Handyman’s nightmare

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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YES, I CAN SEE DEAD PEOPLE (Lee Kwong-Yiu, Hong Kong), shown at IFFR

In the Hungry Ghosts section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam five Asian cinema artists were asked to enliven the old museum halls with their vision of a haunted house. Austrian film critic Maya McKechneay is an aficionada of haunted houses which seem to live by itself and think and act as a character.

A few weeks ago, German director Christian Petzold remarked in an interview, that the number of ‘Baumärkte’ (DIY stores) was growing at a stunning pace. "There are so many men around," he said, "shopping at those stores, building so much world at the moment."
‘Building world’. And there is, one might add, also an international boom in TV-formats which teach the belonging wives how to redecorate the interior. In other shows you can win a prefab house. Or families compete against the clock to finish their homestead. The idea of a ‘house’ as a permanent private recluse seems to gain in value in a world where everything is shifting. Fight club author Chuck Palahniuk has put it like this:" [People dream of] a big house, off alone somewhere. A penthouse, like Howard Hughes. Or a mountaintop castle, like William Randolph Hearst. Some lovely isolated nest where you can invite only the rabble you like. An environment you can control, free from conflict and pain. Where you rule."
But to every dream, there is a counter-narrative, a dark version, a nightly twin. This — and at least that’s my reading — is the reason why there is a renaissance of another genre at DVD-stores, on TV and at the cinema, the genre of the haunted house film. A haunted house film is a film, in which some ‘unseen force’ haunts a building. I’m not referring to films in which a mad killer saws up his victims in some remote basement, hostel, whatever. And I’m not talking of the Spanish boxoffice wonder [rec], either, in which physical creatures roam about an apartment building. A haunted building in my definition is a building which seems to live by itself. A building that seems to think and act as a character, like the derelict department store in Alexandre Aja’s US remake of into the mirror (geoul sokeuro, Korea 2003), which was released in 2008 under the title of mirrors. A house like a monster, or a monster house, as in the Spielberg/Zemeckis-produced horror-spoof of 2006.

As a wide-eyed aficionada of the genre ever since I can think, I find it important to distinguish. If only to protect my cherished collection from the fakes out on the market: have you ever noticed, how many DVD-covers try to bait you into buying with a remote house, viewed from below? Very often these psycho-lookalikes turn out to contain some completely different genre. But the image seems to get people like me hooked to even the most bloodless gangster flick. Seeing it, we know what to expect: this very special ‘Angstlust’, that we experience in our own cosy home, while there are shivers in its sinister twin-space in the safe distance of the screen.
But the uncanny, haunted building is not only a standard of film. It has been an archetype in literature long before cinema was invented. Think of Horace Walpole’s prototype of the gothic novel Castle of Otranto (1764) with its dark crypts and labyrinthine vaults, and its follow-ups during the gothic revival, most prominently E.A. Poe’s The fall of the house of Usher. Interestingly, the wave of haunted house novels, which followed Poe’s 1839 short story, fell into a time, when in the course of industrialization work-migration swept people from the countryside to the big cities, where they crowded in quickly brought up, cheap tenements.
Nowadays, there is a different migration wave, which — in Asia and the US, and at a slower pace in Europe — sweeps people from the old city centers out into suburbs. There they move into quickly brought up private homes, prefab models mostly, which would resemble each other, if it weren’t for the tireless painting and decorating job those TV-instructed handymen and -women do. Like in the age of industrialization, the fear they fight is a loss in individuality. Thinking of horror films as our collective nightmares, dreams which act out our suppressed fears, it seems natural that haunted house films — like previously gothic novels — link their uncanny plot to a doppelgänger motiv. Remember Poe’s Usher-twins, and remember the Korean ghost film a tale of two sisters? If it’s not physical doppelgängers, mirrors may take their place and belie the owner’s myth of the home as being one-of-a-kind.

Villa hantée
There are very few genres in film history which follow such a hermetic canon of motifs as the haunted house film. First and foremost, each haunted house proves to be such via movements which seem to stem from no other source than the building itself. Doors open, curtains move, shadows change as candles are blown out by unseen forces. These images have been the same ever since Louis Feuillade sent his Fantômas to a ‘Villa hantée’ in 1913. And probably years before that. They bear some strangely familiar, archetypical quality, which seems to confirm our child’s belief in the secret life of objects, the so called magical thinking.
In the direct sense of the word, this magic could easily be produced even in the early film studios. Actually in the turn of the century rooftop-studios — which often were without an actual roof in order to allow natural light — there tended to be magical movement not only where it was wanted: I have always liked the haunting quality of curtains, draperies and hair moved by some invisible wind in what is meant to be an interior space by the film’s logic. But I digress.
A typical haunted house, again like Poe’s House of Usher, features human characteristics: doors yawn, as in Guillermo del Toro’s shamelessly overlooked the devils backbone (el espinazo del diablo, 2001). Windows stare. And the circulation of bodily fluids can leak, when it is hurt. So does the plumbing in the apartment house in dark water. An elevator vomits blood in the shining, copied by a blood spouting bed in a nightmare on elm street.

Pulling the strings
Eccentric camera angles mirror the status of the building as a subject, generating the impression that it was looking down on the inhabitants. Robert Wise plays this trick marvelously in his all-time genre-flagship, the haunting (1963). But haunted houses also produce anthropoid noise. To my reading, this is why the guttural sound in the grudge is so deeply unsettling: it combines the everyday noise of a creaking door with the sound of a human throat. If the old children’s fear of rooms and objects as monsters came true, this is what they would sound like.
But — you will now argue — in most of these films there is a different explanation for the goings-on. A ghost, some kind of monster, or a crook pulling the strings behind the scenes as Vincent Price does in William Castle’s house on haunted hill (1959). Of course, there is. And then again, there isn’t. While the motifs and archetypical Angst-situations of the haunted house film have practically stayed the same since the early 1900s, monsters and explanations have paraded by. What stays in memory is not the solution (which, with a few exceptions, is rather carelessly thought up anyhow). No: it’s the genuine threat of the house.
In recent years the Rotterdam Film Festival has shown weirder kinds of haunted house films. Jessica Hausner’s hotel (2004), in which people get swallowed up by corridors. Or last year’s the unseeable (pen choo kab pee), an atypical example bathed in tropical colors. Its Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng is one of five Asian cinema artists, which were asked this year by Gert-Jan Zuilhof to enliven the old halls of Rotterdam’s former Museum of Photography with their vision of a haunted house (the others being: Amir Muhammad, Nguyen Vinh Son, Lav Diaz, Garin Nugroho and Riri Riza). In the Hungry Ghosts section, Philippine altar by Rico Maria Ilarde promises to be a real haunted house treat. But then — never judge a haunt by its cover.

Maya McKechneay

After studies of Film Theory and German Literature Maya McKechneay wrote her thesis about Thomas Bernhard’s Kalkwerk, the scariest haunted house plot never made into a film. Born and raised in Munich, she now lives in Vienna, working as a freelance writer and experimental film distributor. She is member of the IFFR’s Fipresci-jury 2009.

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Berkelse mere
The first man to see life under a microscope was the Dutch lens maker Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek. In 1674, he scooped up some water in a lake near the town of Delft and saw animalcules with divers colors, some whitish and transparent, others with green and very glittering little scales. Protists, they are called now. Van Leeuwenhoek ends his first description of creatures no one had ever seen before with a remark that stresses beauty: ‘And the motion of most of these animalcules in the water was so swift, and so various upwards, downwards and roundabout, that ’twas wonderful to see.’ Wonderful to see.
It is like he is describing an abstract animated film, something Hans Richter or Len Lye made.

Bianca Stigter