Death: The High Cost of Filming

The comic book Death: The High Cost of Living is a spin-off miniseries from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. The premise is that every so often, Death, personified by a young Goth woman, lives as a human for a day, so she won’t forget what it’s like, thereby keeping in touch with her compassion. In this story, she does so in the guise of the teenage girl Didi, who guides a suicidal young man on a journey of self-discovery. I recommend it.

For years, there has been talk of a movie version of the story, and Neil Gaiman wrote a script for it. The location was moved from New York to London, and a prologue was added, set in a Tibetan monastery. Then, due to various circumstances, it didn’t happen. My feeling is that this would never have been allowed to be the film that it should be. I believe that it would work best as a drama in which the relationships are central, but when you’re dealing with Neil Gaiman, the Sandman universe and DC (Grim! Gritty! Snyder Cut!) you’re not going to get that. Even so, perhaps with the success of the faux-indie Joker film, there’s room for a small Death film. A small film would be less of an investment, less of a risk: it wouldn’t have to draw in the numbers of a Superman/Batman tentpole movie to break even.

In Gaiman’s comic and script, the location is London, not the US, where the comic was published. I propose to make it even easier to film the thing: bring it to Belfast. The city is very accessible and ‘film friendly‘, has the Titanic Studios and outdoors locations to fit every need. Northern Ireland is also brimming with talent, its crews veterans of Game of Thrones and Line of Duty, and its acting luminaries famous the world over. Here’s an outline of what Death: the High Cost of Living could look like, if made in Belfast.

THE PEOPLE

Writer/Director: Ash Clarke. Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway is set against the background of the Magdalen Laundries, but focuses on the psychological trauma rather than the body horror of demonic possession. I’d trust her to deliver a taut thriller, but put the emotional journey of its protagonists to the fore. As director of the retro-radio play group Wireless Mystery Theatre, she also shows a mastery of style and whimsy.

Juvenile leads. For the roles of the teenagers Didi and Sexton, unknowns could be cast; we’ve been impressed by shows by the Bruiser theatre school, as well as the Theatre at the Mill Summer Youth Musical Group. Belfast is brimming with up and coming talent waiting to be tapped. The role of Billy should go to a disabled teen.

The Eremite. We used Michael Smiley as our template for the hungry spectral horseman, the Fear Gorta, in our horror story for the Christmas anthology Underneath the Tree. Originally a comedian, his haggard and lugubrious appearance would be perfect for the Eremite. But Lalor Roddy of The Devil’s Doorway would also be very effective in the role, if Aislinn would want to bring him with her. Alternatively, ‘Ma’ could bring ‘Da’ from Give My Head Peace, with Tim McGarry playing against type.

Mad Hetty. A much-beloved and long-running satirical series in Northern Ireland is Give My Head Peace. Its matriarch, commonly known as ‘Ma’, would be a shoo-in for this ‘wiser than she looks, and far, far older’ homeless woman. Veteran actress Olivia Nash may be short in statue, but she’s got a range from light comedy to depth and power.

Mrs. Robbins. She has known Deedee all her life, and knows her big secret. Belfast is a very white city, and no obvious candidate springs to mind. This has been somewhat of a problem across the isle, as also highlighted by Irish/American actress Ruth Negga. Perhaps she’d be available for a cameo?

Foxglove. Belfast has a thriving LGBTQ+ community, which is at the forefront of what’s going on in arts. Is there a queer musician, not necessarily lesbian, who can play (and play as) Foxglove? Surely!

Death. A small but pivotal role, Death, as an adult, appears at the end of the story to take away the dying Didi. Someone’s needed who really lights up the screen, with an almost unearthly beauty. Saoirse Ronan’s career has leapt since she played a vampire in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, but perhaps she could be persuaded to come to the ‘auld sod’ for a few days of filming.

THE LOCATIONS

Belfast is rich in locations suitable for filming. Despite destructive development plans and a general disregard for our built heritage, enough of the ‘old city’ has survived to, in combination with some of our more modern landmarks, form a backdrop for Didi and Sexton’s spiritual journey.

The story begins in a somewhat uninspiring apartment block. There’s a somewhat out of place building in East Belfast, bordering a park and lower buildings, which would be perfect for outside shots. Alternatively, one of the ‘Manhattan on the Lagan’ high-rise buildings that have sprung up in recent years will add a contrast to the more ‘old build’ of the further story.

We first meet Mad Hetty underneath a bridge. I suggest the railway bridge between the Albert Bridge and the Queen’s Bridge, with its nice Victorian brickwork. Alternatively, the underneath of the Albert Bridge and just besides the station would offer a great ‘All ye who enter here’, new-build on either side notwithstanding.

We’ve got the lovely Victorian St George’s Market, a construction of brick and cast iron framework, which would be a really nice location to set part of the action in, like the chase, and Foxglove’s concert. Traders for the Friday market set up their stalls on Thursdays, so it’d be efficient to film establishing shots on the evening and perhaps after the Friday market’s close. Stallholders might be willing to appear as themselves. A small section of the building might be used outside of market days to set up a limited number of stalls for closer shots, and the market does have live music; though Foxglove’s may skew more folk-rock than ‘pop your lid’ rock.

Alternatively, for the club in which Foxglove plays, why not showcase our own Black Box, with the crooked Hill Street that leads up to it, and the lovely alleys running off Hill Street?

For the conclusion of the film we don’t have to travel far. While Belfast doesn’t have any big fountains that I am aware of, there is a Victorian water fountain on Custom House Square, surrounded by Edwardian era buildings, with a modern water feature on the square, and the leaning Albert Clock tower in the background on one side, and the Harland and Wolf cranes lurking on the other side. It’s at spitting distance from St George’s Market. Crossing the road from the fountain, on the harbour’s edge, is the Big Fish, which may also be a a good anchoring point with visual flair.

If this location isn’t suitable because of the traffic noise, then Buoy Park is a good substitute, with its big, colourful buoys and St Anne’s Cathedral as backdrop.

CONCLUDING

A Death film done like this would elect to use abundant local talent and amenities to tell a story, rather than simply throwing money at it. It’s a way of working that’s brought us countless classic B-movie thrillers, like those produced by Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie) and the Hammer studios. Words cost nothing more than a writer’s time behind their computer, so this is where it should start. You need craftspeople who know what they’re doing. Hammer Studios understood this, and many of their recycled and small sets are doubled in value by expert lighting and camera work; when David Lynch directed The Elephant Man, cinematographer Terence Fisher came out of retirement to shoot it in black and white. Shoot it well, so you don’t have to fix it in post with layers of filters. Actors should be given the space before shooting to explore their roles and find the nuances in their characters: it’s an ensemble piece at heart, and they’ll need to carry the viewer’s emotional journey.

I think it can be done. It can be made into something very special, magical and emotional, and it can be made in Belfast.

Electra (1962): Blood and Mud

Mikhalis Kakogiannis’ 1962 Greek film of the Euripides play straddles a reality which is ours, and yet not quite. Its characters are human, all too human; they inhabit an earthy world, yet they follow a course which seems to be predestined, with stylised speech and ritualised movement. Where Medea was a feast of sets and costumes, Electra gets its strength from plot, character, choreography and camera.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly actress Irene Papas, who also appears in the other parts of Kakogiannis’ ‘Greek Tragedy’ trilogy, The Trojan Women and Iphigenia. Striking, somewhat androgynous, she is stripped down to simple clothes, hair and make-up. She plays the part of Electra, who was banished when her father Agamemnon came back from the Trojan War, and was murdered by his wife and her lover. Humiliated into an arranged marriage with a farmer, Electra bides her time, and when her brother joins her in exile, they plot their revenge.

Aside from the prologue and a few other scenes, the film is set entirely around the simple farm on which Electra lives. The strongest impression we get of the city is the gargantuan walls, with small figures moving against the huge stones. Agamemnon, when we first see him, is likewise gigantic, shot from below. Gone for a decade, he’s become a mythical figure in the child Electra’s eyes. Only then, when she throws herself in his arms, does he become a man of human scale again, before being brought down by his wife and the usurper.

The outdoors is earthy; we see clouds move through the skies, sometimes becoming a character in their own right, a plough pulled through dank earth and still women, their heavy long dresses moving in the breeze. These women are both a Greek chorus and a coven, protecting and literally shielding Electra whenever intruders enter their domain. First it is Electra’s brother who comes out of his own exile. When he walks to and fro, the women move with him, just as Electra turns to keep facing him. Scenes like this could just have been two people talking, but instead it is used to prop up the idea of a heightened reality, a pseudo-reality. We’re in the ancient Greece of Troy, not that of history.

Another visitor, at Electra’s invitation, is her mother, queen Clytemnestra. She explains why she killed her husband and Electra’s father, and apologises. There is no starker contrast possible between these two powerful women: Electra with her inner strength, and her mother, whose royal bearing seems to come as much from her dazzling clothes and make-up as from her controlled movement; controlled power emanates from her.

Whereas the reckoning with Agamemnon’s murderer, the usurper Aeghistus, happened off-screen and almost off-handedly. This is a story about women, and Clytemnestra’s killing is the lynchpin of the movie. She is led into the farmhouse in which Electra’s brother Orestes waits. At her screams, Electra’s women panic. They hurl themselves around in their black cloaks, as crows fly off from the treetops and a horse bolts. This is not a murder that is being committed, it is a taboo being broken. Only the enslaved Trojan women Clytemnestra brought remain impassive. They care not. The contrast between the frantic movement and the stillness that follows is powerful. It’s a held breath, but then the women slowly rise: the Gods have not descended, and their world has not ended.

Throughout the film, you feel the constant presence of the Gods, yet they do not reveal themselves. The drama, in the end, is one on a human scale.

Frankenstein Cometh!

How far can you trace back your personal canons?

Anyone who has spent just a bit of time in our house will notice that Frankenstein’s monster has a bit of a presence. My ur-text is King Kong, which I saw when I was about six, but it was Frankenstein which really took root in my imagination a few years later. It’d be tempting to tell you how I identified with the sad, lonesome creature, trying to make sense of the world, but – I won’t. At that age I firmly saw the monsters as them while my heroes were more like Superman and Tarzan.

To be honest, aside from ‘general cultural osmosis’ I don’t quite know where I had picked up the basic story of “scientist creates monster, and monster goes on a rampage,” but I do know that in my imagination the creature was firmly that: a monster, an it even. I was ten when I saw my first Frankenstein film, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and I managed to ignore the comedy and be scared by the tropes it sought to parody: thin gruel does satisfy the hungry. My mind extracted from it a story of a man-made monster, a castle in thunderstorm and a sinister assistant mournfully blowing his horn. All that, hung on the skeleton of a single picture found in library book when I was seven.

The book is Hilary Henson’s Robots (in Dutch, pedantically, Robots en Computer) and the miracles of the Internet brought it to my doorstep today. And there it was, on page 19: it’s just a small image, a cut-out of Boris Karloff in his monster makeup. Out of all the other things that could grip me, and may have at another time (like the robot from Metropolis) it was that one image that fascinated me; I must indeed have been in a monsters! frame of mind. At the time, I made a drawing of it in my sketchbook. I can’t account, really, for the shirt. Perhaps it’s a transplant from the Universal Werewolf movies, but I think it’s more that these were typical shirts of the early ’80s.

It would be years before I got to see James Whale’s Frankenstein films properly. That is; I’d saved up for my own small TV set for in my room, and with the advent of cable, the BBC had been added to the few Dutch and German channels we’d received until then. The Beeb had an all-night Frankenstein night, and I remember watching Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride with the skylight above the bedroom door taped shut with black cardboard; mom and dad wouldn’t approve staying up until an ungodly hour. I also had the sound turned completely off. Just as well; I doubt I’d have appreciated the campiness of Bride of Frankenstein!

(RvS)

Control Your Shelves

Content warning throughout, for discussion of sexual violence and racism, including examples of racist language.

A few weeks ago we literally had to extend our Billy bookcases, as this year’s Christmas haul had joined last year’s unshelved presents. So, the question came up: why would we give shelf space to writers we really don’t want there? Whose works are you willing to be in dialogue with, even when they and their authors are not perfect? Whose works do reflect who you are? And which works and authors cause embarrassing silences at the table?

Death of the Author, in short, is the theory that argues that creation and creator are unrelated. There are many facets to this, and your personal mileage may vary: what one puts up with, another will not. Emotions may come into play here, but principles too. For me, death of the author doesn’t wash, as what an author says and does is of influence on how I perceive their work. This extends to writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists. Critics may say that this is Cancel Culture, yet as a consumer I have the right to choose what I consume, just as publishers have the right to choose what they publish, and can choose whether or not to listen to calls from the public to publish – or not – a writer/artist. And if they are published, we can choose whether or not to financially support that work.

These choices are not always based on what’s legal. Material proof of Marilyn Manson’s abuse of Evan Rachel Wood has yet to be produced. Yet, her testimony is powerful and convincing, as are the reports of others who have experienced similar abuse. I believe her. But what to make of the hordes of men (mainly men) in the comments sections of entertainment websites, with their cries of “pics or it didn’t happen”? What climate does this create for any woman who suffers sexual or other abuse, when the default setting at coming forward is not being believed?

When will the Didn’t happen crowd be satisfied? Amber Heard did come with the pictures, yet it was easily spun as “self inflicted” and “she abused Johnny Depp first”. What proof will men be satisfied with, when in the UK less than 5% of rape cases reported to the police are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and of these, only three quarters make it to court? And what chance do women stand in court, when the defence attacks their morality and underwear, whereas the promising future of young men must not be compromised? And as for Marilyn Manson, if his own words are explained away as “That’s just his media persona talking,” can I understand why women feel embattled and a #metoo movement sprung up? Yes, I can. Does it affect how I listen to Manson’s music? Oh, yes!

Mists of Avalon: feminism and female empowerment?

Likewise, could I re-read the “feminist masterpiece” Mists of Avalon knowing how she sexually abused her daughter from the age 3-12 (should I add “allegedly” here?) and how she remained silent about the child molestation by her husband, for which he received multiple convictions? No, when finding that out, Avalon and other stray MZBs left our house. I wouldn’t be able to read them without adding a mental “yes, but you abused your daughter,” after each “strong female protagonist” bit of writing. This, also because she’s so very present in her books: the author may be dead to me, but it’s not a case of Death of the Author. Less clear-cut, of course, are films, the products of many hands and many talents: auteur films from the likes of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen may have lost their gloss, but films produced by Harvey Weinstein, not so much.

Then there are films that I can enjoy, though I won’t support the author. Don’t @ me; the first Twilight film isn’t bad. However, as I will not support the Mormon church and their wacky and homophobic beliefs, and knowing that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the church and will pay 10% tithe of all money she earns, I’ll not see a single penny of mine go towards her. Likewise for noted transphobe J.K. Rowling. And sometimes I’m just petty: a noted horror writer was rude to me in a Facebook group, so his books went from my shelf to the charity box.

And then you’ve got authors whose attitudes where, perhaps, “of their time”. How do you deal with sexism and racism in works from an era where these were the standard? Firstly, there is the work itself: is it unreadable? H. Rider Haggard is at times patronising about Black people and too often falls into the Mighty Whitey or White Man’s Burden tropes, but you can read he’s sympathetic towards his major Black characters. You feel he’s trying at least, as opposed to for example Edgar Wallace in his Sanders of the River stories. Rider Haggard I’ll happily read – She, for all its faults, is a powerful work, in which the Mighty Whitey’s rule is not at portrayed as entirely benevolent. Wallace’s “gunboat diplomacy”, however, I can do without. Then over to the people “behind the page”; what of H.P. Lovecraft, for instance? It’s pretty well known that the Weird Tales stalwart and Call of Cthulhu writer was racist. But, which white man in the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t? To answer this, I’m aided by the question: “How would they vote, now?”

Colonial justice: Sanders of the River. Illustration: William Marshall, 1976

I believe that HPL would’ve voted Trump, would’ve been very much in favour of The Wall, and I’d dare go as far as to say that he’d be liable to adhere to some QAnon trappings. He was a learned man, had ample opportunity to create a broader worldview, but stubbornly and unapologetically refused to do so. That racism is part and parcel of stories like Shadow Over Innsmouth is extensively documented.Now, Lovecraft scholar Bobby Derie, in his Deep Cuts, has chronicled some of HPL’s real life encounters with Black people. It’s worse than I imagined. In 1933 he wrote of Hitler: I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)

Compare this with what Robert E. Howard wrote on Nazi Germany, in a 1933 letter to Lovecraft: I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.

Both letters are from 1933; before the concentration camps, before the worst excesses of the Reich, yet the writing was already on the wall, and with his “poison gas” comment, Lovecraft of course hearkens back to World War I gas attacks, so we’re not talking abstracts here. What (finally) did it for me was Derie’s quoting of a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1922. To colleagues and others further removed he could be polite, even to a Black editor, but writing to close family we get the unfiltered HPL, not only drawing a link between apes and Black people, but also using a slur frequently used by slave holders for Black men: Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.

Shadow Over Innsmouth: “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. (Art: Hannes Bok, 1942)

But how about Robert E. Howard then? Yes, he was racist too. However, his is a more tangled web where very bad portrayals of Black people go hand in hand with sympathetic descriptions of non-white characters. In his article Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior Jason Ray Carney writes about the story Worms of the Earth as a story about oppression, yet recognises that it is also written against a theoretical background of inter-war racist pseudoscience. While Lovecraft travelled and lived in New York for a spell, Howard pretty much stayed in Texas, and his literary influences go back decades, so there seems to be an element of ignorance too, less wilful than Lovecraft’s.

Howard’s ambivalence and confusion regarding race is can be illustrated with a 1932 letter to Lovecraft: I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind – a pantherish man of medium height with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked.

Bran Mak Morn: inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. (Art: Gary Gianni)

Howard’s more blatant racism (and sexism) seem to mainly occur in the more cliché Conan stories, which makes me wonder whether he wrote them pandering to a market which he knew was receptive to such tropes, much like he got the coveted cover spot by including lesbian flogging. This doesn’t excuse racism but implies a similar cultural landscape to today, in which it was a choice to act, or not, on principles of equality; in Howard’s case, earning his daily bread seems to have won out in the end. What for me is important is that Howard shows the capacity to grow and learn. Had he lived, I think he’d have enlisted to punch Nazis in WWII, shoulder to shoulder with Black soldiers. Lovecraft, I think, would merely bemoan the loss of American, Aryan, life and prudently keep his deeper thoughts from polite society.

With Derie’s work, and in particular discussions around the television series Lovecraft Country, a taking stock of sorts is underway. The Mythos, stories based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, is not to be scrapped completely, but conversations like this make it easier to discern which implicit and explicit elements to get rid of, and which to keep and foster. I am not convinced that a similar consensus has been reached around Howard’s work. Due to its more ambiguous nature, fans roughly fall into the camps of, “I like it, though it’s flawed, and we need to talk about it,” and “I like it just as it is. No SJW in my books!” Howard’s Conan stories, and the Sword & Sorcery genre in general, were discovered by many in their teens, and it’s hard for some to reconcile their undeveloped teenage views and nostalgia with a more adult, critical view. One publisher of a recent S&S anthology states, amongst other dog whistles: No political correctness and No social justice warriors.

Lovecraft Country: reclaiming Mythos territory.

Even so, with a recent flux of podcasts like The Cromcast (their episode on The Moon of Skulls, on racism in the Solomon Kane stories, is a must), Rogues in the House and Appendix N, all looking at the genre from a critical perspective, as well as a host of magazines who aim to make the genre about more than Manly White Men, the genre is slowly emerging from its unreconstructed ghetto. Robert E. Howard himself can yet be redeemed too; I just finished rereading the Kull stories, and found little racism or sexism in them: women are written with agency and personality, and I got the feeling that Kull’s Pictish, and non-white, brother in arms Brule is far wiser and hardly less skilled a fighter than Kull is. Then, as was pointed out by commenter Cora Buhlert: Yes, he was prejudiced and yes, there are racist bits in his fiction, but he also had Kull smash Valusia’s miscegenation laws with his battle axe.

Adaptations too need not be uncritical, and can be transformative. The Dark Horse Conan comics were generally well received, though Becky Cloonan’s portrayal of Conan was derided as “too thin.” Aside from this being a younger Conan and previous Conans perhaps having been drawn “too muscular,” I also wonder how much misogyny against a female artist has played a part in its reception. Cloonan drew the adaptation of Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast, as scripted by Brian Wood. Wood has a history of harassing women, and is a good example of Death of the Author. The adaptation, despite Wood’s interpolations, is still predominantly Howard’s story, and Cloonan’s art is worth sticking around for, so I don’t feel that urge to throw it out; Wood did lose his gig at Dark Horse when word got out, which I feel is just.

What strikes me on reading, and in particularly viewing, the comic is how it deals with its crew of Black pirates. When Conan first encounters them, they are (in Howard’s prose) “painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields” with their white queen Bêlit forming “a dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it.” Cloonan depicts them as anonymous, almost black shapes with empty eyes and a suggestion of sharpened teeth; the idea of the savage as a 1930s reader, and a young Conan, would have it.

Conan joins the pirate queen on the Tigress and becomes the Mighty Whitey himself next to her. But as the story goes on, we get to know some of the crew better, like old N’Yaga and sub-Chief N’Gora. The language gets toned down a bit to blacks, black warriors, with huge muscles coiling and straining under their ebon skin when they try to shift a stone altar; terms which, aside from the words black and ebon were used to describe Conan. Later still, it’s N’Gora and his comrades. Cloonan’s pirates too morph into recognisable individuals, away from stereotypical depictions.

So, this is what we can do with what we don’t like; certain writers and artists we can take off our shelves, and not spend our coin on. Genres with a history of racism and sexism we can investigate and then transform and subvert. Inclusivity, in 2021, is a must, yet it involves excluding or changing that which is toxic. Because – who needs the presence of a writer who (“but think of the children!”) would want women barred from female toilets? Who’d want a Mythos that espouses fear of strangers, when those “strangers” are our neighbours and colleagues? What is a Heroic Fantasy fandom which cannot imagine heroes who are different but equal to the white, heterosexual male?

(RvS)

The Body Diverse

In a recent Guardian article, actress Carey Mulligan is reported to take issue with a Variety review of the black comedy Promising Young Woman, which read: “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her.” Mulligan says about this: “We start to edit the way that women appear on-screen, and we want them to look a certain way. We want to airbrush them, and we want to make them look perfect. Or we want to edit the way that they work, the way they move and the way that they think and behave. And I think we need to see real women portrayed on-screen in all of their complexity.”

“Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as… femme fatale”

In our story, The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, we have Ymke, similarly to Mulligan’s character in Promising Young Woman, set a honey trap for an abusive husband. While Ymke is fairly average looking and disabled, we’ve got no doubt she could pull it off. Of course, she already turned Kaila’s head, and vice versa. And talking of Kaila, she is of course very short but also very muscled. And yes, she’s attractive. Attraction is not the same as beauty, whatever the contemporary idea of beauty may be.

Kaila and Ymke from The Red Man and Others

We’d love to see more ‘non-normative’ body types in our media, and in film and tv in particular. What the reader sees on the page is partially filled in by their own imagination. What we see on the big or the small screen leaves little room to fill in your own blanks. Genre films, superhero films in particular, have not been very diverse. Where you look at the Marvel films, you see some fairly ‘average’ looking guys like Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), the women can all be classed as beautiful – even when they’re shaven-headed, black-eyed and blue, like Nebula (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy). Hopping over to ‘the distinguished competitor’, why is Superman super-muscled and Wonder Woman isn’t?

Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill. One is not like the others.

It’s not like Superman needs to go to the gym every day after work to stay super. It all comes down to classic role patterns, right at the dawn of the pulp- and superhero: Superman’s template is the dynamic tension built Charles Atlas. Superman doesn’t get sand kicked in his face! The notes on the first sketch for Wonder Woman (1941) are revealing. Artist H.G. Peters notes that: “The shoes are like a stenographer’s.” Writer William Moulton Marston writes back: “Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute. I like her skirt, legs, hair.”

No more sand shall be kicked in *his* face!

Some artists draw Wonder Woman as fairly buff, but it never seems to stick. Likewise, much was made of Jessica Biel’s fitness regime for Blade: Trinity (2004), yet I also remember the ‘fanboy’ comments of her being “ugly”. I guess they’d rather stick with the female leads of the X-men movies, Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique) and Halle Berry (Storm), who all started their careers as models! You’ve got to wonder how they’ll handle the upcoming She-Hulk series. Will Tatiana Maslany be set on a body building regime to bulk up like Cavill, Affleck, Bale, Helmsworth and Evans (the harmful amount of muscles expected of nowadays Hollywood leading men is another story)? I doubt it.

“Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute.”

There have been some tentative approaches to the diverse bodies in Fantasy franchises, but these have come with an amount of ‘but’. In Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie was imposing as the female knight Brienne of Tarth, but it was made very clear that she was not attractive. The Witcher‘s Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) was disabled but she could only be attractive once that was ‘fixed’. Only Frøya from Norsemen (Silje Torp) comes to mind as being awesome while tall (1.78), past forty and with the muscle mass befitting a warrior woman.

Norsemen‘s Frøya (Silje Torp).

I’m also thinking of’s Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995), a straight-to-video Terminator-inspired actioner. Its lead is a young woman (Sue Price) who fights against a cyborg bounty hunter from the future. Think of the film what you will, but writer/director Albert Pyun at least had the thought: “Hey, if it’s good enough for Sly and Arnold, it’s good enough for my ass-kicking heroine to be absolutely ripped!”

Sue Price in Albert Pyun’s Nemesis 2: Nebula

Diversity, also in race, age and ability, is still very much a matter of ‘two hesitant steps forward, a frightened leap back’. It’s about time for the audience, us, to enjoy the rich variety of humanity, and not expect conventional standards of ‘beauty’. While typing this, we’re watching Doom Patrol which has a team of anti-heroes who are each, in one way or another, disabled. Vic (Jovian Wade), whose body is partially replaced by mechanical components, just made love with a woman, Roni (Karen Obilom) whose body is heavily scarred. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her, and means it. They accept each other’s disabilities, and invite the viewer to do the same. The next morning, he’s all aglow, while she withdraws, saying they’re just “two fucked-up people, who are trying to forget their shit.” This is the conversation between a woman who doesn’t want a relationship and a young man who is looking for romance. Roni asserts herself, and will take intimacy on her terms. She doesn’t need to be grateful.

Vic (Jovian Wade) and Roni (Karen Obilom) in Doom Patrol, s2e3

Solomon Kane (2009) Revisited

Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly. 

Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film,  and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.” 

What if…

Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods. 

Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity. 

Puritan family Idyll – William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite) holds court.

Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves. 

A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms. 

Meredith Crowthorn (Rachel Hurd-Wood), doffing her bonnet

After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”

Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences. 

Masked villain

And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”

Solomon Kane gets righteous

However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again. 

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

The prologue of Conan the Barbarian immediately makes clear what sort of hero we must make do with. According to the voice-over it’s ‘between the years that the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas’. On a battlefield we find a woman clutching her belly with one hand and a sword with the other. She’s in labour, but only by being cut from her womb will the baby deign to emerge, as her dying lips whisper his name-to-be.

A teenage Conan pays no heed when his father, the tribe’s blacksmith (Ron Perlman), tries to teach him the riddle of steel whilst forging him his first sword. In Celtic tradition a smith was half village elder, half shaman, but what should be a key scene of the film is understated, the mythological quality lost. This is typical of a film that turns out to be about an obnoxious murderer instead of a hero.

Conan’s father (Ron Perlman) teaches his son the Riddle of Steel.

The torturously unpleasant violence from the movie’s opening continues when the village is invaded. Every bone-crunch of teenage Conan’s counter-attack is amplified, while the powerful character moments between son and soon-to-die father are lost, the filmmakers assuming we’re only interested in seeing Perlman get molten metal full in the face.

This tone persists. The adult Conan does unspeakably nasty things to captive baddies, and frees female sex slaves only to leer at them himself, then get them re-employed as tavern sluts. It’s a far cry from John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian, of which the current film is ostentatiously not a remake, despite the many recurring tropes.

Both films are about a man who seeks out and ultimately destroys the wizard-king who wiped out his tribe. But where the old Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had innocence to balance his inherently thuggish life, the sum of his years spent at the Wheel of Pain and in the arena, new Conan is no better than the villains he dispatches in endless sword fights.

Jason Momoa as Conan

Lead actor Jason Momoa definitely shows a certain charisma and would be perfect in the role, particularly after playing the similar, but more nuanced, Drogo in Game of Thrones, were he not let down by the unimaginative direction and the shoddy script. It’s all stuff an adolescent’s dreams are made of: flashy gore and nastiness, grotesque villains and buxom damsels, but the film is light on the truly mythic, interesting character dilemmas and narrative logic.

The action sequences are cut too fast, disorientating rather than immersive, and quickly become repetitive and dull. The script, meanwhile, seems to have been cut to less than the bare minimum to get from one fight to the next. Character motivation is as scarce.

Conan (Jason Momoa) and Tamara (Rachel Nichols)

Indeed, about the women: Tamara (Rachel Nichols), goes from being an implausibly good fighter to a helpless puppet when the script requires it. When Conan claims her as his slave and gags her, it’s played as funny, not as a violation.

‘I live, I love, I slay… I am content,’ Conan mumbles halfway through the movie. As a motto it really holds no candle to his former incarnation’s answer to what’s best in life: ‘to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women’.

The producers have already blamed the failing box office figures on insufficient brand recognition, even though Robert E Howard’s pulp hero is doing well in every other medium, from comic book to video game. More likely, audiences aren’t fooled by ‘product’ slapped together for the lowest common denominator.

(This review appeared on the Culture Northern Ireland website)

King Kong in the Tuschinski

King Kong (1933) is my Ur-text. It was my gateway drug to Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror, from the moment I saw it when I was 6. I even wrote my own novelisation a few years later, based on vague memories. Now I’ve got access to an online archive of Dutch newspapers, it’s time to find out how the film was received in the Netherlands. The first mention of King Kong is in an advertisement on the front page of De Telegraaf, which was (and is) a popular (and populist) newspaper, on 26 April 1933. “Read this message.” it says, “KING KONG the great technical film miracle comes to TUSCHINSKI. THE MYSTERY KING KONG will surpass your expectations. (The script is by the well-known writer EDGAR WALLACE)”

The Tuschinski theatre had the continental premiere of King Kong, on Friday 28 April, at 2pm. Apparently, the board of the theatre had seen the film in London, saw the queues and decided to fetch this “great record breaker of London” to Amsterdam. On the stage, as supporting feature, “our Dutch star Fientje de la Mar (with a brilliant repertoire).” She was a bona fide diva, whose name lives on in the De la Mar theatre.

To announce the premiere, Tuschinski placed a large advertisement in the Telegraaf on 27 April. It’s a nice advert too; we see the giant ape and the blocky lettering, known from the film poster, however the great ape is not standing on the familiar half-globe of the Empire State, but on a flat-roofed building, below which we see a crowd of people fleeing. The work of a local artist, or a UK press kit?

Tuschinski was set to make the film a success in Amsterdam, and over the following days and weeks, several further notices and smaller ads appeared in the papers. King Kong could not have had its ‘continental premiere’ in a better theatre: built in 1921, the gorgeous theatre was designed in a mix of Art Nouveau, Ard Deco and Amsterdam School, and considered one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world. In the early 20th century it was renovated in its original style, and the original murals were once more uncovered. If you happen to visit Amsterdam: do visit the theatre!

But, how was it received? The socialist newspaper De Tribune is to the point:

Well, what can we say about it? In America they found this horror film with prehistoric animals on an island somewhere near Sumatra so fine, that they thronged the cinemas. But we didn’t care much for it. On the whole it’s played well by Fay Way and Bruce Cabot. But there was not much play to be had in a film where the main accent was on the fantastic animal world. Technically, miracles have been done, and you do wonder how it’s been done. But well, the tricks are numerous. The supporting feature is as usual well provisioned.” (De Tribune, 2 May 1933)

The Telegraaf has more enthusiasm, and knows what the people really want. First, the writer of it all is introduced, Edgar Wallace, “the writer of hundreds of books, novellas, dramas and scripts died before the film King Kong was ready, and what would he have thought, if he could have seen how imagination and especially engineering made his ideas into reality.”

In King Kong the film technology triumphs in mysterious ways, and all other tricks, even the separating Red Sea, seem like childish manipulatons of amateur filmmakers. Cooper and Schoedsack, the directors of King Kong, the builders of King Kong, had access to a number of engineers who have scratched the word “impossible” from their dictionary.”

Then follows an extensive synopsis of the plot. “Splintering trees and branches, King Kong approaches his present, and he is so horribly real, and so horrible of size that nobody will be surprised that the movie star gives a deathly shriek.”

You remember the dragon from Siegfried – the ungainly moving cloth thing that already seemed a victory of film technology to us. Thou see then the prehistoric monsters who inhabit this landscape and destroy the expediton. From that moment you live in a constantly rising state of admiration of the magnificent results that technology achieves. I’m not talking about the story, or the sort of tension it brings, but accepting the sort of atmosphere brought by it, you cannot but admire the prehistoric strength which was, I don’t know how, created with such a horrific reality. The ape fights with other monsters and you can somewhat imagine what the world looked like when there was still so little of a world. In earlier years, there were clever reconstructions of this prehistoric world, but now they’ve been brought to life, because for the first time you can see them in the right scale to the smallest human.”

You don’t need to mention names of actors or actress, because in this movie only the great work of technicians dominate. A writer can write: a 50 foot ape. Though to portray him, to make him live and move in his environment, with enemies of his own size and own valour, that is the work of master craftsmen, and this is how the biggest “thriller” of this era was made by engineers.” (De Telegraaf, 29 April 1933)

So, where the socialists wonder: “It’s very clever, but is it fun?” the populists conclude: “It’s very clever; what fun!” And the people of Amsterdam agreed. A photo caption in Het Volk on the 6th of May announces: “KING KONG. A scene from this movie, of which the script was written by Edgar Wallace. In the Tuschinski theatre in Amsterdam, the movie was extended for a week.” and in June the news followed: KING KONG JUNIOR. Meriam C. Cooper, leader of RKO Radio’s film production, has supplied the material for a film which can be taken as a sequel to the also in this country so successful film King Kong. To make it appear as clear as possible, this piece will carry the title King Kong Junior.” (Nieuws van den Dag, 10 June 1933).

(RvS)

Nosferatu in Holland

This week as main attraction the most interesting film of this season.
NOSFERATU
THE SCOURGE OF MANKIND

Mysterious movie play in 6 acts. Freely adapted from the novel “Drasula” by Bram Stoker
NOSFERATU
Does this word not sound like the midnight cry of the deathbird? Beware of speaking this thought out loud; otherwise images of life will bleach to shadows. The child of Belia was the vampire Nosferatu who lived off — and fed with the blood of mankind. Ghostly shapes arise from the midnight fog and stalk their prey.

This is how the Haagsche Courant of the 16th February 1922 heralded the coming of Nosferatu to the Dutch shores; in this case to the Flora and Olympia cinemas in The Hague. It should be noted that the premiere came before the German premiere. Either the PR man or the typesetter was not familiar with Stoker’s book, though “Drasula” has a certain ring to it. You had to be 18 to be admitted, and you wre encouraged to book your seats timely. The Nieuwe Courant gave the following review:

It’s a somewhat horrific film, which is the main attraction in the Flora and Olympia. “Nosferatu, the Scourge of Mankind” immediately awakens feelings of repulsion by his appearance, which becomes abhorrence when one sees his obscure practices. Like a shadow he haunts, the vampire, in the sombre-romantic castle in Transylvania, and then later extends his territory to bring his horror elsewhere, which he and his faithful accomplices, plague and death, spread. But, as it should, we will also see the end of his reign when he, surprised by cock crow, disappears in a phosphor flame. (Nieuwe Courant, 19 Feb 1922)

Very slowly Nosferatu made his way through the Netherlands, landing in the Amsterdam Luxor Theater in April that year:

Nosferatu, the Schourge of Humanity, the plague, the ghostly mystery, the bloodsucking vampyr escorted by scary rats and with coffins filled with cursed earth as luggage; see there the attractive-sensational image of this film. It’s true, with his excessive demand of increasing tension and emotion, the audience is making a difficult job for the screenwriters. Scary absurdities, deathly leaps and death defying stunts, unnatural things “that are not meant to be” and “easy girls” are always a good draw, in film and on the stage; serious pieces of art however give low box offices. But this ghost and horror story is of a whole differnent extreme, which the visitors did not know how to fully appreciate. After all, they had the best of time with this frightful ghost and took it more as a lugubrous-sinister joke. And that’s the sad think with this film. The subject could, with a somewhat less Grand Guignol-like approach, have yielded a gripping script. The locations chosen by the director contrast well with the corruption-bringing plague: the quiet-satisfied old-German city with the pittoresk houses and streets and the costumes of almost a century ago that fit so well with them. You could also not wish for better actors for a first class work: the estate agent, the young man and his wife, and Nosferatu himself all give outstanding and touching performances. But we are assured that a less outrageous topic would have given us a better result. (Algemeen Handelsblad, 11 April 1922)

Tittering in Rotterdam too:

A moving picture which because of its excentricity will draw lots of interest played for the first time in Pompenburg and W.B. Theatre. It is a collection of horrors, which so played on weak nerves, that a part of the audience appeared to have the urge to laugh away the unpleasant feeling; a proof that the superstitious practices, for which the Medieval times are preferably qualified as “dark”, have not yet lost their influence on the modern masses. For adults this picture, showing a period from a plague-epidemic, very enjoyable; not in the least because of the technical finesse and neat scenery. (Maasbode, 11 Aug 1922)

How much film art changed in the 1920s of the last century shows this article from 1927, when the cinema club Filmliga Amsterdam held a revival screening of Nosferatu:

With Faits Divers from the French cineast Claude Autant-Lara the Filmliga brought an avant-garde film as without them we would not get to see. It’s a short film, from 1923, but it still comes across as completely modern and pure, though four years mean a lot in the development of film art. The other film of the afternoon proved this: Nosferatu, the first film of the director Murnau, who afterwards made Faust, Der Letzte Mann proves completely out of date in seven years time. The Filmliga could have chosen a more typical and nicer specimen of the German film art of that time: Caligari remains unsurpassed as a whole: but with Nosferatu one gets an interesting look back on the nature of the first attempts, for the film to win an independent place on its own terrain. Nosferatu is “eine Symphonie des Grauens” and shows the typical characteristics of what was the crown of the German film in that time: the still hesitant balancing of a direction which had resolutely stepped away from imitating the stage, but did not manage yet to fill the now available possibilities with life. Film drama was forsaken and an independent script was sought, but such a script was also in horror films from that first time often completely depending of and guided by the film effects that were then seen as characteristic: the unreal, being able to realise the supernatural, the suggestion of environment and atmosphere. Nosferatu is still sketching this jump into the fantastic, with randomly thought up and spooky scenario; the best moments of the film which still are strong are mostly those who have a quite loose connection with the whole; a single nicely lit fragment in the harbour, the passing of a sail boat, the suggestion of a wall with closed shutters. The tempo is not really fluent; a few time when the ghostly is sped up it looks comical; and what especially disappoints in Nosferatu is the lack of atmosphere: the capricious clair-obscur that, discovered by the German film, seemed full of possibilities for a whole, has not yet been used significantly and the lighting remains stark and straightforward. A look back which creates distance. (Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, 27 Dec 1927)

Well, that’s Murnau told!

Curse of the Cat People

Remco told me of Aunt Auk, his father’s aunt. She was a tough but kind old lady who doted on his father when he was a child, and doted on Remco and his brothers too. She’d never had children herself. That is, until she got Alzheimer’s. One day, when Rem’s parents visited her, she was going to fetch her children, a boy and a girl. She was very proud of them; they liked drawing and reading, just like Rem and his brothers. She lived in a flat, but went out of her front door and called for them up the communal staircase. Rem’s mum got her back inside: “I’m sure they’re busy drawing. Just leave them at it, and they’ll come down later.” 

We find a similarly confused old lady in Curse of the Cat People (1944), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise. We feel sorry for her, as we feel for the little girl around which the film is built. However, we also need to feel sadness for the daughter the old woman rejects, and the little girl’s mother, who feels she’s competing with the memory of her husband’s first wife. And then her husband, the little girl’s father – he too is caught up in a cage of his own making. 

Cat People (1942) gave us the tale of the tragic Irena (Simone Simon), whose hereditary curse was to turn into a panther when aroused sexually or in anger. In this sequel, we learn that after her sad, violent death, her widower Oliver found happiness with another woman, Alice. If the film drifts away from its predecessor tonally, it tells an equally atmospheric and moving story of the couple’s daughter, Amy. Brought up in Tarrytown on tales of the Headless Horseman, playing in Sleepy Hollow at recess, Amy is nevertheless “away with the fairies” in a way that causes conflict with her parents. This isn’t a film about autism, but its themes of loss, loneliness, and people who cannot see their children for who they really are will resonate for many of us who grew up misunderstood. 

Amy is different from the other children at school. When she chases a butterfly she’s enraptured with, a rough boy grabs it to present to her, killing it in the process. Dismayed, she slaps his face. At a meeting with Oliver and Alice, teacher Miss Callahan is sympathetic, calling her “a very sensitive and delicately adjusted child,” but to Oliver, “sensitive” is a step away from “defective.” She’s also a child of rigid logic, who gets As in arithmetic, and believes exactly what she is told, to the letter. When her birthday party guests don’t turn up, it emerges that she posted their invitations in the “magic postbox”; a tree stump her father told her about when she was three years old. Nobody had considered that Amy would regard that as the only place to post things forever after. Oliver has a serious talk with her about being dreamy and wishful, then contradicts it by telling her to wish on her birthday cake candles. 

Amy makes a serious wish: to be good and play with other children, as her father wants. But we can only control our own behaviour, and not that of the people around us, as many a lonely child has to learn. We see the other children torment a cat, crush a butterfly, tear up flowers and cruelly reject Amy, yet it is she who is viewed as the social failure, particularly by her father. Autistic people often spend our childhoods adrift from our peers, but develop friendships with younger or older people, via common interests or mutual eccentricity. We’re often honest to the point of our own detriment. Amy befriends an elderly, housebound neighbour, Mrs. Farren who has seen the other children refuse to let her play. But when she relays the story to her father, he only has to hear her say that a sweet voice called to her from an old dark house, and he assumes it’s a dangerous delusion, rather than waiting to hear the mundane truth of a neighbour’s kindness. 

Oliver projects his fear and guilt about Irena – the last woman in his life to believe odd things – onto his daughter: “It’s something else – something moody, something sickly. She could almost be Irena’s child.” Ironically he hits on a refraction of the truth, because the spirit of Irena actually does give his daughter the tender attention she should be getting from him. After making another wish, this time on a ring given to her by Mrs. Farren, Amy’s loneliness seems to call up Irena’s ghost: a fairy godmother of sorts, whom only Amy can see. From now on, it will be Irena who fills her play hours, who comforts her when she has bad dreams. 

The parents of unusual children sometimes prefer the appearance of normality to the truth, and Amy’s father is pleased when he sees her running around looking cheerful. She’s happy because she finally has a friend, one who her parents can’t see, and who has sworn her to secrecy. Her parents assume her previous introspective demeanour was the reason for her friendlessness. These are uncomfortable scenes to watch if you had the standard undiagnosed autistic childhood, but not only that – how many children of many kinds, rejected or bullied, are focused on as the problem, when they’re simply different from those around them? And how often does a child become the focus of their parents’ unresolved tensions? 

Mrs. Farren is also wrestling with an absence. She treats her daughter – her sole carer and companion – as though she were an impostor: “My daughter, Barbara, died when she was six. That was long ago. You’re only the woman who takes care of me.” Barbara is hurt and tells her she was out of her head “back then,” suggesting some family tragedy for which her childhood self became the symbol, and beyond which there was no place for her to grow up, accepted. “My child is upstairs,” her mother says, to the daughter who is the scapegoat for her pain. To Amy, though, Mrs. Farren is a lucid and gracious host, telling her tales of Sleepy Hollow, and warning her that if she stands on its bridge at the wrong hour, she’ll be swept up in the Headless Horseman’s cloak, to ride with him forever. 

Barbara has found a different fate, one of drinking and social isolation, due to the emotional and personal toll of being sole carer to someone who rejects her. People don’t understand her mother’s mental confusion – indeed, the neighbourhood children believe Mrs. Farren is a witch – but there’s also a shame, undeserved though it is, attached to being the child of parental rejection. So Barbara and Amy actually have a lot in common, but Barbara sees Amy as a threat, and tells her mother that she will kill the child if she returns. She claims that her mother is worse after Amy’s visits, and perhaps that’s true: the balm of a six-year-old, her age an unfortunate coincidence, might leave Mrs. Farren even more confused and grief-stricken after she leaves. 

From an autistic perspective, there’s also resonance in the way that Mrs. Farren treats Barbara as a sort of changeling. A common theory holds that changeling folklore was a way for our ancestors to interpret changes in behaviour as autistic children grew up: social withdrawal and loss of acquired language, for instance. Amy’s tragedy is a little different, but still familiar to many a child whose guileless honesty has been misunderstood and punished. In Barbara, that child still exists, and comes out when Mrs. Farren opens a Christmas present from Amy, a 25-cent ring: “You didn’t even open my present, and I’m your daughter.” Once again, she gets only rejection from her mother: “My daughter died long ago.” 

There is a thread through the film of Amy’s connection with animals, of a young girl’s growing understanding of the inevitability of death – while her parents still agonise about when and how they will eventually tell her about Irena. Mrs. Farren tells Amy a story of Herne the Huntsman, who walks abroad on Twelfth Night and leaves death in his wake, and when Amy sees a dead deer in the snow later, she is confounded: “But where has it gone? Where’s all the strength and the quickness?” Nobody has an answer for her, and she resolves to ask Irena, setting up the film’s final act. 

Back home, Miss Callahan, Amy’s teacher, has come to visit, and as the Christmas decorations are being dismantled, talk turns again to Twelfth Night traditions and memories, and the photo album comes out. From it flutters the photograph of Irena, who Amy recognises as her friend, leading to an interrogation from her father, who sees this as evidence of a runaway imagination. After Miss Callahan witnesses the row, she tries to persuade the couple that Amy does not consider herself a liar: “She needed a companion, so out of her own hunger she created one. In her mind her friend was in the garden. In her mind her friend never leaves her. Right this very minute I’m sure she’s upstairs sobbing out her grief to a friend who exists only in her mind.” She says that once the “emptiness” in Amy’s life is filled by her parents, in the real world, the stories of Irene will fade away. Basic child psychology, in other words. 

Persuaded to heal the breach between them, Oliver discovers that Amy is not in the house. She has gone into Sleepy Hollow in search of Irena – and there’s a blizzard. After a terrifying blunder through the woods, she somehow finds her way to the Farrons’ house, where Barbara and her mother are at loggerheads, and their fight reveals to us the truth: that when Barbara was six, Mrs. Farren had driven home on a similarly stormy night against all advice, that her car  overturned, and that after the accident, her memory was gone for a decade. Even when she re-emerged, she would not accept the then sixteen-year-old Barbara as her own child. 

And that night, as Amy finds her way through the storm to the Farren home, she arrives in the wake of a brief moment of lucidity and connection between the two.  Barbara’s resentment of Amy has boiled over, and her mother believes her earlier threat to Amy if she visited again. Mrs. Farren tries to hide the child from her daughter, but her heart gives out. Amy, having so recently understood the permanence of death, realises that Mrs. Farren has died. Barbara is grief-stricken and enraged: “Even my mother’s last moment you’ve stolen from me.”  

Irena appears to Amy in the place of this angry woman. Amy walks up to Barbara and embraces her, and Barbara’s hands, poised to crush her, melt into an embrace, the spell of her anger broken. We hear the dogs of the search party outside, and Amy’s and the police parents blow in with the snow. Her father realises what he almost lost. “Amy, from now on you and I are going to be friends. I’m going to trust you. I’m going to believe in you.” When he asks he she can still see Irena, Amy can, and says so. Her dad, playing along, says he sees her too. Or maybe he does see Irene, if only in his imagination – one last time, before she fades away. 

(aba)