Film Diary: RE-ANIMATOR (Stuart Gordon, 1985)

‘I gave him life!’

There’s no doubt that Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) has become an iconic horror film. An immensely effective black comedy that is anchored by a wonderful performance from Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West (to which Bruce Abbott is required to perform as straight man Dan Cain, who assists West in his… necromantic adventures), in hindsight Gordon’s film seems to owe as much to vaudeville comedy double acts (if Dan Cain is Bud Abbott, Herbert West is Lou Costello) as it does to the horror genre.

There’s a hint of inter-generational conflict, the young and up-and-coming West, a student of the prestigious Dr Hans Gruber in Switzerland, being set against the prideful Dr Carl Hill (a marvelously perverse performance by David Gale). Hill is the funding magnet for Miskatonic University, and has a Nietzschean obsession with the will and its location in the brain; in the R-rated cut (which excises some of the film’s more outrageous mayhem and adds some expositional scenes that were omitted from Gordon’s preferred, unrated, cut), this obsession manifests itself in Hill’s well-practised ability to control the will of others through hypnosis. Meanwhile, Cain is trying to curry favour with Carl Halsey (Robert Sampson), the Dean of Miskatonic University and the father of Cain’s lover Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton).

It seems that the intention was for Cain to be the film’s protagonist, and although Cain is perhaps the film’s most morally well-intentioned character, as in all vaudeville pairings the ‘straight man’ often seems more than a little ‘flat’; most viewers probably work their way into the narrative through West. West is quite clearly looney-tunes (the R-rated version also adds a scene in which Cain finds West injecting himself with the reagent, with the ferocity of a true junkie), but thanks to the exuberance of Combs’ performance, it’s difficult not to sympathise with him. West is a truly revolutionary figure, like a Bakhtinian clown whose appearance is distruptive to hierarchies and models of authority. Early in the film, he is shown disrupting a lecture given by Dr Hill through the snapping of pencils. (This results in Hill admonishing West, telling him – in a line delivered wonderfully by David Gale – ‘Mr West, I suggest you get yourself a pen’.) In the film’s climax, West assembles a horde of reanimated corpses, all given to enacting their own will, who threaten to tear down the establishment (in a metaphorical sense, if not in a literal one), after Hill’s sexual obsession with Megan comes to a head (geddit?) in a scene that, in the post #metoo world, seems even more deliberately cringey than it was during the Eighties.

Megan is a more mercurial character. When West first approaches Cain, asking to rent a room in Cain’s house, Meg suggests Cain turn him down; out of economic necessity, Cain accepts West’s proposition, however. Meg’s instinctive doubts about West are, the narrative proves, well-founded: West, it seems, kills Cain’s beloved pet cat so that West may test his reagent on it, then kill it once again when it comes back to life; and West is also responsible for alienating Cain from Dean Halsey’s affections, leading Cain into disrepute through his association with West’s activities. However, on the other hand Meg is also given to manipulating Cain’s will through a combination of histrionics, nagging and sex.

In retrospect, Re-Animator is a film about the revolution and the carnival, will and desire, the self and the institution. Some of its boundless energy was captured in Gordon’s next Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond (1986). Back in 2016, I wrote a lengthy review of the Arrow Video release of Brian Yuzna’s sequel, Bride of Re-Animator (1990), which can be found here.

Viewing Notes. This viewing was via the ‘integral’ cut of the film (running 104:55 mins) on the German Capelight Blu-ray release. The Blu-ray set also includes the unrated and R-rated edits of Re-Animator. The ‘integral’ cut uses the unrated cut as its base and inserts into this the expositional footage unique to the R-rated cut.

This was my first time watching the ‘integral’ cut of Re-Animator. Having first seen the film in about 1990 via the UK VHS release, which contained a heavily BBFC-censored version of the unrated cut, I didn’t see the scenes exclusive to the R-rated edit until I managed to get hold of the Elite Entertainment 10th Anniversary LaserDisc release in the mid/late 1990s. Seen in isolation, as they are presented on that old LaserDisc release, the scenes unique to the R-rated cut ‘work’ in their own ways, and at least one of them (the scene in which Cain finds West self-administering the reagent in order, ostensibly, to keep himself awake) should arguably have been included in the unrated cut. However, in truth the ‘integral’ cut drags owing to the inclusion of the scenes of Dr Hill hypnotising various personages; part of the appeal of the unrated cut is its almost breathless pace.

The Capelight Blu-ray presentation is very good, easily eclipsing the old US Blu-ray release from Image Entertainment. I have not yet seen the Arrow Video Blu-ray released in the States, so cannot comment on how the Capelight release compares with that presentation of the film.

2020-7

Film Diary: LA VERITE (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1960)

‘Is she on trial for promiscuity or murder?’

Essentially a courtroom drama with extended flashbacks, La verite was the penultimate film of the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (if one discounts Clouzot’s unfinished L’enfer). Sadly, Clouzot’s approach to filmmaking was eclipsed in the early 1960s by the filmmakers of the nouvelle vague, who had dismissed Clouzot’s approach as an example of the cinema de papa (fuddy-duddy cinema); already, by the time of the production of La verite, Clouzot’s measured style seemed in stark contrast to the immediacy of films such as Godard’s A bout de souffle and Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups.

In this context, La verite seems like an attempt to channel the inter-generational conflict within the filmmaking world. Dominique (Brigitte Bardot Bardot) is put on trial for the murder of her lover, Gilbert (Sami Frey, in a role that nearly went to Trintignant or Belmondo, among others). Most of the film takes place in a courtroom, where Dominique and others give evidence either for or against the allegation that she killed Gilbert; these witness statements are presented via extended flashbacks, each of which is like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle – and each of which casts the relationship between Dominique and Gilbert in a slightly different light. The overall effect is not dissimilar to Rashomon: which of these versions of events captures the ‘truth’ (la verite)?

The trial is presided over by middle-aged men who struggle to sympathise with Dominique. Clouzot takes pains to show the selecting of the jury, an all-male group who come to the trial with their own prejudices. At the start of the trial, one of the jury members asserts that Dominique is a ‘bitch’ who will ‘get away with it’. In the flashbacks, we see the flighty Dominique falling in love with Gilbert, an uptight and earnest music student. However, as the story progresses we come to see Gilbert as manipulative and borderline abusive. Dominique and Gilbert are eternally incompatible, and the older generation struggle to understand their tribulations – especially those of Dominique.

Bardot excels in her role, which was written for her following her rise to stardom in the late 1950s. Behind the scenes, events were just as traumatic as those in the story, paralleling the production of another film produced in 1960, John Huston’s The Misfits. Whilst La verite was being made, Clouzot’s wife Vera, who had co-written La verite, suffered a mental breakdown, and would die of a heart attack shortly after production was completed. Bardot’s husband Jacques Charrier also experienced a breakdown, when he discovered that Bardot was conducting an affair with her co-star Sami Frey. Charrier attempted suicide, and following a dispute with Charrier, Bardot attempted suicide also.

Viewing Notes. The Criterion Blu-ray release contains a superb presentation of the film, in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 35mm monochrome photography is captured excellently on the disc, with defined midtones and balanced highlights and shadows. The French dialogue is presented via a lossless track and accompanied by optional English subtitles.

2020-6

Film Diary: LA NUIT DE LA MORT! / NIGHT OF DEATH! (Raphael Delpard, 1980)

‘What do you think could go on in a place like this?’

A French gore film with more than a passing resemblance to Jean Rollin’s early 1980s work – though given Rollin’s standing as one of the few French horror/gore filmmakers of the mid-20th Century, this comparison is admittedly difficult to avoid – Raphael Delpard’s La nuit de la mort! (Night of Death!) reworks Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘eat the rich’ into ‘eat the young’. When reserved, respectful Martine (Isabelle Goguey) takes a job in a retirement home, she is coached by brash Nicole (Charlotte De Turckheim). Initially, she is told that the clients’ good health is owing to a strict vegetarian diet, but as the story progresses Martine comes to realise that her elderly charges are consuming something much less traditional (ie, the internal organs of young women), resulting in an artificially elongated lifespan.

Like Rollin’s David Cronenberg-esque La nuit des traquees (Night of the Hunted, also 1980), La nuit de la mort! focuses on an institution which, behind its respectable facade, facilitates all sorts of debauchery. The film’s depiction of cannibalism situates it on a sliding scale of movies that deal with the theme of anthropophagy – from the cannibalism-as-savagery motif of the Italian cannibal movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s (eg, Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox, 1981) to the satirical depiction of cannibalism at the heart of institutions such as family life in Bob Balaban’s Parents (1989). Here, in Delpard’s picture, the devouring of human flesh is used not just as a metaphor for inter-generational conflict but is also depicted as a form of vampirism; its ritualistic consumption is a source of rejuvenation and, possibly, eternal life. In the film’s focus on elderly inhabitants of a retirement home that consume the young proletarian women who work there, La nuit de la mort! owes more than a smidgen to the Countess Bathory legend.

La nuit de la mort! contains a particularly memorable scene of evisceration in which a naked Nicole is butchered by the elderly patients in her care. A remarkably authentic-looking dummy torso is cut open and real offal removed from it. It’s a potent, gruesome scene that anticipates, later in the film, Martine’s discovery of her friend’s butchered corpse in a wardrobe.

Apparently, though she’s very good here, Goguey was never comfortable acting on screen and preferred to work behind the camera: Goguey acted as an assistant director for Claude Pierson, in the era of Pierson’s transition from softcore to hardcore sex pictures.

Viewing Notes. The Synapse DVD release runs for 94:17 mins and is presented in 1.66:1, with anamorphic enhancement. The 35mm-shot feature looks very good. The French soundtrack is accompanied by optional English subtitles.

2020-5

Film Diary: COMBAT SHOCK (Buddy Giovinazzo, 1980)

‘It all looks the same. I can’t tell one place from another [….] I can no longer tell where one torture ends and the next begins’.

Marrying the disturbed-Vietnam-veteran premise of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) with the oddball depiction of domestic pressures of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock begins with some unconvincing footage of the Vietnam war and soon journeys to America. Once back home, Frankie – alienated from his father after being declared MIA in Vietnam – struggles with crime, poverty, his nagging wife and their mutated baby which cries incessantly. (The baby’s horrifying appearance is, we are told, a product of Frankie’s exposure to chemical weapons during his time in Vietnam.)

Where the ‘Nam-set opening is unconvincing, looking for all the world like it was shot in woodland or a park (which, no doubt, was the case), the film’s street scenes have a cinema verite-style authenticity to them. We see people hustling and struggling to get by, lining up at a soup kitchen, and seeking escape through drugs. Every relationship in the film is based on exploitation and manipulation: friends exploit friends; lovers exploit lovers. Frankie’s wife nags him incessantly; Frankie reaches out to his estranged father, with the aim of acquiring some financial help, only to find that his father has lost his business and is now in a nursing home.

The film continually crosscuts Frankie’s experiences in Vietnam with his life after returning home – not just to suggest that Frankie is ‘haunted’ by his experiences in the combat zone, but seemingly to establish an equivalence between his torture there, at the hands of a defined and identifiable enemy, and the more covert and socially-acceptable abuse he suffers at home. ‘I go back every day, dad’, Frankie tells his father. The film’s final sequences have an apocalyptic finality to them, which consolidates the film’s depiction of contemporary America as a form of Purgatory.

Viewing Notes. The Arrow Video UK DVD release contains both the shorter Combat Shock cut (running a little under 92 mins) and the longer ‘director’s cut’, titled American Nightmare (running 96:52 mins). The 16mm-shot film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. A second disc containing numerous extra features is included in the package.

2020-4

Film Diary: THE TOXIC AVENGER, PART III: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF TOXIE (Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman, 1989)

‘All these things I will give thee, if thou will fall down and work for me’.

As a film reputedly made from the ‘fag ends’ of the production of The Toxic Avenger, Part II (Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman, 1989), The Last Temptation of Toxie is remarkably coherent. The film’s narrative – in which Toxie ‘breaks bad’ by agreeing to work for Apocalypse, Inc in order to acquire the $357,000 to fund the experimental surgery needed to restore his fiancee Claire’s sight – is essentially a story about ‘selling out’. The ‘local’ (Tromaville’s small town mentality) is pitted against the ‘global’ (the evil corporation Apocalypse, Inc). This is established in the film’s opening sequence, which acts as a metonym for the broader conflicts suggested in the narrative. In this sequence, which arguably sets a bar in terms of onscreen action that the rest of the film struggles to achieve, a group of hoodlums enter Tromaville’s video store, the walls of which are plastered with posters for Troma movies, and tell the patrons that now Tromaville is ‘a company town, you’re all gonna rent company tapes’. Various Hollyweird studios are namechecked (Disney, Warner, Paramount) in a manner with overtly negative connotations. The patrons, including a girl in a bikini who writhes erotically throughout, assert that they like variety. (Hollyweird product, by implication, does not offer this.) Into this strides Toxie, who defends the patrons against the corporate hoodlums in excessively gruesome, wonderfully comic ways, defending the notion of variety and choice in cinema against Hollyweird’s homogenising ways. (Given how the superhero film has evolved since Toxie’s heyday, we could certainly benefit from a Toxic Avenger wandering into current cinematic trends and smashing up the corporate hoodlums.)

The film is as ‘meta’ as, say, RoboCop 2 (Irvin Kershner, 1989) – a sequel which narrativises the process of making a corporate beancounter-pleasing sequel through the building of ‘RoboCop 2’, a robot designed by the evil corporation (OCP) to better the original RoboCop but which ends up being utterly compromised because they (OCP) cannot capture the essential humanity of the original (RoboCop, the cyborg/RoboCop, the movie). The Last Temptation of Toxie‘s opening sequence establishes a contrast between Tromaville (independent cinema) and Apocalypse, Inc (Hollyweird product), establishing a theme which the rest of the film pursues relentlessly (through Toxie’s ‘selling out’ to the corporation).

Along the way, there are some wonderful asides (a member of Apocalypse, Inc who channels Robert De Niro’s performance as Louis Cyphre in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, 1987) and Phoebe Legere’s energetic and unashamed performance as Toxie’s lady love, Claire. It’s a funny picture, barbed in its anti-corporate sentiments; the bad rep it has achieved is arguably undeserved: whilst not on par with the first Toxic Avenger (Herz & Kaufman, 1984) or Citizen Toxie (Kaufman, 2000), it is easily the equal of The Toxic Avenger, Part II.

Viewing Notes. The 88 Films Blu-ray release runs for 101:49 minutes and appears to be a cut prepared for an ‘R’ rating in the US. This edit of the film omits some of the more gruesome violence – notably some of the acts Toxie commits against the hoodlums in the film’s video store-set opening sequence. The presentation is adequate though parts of it are in more rough shape than others, with some noticeable damage here and there (including vertical scratches). It would seem that the source is a positive element – perhaps an interpositive or even a print. Audio is presented via a LPCM 2.0 stereo track, which is functional.

2020-3

Film Diary: LA LAMA NEL CORPO / THE MURDER CLINIC (Elio Scardamaglia, 1966)

‘It must be very exciting to make love with a murderer’.

Set in the 1870s, Scardamaglia’s La lama nel corpo is a typical mid-1960s Gothic giallo all italiana. The picture features William Berger as Dr Robert Vance, the head of a psychiatric clinic based in a decaying mansion. This Gothic setting forms the locus for a series of murders, of Vance’s patients. Who could the killer be? Fred, a male patient who exhibits violent psychotic breaks with reality? Dr Vance himself, who is claimed to have murdered his wife’s beautiful sister? And what is the source of the strange noises emanating from an upstairs room?

Into this mayhem comes Gisele (Francoise Prevost), who after an incident involving the horse-drawn carriage she is travelling in, is rescued by Vance and taken to the clinic in order to recuperate. Prevost is a wonderful female lead – mature, resourceful and beautiful – and far from the pathetic woman-in-peril of most Gothic fiction of the era (for example, the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe adaptations). She enriches the film, the screen lighting up when she appears, and gives the film a touch of class. Berger, sadly, is quite limp and unmemorable in his role.

La lama nel corpo is a film of many red herrings; its plotting suggests the influence of Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964). Some aspects of the story – such as Prevost wandering at night through the huge corridors of the clinic in search of the source of the mysterious sound she has heard from her room – make one wonder whether Dario Argento took some ideas from La lama nel corpo when making Suspiria (1977). Regardless of the fairly non-distinctive narrative, the film’s setting adds much to the picture, the production design creating a strong sense of atmosphere that is amplified by the predominantly low-key photography. Throughout, there is much staging-in-depth using the full horizontal axis of the ‘scope frame, with action taking place in both the foreground and background of the compositions.

Viewing Notes. La lama nel corpo has been difficult to see in a reasonable presentation. The FilmArt Blu-ray released in Germany contains an adequate presentation of the film, in the film’s original ‘scope aspect ratio and seeming to be uncut (running for 86:59 mins), though one that seems to be sourced from a print in rough shape. (The disc includes both a ‘restored’ presentation in which some of the damage of the source has been remedied, and an ‘unrestored’ presentation which exhibits plentiful damage – burn marks, scratches, etc.) The drop into the toe is sharp, with shadow detail often seeming ‘crushed’, and sometimes the rise into the shoulder is equally bold: skintones sometimes bloom.

The disc offers Italian, German and English audio options (all lossless), with optional German subtitles only.

2020-2

Film Diary: DAWN OF THE DEAD (George A Romero, 1978)

‘You are stronger than us; but soon, I think, they be stronger than you’.

It’s always tough to write about favourite films, and Dawn of the Dead has been one of my favourites since before I reached my teenage years, my first encounter with the picture being through the cut Entertainment in Video VHS release. I vividly remember watching the film for the first time, on a Saturday night with my grandfather, who passed away over a decade ago. I mention this because revisiting the film in my middle age, having experienced numerous bereavements, what strikes me as much as the film’s major theme of consumerism gone made (which is so in one’s face that it’s arguably more text than subtext) is Romero’s more subtle focus on attitudes towards death and how these differ according to cultural and class background. ‘They still believe there’s respect in dying’, Peter tells Roger at one point, when Roger asks why the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the tenement that the SWAT team invade have kept the corpses of their relatives in the basement of the building. Later, Peter tells the survivors of his grandfather, a houngan in Trinidad, who told him that ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth’.

Viewing Notes. This time, I watched Dawn of the Dead via the restoration of the European cut of the film, running 119:43 mins, from the Italian Midnight Factory Blu-ray set.

Romero’s 126-min theatrical cut has always been my favourite edit of the film and therefore my ‘go to’ version of Dawn of the Dead. However, in the mid-1990s I acquired the longer 138-min ‘Cannes cut’ and the 119-min ‘Argento cut’ on VHS tapes dubbed from the Japanese LaserDisc release. These offer a case study in how an edit can change the overall tone of the film. The 119-min cut prepared by producer Dario Argento for release in several European countries removes much of the film’s humour, adds in some gore, restructures some scenes slightly (notably the scene in which Peter and Roger use the trucks to block the entrances of the mall) and replaces Romero’s mix of Goblin tracks and library music with wall-to-wall Goblin tracks. The result is a cut of the film that has much less dry humour which, combined with the added gore footage, feels much more oppressive because of it, the rockin’ Goblin score making the film seem more action-oriented. The European cut feels much more like an assault on the senses than the other edits of the film. Where much of the film, in the Euro cut, features more music, Argento also removes some music cues – where Romero underscores the death and resurrection of Roger using library music, in the Euro cut this scene plays out without musical accompaniment, with the result that it’s more haunting.

To be fair, though I’ve watched Dawn of the Dead dozens of times, I’ve only watched the European cut of the film perhaps four or five times in the past 25 years – always when acquiring a new home video version containing it. The first time was via the aforementioned VHS dubs of the Japanese LaserDisc; the second was when Anchor Bay released their DVD boxed set in the mid-2000s; the third was when Arrow Video released their Blu–ray set in the UK; the fourth was via the Opening Films Blu-ray release from France. Based on a restoration of the European cut that was taken from a 4k scan of an interpositive, Midnight Factory’s Blu-ray presentation of this cut of the film is, while not without its flaws, pretty darned impressive. (Early pressings of the disc had an encoding issue that was remedied by a disc replacement programme, which Midnight Factory kindly also honoured for international customers like myself.) The colour palette is noticeably improved, with a sense of consistency and depth to the colours that was absent in previous home video presentations of this cut of the film.

Given that the Euro cut makes standout use of the Goblin music, I sucked in my pride and chose to watch the film with the lossless 5.1 track included on the disc (a lossless 2.0 track is also on offer; the purist in me would usually go for that option). This is rich and has some excellent range and effective separation; gunshots sound impressive, in particular, and the Goblin score sounds superb. However, this 5.1 track contains an incessant reverb/echo effect which can be quite distracting at times.

2020-1

Film Diary: A DAY WITHOUT POLICEMAN (Johnny Lee, 1993)

Featuring a set-up familiar from numerous 1950s Westerns and the premise of many more modern action pictures such as James Mangold’s Cop Land (1997), Johnny Lee’s notorious Cat III picture A Day Without Policeman focuses an a representative of the law (played by Simon Yam) whose professional function is crippled by both a previous experience and his personal circumstances. Here, specifically, the once up-and-coming Yam saw his colleagues massacred during a bust by a gang wielding AK-47s, resulting in Yam losing his nerve, becoming impotent(!) and also losing his lover, and being relocated to an island.

Like his cinematic brethren, Yam is faced with a situation that tests his mettle and brings him back to functionality as a lawman: a gang of mainlanders invade the island, beginning a wave of outrageous violence against which Yam becomes the last line of defence and must make a stand.

There’s more than a little of David Sumner, the mousy mathematician that Dustin Hoffman played in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1972), about the character essayed by Simon Yam – in his trajectory from non-violent underdog into a man who is capable of using exceptional levels of violence in order to ‘protect’ the island community. Yam’s sexual impotence becomes a metaphor for his lack of efficacy as a policeman. Like Peckinpah’s picture, A Day Without Policeman draws a connection between violence, masculinity and sexual prowess: Yam’s lack of functionality as a police officer is connected to his very specific fear of AK-47 assault rifles and also his sexual impotence. The AK-47 too obviously functions as a phallic symbol here but this specific choice of weapon, the Russian-made gun most usually associated with Communist military units and guerilla fighters (for example, in its use by the NVA during the Vietnam war), perhaps also speaks of a fear of Communism and mainland China’s then-impending ideological ‘invasion’ of Hong Kong.

The violence in the film is often deeply protracted, with an emphasis on suffering and the callousness of the perpetrators. Amidst some outrageous bloodshed (including some strong sexual violence which casual viewers should be warned about) there are some strangely poetic scenes such as a brief visual reference to Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), perhaps through Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), in which a victim of a vigilante mob’s hand is seen clawing its way out of a shallow grave. Like Ringo Lam’s School on Fire (1988), for example, A Day Without Policeman was reputedly cut quite heavily before its release, some of the violence being reduced in its intensity. Rumours abound of versions with slightly different content being released on different home video formats, and certain scenes seem certainly to be abbreviated, but both versions of the picture I’ve seen (the Universe VCD release and the Tai Seng DVD) appear to be identical.

Viewing Notes. This viewing was via the Tai Seng DVD, which runs for 98:57 mins. The 1.85:1 photography is presented anamorphically, with burnt-in Chinese and English subtitles that are sometimes hard to read (white text on a light background). It’s a sorry presentation of the film that cries out for an upgrade.

All releases are hampered (or perhaps assisted, depending on your point of view) by some of the most ludicrous English subtitles seen in a Hong Kong film this side of Tiger on Beat 2 (Chia-Liang Liu, 1990). These include lines such as [all sic]:

‘Stay away of women’.

‘Know your bitch cannot wail! Don’t forget to use condom! Move safe’.

‘Don’t satisfy women, they need to beat till they’re 70’.

‘Think it carefully, woman is just Sunday car. Drive once every week’.

‘Without gangsters, but you are making trouble here. I know you are the sone of the Master of the village’.

‘Smelly men! Stay away my lover! Don’t touch!’

‘You chinese gay stolen’.

‘Telling true, Ah Chai, you are very nutrient’.

‘Look at the size not like’.

‘Don’t move, see my underwear’.

‘If you don’t back, I change the lock’.

‘Go! Have discount you!’

‘Look and make my eyes pain’.

‘We throw the gun to smash them’.

‘While phir expose out! Still need to look!’

‘Gay! Play us!’

‘Dress the bra and walk street’.

‘We have AK47. You will lost’.

‘It’s you, you set out all the things’.

‘Please don’t gun me on the nose’.

‘Hong Kong people always lies! You will lost on hat! Damn you baster!’

‘I will not come back, Hong Kong is animal place’.

‘To tell you the truth, I’m sexual deformation’.

‘You have no hiding trees here!’

‘I go to hinge them! You find a chance to shoot!’

Interview: Fine Art Photographer Shannon Taggart – Spirit Photography

The following is the full text of an interview I conducted via email with the superb fine art/documentary photographer and photojournalist Shannon Taggart, whose inspirational work focuses on spiritualism and the ethereal, back in 2016. The interview was conducted as part of my preparation for an article and conference paper focusing on spirit photography and the lasting impact of its visual paradigms on depictions of the supernatural and the liminal in both still and moving image photography. Shannon’s Instagram page is a fascinating repository for Shannon’s own photographic work and archival imagery on the subject.

A promo video for Shannon’s book Seance (2019) can be found at this link. Seance, available from the 26th of November, can be purchased from Amazon and other retailers.

I am as always very grateful to Shannon for taking time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.

QUESTION: How cognisant of the work of the pioneering spirit photographers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries (such as William Mumler and William Hope) are you when producing your own work? Do you allow the paradigms associated with their photography to shape your own work consciously and directly? How would you describe the relationship between their work and your own?

SHANNON: Spirit photography was not acknowledged in any of the official photography text books I studied from. When I began my project on Spiritualism in 2001, I had never even heard of spirit photography. Unexpectedly, the Spiritualists I met introduced me to it. I soon became enthralled with this secret history. I was shocked by spirit photographs. I was dumbstruck by their absurdity, their outrageousness, and their odd humanity. And their tenderness. And how the images spoke so eloquently about grief, about love and loss. This hidden photographic history then became a resource and an inspiration for my own photographic theory and practice.

QUESTION: Your work differs from that of the spirit photographers of the 19th/early 20th Centuries by, obviously, featuring a mixture of both colour and monochrome photography. You suggest in the statement on your website that in Spiritualism, technology is used to ‘extend the senses and assist an engagement with the spirit world’. Do you feel that the camera has a similar function? What determines your choice of medium/photographic equipment? What equipment do you use? Do you find that the choice of medium (for example, the film/digital distinction) is important? How does it impact on your work?

SHANNON: Yes, photography is one of the many technologies that Spiritualists use to extend the senses and invoke the unseen. I have been inspired by some of these approaches, which are part of the current “instrumental-transcommunication” movement within Spiritualism. In my opinion, the specific camera, film, or digital chip used makes little difference. I have shot with a variety of gear, and I have tried numerous types of film and digital backs.

I began to play with the glitches inherent within the photographic process after accidentally creating synchronistic photographs. One example happened during a séance, when people claimed to see a woman’s doppelgänger floating peacefully next to her. I did not see this. I attempted to make a straight document of the event, but her doubled face appeared on my film. I found this surprise thrilling—my camera shutter rendered a perfect metaphor for the invisible experience.

I became interested in exploring this photographic synchronicity. I tried conventions that are considered wrong, messy or “tricky”, breaking the rules of what is considered technically correct or professional. I saw how photography’s accidents and errors seemed to offer a visual language for the immaterial. I began to think about the magic of using light, time and automation as raw materials. I began to consider the conjuring power of photography itself.

My work blurs the distinctions between ethnographic study, photojournalism, and art. My goal is to produce a project that informs, but one that also blurs boundaries and creates questions. I do this by including images that use photography’s own mechanisms to question these spiritual realities–photographs that contain both mechanical and spiritual explanations, requiring interpretation.

QUESTION: As you suggest in the statement on your website, ‘The answer came when I pushed my camera to the edge of its functionality and crossed the boundary of what is considered bad, wrong or unprofessional. Chance elements and the inherent imperfections of the photographic process (blur, abstraction, motion, flare) offer an agent for the immaterial’. Are these ‘chance elements’ the same in today’s world of digital photography as they were in, say, Mumler’s use of photographic plates; or do you feel there is a qualitative difference between the ‘chance elements’ of digital photography and those of the photography of the 19th/early 20th Centuries?

SHANNON: The difference between then and now is that we understand photography’s subjective abilities better. We understand trick photography, accidents, and double exposure. Despite this knowledge, the photographic process still retains a level of mystery that is astounding. Photography remains magical, whatever the technical process. It freezes time, it automates, it transforms. Even the most pragmatic practitioners speak of its mystery.

QUESTION: In your statement, you highlight the distinction between the ‘veiled presence’ and the ‘visible body’. Spirit photography has traditionally seen a tension between depicting the ghostly/ethereal (for example, the ‘intangible presences’ within the photography of William Mumler and William Hope) and the physical/corporeal (for example, the vogue in the 1920s for parapsychologists/photographers like Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and T G Hamilton to photograph ectoplasmic emissions). In the work of the spirit photographers of the 19th/early 20th Centuries, these two approaches very rarely crossed over – if at all. Do you think these two approaches may be reconciled? Do these two approaches communicate the sense of liminality in the same way as one another, or do they possess different connotations?

SHANNON: This tension between the intangible and the physical is still present in Spiritualism today, so it’s something I’ve struggled with while trying to create photographs of mediums. I have been unable to reconcile these approaches. The mediums who produce objective physical effects beg to be straightly documented. Their ritual acts leave no room for play–they’ve already rendered a mystery. The mediums whose workings remain invisible seem to offer a richer atmosphere for photographic interpretation and experimentation.

QUESTION: In what ways do you think our relationship with these images is similar to, or different from, how the work of photographers like William Hope or Albert von Schrenck-Notzing was received during the 19th/early 20th Centuries? Do you think the 19th Century emphasis that was placed on photography as ‘evidence’, which formed a large part of the context of the work of photographers like Mumler and Hope – with photography used as ‘proof’ by both Spiritualists and skeptics – is still with us today?

SHANNON: Albert von Schrenck-Notzing came to conclude that “a photograph reproduces only an instant, abstracted from the flow of the living event as it occurred during seances. For this reason, the effect it produced could only be crude and deceptive.” He abandoned the photographic process for its inability to render what he saw as objective fact. He recognized that photographs complicated truth. I see myself as embracing the process for the exact reasons that Schrenck-Notzing abandoned it. I’m trying to take photography’s innate subjectivity as far as it will go, to see what will happen. That said, I do find that many viewers don’t take into account the complexity of a photographic truth. This is a theme I try to address every time I lecture. Photography is a trickster medium. Photographs continually offer a variety of interpretations. And this invitation to assign meaning is a major part of photography’s power.

QUESTION: Do you think the visual paradigms/iconography of spirit photography of the 19th/early 20th Centuries have played a significant role in how the theme of liminality has been explored in other areas of visual culture of the 20th/21st Centuries (for example, in films about ghosts, etc)? If so, in what ways?

SHANNON: In contemporary culture, there is an awareness of Spiritualist photographic iconography that is disconnected from its history. Ectoplasm, Spiritualism’s most iconic symbol, is part of a shared visual vocabulary, demonstrated from jokes on the cartoon South Park to imagery used by fine artists like Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler. Most famously, ectoplasm appears in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, co-written by Dan Ackroyd, and soon to be in theaters as a sequel film. Dan Ackroyd is a fourth generation Spiritualist, and he is drawing the term directly from Spiritualist practice. These examples attest to the power of this imagery, and also to its marginalization.

QUESTION: What do you feel is the reason for the enduring fascination with this theme of liminality within visual culture? Why is it so prevalent? Are the reasons for its appeal today the same as for its appeal during the early years of spirit photography?

The liminal realm is where all myth and mystery reside. This visualized liminality, with its blurring of the true and the false, flickers so intensely that it’s difficult to take your eyes off of it. The appeal of liminality within visual culture remains because it offers a way to contemplate the ineffable within our ordered, rationalized, and largely disenchanted world.

(The images used to illustrate this interview are by William Mumler and Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, respectively.)


FILM DIARY: The Last Blood (Jing Wong, 1991)

Sold in many countries as a sequel to John Woo’s HARD BOILED (in the UK, as HARD BOILED 2; and in Germany, where Woo’s earlier JUST HEROES was released as HARD BOILED 2, as HARD BOILED 3), Jing Wong’s THE LAST BLOOD was actually made a year before HARD BOILED. Whilst not on a par with the Woo picture, THE LAST BLOOD has some incredibly-staged action sequences that are punctuated by some outrageous humour – mostly involving Eric Tsang’s character Fatty.

Set against a backdrop of the Gulf War, footage of which is seen playing on television screens throughout the film, THE LAST BLOOD’s focus is on terrorism, the Japanese Red Army attempting to assassinate the visiting Daka Lama. The terrorists are depicted in sleeper cells: in an early scene, the lover of one of these terrorists, unaware that he is part of a terrorist cell, returns home to find her home occupied by his compatriots. In response, her lover turns on her and cruelly and dispassionately murders her.

The sharply-filmed action is offset by some wacky humour, including a slack handful of in-jokes that poke fun at the screen personae of Andy Lau – who here plays triad Brother Bee – and Alan Tam – playing Interpol agent Lui Tai. That said, despite much of the film’s levity and the panto villain shtick of the film’s antagonist, Kama Kura (Chin Ho) – the leader of the Japanese Red Army cell who sports a RED HEAT-era Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque flat top haircut – THE LAST BLOOD also skirts with the taboo. In one notable scene, the terrorists up the ante by shooting a wheelchair-bound father and his young son.

Viewing Notes. Watched via the German HDMV DVD release, which contains an anamorphic presentation (1.85:1) that, unlike the Mega Star DVD, is progressive rather than interlaced. The HDMV also contains the original Cantonese mono mix. (The audio on the Mega Star DVD release is a new 5.1 sound mix which contains rerecorded foley effects.)