Gilbey on Film: true horror

For frights, nothing beats a public information film from the Seventies.

I was tempted in to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 by the trailer, which promised something horrific and disturbing and yet still targeted at children -- a combination that always intrigues me.

If a filmmaker is happy to get an 18-rating (or "R" in the US), there are naturally far fewer limits on what can be shown. Aiming instead for a family audience imposes obstacles around which a skilful director will relish manoeuvring, often creating in the process a more intimately chilling work. With the button marked "explicit" placed out of reach when you can't go any higher than a PG or 12A, some ingenuity is called for. I like seeing how filmmakers work around that.

I didn't get the chance with the latest Harry Potter because all the spooky bits showcased in the trailer have evidently been saved for Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which opens next summer. That said, the new picture does have one moment that will give any teenager the heebie-jeebies; it's a kind of Solaris Junior episode in which Ron (Rupert Grint) is taunted by the manifestation of his worst fear -- Hermione (Emma Watson) smooching with his best friend, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe).

The series has had its occasional frights, usually revolving around the soul-sucking Dementors. But scaring children is an important business. Someone should put some proper work into it. I'm sure Disney's crack at a live-action ghost story for kids, the 1980 film The Watcher in the Woods, looks creaky now, but it spooked me and my friends as 9-year-olds. (It also provided my first encounter with Bette Davis, long before I saw All About Eve. Funny how we stumble accidentally upon those we will eventually love.) We were all careful to count the number of times The Watcher in the Woods made us jump; by the end, we had almost run out of fingers.

Can children still get those feelings from movies now? Or have video games filled that void? I suspect it's the latter, although the only empirical evidence I have to go on is a recent conversation in which my 16-year-old son passed on to his 10-year-old sister advice on surviving a zombie attack at school. How proud I was.

Two recent animated movies, Coraline and Monster House, pushed their young audiences as near to outright horror as it is possible to go. In fact, one of the writers of the latter, Dan Harmon, believed that Monster House went too far; you can read his brilliantly frank letter to a young girl who'd been terrified by the picture, in which he explains how the script was rewritten, and how its director Gil Kenan ("a hack") and producer Steven Spielberg ("a moron") made it oppressively dark against Harmon's wishes. It's odd thinking of Spielberg having anything to do with that decision, when Jurassic Park and The Lost World were fatally compromised by their need to mollify the audience they were supposed to be frightening.

Last year, Guillermo del Toro signed a deal with Disney to develop and produce a series of scary films for children, under the new Disney Double Dare You brand. Sadly nothing came of it, and the latest word from del Toro is that DDDY is no more. I hope the idea is revived in some form or another; children like, and need, to be scared, within reason, and it's not a bad idea to have a series of films dedicated to doing the job properly.

I showed my eldest daughter Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure when she was four or five, and she was properly spooked by the sight of Large Marge, the pop-eyed, stop-motion ghoul with whom Pee-Wee Herman hitches a ride. Once she had recovered from the shock, she asked immediately to see it again. I know that feeling.

I must have been more disappointed than I'd realised by the lack of chills in Deathly Hallows: Part 1, because as soon as I got home I started watching Stop! Look! Listen!, the BFI's new two-disc volume of archive films from the Central Office of Information. This is the fourth such volume and it contains some absolute blood-curdlers. Everyone knows there's nothing scarier than public information films, especially those made in the 1970s, when the gritty urgency of cinema and television seemed to licence in them a new toughness and daring.

Stop! Look! Listen! contains a pair of mini-masterpieces of the form. One is "Apaches", a 29-minute short by John Mackenzie (who later made The Long Good Friday); its warnings about the dangers of playing on, with or around farmyard machinery stayed with me into adulthood. I only need to see a combine harvester in repose and I get a chill.

But the film which got to me as a nipper, and still freaks me out now, is "Never Go With Strangers", directed by Sarah Erulkar. (Other work by the Indian-born director is screening at the BFI Southbank this Thursday.) As I watched it again this week, it was like revisiting the scene of a partially repressed childhood trauma; instantly I was transported back to the mustard-carpeted "television area" of my Essex primary school, where we were all herded to watch this stark warning of the dangers of skipping off to see a strange man's puppy/goldfish/newborn donkey.

Erulkar's short has an economical but striking visual power. Images from the film are seared on my brain -- like the child whimpering in the shadow of her unseen kidnapper, or the sudden imposition of demonic eyes on the face of an apparently innocuous face as the narrator says, "If a man looked awful, if his face changed when he was doing something bad, it would be so easy not to go with him." (That gimmick didn't have quite the same kick when it was wheeled out for the "New Labour, New Danger" poster campaign.) And there are details I had forgotten, or never noticed. As the shadow looms over the child, and the voiceover says "He's big, he's frightening, he can be rude and nasty, and she can't do anything about it," we can see debris all around her, including one especially disturbing detail -- a doll with its head snapped off.

What saves the short from overkill is its essential sanity. It addresses its young audience in a reasonable, sophisticated voice -- one from which modern governments might learn a great deal when raising with the electorate the subject of terrorism. The film reminds viewers that most people wish them no harm. And it respects their independence too: "You're not babies any more," the narrator says. "You want to be free and find a bit of adventure." Any shortcomings can be blamed only on semantics or naivety. It is unfortunate that the script differentiates between people who are kind to children and those who are "unhappy, lonely, peculiar or bad", adjectives which I'm sure could apply to most of us on drab days. There's also the comforting but unhelpful illusion, still upheld today, that any threat will come predominantly from outside the family, when we know this not to be the case.

The COI Collection: Stop! Look! Listen is available now. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is released on 19 November.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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