Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Creepy Compendium

DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

The demonic silent film roles of Conrad Veidt were an inspiration for Michael Redgrave’s extraordinary performance in DEAD OF NIGHT.

PREYING masterfully on the country’s post-war fears and paranoia, Ealing’s portmanteau DEAD OF NIGHT - over sixty years later - still remains a resonant work of art. Representing a departure for the studio from the classic comedy mould, the film is a psychological thriller made up of five ghost stories, which brought such a disturbing aura of unease at the time of release, that several newspapers called for it to be suppressed. The work sets up a classic genre opposition between science and the supernatural, and makes it clear from the outset which side it is on. The character of Psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is quickly isolated; his attempts to offer rational interpretations are dismissed - and pays for his scepticism with his life.

DEAD OF NIGHT is structured as a recurring nightmare, in which architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) arrives at a strangely familiar country cottage. Unlike most modern horror compendiums, this framing story is embedded into the narrative, and is not just a device to link the tales. The first story recounts the presentiment of death offered to a racing driver (Anthony Baird), while the second touches on a young girl (Sally Anne Howes) who encounters a boy murdered several decades previously. The third has a couple (Googie Withers and Ralph Michael) whose cloying self-satisfaction is destroyed when she presents him with an ornate mirror, before the film takes an ill-advised detour into comic relief with the much maligned golfing segment. The film’s fifth episode is its most famous and disturbing, with Michael Redgrave as unbalanced ventriloquist Maxwell Frere, with John Maguire as his jeering alter ego Hugo Fitch. By the end of the story the ventriloquist is seen confined to a hospital bed, face alight with madness as the castrato tones of Hugo issue from his unmoving lips, a scene which anticipates the ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) almost exactly.


Dreamlike poster art for Ealing’s only foray into horror.

The film as a whole can be seen as a response to the social dislocations caused by the end of the war, a confusion in masculine identity arising from difficulties in integrating a large part of the male population back into civilian life. On one level, DEAD OF NIGHT reveals a male fear of domesticity, which is here equated with the presence of strong, independent women who are seen to have usurped male authority. The film is full of weak, crippled, and/or victimised male characters: an injured racing driver, a boy murdered by his elder sister, a meek accountant dominated first by his fiancĂ©e and then by the influence of the haunted mirror, and a neurotic ventriloquist who eventually collapses into insanity. It is significant in this light that the character whose dream the film turns out to be is an architect, a symbolically charged profession at a time of national reconstruction. That this architect is indecisive, frightened, and harbouring murderous desires underlines the DEAD OF NIGHT’s lack of confidence in the future.

This can be connected with one of the characteristic themes of British World War II cinema, namely the formation of a cohesive group out of diverse social elements. Instead, this group is fragmented by the film's insistent stress on the ways in which each individual is trapped within his or her own perceptions. Repeatedly characters stare disbelievingly at the "impossible" events unfolding before them, and seeing is no longer believing. Therefore, the faith in an objective reality central to British wartime documentaries and which also contributed to the style adopted by many fiction films has been eroded in DEAD OF NIGHT. Dreams and fantasies have taken its place, to the extent that "None of us exist at all. We're nothing but characters in Mr Craig's dream."

Friday, February 1, 2008

Stairway to Sex Magick

The Strange Case of Aleister Crowley and Jimmy Page

English Occultist Aleister Crowley, aka "The Great Beast 666," "The Wickedest Man In The World," and a number of other equally outlandish monikers.

BORN in the Victorian age into a family of Plymouth Brethren - who regarded sex as horribly sinful - Aleister Crowley spent his life violently reacting against this view. Legendary for an unabashed use of hashish, opium, cocaine and heroin, Crowley achieved further notoriety with sex magick, or sexual intercourse continued indefinitely - without orgasm - to produce long, drawn-out states of ecstasy and intoxication. Traditional magicians had built a system of ritual and drama; but Crowley felt that real magick was hidden in a man's will, and could be summoned by an unconscious process. Conventional morality was worthless; Crowley's credo became "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." Suffering from bronchial infection and addicted to heroin, he passed away quietly in an unassuming Hastings boarding house during 1947, and was almost forgotten until the rock musicians - who alone had the money and inclination to live as Crowley did - started reading about him years after his death. With his libertarian agenda, insatiable appetite for sex and drugs, and a wardrobe of spectacular costumes, it’s as if Crowley had already predicted the heady counterculture of the 1960’s and transformed into an icon of rebellion - a metamorphosis crowned by his appearance on the cover of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967).

Boleskine House - a sprawling U-shaped farmhouse on the shores of Loch Ness - is the most physical ramification in the link between Crowley and Led Zeppelin’s virtuoso guitarist Jimmy Page. Bought by Crowley acolyte Page in 1970, it was purchased in 1900 by The Great Beast for almost twice its value, because it met certain requirements of Abra-Melin the Mage. These included windows and a door that opened to the north toward a secluded structure that was to serve as an oratory (those who practice Thelma - the religious philosophy Crowley founded - are still instructed to "face north to Boleskine" when conducting ceremonies). Crowley subsequently styled himself the “Laird of Boleskine,” adopted the kilt, and began trying to summon Thoth and Horus. Stories of unexplained – and unconfirmed - occurrences in the area during his residency are numerous; one tells of a local butcher accidentally cutting off his own hand with a cleaver after reading a note left by Crowley.


Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. Zeppelin’s phallic guitar worship and uninhibited sexuality made them the rock phenomenon of their era. Asked of any connection to the Black Arts, the groups publicist B.P.Fallon once said, “Jimmy certainly wasn’t sacrificing virgins at midnight. He couldn’t find any.”

Page was quoted in Roadrunner magazine discussing further cases of madness and mayhem, including the story that Boleskine was once the site of a church that burned to the ground with its congregation. This brief, historical background gives insight into the lyrics of Zeppelin’s landmark track Stairway to Heaven. When we consider its nature - a woman searching for the path to a Celtic higher plane - it is a yearning for spiritual transformation; it also appears to be partially a song of hope for all those who once suffered at Boleskine. Controversy for the tune began in 1982, when a prominent Baptist used his radio pulpit to preach that Stairway to Heaven carried subliminal backward messages. Then the California State Assembly played a backward tape in a public session, with members of the committee claiming they heard the words, "I live for Satan." Zeppelin were duly denounced as agents of the Devil, who were luring millions of teenagers into damnation as unwitting disciples of the Antichrist.

Rumours of devilry dogged Zeppelin throughout their career, fuelled by Page’s interest in Crowley and their deliberately mysterious album sleeves and personal tragedies - singer Robert Plant’s son Karac died of a respiratory infection in 1977, and drummer John Bonham succumbed after a drinking binge in 1980. Shortly after Bonham’s demise, rumours resurfaced about Zeppelin’s so-called Black Album, a record of death chants that a German writer claimed he had translated from Old Swabian. Plant himself dismissed any pacts with the Devil, remembering that the only deal the band made was with some of the girls’ High Schools in San Fernando Valley. But Page’s interest in Crowley is profound; the magus took Lucifer as an agent of intellect and freedom, the liberation of the individual. Without any restrictions, there would be no frustration to lead to violence, crime or mental breakdown. Feeling Crowley a misunderstood genius, the musician believed this doctrine of common sense.