Thoughts On: The House Of Ghosts (1908) & Outer Space (1999)
A talk on a kind of cinema that means to have a tangible presence and physical effect on an audience.
To start, we’ll take a quick look at these films individually. The House Of Ghosts is an early silent film by Segundo de Chomón, a Spanish filmmaker who, like Méliès, used cinema almost as a stage for illusions and ‘magic’ tricks. This film is essentially about a trio who stumble upon a haunted cottage and are chased off by the paranormal presence that lives there. We then see great examples of why Chomón is often compared to Méliès under the guise of cinematic magic in The House Of Ghosts with the amazing, though heavily abrupt and interruptive, stop motion as well as the iconic (to early silent cinema) jump cuts and surreal imagery. If you’ve not seen The House Of Ghosts, I certainly recommend it for these elements that give perspective on the ingenuity and creativity present in early filmmaking. But, it’s the combination of editing and surreal imagery that imply significance in this short.
Whilst faces on houses and weird demon things seem cheap at face value, they are representatives of a lasting paradigm in cinematic horror: the jump scare. And before going down the rabbit hole that I implied we would in the previous post, let’s introduce Outer Space.
Outer Space is an experimental film that is arguably Peter Tscherkassky’s best work. Tscherkassky himself is a very interesting filmmaker. He essentially embraces the artifice of film – actual film…
… and so uses found footage and all of the defects that can be inflicted upon it to create his own cinematic language.
There are two main effects, or achievements, of this cinematic language. The first is tantamount to the montage theorised and demonstrated by Soviet filmmakers such as Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Vertov and Eisenstein. In such, Tscherkassky utilises juxtaposition to create meaning and construct a cinematic space. But, instead of, in the simplest terms, jumping between different images as you see in Soviet montage films, Tscherkassky breaks his frame apart, double exposes, twists and folds the film to contrast one image to another. However, in Outer Space this juxtaposition is done minimalistically (in comparison to more recent films such as The Exquisite Corpus) so that the second effect of his cinematic language can be capitalised on. By contorting his frame, breaking apart his image and film, Tscherkassky produces an effect that is somewhat similar to a jump scare. Instead of there being one flash of an image that’s punctuated with a huge musical beat, there is a constant flash of images (something like that seen in French Impressionist films such as Napoleon) emphasised by a cacophonous barrage of sound. In such, you get this blinding or epileptic effect in which you’re almost attacked with light and sound that attempts to elongate the effects of something like a jump scare which will just go BANG or FLASH.
What you’ll already be piecing together is that Outer Space and The House Of Ghosts are quite similar in their cinematic approach. But, what I want to suggest is that ‘horror’ as a genre can be considered in a much more complicated manner. To explore this, we will be concentrating on an idea of physical-interactive cinema and the jump scare.
As was suggested when talking about Black Sabbath, most would say, almost by reflex, that jump scares are just bad filmmaking. I would agree with this to a certain extent. Many filmmakers, like Oren Peli with the first Paranormal Activity, substitute cinematic language, atmosphere and tension for a long wait and a loud sound. This is bad filmmaking because it is over-done, lazy, repetitive and has nothing to do with narrative. But, to understand this convention and where this comes from you have to look to a film such as The House Of Ghosts.
In this film, Chomón creates a narrative around what seems to be a dare or challenge. In such, the three friends go into the house and are attacked by ghosts and disappearing chairs, but are laughing the whole way through. In my view, The House Of Ghosts is then more a comedy than it is a horror film as it seems to be designed to attract an audience who will be scared as the characters are and laugh when the characters do. This aligns with a perspective of Chomón as someone very similar to Méliès as Méliès was, of course, a performer, and in such, he didn’t always create narrative films.
When he did, however, look for example to The Haunted Castle, there is often a similar sense of attraction and fun that is present in The House Of Ghosts. And in such, both Méliès and Chomón were essentially constructing films that are like simulations or rides in front of screens you find in theme parks or arcades; they were somewhat interactive.
This interaction is the basis of the kind of story telling demonstrated by Méliès and Chomón. And what this further links back to is the age-old practice of telling stories verbally. As I’m sure we’ve all experienced as kids, someone with a story would sit everyone down and tell everyone a creepy story about a person walking through a house with weird happenings occurring, books falling off of shelves, chairs moving – the story teller providing all the sound effects – all before that wandering person turns a corner and… RAAAAAAAAGH… the story teller roars and everyone screams or giggles. This is, in essence, the kind of cinema you see on display in The House Of Ghosts.
However, running parallel to this kind of comedy-horror experience in early cinema was the kind of narrative horror we have grown to embrace. We see a great example of this with the 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein. In this film, we don’t really get any jump scares or as much interactivity. Instead, we see horrific imagery that is story-centric, like the birth of The Monster:
This is a reversal of a model being burnt to a crisp and it achieves a swelling effect that slowly terrifies. We also see this as The Monster stalks Frankenstein:
There isn’t a jump cut in which The Monster just appears, roars and runs after Frankenstein. Instead, we again get a slow swelling terror of “he’s going to get you”. And it’s this kind of horror that evolved into the classical Frankenstein of the 30s which in turn developed over the decades into a philosophy of horror that uses tension, cinematic language and a building of horror that means to deeply affect you, emotionally, through story. And in this evolution there has been a focus on psychology in horror (like that seen in the early German Expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari) to produce masterpieces such as Repulsion and The Shining.
However, instead of delving too deep into how horror has evolved from the 1910 version of Frankenstein, we should be asking how the kind of horror seen in The House Of Ghosts has devolved. After all, it is clear that the jump scare, as seen in a film like Paranormal Activity, has cheapened. This is because there is no acknowledgement of the the jump scare as an interactive device, nor an acceptance that there isn’t such a succinct focus on narrative in physical-interactive cinema. In such, Paranormal Activity sets itself up as a film with a story about something – a film in the same class as the 30s Frankenstein, which is about isolation, creation, evolution and mistakes. However, Paranormal Activity is ultimately just supposed to scare you so you can laugh with your friends – just as audiences sat watching Chomón’s film were supposed to, and just as we, as kids being told scary stories, were supposed to. This false set up in Paranormal Activity is the cheapening factor. It says that we’re supposed to care about character, plot and so on, and so comes off as contrived and horribly written when it turns out that these things aren’t the focus or purpose of the movie. What we then see in many modern horror films is a misunderstanding of the physical-interactive side of horror which has ultimately lead to its de-evolution.
One possible reason as to why we are in this position is that the interactive (not physical) side of horror cinema did evolve – but died off. Exploitation cinema is very much an extension of the philosophy of cinema present in a film like The House Of Ghosts – and it made huge strides in the late 60s, through the 70s and into the early 80s. Exploitation cinema can be defined by three rules:
1. It is a concept that the exploitation film exploits, one that is fixated on to an extreme.
2. Characters do not exist in exploitation films; they are caricatures or pawns for audience and filmmaker.
3. The exploitation film, at its best, is intimate.
I outline and explained these rules when discussing Wes Craven’s, The Last House On The Left. And, ultimately, these tenants of exploitation cinema are there to establish an understanding between filmmaker and audience. In short, going into an exploitation film, you are both laying down a bet and stepping up to a dare; you bet the filmmaker that they cannot show you something messed up and you accept a dare made by a filmmaker that says “you can’t handle this”. What this then makes clear is the interactive foundation of an exploitation film that you also see in something like The House Of Ghosts. However, you can only go so far in exploitation film before someone is arrested and sent to jail. This is what we saw with Cannibal Holocaust. Ruggero Deodato was arrested for the obscenity in this film because he simply went so far as to kill real animals and fake the deaths of his cast. It was then Cannibal Holocaust that pretty much bookended the movement of the exploitation film because it was so extreme. However, we may come to see a reprisal of the exploitation film with CGI progressing and becoming more accessible – this is what films like Irreversible possibly imply.
And this is essentially the crux of what I mean to discuss. How does the physical-interactive cinema of The House Of Ghosts return and evolve?
So, we’ve already explored one side to this kind of cinema – the interactive side. There is a second side and that is the tangibility of the jump scare – the physical side. For physical-interactive cinema to evolve, both of these aspects must be developed. Whilst we can see a suggestion of how the interactive side may evolve in exploitation cinema, we can also see a suggestion of how the physical side may evolve with Outer Space.
Tscherkassky’s cinematic language is an expressive means of maturely communicating to an audience through physical reflexes. On the term ‘physical reflexes’, whilst there isn’t a true difference between emotional and physical reflexes as chemicals in the neural and endocrine system dictate both, I think it makes sense to establish that a romantic or action film is different from horror or comedy film. When you watch a romance, you are often swept away by the love, passion, relationships and when you watch an action film you may be caught up in the violence, aggression and passion (of a different sort). These are, for the most part, internalised reactions to a film. However, comedy, just like horror of the class we mean to discuss, needs a laugh, scream or jolt – it needs a physical reaction. And such is the distinction I mean to make when discussing a ‘physical reflex’. So, instead of achieving a simple jolt or laugh, as Chomón does, Tscherkassky blinds, has us squint or reel away, as to imply the horror and panic his protagonist endures in Outer Space. This is the power of his cinematic language and possibly a development of the jump scare as it dexterously has us feel as a character may. On a side note, this, as mentioned, builds from an Impressionist philosophy seen in films such as Napoleon, Cœur Fidèle and La Roue, so whilst this cinematic language isn’t entirely original, it does show innovation in the approach.
By taking this physical approach that you could possibly suggest is neo-impressionist, you can see the maturation of cinematic language that can be incorporated into horror films. We see glimmers of this in the slasher with the use of POV…
However, by introducing a more visceral and tangible cinematic language that Tscherkassky has developed…
… the impressionist elements of horror could transcend the simple jump scare and push this embodiment of character even further. This could be further assisted with 3D – and possibly give filmmakers another chance to utilise 3D as a cinematic device (as it seems to, again, have petered out). Moreover, the use of vibrating, moving chairs that you see in some cinemas could add further physicality. What filmmakers could thus develop in the future of horror is an approach that understands the tangibility of cinema and the physical reactions of an audience, which would capitalise on the experience that horror is supposed to be.
So, bringing back the interactive side of this kind of cinema, what I ultimately believe could be the next movement in horror could be the impressionistic exploitation picture. If it was the killing of animals and the torture porn that made films like Cannibal Holocaust so horrifying, but also hit that dead end, then the use of CGI could open up new grounds for filmmakers to explore. In such, without legal ramifications, truly gruesome content could be believably projected onto screens. And there wouldn’t be that simplicity and inevitable dead end in the gore because it wouldn’t have to constantly escalate (as had to happen with the exploitation picture). This is because the impressionistic side of this physical-interactive cinema would embellish the gore and provide a plethora of directions filmmakers could take with their cinematic language – hopefully adding longevity and scope to the approach.
Ultimately, what I mean to convey with an idea of physical-interactive horror is then a new kind of film that is somewhat mature and complex in its directorial approach, but truly entertaining and immersive for an audience consuming it. What are your thoughts on this suggestion? As a film lover or filmmaker, can you see it going anywhere?
And if you haven’t seen the films we’ve been discussing, here are some links to them on YouTube:
Black Sabbath – Something In The Air: How To Earn A Jump Scare
The Shining/Repulsion – The Evolution Of Horror
More from me: