Sunday, November 13, 2011
(Reprinted from Pop Eye)
One of my all time gurus, John Cale, once put it succinctly in song: “Fear is a man’s best friend.” Peeps in general (old school peeps, new school peeps, outta school peeps, probably even pre-school peeps ), all dig a good scare, always seem to be peeping around the darker corners of pop cult and their own upstairs windows trying to suss out yet another dose of temporary terror, attempting to churn up some innate fear-inducing chills and thrills, whether it be the ol’ pop- and-fresh in-yer-face shudder and shrink, or laying down the connected tracks for a psychological roller coaster ride, whether it be through literature, through the movies, or by splashing ketchup around the fake arrow sticky out of their pointy heads when they parade around in costumes on Halloweenie Day. (Myself, I don’t go hog-wild over Halloween because of those very costumes and the attendant behavior of those clad in them—they make me very, very nervous, but that’s a story for another day.)
Movies have long provided the safe distance into which one can thrust oneself directly into the realm of psychological, physical, or supernatural fear, and, by theory at least, be protected by the very distancing effects of the medium itself. Whatever route they take or genre they inhabit—whether it be the blood-and-entrails type, the slow-burn-to-insanity number, the have-some-paranoia side dish, or the occult special---movies have a special way of going bump in the dark and allowing for a certain release of tension, even if it’s simply the slow roll of the end credits. Of course the hypersensitive need not apply, and even the occasional regular Joe finds himself suddenly disoriented when a latent film image or a particularly piquant plot structure just keeps intruding upon his or her waking life. The catharsis that’s supposed to be part of the movie-movie deal ain’t always exactly delivered appropriately, particularly with the jaded-before-their-time, seen-it-all, oversaturated, highly desensitized contempo audiences.
The cinematic masters of the thriller-diller, the chop-‘em-up, the anxiety-arouser, the old fashioned spook fest, are indeed legion, ever expanding, and always keeping the creaking door open for any savvy art house director or pulpy filmmaker to step in for a one-timer, and try their hand in entering the ongoing (and perpetual) big screen fear fest. Names get bandied about, names like Polanski, Lewton, Lynch, Raimi, Carpenter, Argento, De Palma, Browning, Whale, Murnau, Romero, Cronenberg, and a whole passel of too-many-to-recount newbies, yet one truly stands above the rest: Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitch is the guy, the king of the fear swing, the cinematic svengali who continually wielded assorted degrees of voyeurism and sadism along with a blanket of Kafkaesque determination, bookending that filmic stew with ever eroding nerve endings and narrative uncertainty, all under the spell heavy duty moral implications, all in the glorious name of both art and commerce. Hitch was one filmmaker who, again and again, achieved a meaningful symbiosis between image, editing, camera movement, plot, character, tone and theme, and did most of it in the name of suspense. Much has been written about the films of Hitchcock, his sublime techniques, and his ability to layer a box office hit with overriding questions of guilt and morality. Hitchcock, with the possible exception of his late effort Frenzy (1972), didn’t do gore, didn’t do guts, and steadfastly refrained from all things Grand Guignol.
It was all about the power of suggestion, about the lights and shadows of both the visual palate and, yep, the soul. The ultimate Hitch film, as far as the fear factor goes is 1960’s Psycho. Not enough space allowed to re-sing its many virtues: taut, virtuosic, spine-tingling, exquisitely crafted, suggestive, lurid, flamingly Freudian, plus the cast, the score, the cinematography, the shower sequence. Years later, many would argue that Psycho, because it unleashed the first semblance of unimaginable but almost gleefully delivered overt violence--that knife against that bare skin under that deluge of sprayed water capped off by the black and white image of a splash of blood circling down the drain-- despite its indefensible stamp of artistry, set the dynamics of a whole brave and bold new cinema of unease. Hitch, what has thy wrought?