Recurring Nightmares #2 – You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

[Editor’s note: Recurring Nightmares is a new, regular column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories.]

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By Jonathan Bygraves

“It’s just a room”, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) sarcastically reports into his dictaphone upon first inspecting the eponymous hotel suite in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007), before dryly adding, “I’ve been here before”. The sense of weary familiarity in that latter line of dialogue, not contained in Stephen King’s original short story, might on its surface appear to be merely a gag on the decorative sameness of the typical hotel room, but it also comes as a sly intertextual reminder to the viewer that they too, in a sense, have been here before.

The precedent which the line most readily recalls is naturally 1408‘s illustrious forebear, Stanley Kubrick’s own King adaptation The Shining (1980), but it nods to a longer lineage of cinematic horror hotels which stretches as far back in time as the medium itself. Indeed, strip away 1408‘s CGI pyrotechnics and Bad Dad backstory and its basic function is near-identical to that of Georges Méliès’ trick film L’auberge ensorcelée (1897), arguably the earliest example of the sub-genre made over a century earlier: simply place a man in an apparently ordinary – if quietly sinister – lodging room, and let the spooky goings-on ratchet up in intensity.

That such a set-up has survived the century of cinema intact speaks not only of its abiding utility as a genre device but also of a fundamentally unsettling quality that hotel rooms can possess. Though in many respects rooted in the age-old Old Dark House exoticism of Gothic literature, the horror hotel differs in that it serves to situate the viewer in a hinterland between the quotidian and the Other. Hotel rooms, in seeking to replicate the comforts of home for a myriad of different occupants, very often represent an impersonal, inexact facsimile of domesticity, which is used in the horror film to create a feeling of dissonance – halfway between the familiar and the strange – tapping directly into what Freud termed Das Unheimliche (the uncanny).

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The possibilities for mise en scene, however, vary considerably within the sub-genre, perhaps best delineated into two distinct sub-classifications: the ornate and the abject. In the former, best exemplified by the baroque grandeur of the ‘Timokan’ hotel in Ingmar Bergman’s Tystnaden (1963) or the luxuriance of the lobby of Ostend’s Thermae Palace in Harry Kümel’s Les lèvres rouges (1971), the uncanny is rendered as a function of opulence: soaring archways, sweeping staircases and, in particular, the maze-like corridors in both Bergman’s film and The Shining. These labyrinthine passageways implicitly hark back to cinema’s greatest exploration of the uncanny, Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) (itself reciprocally related to genre cinema via its Hitchcock ‘cameo’), which Kümel’s film more explicitly pays homage to in the presence of Delphine Seyrig as its wanton countess.

By contrast, the sons of Psycho (1960) render Otherness through their locations’ symbolic abjection from society. Remember that Hitchcock’s film begins in a hotel, but one ensconced in the urban familiarity of Phoenix, before journeying with Marion to the remote isolation of the Bates Motel, symbolically representing a move from the civilised to a more primeval wilderness. In this respect it prefigures the Backwoods Horror cycle initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and was already enough of a cliché to be effectively satirised by the time of Hooper’s own horror hotel entry Eaten Alive (1977) and Kevin Connor’s cartoonish Motel Hell (1980), before subsequently resurfacing in recent years in Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy (2007) and the franchise spawned by Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005).

This latter strain plays into another key signifier of the hotel: that of transience. In Stephen King’s introduction to his 1408 story, he asks rhetorically, “How many people have slept in that bed before you? How many of them were sick?”. If Old Dark Houses are haunted by ghosts of centuries past, a prior guest in a hotel room may have euphemistically ‘checked out’ as recently as the time it takes housekeeping to have cleared up the mess. Longer stays, on the other hand, seem to imply a character’s psychological descent: see Agnes White’s prolonged stay in her dilapidated motel room in William Friedkin’s Bug (2006), Barton’s escalating sense of unreality in the Hotel Earle in Barton Fink (1991), or even Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993), whose indeterminately long one-day stay in his Punxsutawney B&B hints towards the same sense of claustrophobic unreality resulting from an over-extended hotel sojourn.

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The characters for whom hotels are seldom places of transience are the staff, who from John Llewellyn Moxley’s The City of the Dead (1960) to Vacancy typically wear a thin mask of obsequiousness to veil their sinister hidden motives, a trope overturned for comedic effect in Miike Takashi’s Katakuri-ke no kōfuku (2001) in which its cheerful inn owners are helpless to prevent their guests dying via as series of increasingly bizarre incidents. By contrast, the about-turn in spectatorial identification in Psycho, signalled by the protracted sequence of Norman Bates dutifully cleaning the Bates’ cabin after Marion Crane’s famously interrupted ablutions, allowed for a more sympathetic eye for its initially two-dimensionally creepy owner-manager. The implication here is that the impersonal domesticity of the hotel affects its workforce as much as its guests, a theme explored more fully in Jessica Hausner’s Hotel (2004), in which banality inspires its own form of Lynchian nightmare.

If the viewer, then, is sympathetic with Norman Bates, then Psycho disturbs precisely because it makes the us complicit in his extra-curricular voyeurism. His lecherous peering through his crudely-fashioned peephole at his undressing guest mirrors that first shot of the film, which cranes in through the Phoenix hotel window to witness to Marion and Sam’s initial illicit tryst, emphasising the prurient allure of the hotel room and its connotation with adultery and secretiveness. So too, more fancifully, is there a certain mimesis with the experience of cinema-going itself: travelling to a place of comfort and refuge, homely but not-home, alone but in the close proximity of strangers. As the semi-success of Mike Enslin’s pulp paperback exposés in 1408 and the evident demand for the underground snuff movies in Vacancy serve to illustrate, the horror hotel is unlikely to lose its hold on the popular imagination any time soon.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

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