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Recurring Nightmares #3 | The Awful Tooth

Recurring Nightmares is a column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories. 

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By Jonathan Bygraves

In a rare passage of levity some two-thirds into George A. Romero’s otherwise downbeat social-realist vampire tale Martin (1978), the eponymous young protagonist finally ‘reveals’ his secret to his suspicious granduncle Tateh. Martin emerges from the shadows of night in full bloodsucker garb – the cloak, the pallid face – and at last bares those gleaming fangs, immediately sending Tateh reaching for his rosary. But the old man is being made a fool of: Martin dismissively spits to the ground what turns out to be a novelty oral prop, derisively quipping, “it’s just a costume”.

Such a play on familiar iconography illustrates Romero’s revisionist intent to re-purpose the vampiric for the everyday. It also serves to highlight how teeth are such a familiar signifier of malignant forces in fiction. These are defining attributes not just for vampires but werewolves, cannibals and sundry other extra-human or animal-like monsters. Teeth are so inextricably linked to fearsomeness that monstrous antagonists often take their names from their dental characteristics: Chatterer in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), Saw Tooth in Wrong Turn (2003) and providing the title, at least, of a certain killer shark movie franchise. Teeth also feature prominently as a symbol of the Other in fairy tales: consider that Little Red Riding Hood’s final – and most telling – observation of the Big Bad Wolf before she is ingested is an oral one.

Teeth have proved a handy signifier in terms of human characters too: think of Richard Kiel’s metal-mouthed henchman Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), whose steeled dentition reflects his apparent physical invulnerability, or Austin Powers’ overbite, as much a visual pun on perceived poor orthodontic standards east of the Atlantic as a goofy character quirk. Brad Pitt went as far as having his Hollywood smile surgically altered for Fight Club (1999), insistent that chipped incisors were a key indicator of Tyler Durden’s psychological make-up. Indeed, the very term ‘Hollywood smile’ implies that perfect pearly-whites as a physical ideal is a notion fostered by the cinema itself.

It has not always been thus: deliberate tooth blackening was a fashionable practice among high-ranking aristocrats in Japan up until the Meiji period, and in Victorian England decaying teeth were a sign of affluence, representing the ability to purchase sugar and confectioneries. Today, however, dental decay is more likely an indicator of slovenliness or poverty. In cinematic terms, so too does it become a signifier of ‘otherness’: as Carol Clover notes in Men Women and Chainsaws, bad teeth play a prominent role in the rape-revenge cycle of films of the 1970s initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), a film whose antagonists’ famously malformed mouths are such abiding pop culture icons that fancy dress shops are likely still to carry copycat hillbilly teeth as part of their stock range. Indeed, within the film itself, bad teeth (or indeed the absence of) are such a defining characteristic that Ed Gentry (Jon Voight) is unable to identify his assailant after discovering he may have popped his dentures in.

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Deliverance uses dental deficiency as a signifier of the divide between the men from the city and those from the country. This a motif rooted as much in class division as much as  geographical or moral, and is used similarly in Wes Craven’s own backwoods horror The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In its economical opening minutes, the film sets up a similar dynamic, introducing the viewer to the wholesome Carter clan and the ragged, near-feral Ruby (Janus Blythe), thickly laying on the contrasts between the all-American family and their cannibalistic counterparts. Once again, this is emphasised by dental disparity: the Carters’ gleaming, perfectly-aligned gnashers against Ruby’s decay-ridden mouth and, later on, her brother Mars’ (Lance Gordon) fang-like front teeth.

While Craven’s film is using the same signifier, there is a further sub-dynamic within: while Mars is more straightforwardly villainous, Ruby is presented as an abused victim of her patriarchal family, and ultimately afforded a redemptive arc. In this case bad teeth are more purely an expression of economic difference than moral squalor. Craven’s previous film The Last House on the Left (1974) had also featured a character with bad teeth who emerges as more wronged than wrong-doer: Junior (Marc Sheffler), son of Krug Stillo (David A. Hess), is also victim of his domineering patriarch – who has hooked him on heroin as a means of control – and though still an accessory to the crimes of his cohorts, is presented as a considerably more sympathetic character.

Whereas The Hills Have Eyes uses animal imagery as a means to align its cannibal family with untamed wilderness, The Last House on the Left uses it to illustrate the power dynamic between father and son: when Junior playfully imitates the sound of a frog, it metaphorically underlines his status relative to Krug as an unthreatening pet: domesticated, servile, less than human. When Krug later imagines his teeth being knocked out by one of his victim’s vengeful parents, the dental symbolism implies not just excruciating pain but a fear of the loss of power and identity. As such, teeth falling out is not just a common anxiety dream, but a body horror trope in the likes of  The Fly (1986), District 9 (2009) and even Moon (2009), representing a transformation into something ‘Other’.

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As a re-telling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) (in which, like The Hills Have Eyes, there is direct class parallel between the antagonists and a wild, near-feral sister figure) there is a traceable link from The Last House on the Left back to pastoral folklore, and further. Bergman’s film was itself based on a 13th Century Swedish ballad, and also prompts a Biblical resonance. The Virgin Spring‘s dialectic is not merely class-based but religious too, in the form of a conflict between the Nordic and the Christian. In addressing the question of the morality of vengeance, the revenge film’s dental imagery covertly calls to mind Leviticus‘ doctrine of “a tooth for a tooth”.

Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine offers another deeper psychological underpinning of odontophobia, namely the myth of the vagina dentata and male castration anxiety. Creed cites the famous poster for Jaws (1975) as a metaphorical illustration of this (woman on the water’s surface, giant teeth hidden below), and it is presented very literally in The Last House on the Left when Krug’s penis is bitten off during the act of fellatio. In Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2009), the myth is ultimately repurposed as a possible symbol of female empowerment.

Teeth, then, continue to be a potent symbol of unconscious anxieties as well as a shorthand for manifold attributes: fearsomeness, animal-like qualities, the culturally alien, the morally suspect. One might note the perfectly aligned orthodontistry of the eponymous protagonists in Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), which, for all of its hillbilly horror revisionism, can’t quite bring itself to give its would-be romantic leads this one physical attribute that the cultural stereotype calls for. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then – on film at least – bad teeth might still be considered to be said soul’s hazardously-splintered front door frame.

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

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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.

Recurring Nightmares #1 | Taxis to the Dark Side

[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

Bram Stoker’s vivid description of Jonathan Harker’s journey into the dark heart of the Carpathians, detailed in the opening chapter of his novel Dracula, remains one of the most richly evocative passages in literature, brimming with omens of portent and menace: those rugged landscapes engulfed in forbidding shadows, the visceral howls of dogs and wolves, the faint flames flickering against night’s encroaching darkness, all cumulatively symbolising the naïf’s Orpheus-like descent into an unknown otherness.

This powerful blend of imagery has found a natural home in cinematic representation, from the novel’s first adaptation, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), to countless successive re-imaginings in the ninety years hence. Yet the symbolic potency of Harker’s maudit voyage is such that it has been repurposed by other, non-Dracula films since: think of the progress of the eponymous protagonists in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) or the escalating sinisterness in the opening train journey undertaken by meek accountant William Blake into the savagery of the Old West in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) – major works from auteurs who significantly, in the former’s remake of Murnau’s film and the latter’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), have addressed vampiric mythology more directly elsewhere in their filmographies.

The Count’s horse-drawn calèche – which becomes Aguirre’s raft, Fitzcarraldo’s steamer and Blake’s train carriage – is transformed into that familiar icon of New York City transit, the yellow taxicab, in two further films, Stanley Kubrick’s baroque final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Martin Scorsese’s nightmarish comedy After Hours (1985) which, despite their manifold differences in tone and style, both feature subtle transpositions of the near-mythical voyage of Stoker’s imagination to present-day, urban spheres.

Both films’ protagonists begin in the realms of normalcy. In After Hours, a jaded Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) returns from his mundane word processing job to his Upper East Side apartment, where the mise-en-scène emphasises his dull conformity: bright lamps, right angles, white walls bedecked only with comely framed art prints; in short, a world of domestic uniformity. The other side of Central Park, Eyes Wide Shut‘s Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) lives amidst an even greater degree of homeliness: his spacious, colourfully-decorated family abode reeks of intellectual refinement, taste, and order from every corner.

Both men, however, are dissatisfied with their lot, and promises of sexual adventure will lure them from their comfort zones into the realms of the mysterious: Hackett’s late night meet-cute with the kooky Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) prompts him to catch a ride down to bohemian SoHo. So too Harford, partially prompted by his wife Alice’s (Nicole Kidman) revelation of a lascivious sexual fantasy, is encouraged to venture forth into the unknown. Initially he heads downtown to a costume shop in SoHo’s neighbouring Greenwich Village, and then finally to an imposing mansion in a remote area of Long Island.

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Both men’s taxi rides are marked by an aesthetic shift from reality to fantasy, from the everyday to the irrational. As Hackett’s cab speeds away, external shots occur in sped-up Keystone Cops-style fast motion: a visual gag about New York drivers, certainly, but so too a reference to the distinctive undercranked shots of Count Orlok’s carriage in Murnau’s Nosferatu. Inside the taxi, meanwhile, Hackett is comically tossed about like a teddy bear on the spin cycle as loud flamenco music, replacing the austere classical cues associated with his home and work life, reverberates cacophonously around him.

Harford’s cab journeys, by contrast, are sombre in tone as he imagines his wife’s mental infidelity; cutaways whose blue hues seem to nod directly the tinting of Nosferatu‘s night-time scenes. Yet while differing from After Hours pacing, once again they begin to represent a move into the realm of the ‘other’: as the vehicle glides out of the city limits, a sequence of dissolves moves him from the mundane familiarity of highway signs and bright Christmas decorations to a haunting montage of the car’s stately progress along a forbidding, deserted wooded road, its headlamp beams straining against the enveloping darkness.

Neither journey might be considered, in physical terms, comparable to a nineteenth-century trek across the Carpathians, but in symbolic terms they carry similar resonances. Eyes Wide Shut, with its descent from the everyday into mask-clad baroque decadence, more straightforwardly mirrors Harker’s arrival into the feudal opulence of the Count’s surroundings. The SoHo of After Hours is also exotic and otherworldly, though perhaps only to Hackett himself, whose previous world of order stands in direct contrast to the gloom and divaricated lines of Marcy’s haphazardly unkempt loft apartment. Often codified as a ‘yuppie horror’ film, After Hours serves to illustrate how Hackett, as a banal, upwardly-mobile bourgeois, lives a life cloistered away from the majority of society and that if he perceives the residents of SoHo as ‘other’ from him, it is really he who represents the true ‘otherness’.

Harker’s initial journey in Stoker’s novel consists of travel first by train, then calèche, and finally in the Count’s own personal carriage a progression from modernity, industry and capital to the ancient and feudal. In Scorsese’s and Kubrick’s modern-day repurposings, there are naturally no such distinctions: their taxi rides are purely capitalistic transactions, as evidenced by the prominent role that money plays in both. In After Hours, Hackett’s sole $20 bill flies out of the window; by contrast, Harford smoothly tears a $100 note in half, on the promise that if the driver waits for him to return, the bill is his as a more than generous gratuity.

Suspension of disbelief in cinema has long made generous allowances for riders in taxis to disembark without recourse to gesture towards the matter of actually having to pay the driver before rushing off to save the world / rescue the girl / get the medicine to the dying child, so the fact that both films here foreground the necessity of the exchange of money is significant. For Harford, ostentatiously tearing a high-value bill symbolises his own financial dominance, (over-)confidence and a final gesture of the control in life which he will subsequently lose in Somerton. So too does Hackett’s own prior power gently fade, as he forlornly watches his solitary banknote gently pirouette through the air to rest on some anonymous, unlocatable patch of asphalt. Forced to leave his worldly goods behind him, Hackett, like Harford and Harker, must alight into the darkness.

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