Tag Archives: asylum films

Torture Device Survey: Notes on Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan

Devil's laying on of hands

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). I wanted to give some context about why I’ve chosen the two films I’m showing. You can read about Obayashi Nobuhiko’s Hausu (House) here but today we’re talking about the later showing of Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan

Woman greets sex with devil

Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan has had a chequered history. It was a luxurious production (apparently it proved the most expensive Danish silent ever, though the money came from Sweden), became a huge hit in its native land and was banned in many parts of the world. In 1968, a bowdlerized version with narration by William Burroughs brought it to a new audience (though played at a sped up 24fps rather than its original 20fps, giving the production an unintentionally uncanny effect). Then the Criterion Collection did their usual sterling work on it at the turn of the last century and its been a fixture in the growing silent scene ever since.

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Christiansen is surprisingly clear eyed when it comes to the source of demons and other black arts. His wildly imaginative approach ultimately serves to underline the source of the magical: the human imagination. Scandinavia has always been far ahead of the curve in abandoning organised religion, but also has a vibrant folklore culture. Häxan is incredibly modern in its scepticism towards three successive systems of human faith: pantheism, monotheism and the dawning hegemony of rational psychology. I the film’s final scenes, Christiansen seems to be suggesting that we are reaching a new level of rationalism with psychology, in which we can understand possession, haunting and apparition as identifiable pathologies (epilepsy, schizophrenia and hallucination). Yet he steers away from this conclusion, leaving us with a remarkably post-modern void. Before even the horrors of the Holocaust, Christiansen explains that 8 million people died at the hands of witch hunters.

Woman greets sex with devil
The format of the film reaches into even earlier forms of ‘cinema’. The opening of the film is a fairly faithful reproduction of a magic lantern lecture, albeit one with very high quality dioramas. Christiansen himself appears to present this lecture and one can easily imagine him hovering over proceedings, either benshi style or with ferrule in hand.

The director himself, looking fairly possessed

The director himself, looking fairly possessed

Apparently Christiansen spent two years researching the black arts prior to filming. His main source was the Malleus Malifacarum (amazingly awesome translation of the full title: The Hammer of Witches which destroys witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword). The publication of the Malleus Malifacarum by a Heinrich Kramer precipitated a wave of bloody and intense witch persecution in Europe. The book gave the tools not only to refute the scepticism that surrounded witchcraft at the time, but also how to identify witchcraft and how to punish it. Aided by Gutenberg’s relatively new printing press, the book’s ideas became widely spread, including its emphasis on witchcraft as predominately female fault. This meant that the majority of victims of this persecution craze were women.

Torture device demo 2

The film has an admirably permeable approach to documentary. There is little attempt to settle into a final form: although the reenactments dominate, there is still room for a demonstration of torture devices by Christiansen’s assistants. It’s unresolved and unsettling elements like this, besides its ornate visual style and surprisingly modern mindset, that means it’s still a big hit with audience 90 years later.

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A Hausu is Not a Home: Notes on Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House

Disembodied limbs

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). I wanted to give some context about why I’ve chosen the two films I’m showing. You can read about Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan here but today we’re talking about the later showing of Obayashi Nobuhiko’s Hausu (House)…

Hausu was director Obayashi Nobuhiko’s first feature film. His route to his debut charts the post-war fluctuations in Japan’s cinema. Obayashi began his career as an experimental filmmaker working with super 8 film, alongside many of the most famous names of the Japanese avant garde. After a showcase of this movement’s films, a producer of television commercials approached many film makers, offering them the opportunity to direct commercials at Toho Studios. Obayashi was the only figure who accepted the offer, keen to capitalise on the higher budgets, better facilities and opportunities to broaden his craft.

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Obayashi worked with many, many celebrities, among them Ringo Starr, Sophia Loren and an infamous commercial for Mandom cologne with Charles Bronson (see above). While today advertising is seen as a fine apprenticeship for filmmakers keen to hone their craft and make a living (figures as diverse as Roy Anderson, Ridley Scott and Tarsem Singh all spent time producing commercials before graduating to features) this was not an option open to Japanese directors at the time. The studio system – like most crafts in Japan – was highly hierarchical, with a seemingly endless and arbitrary apprenticeship an absolute prerequisite.

Cat painting

Obayashi bypassed this long road due to the desperation of studio executives who were panicked by their lack of contact with youth markets and consequently plummeting profits. Obayashi prepared his script in consultation with his grade school daughter and when he presented it to Toho head Isao Matsuoka, he is reported to have said, ‘This is the first time I have seen such a meaningless script. But maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t understand. Please do not try to make it into something I can comprehend.’

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Watching the film, one is in full contact with Matsuoka’s consternation. Indeed, the film debuted as a supporting feature, but enthusiasm among its intended audience – teenagers – was strong enough make it the main attraction. Reportedly, Obayashi spent equal time crafting the film’s marketing campaign as he individual scenes. The freneticism of Obayashi’s advertising work is apparent: every frame offers the maximum possible expression of his vision and makes no distinction between the natural and the blatantly artificial. Given that the style most associated with Japanese horror in the West at this time were folkloric ghost story adaptations, the shock must have been palpable. Films like Onibaba, Kuroneko and Kwaidan all have a brooding, intense, even monotonous feel (and are shot in black and white), committed to building tone through suggestion and careful composition. Hausu is an electric, bubblegum treat with as much dedication to scaring as Scooby Doo. Repeated viewing does little to cut down its relentless desire to surprise, and that is why Hausu has become a worldwide midnight movie favourite 35 years after its debut.

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This article is heavily indebted to both Paul Roquet’s brilliant Midnight Eye overview of Obayashi’s work and Chuck Steven’s article on the Criterion Collection site.

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Three Great Asylum Films: 3. Bedlam (1946)

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Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up was The Snake Pit. Last time it was the turn of The Hour-Glass Sanatorium. My final film is the last that Val Lewton produced in his golden period at RKO,  Bedlam 

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Val Lewton produced only fourteen films in his lifetime before dying of a heart attack at 46. However, his influence has been considerable: everyone who produces frights from suggestion rather than revelation owes him a debt of gratitude, including John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (who paid his debts with a worthwhile documentary on his films, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows). His most fruitful period was with RKO, a studio seemingly permanently on the brink of collapse, and no more so than when he started producing there in the 1940s. Following a string of expensive flops (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons among them), the studio was looking for B material that would pull above its weight. Lewton ably satisfied this brief, producing eight more films for the studio, mostly to strong box office. Bedlam was his last at RKO, by now working with an established team of regulars. Boris Karloff had starred in two previous Lewton films and director Mark Robson had been working with Lewton since his first, Cat People. Having begun Robert Wise’s fantastic directorial career (Robson and Wise had both edited Citizen Kane), he again promoted a previously unknown staff editor at RKO to direct. Robson went on to produce a series of high budget exploitation films (including Earthquake).

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The plot of Bedlam is relatively simple. Nell (Anna Lee) is the protege of Lord Mortimer (Billy House), a dyspeptic and petulant aristocrat. When Master George Sims kills one of his inmates at Bethlehem Hospital, he unwittingly ruins Mortimer’s masque, which was to be written by the prisoner. Charged with repaying the dead man’s debt, the wicked Sims casts his inmates in the masque. Nell’s sympathy is drawn by the cruelty on display and begins to investigate the brutal conditions in the asylum with the help of a Quaker, Hannay (Richard Fraser). But when Nell becomes too much of a nuisance, Sims conspires to have her committed…

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Lewton is often rightly praised for his use of unexpected source material. Having adapted short stories (both those one would expect from a horror master – The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson – and the surprisingly literary – Mademoiselle Fifi from Guy de Maupassant’s writings), Bedlam marked the second time that the germ of Lewton’s idea originated in a painting. Though the connection was far looser in Isle of the Dead (based upon Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name), there is a pervasive spirit of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress series in Bedlam. Besides the overt visual references (including the fades between scenes interspersed with Hogarth’s caricatures), the dialogue in the film has more than a hint of the meaningless badinage of Restoration comedy. Sporting repartee, especially between Karloff’s Sims and Anna Lee’s Nell, is the order of the day. Brushing off Hannay who points out that her heart is not of stone, she replies, ‘My heart is of flint sir. It may strike sparks but they’re not hot enough to burn.’

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Yet though the film is surprisingly committed to the Restoration setting, it also has strong links to the contemporaneous environment. As we have seen with The Snake Pit, the 1940s signalled a change in outlook in what had previously been a neglected area of interest by the general public. With so many men returning shell shocked, the importance of the mental health complex came into sharp focus. 1946 became a flash point for this debate. When John Ford made Let There Be Light that year (available legally in full from Archive.org, an inspiration for P.T. Anderson’s The Master), it was suppressed by the  authorities who had commissioned it for its depiction of the 20% of those wounded whose scars were mental. While this film didn’t see full release until 1981, another crusader was bringing fully to light conditions in state hospitals. ‘Concentration camps masquerading as hospitals’ was how Life magazine writer Albert Q. Maisel described the conditions within two state veterans’ hospitals in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The photographs and testimony in the piece (which you can read in full in Google Books’ fantastic Life archive) were the start of a shift in mental healthcare in America. The photos themselves have a harrowing link not only to the past atrocities of the Holocaust, but had a disturbing echo of Abu Ghraib to my eyes. While Bedlam conveniently delimits its discourse by setting itself safely in the past, the parallel is too clear to ignore. Lewton’s films almost all had a social commentary element, though less overt and awards-courting than a film like The Snake Pit. Whether showing Irena of Cat People‘s as foreign outcast or Curse of the Cat People‘s probing of the inner life of the child (the film was highly praised by the psychological authorities for its realism and sensitivity), these elements give the film resonance that outstrips any deficiencies of production quality.

Life Magazine, May 6 1946, p104

Life Magazine, May 6 1946, p104

 The film’s conclusion, ripped straight from the pages of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado‘, is the only moment that could fit within a conventional horror scenario. Otherwise, the film’s tone is one of psychological disturbance, rather than the implied, lingering horror that Lewton’s name is most closely associated with. Instead, what is troubling is open to the viewer, though locked within the gates of Bethlehem Hospital. One of the film’s key set pieces sees Sims introduce Nell to his twisted ‘menagerie’. ‘Ours is a human world, there’s is a bestial world, without reason, without soul. They’re animals.’ With Sadean glee, Sims parades his zoo, with Nell’s sympathy being drawn by their animalistic conditions. ‘Some are dogs: these I beat. Some are pigs: those I let wallow in their own filth. Some are tigers: these I cage. Some, like this one, are doves.’ 

The film has a brilliant sense of the gothic, with Karloff playing a variation on the mad scientist figure he’d made his own over the preceding decades. Earlier in the film he devises a masque to entertain grandees at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Years before Goldfinger, an innocent inmate is made to recite his lines covered in thick gilt, until he is suffocated by the pores (apparently a myth).

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Balancing Sims’ cruelty is Nell’s philanthropy. While the film is largely an outsider’s view of mental illness, the viewpoint is compassionate and crusading. Nell herself would be much better suited to the Victorian period, but Anna Lee’s portrayal has some useful shading, beginning as the protege of the bloated aristocrat Lord Mortimer and ending as the presumed wife of the Quaker Hannay. Across these two moral points her path is set, and Lee’s portrayal carries much of the material, from pantomime repartee to distraught imprisoned innocent. Like Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, Nell is able to sop up huge amounts of sympathy from the audience, making the film an emotional experience, as well as a visual and cerebral one.

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The film’s hopeful ending crawl

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Three Great Asylum Films: 2. The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973)

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up was The Snake Pit. Today I’m talking about The Hour-Glass Sanatorium from 1973, directed by Wojciech Has…

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

A bird flies with subaquatic langour outside a window. The view is from a railway car, but its passengers make the bird seem frenetic in comparison. Locked in a seemingly endless slumber, one of their number is roused by a milky-eyed conductor. They are nearing their destination, the hour-glass sanatorium. Adapted from Bruno Schulz’s short story collection Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (and some of his other writings), the title is a reference to the hourglass motif that serves as a memento mori in Polish newspaper obituaries. While death stalks through the film, the main body seems to be a stemming of the tide against it, a parade of chaotic and ecstatic memory.

The Hour Glass Sanatorium

Józef, the film’s protagonist, has booked a recuperating stay at the asylum, but the place is deserted and his father (supposedly dead) is occupying his room. The sanatorium is never explicitly described as an asylum per se, but the scheme of the film is a kind of surrealistic explosion of Freudian regression. ‘Here we reactivate time past with all its possibilities, including the possibility of recovery,’ says the institute’s director. In different rooms, Józef finds objective correlatives to recollections from his life, expressed in heightened, often joyous fashion. Time is not linear here, but vertical, with all his life’s experiences – and those of his father – stacked on top of each other. Moving around the space gives him access to these different periods and the intersections between the different time zones are almost always charmingly unexpected (hiding under what begins as a dining room table, Józef steps out from under it into a medieval bird fair). Like Slaughterhouse-Five‘s Tralfamadorians, it is not consequential if someone is dead: Józef need only go to another room in the building to find his father alive and well. 

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

Each room has the quality of a diorama. The set design is exquisite in each, the camera gradually circulating around the spaces and finding unexpected means to frame them. The characters seem to be activated by the presence of Józef, a point that is made literal when he encounters a series of wax automata. Unlike 8 1/2, which puts the whole of life on spin cycle, there is a pleasant lapsing linearity between some scenes in The Hour-Glass Sanatorium. Like that film’s Guido Anselmi, Józef is reduced to an adolescent’s position: tormented and tantalised by a series of women from the past, at once devastatingly sensuous and present,  yet infinitely out of reach.  

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

It’s not just the recollection of Józef we are invited into. Has stated that he was keen to highlight the vanished generations of Jews (including Bruno Schulz himself). The strong Jewish element of the film did not sit well in Poland. At the time a strong ‘anti-Zionist’ movement was rising up, ultimately resulting in the deportation of 14,000 Jews between 1968 and 1971. The parallel between Józef and Jakub (his father) and Has and Schulz as representatives of pre- and post-lapsarian Jewish Poland is clear. Having begun with a trainload of diaspora, with an unsettlingly death-like conductor looking on, the finale of the film heavily references the ghettos, flight into exile and living in hiding. Like the ending of both Alice books, the precipitating violence of the conclusion lets us know that the dream will soon be over: we will be booted from the fantasy with a bump. Sadly, Poland itself was still possessed by this recurring nightmare. 


Great Fiddler-esque scene

The film benefits from the warm, slightly degraded quality of the celluloid. There are very few scenes shot with natural light. Bathing in woozy medicine-bottle greens or crepuscular half light, the edges of the frame seem deliciously smudged, as in a dream. It lends proceedings a painterly, delicate quality reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (indeed, a Napoleonic leitmotif is noticeable in many of the film’s costumes).  

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

Józef in the film’s conclusion having become the death-conductor himself

What could feel like an undisciplined mess is redeemed by its relentless inventiveness. In part it’s strange that the film is based on short fiction, where brevity and the elliptical often reign. There’s a hearty maximalism to the film that makes it a delight across the duration, much like the best work of Terry Gilliam. There’s a lovely little metaphor for the richness of the confection on offer in the film’s early parts: Józef has travelled to the sanatorium without eating and is caught removing a slice of gateaux from a dessert trolley in an otherwise ransacked canteen. Like Alice’s embiggening and shrinking foods, it is the permanently denied child’s treat that leads the characters down the rabbit hole. It’s a rich, potentially overcooked treat, but then, aren’t all films set among the ‘eccentric’?

Tenniel Alice

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Three Great Asylum Films: 1. The Snake Pit (1948)

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up is 1948’s The Snake Pit, directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Olivia de Havilland… 

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A woman sits on a park bench, questioned by an offscreen interlocutor. She answers him hesitantly, uncertain of the answers to basic questions (where do you live? Do you know where you are?). The camera pulls back. Her fellow speaker does not exist. So begins the tale of Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland). Ms Cunningham has been committed to a state mental hospital for unspecified reasons. We follow her during her treatment, learning the sources of her trauma, her interactions with the other inmates and with her doctors and carers. de Havilland’s tour through the various methods available to psychiatry at the time (hydrotherapy, occupational therapy, electro-shock and ‘talking cure’) allows us to see her in many different shades of self-possession, with the risk of hanging the majority of the film on her performance. de Havilland brings a subtlety and variety to a role that could have proved monotonous. Her haunting depiction of a woman on the edge earned her an Academy Award nomination.

The Snake Pit (1948)

One wonders how distressing the film would have been with the director’s first choice for the film, Gene Tierney. Tierney, who only half a decade later was institutionalised herself, played many roles with an intensity that goes beyond manic, almost vibrating with the difficulty of withholding herself. While it was pregnancy and not her mounting mental unease that excluded Tierney from participating, Olivia de Havilland had her own status as ‘difficult woman’ to contend with. During the 1940s, she fought a bitter battle to break the lock that the studios had over stars’ contracts. While her close friend Bette Davis had failed to break Warner Bros control over her in the 1930s, de Havilland succeeded (giving her name to the reformed California law), though she was essentially blacklisted by all studios for two years following her win.

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This struggle directly affected de Havilland taking up her role in The Snake Pit. The studios now had a looser grip over stars and Olivia had greater agency over the scripts she could accept. The film was considered highly pioneering at the time for its frank depiction not only of the mental institution but for the underlying misogynistic conditions that result in a diagnosis as ‘hysterical’. Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (which I wrote about here) feels largely of a piece with the film, both in terms of production design and unflinching (if heightened) realism. That the British censor felt it necessary to add a disclaimer explaining that all the players were actors and that British institution bore little resemblance to those depicted is testament to its power to unnerve. The cast and crew attended many institutions in their research, de Havilland being especially diligent in understand the conditions her character faced.

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Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis, wearing similar outfits in The Snake Pit and Now, Voyager (though Davis’s is a stylish reconfiguration of one she wore in her earlier spinster mode)

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If one wants to compare the average level of discourse at the time about mental illness and its institutions, we can look to Now, Voyager from 1942. We see it star Bette Davis quickly blossom from petulant nerve case to charming debutant under the supervision of Claude Rains’ psychiatrist. The actual psychiatry is cosy and paternal, with Rains slowly peeling back the layers of her trauma and offering her koan-like slices of Walt Whitman poetry. Like Spellbound (released 1945), the psychiatric relationship is a palimpsest for the romantic relationship. The Snake Pit itself is not free from this dynamic, with Virginia’s defender substituting the role of her mostly absent fiancé. When she is delivered to his arms in the final scene, it is a jolt that we remember the life to which she has been attempting to return. While it’s unfair to expect as crushingly realistic a portrayal as A Woman Under the Influence in the 1940s, one must look to the general voyage (Virginia overcoming her personal difficulties) rather than its ultimate destination (being reunited with her fiancé) if the viewer is to look at this film kindly.

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The father of The Snake Pit‘s view of psychiatry looks on benevolently on Doctor Kik’s treatment

Like Spellbound, The Snake Pit takes on a highly literal Freudian view of psychiatry. The mind is a puzzle and once the right pieces and recollections are present, complete recovery can be expected. The symbolism is often heavy handed, as when Virginia becomes distraught during her board review by one of her interviewers waggling his cigar too vigorously in her face.

The Snake Pit (1948)

The excavation of childhood episodes is similarly overly neat and clear, with a failure of maternal love and alienation of affection from her father the root cause of her later issues with men. Again, it seems harsh to criticise given the wider context of psychiatry at the time, which was still often dismissed as a pseudo-science or quackery.

The Snake Pit (1948)

One of the less reputable wards in the institution, filmed strikingly similarly to the tragic end of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress

Where the film undoubtedly excels is in the cinematography. Anatole Litvak’s camera makes excellent use of crane shots and pans, but also captures de Havilland’s troubled features with a noirish dreaminess. There’s also many scenes that recall earlier depictions of madness, whether that be the last frame of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly DelightsThe latter provides one of the most enduring and disturbing images of this powerful and moving film, and explains the film’s title.

‘It was strange. There I was amongst all those people, and at the same time, looking at them from some place far away. The whole place seemed to me like a deep hole and the people in it like strange animals, like snakes and I’d been thrown into it. Yes, as though I were in the snake pit.’

The Snake Pit (1948)

A Boschian nightmare in reveal of the central metaphor of The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948)

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August 12, 2013 · 4:13 pm