Body Politic: The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

posterIf Douglas Sirk, Akira Kurosawa, and Caravaggio teamed up to remake Quo Vadis, the result might turn out similar to The Colossus of Rhodes.

This splashy, yet affecting peplum epic gave audiences their first true glimpse of Sergio Leone’s vibrant talent, even if it wasn’t his directorial debut. And who doesn’t love the chance to watch a great artist’s vision emerge from otherwise standard programming?

Leone fills the widescreen TotalScope format with saturated, dynamic tableaux that look painted rather than filmed. Expect moments of cheesiness, for sure, and I’d personally be disappointed if I couldn’t taste the asiago. Yet, I couldn’t fight the feeling that I was watching the history of the epic—from Greek vases, to Roman mosaics, to Renaissance and Baroque painting, to grand scale silent films—being relived and rediscovered.

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Colossus lovingly integrates all of these layers of grandeur. It compiles the all harmony of composition, the pageantry, the sumptuousness that we associate with the best of Western Civilization. And to this heritage, Leone adds a key ingredient: a terse après-guerre dose of disillusionment.

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Our tale focuses on a Greek war hero, Darios, who visits the island of Rhodes for a pleasure trip. However, you don’t have to be Socrates to smell something rotten on the island. Nobody likes the isle’s ginger-bearded tyrant—who’s nearly assassinated twice over the course of Darios’s first day there—and a bunch of rebels work on stirring up discontent wherever they can.

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A toga party gone horribly awry.

These freedom fighters initially try to kidnap Darios, hoping to convert him to their cause. Freaked out, the hero attempts to flee Rhodes and thus unintentionally ends up becoming an enemy of the state and an ally to the underground cause. Needless to say, Darios encounters torture, sexual politics, treason, nasty proto-gladiatorial death spectacles, and many, many opportunities to provide the camera with peplum buffalo shots.

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If that plot sounds like “a rip-roaring corn harvest,” as the New York Times called it, well, believe me, the material yields surprising insights in Leone’s capable hands. His grim eye for the prospect of mortality and ruin even in the midst of celebration recalls that special “something to do with death” that he would later harness to illuminate the tropes of the Western.

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For instance, when Darios prepares to relax on his first night in Rhodes, he enters the ruler’s opulent party digs to find a bevy of beautiful maidens and a few exotic acrobats flipping around in the middle of the space. A graceful, slightly blurred and dizzy almost 360-degree pan swivels around the room, taking in the sheen of the women’s clothes and the succulence of the food… as the acrobats dart in and out of the frame.

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These bodies interposing between the camera and the already decadent panoply create a kind of visual hyperbole. Jean-Luc Godard used the word “delirium” to describe the impact of Douglas Sirk’s striking colors. Here, Leone attains a similar phantasmagoria, a practically 3D splendor larded with the trappings of wealth and power. Your eyes glut themselves; they feel like they need a trip to the vomitorium.

Okay, remember that pan shot. I’ll return to it in a minute.

Darios reclines and starts chatting up the luscious, if inscrutable Diala. I’m guessing Darios had a whole phalanx run over his head once, because he dopily follows this femme fatale down into the catacombs under the palace gardens.

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Stumbling into a tomb of mummies, Darios calls for Diala. And we get another long, patient pan shot, this time a full 360-degrees, morbidly surveying the desiccated, wrapped bodies lining the stone funerary chamber, still wearing gold ornaments that are now useless to them. These two parallel pan shots, in successive scenes, deliver a potent, spooky moral: all is vanity, all is decay. The colorful ecstasy of that celebration will inevitably end in a tomb.

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Entropy haunts Leone’s films. Whole towns rot into nothing or burn to the ground. Characters we love die. Cherished schemes fall through. I admit that neither my analysis nor the idea of decay and decline are likely to win any awards for originality, but what does mesmerize me is the eloquence and concision of Leone’s observation, enabled by the cinematic form.

With that pair of pans, one displaying hedonist delights, the other expressing a detached stoic view of mortality, Leone brings millennia of philosophy to the screen. Death looms over us all. Should we bury ourselves in sensuality and try to forget? Or should we look hard at the world and at ourselves? Those are the big questions. Leone etches a little metaphysical dilemma on the surface of his story with two camera movements.

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Speaking of surprisingly deep aspects of this movie, the central conceit of the film, an enormous watchtower statue of Apollo that holds vigil over the harbor of Rhodes, also resonates outside of the framework of a lusty sword-and-sandals fest. The producer of the film flipped out when he realized that the title wasn’t referring to a hero, but to a statue, thinking that the plot would lack dramatic value and a prerequisite hunky protagonist. The statue serves as a point of reference for the entire film, and the extent to which this major set piece received billing and attention as a thematic element obviously went beyond what those financing the film were expecting.

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According to a very interesting article on this film at TCM, Leone initially wanted the Colossus, the titular main attraction, to resemble Mussolini—even to stand akimbo like the swaggering Il Duce. So it’s safe to assume that the master did intend to deliver a message about tyranny and modern politics, even if he set it thousands of years earlier. Fortunately this heavy-handed anti-fascist statement didn’t come to fruition, but that didn’t stop Leone from using the statue, actually two 30-meter halves of the body, as a powerful metaphor for government.

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I mean, when you think about it, our conceptions of the body and politics intertwine quite a bit. Even in English, words that we associate with hierarchy or order often include “corp” which comes from the Latin word for body. We talk about organs of state. People in charge still receive the title of “head.” Our language has hardwired us to consider the state as a human organism, a single body with various functioning parts.

The colossus, really a defense base for a corrupt regime, provides us with an image of the state as a body and of a body as the state—both of which prove dysfunctional. This huge, cast-medal figure inspires awe initially, as the camera slowly tilts up to reveal its size.

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Yet, in crowd shots, the statue occasionally appears to be standing on the masses, as if they’re all carrying this burden without recognizing it. Parts of the body often disrupt or break up with widescreen frame—a foot occupies half of the screen, great big legs divide the sky in half, a huge face gives us a close-up even as the men next to it are tiny as bugs.

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All humorous allusions to North by Northwest and Sabotage aside, the colossus visually suggests to us the theme of individuals dwarfed by a totalitarian regime. This supreme, inanimate body exists as a rampart and a weapon; though it takes the form of a man, it contains no humanity.

Nevertheless, the various parts of the Colossus sometimes comment on the action. For example, when Diala’s conscience starts needling her, the eye-windows of the statue seem to stare inwards at her. This creepy décor gives the impression of looking, even if it clearly can’t see her.

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During the film’s most memorable fight sequence, Darios climbs out of the statue’s ear to spar with guards on the colossus’s arms. The contrast between the flailing struggles of the little men and the unchanging, unmoving, unwieldy behemoth strikes me as slightly comical. Like a totalitarian government, the colossus might be strong, but it’s pretty dumb!

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When the “invincible” colossus finally does clatter into the sea, Leone dwells on its total defeat and destruction. We witness it teetering back and forth, suddenly looking human for the first time, like a drunken soldier.  Then it hurtles towards a face-plant into the waves in a long shot. Cut to a disdainful high angle shot as it ignominiously belly-flops onto the surf and the breakers dash it to pieces. There’s nothing dignified about it; the only tragedy is one of waste and broken illusions.

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Thus Leone undermines the very concepts of hero worship and iconography which often bend to serve the whims of oppressive governments. We’re dealing with a director who, let’s face it, has a love-hate relationship with myths, because myths both deceive us and give our life meaning.

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In the end, this kind of fetishized representation, investing a single person or object with absolute power, risks destroying the very civilization it supports and nourishes. Behind the paintings, the frescos, the mosaics of the ancient world lurk the many bad, brutal men, presented as ideal leaders with ripped bodies. The Colossus of Rhodes exalts the glory of Western civilization while exposing its obsession with dominance, hierarchy, and authority.

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When Leone chooses to shatter all pageantry and pomp of this peplum epic, he doesn’t do so for mere spectacle value. He smashes the idols as an admonition to the viewers never to trust bread and circuses—including the ostensibly safe bread and circuses of the peplum epic.

Although The Colossus of Rhodes does end with a glimmer of hope, the storm sequence surprised me with its whirling despair and indiscriminate violence. We watch acts of selflessness and crime being punished the same way: with pointless death. Looters get struck down by falling debris. A man runs into a burning building to save a child, but no sooner has he brought the little one back to its mother than a collapsing beam kills them all. A strong man attempts to pull a heroic stunt by holding up a building himself. He is crushed.

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The innocent and the guilty alike perish in droves during this tempest of indigo skies and heaven-sent fires. In this senseless carnage, we recognize the Italian World War II experience of endless bombings and humiliations that the population suffered for the sins of their abominable, neo-Roman government.

It’s easy to groan at the storm in Colossus as a deus ex machina that gets the protagonist off the hook without him having to do anything. However, Leone fully exploits the horror of the near-apocalyptic tempest. This manifestation of the gods’ wrath not only tears apart the wicked city, but also rips away at the idea of traditional heroism. The good as well as the bad (and, oh, what the hell, the ugly) meet sticky ends. Any Herculean theatrics will probably get you mown down more quickly.

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Darios helps a few people, but mostly concentrates on grabbing his girl and taking shelter. We understand that staying alive itself may represent the highest form of wisdom and heroism when the world goes crazy. The irate poetry of this sequence, with whole impressive sets crumbling, orange flame spurts licking the sides of the screen, baggy ancient garments whipped about in the wind, recalls the end of Seven Samurai and prefigures the disastrous beauty of Apocalypse Now’s napalm shots.

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Be sure to dig up The Colossus of Rhodes. The pacing lags and, admittedly, the acting doesn’t exactly thrill. Rory Calhoun runs around in his man-skirt, looking affable, performing adequately, and making the part of Darios into a 20th century dude. He’s a self-indulgent man at the top of the food chain who’s mostly interested in himself; only when he gets embroiled in the conflict against his will does he develop any sympathy for the underdog.

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The tyrant acts tyrannical, the traitor acts treacherous, and the sad rebel girl acts sad.

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Only the elusive Diala, played by Lea Massari (Anna from L’Avventura), generates any major photogenic energy with her majestic gait, and I-don’t-give-a-damn default facial expression, and tough winged eyeliner.

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You get plenty of eye candy in the form of street magicians, brightly-dressed mobs, and fleets of hunky soldiers, choreographed with a skilled eye for space and balance. Plus, you can drool over the obligatory pre-sacrifice liturgical belly dance performed by priestesses in ancient Greek cheerleading outfits. Honestly, I think that’s the only reason those Greeks made sacrifices at all.

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But, best of all, savor Leone’s gift for dismantling myths and heroes and unmasking bullies and madmen, as he takes one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world and stunningly smashes it to smithereens.

I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Please consider writing a post yourself and be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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Truly Epic: The Vikings (1958)

The VikingsNo earthly power could have saved the videocassette, its coppery bowels mangled and limply hanging out of its ruptured belly, like the entrails of a dying warrior.

This now-useless object had enlivened more evenings with my family than I could possibly count. My father remembered The Vikings from his boyhood. He recognized the movie and insisted on acquiring it when we went to buy a bundle of orphaned videotapes at the closing sale of a local video store, as the VHS format was rapidly expiring.

I didn’t know it at the time, but The Vikings had been one of my grandfather’s favorite films. I never met my grandfather, so hearing that he had loved this movie—to the point that he would even imitate the haunting sound of the Viking trumpets—made me feel close to him.

I clutched the tape. My parents looked at me with sadness. “On the count of three,” I said. They knew what to do. “One, two, three…”

“OOOOOOODDIIIIIIINNNNN!” We cried in unison, invoking out the name of the Norse King of the Gods, in ardent hopes that the spirit of this VHS cassette would go straight to the video store in the sky.

Why do I love The Vikings? Passionately, ardently, unreasonably? Because it’s in my blood. I will fight anyone who deprecates this saga.

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For instance, the film editors of The UK Guardian, whom I usually respect, brought down a vendetta on their unsuspecting heads with their take on this classic. The article in question didn’t even mention that the legendary Jack Cardiff served as the DoP. The Guardian‘s reviewer gave The Vikings a C+ overall grade for being too silly.

(UPDATE 2016: Wow, I was kind of a bitch at age 22, huh?)

Whoa, now, 99% of movies, from Casablanca to Manos: The Hands of Fate could be accused of being silly or unrealistic. And the other 1% are usually pretentious and dry as dust. Seriously, if you want to downgrade a film on that basis, you will not find a single A+ among narrative cinema, I attest.

Here are 10 reasons to watch this masterpiece that dances on the line between sublime and ridiculous. And, just a warning, there are some spoilers in reason number one.

10.  Tony Curtis in leather hotpants and proto-UGGs boots.

Tony has breached court etiquette, I’m assuming. (This is where the silly comes in.)

9. A superb prologue voiced by Orson Welles… over credits styled like the Bayeux Tapestry.

8. One of the most strikingly violent scenes in cinema history up to that time.

Not much is shown, but there’s something so primordially frightening about a man losing his eye to a hawk.

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7. The script, full of so-obvious-it’s-genius wisdom along the lines of:

“We’ll talk this over later—when you’re more drunk or more sober.” (Borgnine as Ragnar to his son, Einar.)

“Love and hate are two horns on the same goat.” (Spoken by the soothsayer Kitala)

“Take your magic elsewhere, holy man.” (Spoken by uber-viking Einar as he crashes through a Christian church window)

6. An astonishing, symphonic score by Mario Nascimbene.

Lots of male choir chanting, soprano wailing, and epic horns—perfect to accompany grandiose shots like this one below. Music like the love child of Richard Wagner and Ennio Morricone.

5. You’ll witness the resurrection of an ancient custom.

This stunt, jumping along the oars of a Viking ship, hadn’t been done for over a thousand years before the making of this film. Stuntmen were queued up and all ready to go when Kirk Douglas insisted that he go first. The cast and crew expected him to fall, but, to their amazement, as the camera rolled, Douglas leapt from oar to oar with flawless technique. It’s caught on film. It’s uncanny.

4. Because it’s so raw and… male.

A certain fantasy world (not mine, since I have two X chromosomes) comes alive. And, hey, I’d rather you watch movies like this than be like this.

3. Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine gnawing the scenery—to brilliant effect.

2. Cinematography by Jack Cardiff

Largely filmed on location in Kvinnherad, Norway and on the Hardanger Fjord. Pure Technicolor rapture.

1. Because the film has an irresistible mythic power.

A man loses a hand to give a clean death to an enemy—who turns out to be his father.

Brother versus brother, each ready to hack each other apart for a kingdom and a woman—in a climactic fight of dizzying high angles.

I give director Richard Fleischer (of The Narrow Margin and Armored Car Robbery talent) a lot of the credit for this moving work, possessed of a virility and splashy poetry that doesn’t exist in any other big-budget film I can think of.

He gave this story a soul—it’s about a cruel barbarian who becomes human at the exact moment before he dies. He cannot bring himself to kill his brother, and so dies at his brother’s hand. All that depth is communicated without a word in the film’s climactic fight scene. The Vikings revives the brutal, direct beauty of the silent cinema.

You must give this film a look. Movies can be great in many different ways. The Vikings is great—though, not in the same way as Citizen Kane or —because its colorful, rough-hewn spectacle and stripped-down plot tap into some primal part of human nature. Melodramatic, operatic, and grand, The Vikings entertains and serves up moments of pure cinema.

Whatever you do, though, you will probably not have the solemn pleasure I had in grieving for a VHS of The Vikings so loved that it cracked into pieces and ascended to Valhalla.

Nevertheless, I still encourage that you cry, “ODIN!” when it’s all over.

Rotten Blood: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

In all my years of watching old movies, only one film frightened me so much that I had to turn off the TV set.

And I was one little tough ginger snap when I faced off with Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was 8-years-old, but going on about 100 after a medical crisis that left me way more likely to identify with scarred-up bad guys than with menaced little girls.

I could crack up at some seriously raunchy R-rated comedies and was used to watching Psycho with my parents—frequently over a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce.

But even I, jaded little eight-year-old I was, couldn’t make it through Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I couldn’t even make it through the first third. I think I was, like, 18 before I actually stoked up enough courage to watch the film to its end.

And I’m glad I did because it practically seethes with innovation. Karl Freund’s camerawork paints a dense world of fog, crazy angles, shadows, and carnivalesque attractions. The heritage of Caligari rears its head, to be sure, but there’s an added realness to it all. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve walked through the perpetual party that the city is in the daytime… and through deserted streets at night. Frenchman Florey and expressionist genius Freund instilled a grainy, ever-moving texture to the film that aptly translates the darkly festive vibe of Paris.

Which brings me back to that scene that scared the Hell out me.

A woman being tortured on a big wooden frame, like a meat rack, as a man punctures her again and again with a syringe. Her shrieks. Her utter subjugation to a raving lunatic. These are not quaint relics of what the Pre-Code era thought spooky. They survive as every normal person’s worst nightmare and certain abnormal people’s most lurid fantasy.  The torture scene in Murders in the Rue Morgue, for better or for worse, sketched the blueprint for every filmic depiction of a sadistic killer to follow.

I am referring, of course, to the scene in which Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle abducts a prostitute, injects her with gorilla blood to see if she’s compatible for mating with Erik the Ape—and thus kills her.

This scene toys with you in that, beginning with the abduction scene, Florey orchestrates a perpetual crescendo of violence. We, the viewer, constantly think, “Well, it can’t get worse than this, right?” And then it does.

Let’s take a close look at this scene—so horrifying that it was cut by many regional censors.

Dr. Mirakle looks out of his carriage window.

A street lamp smashes. The camera tilts down to show a woman screaming then pans over to two men fighting. Not fist-fighting in the burly, entertaining fashion of the movies. Their choreography feels naturalistic, gritty, ugly.

A knife flashes into, then out of,  the frame. We know that its blade buries deep into another man’s flesh because he moans.

The woman is still screaming. The wounded man, in one lightening motion, sends something flying. We hear a throwing dagger slice through the air and bury itself into his opponent. They both fall.

 

This fight scene adds nothing to the plot. It’s pure gratuitous violence, although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, inserted into the structure of the film to wring our spirits of every last drop of comfort. This is not a horror movie that graces only four people or so with its interest. Oh no, this is a horror show that goes out of its way to suggest the gruesome things that cling to the skin of the city like leeches.

Even though the fuzzy, mist-filled look of this scene belongs to the silent era, sound facilitates an even higher degree of fear.

The streetwalker’s mixture of horror and hysterical laughter fills the soundtrack with perversity. Her cries and cackles are jarring because they don’t let us totally sympathize with her. Her shrill yelps and giggles provoke displeasure—they’re not only hard on the ears, they make us feel, well, kind of dirty for even watching this. Unlike the lyrical, gracefully stylized monster attacks in Frankenstein and Dracula, this sequence of human violence slaps us in the face with the luridness of horror, of the thrills and chills that sell the tickets.

Perceiving his window of opportunity, Mirakle steps from his carriage and walks right into the camera, as though it’s the viewer he were creeping up on. His silhouette floods the screen with darkness.

Suddenly, we’re on the other side of him, looking at the prostitute as he advances towards her through the whirling mists.

Like a phantom, Mirakle (right) advances…

The disorienting feeling of “passing through” Mirakle (or of him passing through us) not only amps up the surrealist quality of the scene, but also infuses the sequence with the unstoppable dread of a nightmare. We know that something awful is going to happen, but we’re powerless to stop it.

The iconography of the black cloak, prostitute, and streetlamp all spark associations with the popular image of the serial killer, best represented by Jack the Ripper. Florey and Freund press all the right buttons to taunt us with the imminent destruction of the helpless woman.

 “A lady… in distress?” The tight, extreme close-ups that follow increase our unease with their intensity. Lugosi’s ghoulish facial contortions contrast with the wide eyes of the young streetwalker (Arlene Francis, if you can believe it!).

She gets in the carriage. Fade to black.

Okay, so this is where a NORMAL Hollywood film would cut to the woman lying in the morgue and we could infer that Mirakle performed some failed experiment. Years of watching movies prepares you for a nice, refreshing ellipsis here.

No such luck.

Immediately the high-pitched screams of the prostitute startle us as we see the shadow of a woman squirm on a rack. Dr. Mirakle performs his tests on her and adds his yells to hers in a cacophony of cruelty as he tells her to calm down so that she can be “the Bride of Science!”

I’d also note Florey’s subversive use of synchronous sound in this scene. The streetwalker’s sobs and moans, however, infuse the scene with a weird… sexual vibe. After all, this victim didn’t need to be a prostitute. The screenwriter could’ve chosen to invent some innocent girl on her way home, but no, the credits tell us from the first to expect a “Woman of the Streets,” as she’s billed.

This suggestion of a sex crime disguised as an experiment returns when Mirakle capers over to his desk to check the blood sample. As he peers into the microscope, his cry of anticipation—and ultimately of disappointment—mingles with her sighs. There’s definitely a weird crossover here between this woman’s, ahem, profession and the warped excitement that Mirakle derives from her.

Mirakle rises and starts to scold his victim for her “rotten blood!” because she failed to give him what he wanted, until he realizes she’s dead. Then he flips into utter religious despair—something that reveals the deeply mixed-up, addled nature of Mirakle, the fanatical man of science. (Note that his stage, or perhaps real, name, Dr. Mirakle: Doctor plus “miracle” with a “k” already hints at this perverse irrationalism-medicine  link.)

The exaggerated shadows and Lugosi’s own melodramatic posture of prayer remind me of mannerist paintings and their bizarre mixture of fervor and distortion.

Now, I don’t like it when directors fall into the ugly trap of naïvely equating a character’s suffering with Christ’s martyrdom. It feels cheap—unless the director can bring an added nuance to the allusion. Which Florey does admirably, with the crucified prostitute here.

A moment ago Dr. Mirakle viewed this woman as human garbage. As soon as she dies, however, she becomes a fragile, holy thing for one fleeting instant. Then he chucks her into the Seine.

Mirakle kicks open a trap door and jettisons the prostitute into the Seine.

I’m not a forensic psychologist, but this behavior, these quicksilver changes from contempt to reverence (or vice-versa) characterize the warped minds of serial killers. Humans turn into throwaway objects without the slightest warning. Lugosi’s performance runs the gamut from passion to anger to remorse to self-pity to anticipation of the next attack … an emotional arc that, from what I’ve read, fuels the violence of many serial offenders.

(And, let’s face it, a prostitute, a fallen woman, would also have been a morally acceptable victim for censors of the 1930s. Because, according to the hidden logic there, they deserve to die more than ordinary good girls like the heroine of the film. So, in a way, the sociopathic reasoning that we witness is also shared by a larger social system of morality which deems some people worthless.)

In other words, I was right to recognize this as a very, very sick scene, one that force-feeds us a glimpse into an aesthetic simulation of real madness and torment, not a glamorized supernatural ballet.

Of all talkie genres, horror stands out, perhaps second only to the musical, as the most likely to call attention to its own construction. Consider the assortment of carnival barkers and mountebanks who populate the Universal Horror cycle. Consider how often some character recites or alludes to some legend or dismisses these legends as fictions. Or, indeed, consider how often the movies used prologues to refer to their own shock value as potentially lethal spectacles. I don’t like calling something so meta! because I think that cutsie, overused term has come to describe any questionable art form that winks at its patrons over how bad it is. I love certain bad movies, but I will still call them bad.

However, horror films of the 1930s cultivated a much darker strain of “meta,” forever hinting to the viewer that their status as attractions reflects back on the sordid tastes of the viewers.

How far do you want to go? For me, that’s the meta-question at the heart of the genre. How horrified do you really want to be? And… how much do you enjoy what you see?

The moment when we’re truly scared, we have to look at ourselves and realize that, gulp, we’ve been enjoying all the awful things up until that point. We’re accomplices in the grisly murders, silently abetting the progress of the monsters in a double bind of pleasure and revulsion.

Well, at 8-years-old, I’d reached my limit with Murders in the Rue Morgue. At 21, I can finally realize why I was so scared. I’m glad I was.

Here’s to the things that make us look away, to the things that make us turn off the television! May we never fully enjoy them. And may we turn to thought and self-reflection to process the trauma that is cinema.