Archive for The House on Haunted Hill

Rubber Biscuit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2018 by dcairns

Was discussing something with Anne Billson on Twitter. Those shots where either a character moves on a dolly independently of the camera —

Examples:

Belle in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, gliding eerily down a corridor of wafting curtains.

This ghost in William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL — Cocteau maybe invented the trope and Castle maybe introduced it to Hollywood.

The implacable revenant in Bava’s BLACK SABBATH, who never makes the mistake of moving like a normal living person. She teleports from room to room like Droopy (“I do this to him all through the picture.”), sits up in bed without the use of arms, rising like a drawbridge, then finally wheels forward through a rainbow of artfully gelled lighting, arms already in position for a spot of strangling…

Kathleen Freeman as the Penguin in THE BLUES BROTHERS. Landis’s parodic use of the supernatural glide is striking because the trope was scarcely in common use at the time. It wasn’t like the trombone shot/exponential zoom in his THRILLER video, where the gimmick was maybe on its way to becoming overexposed and thus ripe for parody. The nun on wheels (at the very end of the long clip above) feels like it could have been played absolutely straight in a real horror movie.

(I like to think they intended to hire Kathleen Byron as a scary nun but asked Freeman by mistake. But I know this is not true.)

Also, those shots where the camera moves WITH the actor, as if the actor were on wheels or the camera were attached, or both. There are two variations on this (well, two main ones) ~

At the opening of SECONDS, John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe mount their camera on an actor via some kind of rigid harness, getting a whole range of eerie effects whereby the world lurches about, a drunken handheld nightmare, while the foreground shoulder or slice of face remains rock steady.

Another example of the same thing: Scorsese fastens on to Harvey Keitel for (appropriately) a drunk scene in MEAN STREETS, to the tune of Rubber Biscuit. Scorsese has also attached his lens to a boxer’s forearm to deliver a fist’s-eye view of a punch in RAGING BULL (blink and you’ll miss it) and to Willem Dafoe’s crucifix as it’s raised in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Interestingly, mounting the camera on a car is normal film language (although this still feels unusual) but latching on to any other moving object is still a novelty.

The other variation ~

Spike Lee is the main proponent of this one — camera and actor are moving in unison, but it’s a steady tracking shot, as if the actor is standing on the same dolly the camera moves on (and he is). Lee seems to do this in every film, and, distressingly, sometimes he seems to be doing it just to prove it’s him. His signature shot.

I used this one in my short film CLARIMONDE, back in the nineties — so Lee may have been the influence. I wanted a dreamlike effect and to show a character moving without free will. We didn’t actually have a proper dolly, just a tripod with castors, so I got my lead actor, Colin McLaren, to balance his feet on the castors and grip the top of the tripod so we could wheel him across the studio floor. I still like the result.

This whole slew of techniques seems to be without a name, unless I’ve missed something. I propose calling it the Rubber Biscuit Shot, even though Scorsese didn’t invent it and Spike Lee could probably stake a better claim to ownership. I just think Rubber Biscuit Shot sounds absolutely right for the weird, dislocating effect.

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The Woman in Red

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2009 by dcairns

Light posting this week, since my friend Kiyo from Japan is visiting. Happily, his trip also coincides with a visit from our chum Stephen Murphy, special effects makeup artist extraordinary, so a get-together in grungy local pub The Phoenix was swiftly organised.

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Woman in Red 1.

From left, Stephen Murphy, who transmogrified Jude Law in SLEUTH and decorated the goblins of HARRY POTTER: Kiyoyuki Murakami, who translates STAR WARS literature for Japan (and who was delighted to find that Darth Floyd/Pink Vader T-shirt); lady in red Fiona Watson, screenwriter and muse (“I look like the dwarf in DON’T LOOK NOW!”); Brian Robinson, screenwriter, rodent-frightener and excellent blogger.

When Kiyo’s around, I see the world through fresh eyes: things that seem normal enough, like the information centre for Polish immigrants, of whom there are many hereabouts, suddenly pops out of the landscape because it’s called Planet Poland. And Kiyo’s use of language also makes me hear things differently. He arrived Wednesday evening, having been traveling “for fourteen years”, so he was quite tired. The job was to keep him conscious until nightfall in order to get his body onto British time. I remembered when I first went to New York, and my friend Comrade K blew my frazzled mind by screening Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE (I hadn’t seen any KK at that point), so I whipped out a disc of KKurosawa’s RETRIBUTION which Comrade K had sent me, figuring a tired Kiyo could better follow something in his native language.

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Woman in Red 2.

But as devotees of the mysterious KK know, “following” is perhaps the wrong word for what you do when you join his audience. Or maybe it’s the right word, more right than it usually is: you enter the labyrinth and sift through the traces of the departed auteur, trying to make sense of the spoor and property damage left in his wake, pursuing a filmmaker who often seems far ahead of you. Those who like their films simple, unambiguous and tonally consistent are likely to find KK talented but undisciplined. The truth is, his particular discipline leads him to depart from the traditional templates which allow us to watch without thinking.

RETRIBUTION begins with its title, which is probably the last straightforward thing that happens, but even that straightforwardness is deceptive. “It’s not really called RETRIBUTION,” observed Kiyo, reading the kanji above the English subtitle. “It means MORNING, or THE SHOUT,” he went on. Japanese is an interesting language. “No, not THE SHOUT… THE SCREAM,” he concluded. 

Now, in this Wes Craven-smeared age, I can see why the distributors might shy away from using the S-word, but it’s definitely a shame, since that original title would have provided a clue to one of the film’s visual motifs —

This woman in red is the film’s avenging ghost, who pops up when least expected and causes numerous citizens to meet watery graves. Salt watery graves, to be specific. (“Frolic in brine / Goblins be thine,” as the subtitles of RINGU sought to assure us, in perhaps the most benighted couplet in subtitling history). Her dress, so brilliantly coloured and so flat in its colour, reminded this former art student of something, and the Japanese title was enough to clinch it —

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This is the closest match I could find, but there are other less obvious visual cues in Edvard Munch’s prints and paintings, in the way he uses a brilliant slab of colour to puncture and destroy any sense of perspective. As Riona Hazuki drifts through the frame in her searing red dress, floating as if mounted on a camera dolly, the brightness of her costume cutting her off from the surrounding reality, the creator of that other celebrated Scream is irresistibly brought to mind.

Incidentally, where does that floating on a dolly idea come from? I’ve used it myself, in my short film CLARIMONDE. The earliest dollying ghost I can name is in William Castle’s THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE he does mount Josette Day on some kind of trolley so he can trundle her through the Beast’s mansion. In this case, the purpose behind the effect is to make the environment strange, rather than the character.

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We all enjoyed RETRIBUTION quite a bit, it’s spooky and disconcertingly funny and very creative. It’s almost a straightforward genre piece  compared to something like CHARISMA, but there are plenty of moments when you feel you might be losing track.  Which is good. And Kurosawa produces humorous effects and almost-humorous effects in surprising ways. My favourite was probably when depressed cop Kôji Yakusho interrogates a female suspect on a patch of waste ground — yanking a dusty, discarded office chair from a heap of rubbish, he sits on it and faces her, transforming the vacant lot into an impromptu interview room.