Monday, 28 June 2010

It was a real Horrorshow, O my brothers...

My generation possibly thinks that The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield are a new breed of horror entertainment. I'd like to counter their illusion - it's been done before (though on a different medium). Put your hands together for Orson Welles.

Blair Witch starts with a declaration that what follows is the edit of a documentary and its "making" video. It features three student film-makers - Heather, Mike and Joshua - venturing  into the forests of Maryland to film an urban legend. They start off by interviewing several locals in the town of Burkittsville. The word-of-mouth accounts are half-incredulous. The townsfolk don't seem to attach much credence to these, though they are afraid and alert enough not to venture into the forests where the Blair Witch is supposed to live. The film crew shares some of this ambiguity. Even with the possibility of it being all hooey, they think it's an interesting subject to film. Because it starts of with banter and laughter, and later descends into irrational nightmare; it scares us. Nothing frightens more than the preset pattern of our daily lives being suddenly thrown asunder.

Daniel and Eduardo, the directors of Blair Witch, achieve this effect with their calculated low-production values. The forest, photographed in winter, is cold and distant. The lighting is mostly natural; sometimes too harsh, sometimes too low. There are several minutes given to documenting just the three friends shouting at each other in fear, despair and hysteria. The handheld shots wildly wobble and go out of focus; making the film resemble a home video. In the final frame, the screen blanks out to signal that all three are dead. What reduces the efficacy of a studio-produced horror film like Psycho is that it doesn't hit our instinctual fears first. (Some cinephiles claim that the early creaky, clapboard worlds of horror B-movies worked precisely because they exploited our primal fear.) Anyone who has seen Cloverfield would also agree that it employs the same strategy as Blair Witch.

Their early predecessor is Welles' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, aired by Columbia Broadcasting System on October 30, 1938 as part of their ongoing Mercury Theatre series. What makes the play effective - even disregarding the bloated reports of those years of yellow journalism in America, there was a little panic about a real Martian attack - is that it falls back upon itself, structured in the manner of a real news broadcast from CBS. The usual mundane rituals of dance music and enthusiastic radio-host banter is interspersed with terse reports, received from astronomical observatories, of unusual activities observed on the planet Mars. The Manhattan studio of CBS cuts to its reporter in Princeton, Carl Phillips. He interviews Professor Richard Pearson (voiced by Welles), a famed astronomer, about the strange occurrences. Initial denials of extraterrestial involvement, no doubt propelled by Pearson's scientific rationale and skepticism, are quickly disproved. There's a large thing that fell from the sky to a farm in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. And it's not a meteor.

What begins in a leisurely way slowly disintegrates into chaos. Carl Phillips starts his reporting in his usual calm, professional tone; maintaining proper protocol and impeccable manner (he asks his interviewee, Pearson, for permission to do even the most little things). With passing time his voice becomes strained, nervous and irritable (he brushes off an over-eager eyewitness of the "meteor fall" who wants to ramble). Welles employs overlapping dialogue and background sounds. Voices trail off as radio static becomes loud. Carl Phillips is killed by the Martians midway into the play (mirroring Joshua's mysterious death in Blair Witch). Notice that while there are reports of several onlookers being killed by the Martians, it doesn't quite affect us until Phillips' voice dies out suddenly. It's a clever ruse to familiarise us with a character's growing desperation and have him wiped out.

And then, civilian broadcasting is altogether discarded to give way to military bulletin. The listeners ride along with fighter plane pilots who bomb the aliens and rue the lack of any effect. This pattern of alteration of tone and pace connects two works separated by six full decades.

All matters of form aside, Welles places his best bet when he subversively plays on the American people's fear of imminent warfare. The historical perspective is underlined further when Prof. Pearson, who evades the marauding Martians, meets an officer of the Home Guard in a forlorn, tattered city. In what must be a very political statement rivalling Kubrick's in Dr. Strangelove, the officer reveals his sinister idea to use science to wipe out both the Martians and the remaining people who, for him, are disposable nothings. The officer's plan reveals the same alarming hatred and disregard for human life evident in Nazi propaganda across the Atlantic (no wonder Hitler was outraged at Welles' little joke!).

Prof. Pearson's personal account, which fills much of the second half, is also part of the reason why the play works. He trudges through charred cities and countryside, noting the apocalyptic scale of battle debris.
Next day I came to a city, a city vaguely familiar in its contours, yet its buildings strangely dwarfed and leveled off, as if as if a giant had sliced off its highest towers with a capricious sweep of his hand.
His chilling description of New York reads thus:
Walked up Broadway in the direction of that that strange powder, past silent shop windows, displaying their mute wares to empty sidewalks past the Capitol Theatre, silent, dark past a shooting gallery, where a row of empty guns faced an arrested line of wooden ducks. Near Columbus Circle I noticed models of 1939 motorcars in the showrooms facing empty streets. Over the top of the General Motors Building, I watched a flock of black birds circling in the sky. Hurried on. Suddenly I caught sight of the hood of a Martian machine, standing somewhere in Central Park, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. An insane idea: I rushed recklessly across Columbus Circle and into the Park. I climbed a small hill above the pond at Sixtieth Street and from there I could see, standing in a silent row along the mall, nineteen of those great metal Titans, their cowls empty, their great steel arms hanging listlessly by their sides. I looked in vain for the monsters that inhabit those machines.

The play begins with an introduction that says:

We know now that in the early years of the 20th century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
It is ironic that the Martians are conquered not by man with his superior intellect, but bacteria. The proto-ubermensch officer must be eating his hat, or whatever is left of it.

P.S.: Those who want the radio play and can meet me, ask for it. I'll be happy to share. Those who can't, may download it. And those who can't download it, may read it (there's a pdf version in the link too).

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