Issue 13 : Fall 2007








Otherzine issues

Top of page

Horror And Experimental Cinema: Some Brief Observations

by Jack Sargeant

25 Sep 2007

Wonder has no opposite; it springs up already doubled in itself, compounded of dread and desire at once, attraction and recoil, producing a thrill, the shudder of pleasure and of fear.
—Marina Warner

Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’Or (1930) are commonly considered “art films,” with an influence on subsequent avant-garde and underground cinemas, but their mise-en-scene and dream logic have additionally inspired the horror film. Movies that share with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s work an urge to depict decay, mutilation, and the spectacle of the visceral body also employ the use of editing, which relies on moments of sudden discontinuity, a narrative emphasis on the contingent nature of reality, and a visual ecstasy realized in the unleashing of the darkest fears and desires associated with the unconscious.

The horror movie and underground film share a desire to make the most of their limited budgets and engage with visual experimentation. Both forms have embraced techniques such as multiple exposures, handheld and unusual camerawork, stroboscopic effects, montage editing, and the re-negotiation of the traditional relationship between audience and subject, audience and gaze, and, even, on occasion, the boundaries of film and performance. For example, Ray Dennis Steckler’s Incredibly Strange Creatures (1964) and William Castle’s The Tingler(1959) were films made famous for scenes in which the ‘monstrous other’ entered the audience, a device employed by numerous experimental filmmakers in “expanded cinema” performances.

Horror films and the underground have frequently intersected in the nebulous zones of midnight movie and exploitation cinema. This can be seen in the works of 42nd Street grindhouse director Andy Mulligan, who produced no-budget shockers as well as underground theatrical performances; in the early films of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, both of whom produced work with an underground sensibility; and most famously in Paul Morrissey’s two movies produced under the aegis of Andy Warhol: Flesh For Frankenstein (1973) and Blood For Dracula (1973). Other underground / horror features include John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs (1970), Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack (1975), and Nick Zedd’s Geek Maggot Bingo (1983).

Simultaneously 70s movies, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), explored contemporary politics and pushed the aesthetic limits of low-budget cinema (just check out the opening sequence to “Chainsaw”). Like experimental and underground film, horror is frequently a cinema produced by driven auteurs.

Finally, horror and the underground often deconstruct the assumed stable relationship between sacred and profane, and may do so despite the banal tongue-clicking morality of the censor.

In the collection of films presented here, horror emerges through a combination of renegotiated visual tropes, generic references, and narratives of psychological fragmentation. The iconography associated with cinematic horror informs many of these films, but it is J.X. Williams’ Psych-Burn (1968) and Lloyd M. Williams’ Opus 5 (1961) that strip the form to its essentials. In Psych-Burn, go-go dancers, blinking lights, and nighttime streets are superimposed through multiple exposures with footage of skulls and terror-widened eyeballs. The soundtrack is go-go style garage pop interrupted by reduced sonic blurts which accompany onscreen flashes of ritualized violence and murder. J.X.. remarks, not surprisingly, that the film was a “contract breaker” with ABC Television, which allegedly caused boardroom heads to roll. Lloyd M. Williams’ Opus 5 weaves together a range of visual elements – the play of light and darkness, animated forms, abstracted images of religious rituals, graveyards, apocalypse, and fire – into a series of liminal sequences that emphasize the fugue states associated with horror.

This slippage into the uncanny also informs Bill Morrison’s The Mesmerist (2003). But Morrison uses reworked found film – James Young’s The Bells (1926) – in order to examine alternative possibilities that can be manifested through horror narratives. In addition, the film interrogates the materiality of the projected image. The soundtrack by Bill Frisell serves to emphasize the phantasmagorical experience of the protagonists and the viewers watching the film as well. The use of found footage and the slippage between states informs Wago Kreider’s Between 2 Deaths (2006). However, the altered states examined here are less to do with those of protagonist or viewer and more to do with the genealogy of cinema, and the film plays with the projected ghosts of Hollywood and the uncanny moments experienced in the phantasm of recognition.

Damon Packard’s The Early 70s Horror Trailer (1999) re-creates the mood and style of the absurd, fustian trailers from the golden age of the horror movie. With its urgent soundtrack (that even incorporates the shocked voice after the film appears to have ended), roving camera angles and cheesy optical effects the film encapsulates the quasi-psychedelic ambience of the era. Also paying tribute to the 70s horror film, albeit via narrative and mise-en-scene, is The Fear (Angel Nieves, 2002), which incorporates numerous generic staples from the period including the monstrous infant, the spiralling sense of isolation, and a shower scene.

Clifton Childree’s She Sank on Shallow Bank (2006) takes the horror film back to its roots in the subversive potential of the fantastic, first articulated in the cinema of Georges Méliès. While John Allen Gibel’s Pleromadromadhetu (2006) uses Warhol’s zombie corpse as an exploitation gimmick and comment on the nature between artist, myth, and medium.

Meanwhile, Hold My Scissors (2004) from Chicago’s most prolific underground filmmaker, Usama Alshaibi, combines images of blood, cannibalism, witches, and demons, shot with a frenetic urgency that functions to heighten the dreamlike soundtrack. In contrast, Michelle Silva’s Amor Peligrosa (2002) uses iconography adopted from the Mexican Dia de Muertos mixed via a twisted EC Comics mentality rather than cinema as its primary influence.

Horror may be manifest in a multiplicity of ways, be it the visceral experience of shock, a theoretical engagement with that which is repressed, or a series of familiar generic styles. What these films share is the recognition of the importance of this genre and the desire to use it as a theme and as an inaugural point for hermeneutic experiments in structure and form as well as in the phenomenological experience of the visual and aural.

Experiments in Terror is available for purchase at our store.

Jack Sargeant, Sydney
Friday 13th July, 2007.

Jack Sargeant is an author, curator and lecturer specialising in outsider, underground, and extreme culture:

Experiments In Terror II

Curated by Noel Lawrence (with assistance from Craig Baldwin)

HOLD MY SCISSORS – Usama Alshaibi
2004 | mini-DV | 4:23

AMOR PELIGROSA – Michelle Silva
2002 | mini-DV | 2:30

PSYCH-BURN – J.X. Williams
1969 | 16mm | 3:15

1999 | Super-8 | 9:15

BETWEEN 2 DEATHS – Wago Kreider
2006 | mini-DV | 6:41

2006 | 16mm | 12:10

OPUS #5 – Lloyd M. Williams
1961 | 16mm | 5:25

THE FEAR – Angel Nieves
2001| 16mm | 18:15

THE MESMERIST – Bill Morrison
2003 | 35mm | 15:50


WARHOL BEYOND THE GRAVE (from Pleromadromadhetu) – John Allen Gibel & Jason Dowling. Narration by Joshua Roberts. Produced by Kathryn Barber
2006 | mini-DV | 3:45

???? | ???? | ??:??

*Films courtesy of Craig Baldwin and Dennis Nyback.