each other. Viewed together, they provide excursions (amusingly absurd in The Cage and somewhat more ominous, though still not ghoulishly so, in Psalm) into the unfamiliar side of seemingly normal people, interactions and material things. In The Cage, Peterson establishes a surprisingly coherent visual language reminiscent of the Soviets' Kino Eye. He warps and distorts images, spins the lens across axes of symmetry, collapses space and captures pedestrians navigating San Francisco backwards. Surveillance is a motif that permeates both shorts. In Cage it is articulated explicitly: an escaped eyeball rolls, maneuvers, appears and disappears along the California streets and around an amusement park, spawning a protracted chase. What we perceive as a narrative progression perhaps makes The Cage more digestible than Psalm, but the internal logic of Cage is also undercut by the existence of the protagonist's alternate personas, and the wrought-iron spiraling bird cage that encloses his head.
Peterson also seems to communicate a fascination with the threshold between life and death. Resurrection is suggested almost continuously throughout the film. For instance, early on, cooked ducks in Chinatown windows are juxtaposed with live pigeons. The film also constructs an indeterminate space which could arguably function as a world for the living or the dead. Cars and people move in reverse, as though sleepers moving through a dream. The carnival space becomes doubly unnerving as its visitors and rides predominately move in reverse. The physics of rotating rides and bullet-like cars tunneling through space seem simultaneously graceful and precarious, and the odd forward running march of the group chasing the detached eye connotes them as social misfits. To us, they look both militaristic and hilarious.
As weird as things get, they never stray too far from an inner documentary basis. True, a man may lose an eye, butter his bread with fresh oil paints, and inhabit different bodies, one of which buries itself in the sand. But at its core, the short investigates the possibilities of the absurd built into the textures of everyday life. A female thief who steals a bundle of onions strikes us as odd as the male companion threatening to shoot the stray eyeball with a rifle (and later a dart). The two become nearly interchangeable. They both characterize what we possibly fear most about ourselves: that we are driven not by rational thought, but by instinctual, even animalistic inclinations.
If The Cage strikes contemporary viewers as "playful," then The Potted Psalm is notably less tame. Clownish makeup, graveyards populated by tropical flora instead of the typical hemlocks, and distorted women all render gothic horror motifs slightly exotic. Whole sequences seem devoted to the "body mischievous," a theme communicated through elongated limbs, goiter-like necks and mannerist torsos. Things get stranger as the film progresses: most notably, women submerged and abandoned imply the aftermath of violence, but not the violent acts themselves. Yet, even in Psalm, Peterson exercises great restraint. He does not manipulate viewers, or at least he does so subtly, so that we feel we have come to all the conclusions on our own. At the film's closure, a woman runs a considerable length, shot at variable distances. She stumbles, yet persists, and this time the hilarity of the small steps and brisk cadence that characterized the chase in The Cage is replaced with a sense of urgency. The force that pursues her is imperceptible; the lack of dialogue or even other humanity is acutely felt. And whenever she is captured in a frame with another human form, it is only herself, superimposed and dissolving briefly on an overexposed horizon.
1. Young, Paul. Art Cinema. Ed. Paul Duncan. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2009. Print.