Issue 13 : Fall 2007








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Experiments in Terror 2

by David Cox

12 Oct 2007

Curated by Noel Lawrence, with assistance from Craig Baldwin

Experiments in Terror 2 is a DVD compilation of nine horror shorts which picks up where the volume one disc left off. The ensemble works beautifully as a total and very solid program of knowing, ironic, and trippy horror gems which go right for the jugular vein as well as the funny bone. Like a nightmare or seamy experience borne from a bout of very heavy indulgence, EiT2 will keep you guessing and re-living the experience for days after the fact.

J.X. Williams’ Psych-Burn is a typical sample. As all accounts would indicate, this film is an actual exhumed filmic corpse from the deep dark archives of an otherwise forgotten, or more likely, deliberately buried (like the monoliths in 2001) melding of the 1960s counter-culture with the otherwise sober and straight world of commercial mainstream television. And it is a queer duck indeed.

Here is an official release by J.X. Williams on the story behind the making of the 1968 16mm film Psych-Burn ...

Psych-Burn was what musicians call a ‘contract-breaker’. ABC had given us some coin to make a few short films for a TV pilot. Love-In Tonite was to be a psychedelic rock variety show with live performances, skits, and whatnot to cash in on the emerging hippie demographic. Even pre-Disney, the network was riddled with a bunch of out-of-touch, pencil-pushing buffoons, so I quickly realized the show would be a disaster. Imagine if Midnight Special was produced by Aaron Spelling. Then cast Charles Nelson Reilly as emcee. That would have been a far more lively show than Love-In Tonite. So I decided to deliver the suits a farewell kick-in-the-butt called Psych-Burn. The best part was that they presented my film sight unseen at a board meeting about the new Fall Season. I heard some heads rolled over that one.
—J.X. Williams from the forthcoming documentary The Big Footnote.

Damon Packard’s film Early 70s Horror Trailer beautifully evokes the sense of ethereal anxiety of the period. Digital effects masquerade as optical effects in this bad-trip treatment of the pure early ‘70s TV image, particularly the use of such (now clichéd ) period effects as lens flare, kaleidoscope prism type lenses, etc. Packard’s trailer is a deliberately apparently “drug-induced”--but digitally invoked-psychosis. The early 70s preoccupations of “New Age” mystery, horror, and far-out psychodrama is at this film’s stylistic and sentimental core. People on TV and film in the early 1970s often seemed unhinged by the implications of the cultural events which had just happened in the late 1960s. Producers were looking for formulas which would feed the appetites of suburban demographics which did not offend too much, but which did not altogether ignore the all-too-pervasive omnipresent evidence of the hippie counterculture in everyday life.

By 1973, commercial television producers had thus started to fully integrate aspects of such “underground” signifiers as “experimental film” into drama production, and the weird combination of commercial prime-time television, with its hot dog commercials, severe and authoritarian station IDs, and general white-bread mass-market appeal had fused strangely with elements of the drug- culture underground. Think for example of the dreamy in focus, then out of focus opening to the show Kung Fu, with its “natural” shots of David Carradine walking through landscapes of timeless pre-industrial America. This was hippie culture gone commercial suburban.

So there was a subtle whiff of Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow to every other Quinn Martin and Irwin Allen production when the script called for someone to have a bad-trip experience, or even just a nightmare. Films like The Omen and Burnt Offerings issued forth sequences of people going insane as pure horror, echoing the anxieties of many of the creative community that the excesses of the period were starting to spill over into the safe lawns and sober living rooms of mainstream USA. In England these soft-focus manias were the preserve of Hammer Horror films – social realism spilling into fantasy to say “THIS is what your excesses have given rise to!!! – We are SHOWING it!!”

The psychological destabilizing effect infecting the characters in these films is usually depicted as a demonic intruder. Packard’s work focuses entirely on this horror through going mad, depicted typically by scantily clad young women running in slow motion past downtown Los Angeles modernist architecture and plazas, through artificial fog, the camera zooming into agape mouths, flowing see-through gowns billowing against the streetscape.

This urban madness&mdashimages from classic horror and gothic melodrama fused with the notion of urban banal L.A. as home to the everyday intense occult imagination—is Packard’s stock-in-trade. He knows this landscape of 1970s TV Los Angeles horror—it is the “vacant”, shot-early-on-Sunday-morning streets of L.A. with Charlton Heston in sunglasses driving his red convertible in “The Omega Man”.

It is the look of a hundred anti-drug educational films from the period—delirium and confusion, headlights approaching as drugged teens freak out, badly acting kids grabbing disheveled hair in despair at what-the-drugs-are-doing-to-them. But it’s not the drugs driving people to the edge—its the general overall reality of a society spiraling further into a pointless land war in Asia. It is escalating gasoline prices tripling in cost. It is the steady collapse of the very idea of the American republic, in full view and in living color.

Vertigo then and now—deconstructing Wago Kreider’s Between 2 Deaths.

What is it about Vertigo which makes us want to revisit it over and over? This film seems to embody and transmit the anxiety and obsessions of its central character, and when Jimmy Stewart gets dizzy, we get dizzy. When his Scotty starts stalking the very image of a dead ideal woman, so do we. Its like a spell or a curse, and like all curses, they come back again and again, sometimes fifty years later.

Between 2 Deaths super-imposes views from Hitchcock’s Vertigo with the same locations today—mainly Mission Dolores. The shots of the various locations are painstainkingly matched in video, and both the original film and the re-shoots are slowed down to create a step-printed look. Frames slowly go by at something like five per second. The ease with which the 1958 Mission overlaps with the 2006 one is uncanny. The interior of the Mission and the cemetery outside have remained startlingly similar in the intervening fifty years.

Great lengths have been taken to match camera angle and lens types. The combined effect of seeing the familiar settings at once removed from the realm of myth and into reality, only makes the idea of these places all the more mysterious. I found watching this film profoundly moving. Denizens of the Mission District of San Francisco who know and love Vertigo tend to take the film and its use of this location very seriously. Vertigo is to those who live here more than a mere film. It is such a talismanic touchstone articulating a sense of the uncanny which enshrouds San Francisco. Mystery and weirdness are always just under the surface of this city. San Francisco bewilders its new arrivals in ways which defy coherent description. The fog, the sun, the worldly yet provincial libertarianism of its population somehow all fuse together.

Californian clichés of charlatanry and flakiness find direct expression in the hubris, cruelty, vanity, and opportunism of Vertigo’s villains, and the gullible and obsessive naiveté of its hapless hero. Hitchcock’s masterpiece is so much about the crisis of perception of its central characters because one suspects his own love affair with the Bay Area (also explored in The Birds) was similarly compromised by a visual and psychic landscape which defied coherent understanding. San Francisco seduces filmmakers, then forces them to come to terms with the implications of that process of seduction. Between 2 Deaths finds the ground zero for this situation in a place which has remained unchanged for fifty years, as it is the home of the dead—the Mission Dolores cemetery, resting place in the film of the doomed, childless, sad, mad, abandoned mythical mother-figure of the whole city herself: Carlotta.

As Slavoj Zizek notes in the brilliant Perverts’ Guide to Cinema, Vertigo packs such a powerful punch precisely because the act of watching it is to identify so closely with the obsession of the central Jimmy Stewart character. Scotty’s descent into madness is brought about by the disconnect between real and imagined. The city he inhabits ends up appearing like an accomplice in the crimes and deceptions because it is a place that conveys to all who occupy its streets the sense that what is really going on here is up for grabs. The reality of San Francisco is entirely provisional.

San Francisco can appear to offer up competing versions of itself to the visitor and long-term resident alike. To people who arrive here unprepared, the urban space and the people in it are experienced as if seen as many fragments broken into multiple instances as if filtered via prisms. There are so many San Franciscos. So many shattered illusions within her ever-shifting planes of provisional reality.

Back in the early 1990s, blood and gore goth-fests of zombied-up white kids pretending to gouge each other and drink blood and eat guts and videotaping it were all too common. “Hold My Scissors” is such a work, and I hope it is something of a parody of this most stupid of genres. The lurid colors of high- saturation digital video do little to embolden the puerile, undergraduate ‘shock’ effect of seeing Goths get it with sharp objects every which way. Would that these play-actors of the macabre were not going through their middle-class Halloween dress-up party, but actually really offing themselves on camera, leaving the equipment and tape stock to filmmakers with some real talent.

Amor Peligrosa by Michelle Silva is porn for the Day of the Dead. Two skeletons meet, fall in love, and fuck, then lie down together in their side-by-side graves. It’s a starkly black and white film, all high contrast, like a Mexican Day of the Dead woodcut. In a world where the dead leap out at us from all sides from wars, bombs, accidents, and just the folly of a world gone mad, we would do well to wish upon the recently departed, and exhumed, their chance at some frission and sexual thrill. This film wants the dead to have a good time and in doing so it’s, as the English say, “Dead sexy!”.

She Sank on Shallow Bank by C. Childree and N. Rollason is a powerful entry to the canon of Gothick Americana, but in the Eastern European Surrealist tradition of animators like Jan Svankmajer by way of the those Bostonian Europhiles the Brothers Quay. In mixing live-action with stop-motion, the terrain is familiar – girls, boats, riversides, mud, and death. Again the mythology of hapless girls who fall afoul of murderers by the creek is here extended as riff on the folk myths of Leadbelly and Nirvana’s haunting Where Did You Sleep Last Night. The murky depths of incest, rape, unwanted pregnancy, and other horrors befalling America’s rural poor have their own genre of songs, stories, and now films. This film is like a Bruce Conner installation like “The Black Dahlia” – all strong suggestions of fetid, putrid transgression, evidence of a struggle. The film seems to articulate a common theme in popular culture today – tawdry outcomes for a society unable to pay its debts to the greater promise of the Constitution. Something is definitely rotten in the USA, and like the poor girl as the subject of this film, the republic itself could be said to have been beaten, drugged, interfered with ,and dumped.

Curator Noel Lawrence will present the new OCD release of Experiments in Terror 2 on the 27th of October, 2007, at Other Cinema. The DVD is available for purchase at our store.

David Cox is a filmmaker and writer based in the Mission District of San Francisco. His blog is