Psycho and the Symphony

31 October 2010 at 22:40 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Earlier in the year, I wrote a piece for my “Undermining Auteurism” series about the famed film composer, Bernard Herrmann. In that entry, I argued that Hermann’s scores dramatically impact the films they accompany to the extent that we should question the status of auteur imparted upon these films’ famous directors.

One of the films I discussed at length was Psycho, whose director I need not mention by name. Of all the films Herrmann scored, Psycho represents his most memorable contribution, if slightly less brilliant than his haunting composition for Taxi Driver. It was with great pleasure, then, that I attended a screening of Psycho tonight at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, with the Oregon Symphony performing the score live. The screening offered a rare opportunity for the audience by mixing of live performance with the moving image, and I am so glad that I took advantage.

For one, it made me think about what it must have been like for movie audiences over a hundred years ago when musicians regularly performed the music for otherwise silent films. The liveness of the music contrasts the fixity of the film, reminding us of that film must be produced–musicians must sit in a room for hours on end, rehearsing the sheet music before them, and then record it, hitting their cues and maintaining the tempo. The score, which so often seems invisible, becomes visible through live performance.

Seeing Psycho with the score performed live was a little like the penultimate shot from the film. Image taken from San Francisco Sentinel.

Beyond the novelty of seeing the score performed live, it was also a pleasure to see the film in a public setting. I’ve seen Psycho so many times, but never in a room full of strangers. It was fascinating to note how often we laughed at lines of dialog that seemed dated as well as those intended to be funny (“Teddy was furious when he found out I’d taken tranquilizers!”). On the opposite end of the spectrum, audience members cried out and screamed not during the famed shower scene but over the second killing of the private investigator, Arbogast. My theory: that audience members are primed for the shower kill and, knowing less about it, get taken by surprise during that second kill. The final scenes, though, didn’t seem to terrify anyone–the big reveal of the corpse mother was met with laughter as was Norman in drag.

All of this is to say that experiences such as the one offered tonight by the Oregon Symphony remind us to continually look at film classics from a different angle. Just when you think you know a film front-to-back, you see it again and realize you missed something the first hundred times you saw it.


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Demented Mothers (Day)

9 May 2010 at 18:35 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Mothers play such an important role in the modern horror film that it would be remiss not to do a little post on Mother’s Day about all of the crazy moms in the genre. We have Freud to thank for this demonization of motherhood–it was he, after all, who suggested that our attachments to our parents drive our psycho-sexual development for better and for worse–it’s the “worse” that the horror film relishes to the point of cliche.

The Mother's Day poster. Image taken from

Of course, modern serial killers also seemed to confirm Freud’s theories, particularly Ed Gein, whose hyper-religious mother resembles the mother of Carrie. Like Gein’s mother, Carrie’s mother asserts that women are the source of all evil and associates Carrie’s menarche with sinful behavior. In other words, Carrie’s mom doesn’t take the news of her daughter’s first period well:

Of course, a film that drew heavily from the Gein playbook would have to be Psycho since the film’s killer, Norman Bates, seems abnormally attached to his mother as was Gein. Gein also expressed a desire for a sex change, an idea which Psycho plays upon due to Norman Bates’ assumption of his mother’s personality. In the end scene, it becomes clear that Norm has been fully subsumed by the “mother half” of his self:

While you might be able to argue that the mother of Bates’ mind is merely a projection, the sadistic matriarch in Mother’s Day is flesh and blood, provoking her sons to acts of rape and murder. I’ve yet to see the film, but the trailer suggests a fairly standard rape-revenge plot with the added bonus of the crazy mother for camp value:

Other mothers in the genre set out to take revenge for the past wrongs committed against their children. Most memorable of these would have to be Pamela Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series. Her reign of terror kicked off the series before Jason became its iconic killer. Below, final girl Alice fights Mrs. Voorhees.

Just as with Psycho, a kind of telepathic connection occurs between child and mother, this time with the mother taking on the child’s persona. In such cases, the close (too close?) bonds between parent and progeny come under scrutiny.

Of course, some mothers get a bad wrap in horror for the opposite reason: Nancy’s mom in A Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, is presented as a neglectful alcoholic whose desire to protect her daughter from the truth of Freddy’s existence may have caused more harm than good (to be fair, fathers also behave in misguided ways throughout the series).

Nancy's mother explains her motivations in the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

Perhaps the most terrifying kind of mother in horror is the one who uses her reproductive power for evil. Such a mother embodies the montrous-feminine, which I have discussed at length in previous posts. While there are many of these types, the mother from The Brood stands out as a prime example. In that film, Nola undergoes psychiatric treatment called “psychoplasmics” in which patients manifest psychological symptoms physically. For Nola, who fights over custody of her daughter Candice, the therapy results in her ability to give birth to deformed children and through telepathy (once again!) send them out to do harm to various people who have wronged her in some way. Here’s one such scene:

You’ll never look at kids in snow suits the same way again! The climactic scene shows Nola giving birth to these creatures (described as “the children of her rage”) in quite a grotesque fashion. Below is a clip from Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movies, describing the film’s affect:

In the end, Nola is vanquished, but the concluding shot implies the Candace has inherited her powers.

It goes without saying that such portrayals present a problematic image of motherhood. In the process, mothers get blamed for the horror that takes place on screen because they have mothered excessively. Fatherly equivalents do exist especially in more mainstream genres, but such paternal figures seem far fewer in the horror genre than their maternal counterparts. The reason: horror’s interest in notions of the body makes motherhood particularly–dare I say it?–pregnant with possibilities.

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Undermining Auteurism #1: Bernard Herrmann

21 January 2010 at 22:24 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

In film studies proper as well as everyday discussion, the concept of the auteur (or director as author) persists despite the knowledge that filmmaking requires the collaboration of multiple parties. Moreover, both academic and journalistic writers can overlook the impact of industrial concerns such as monetary resources and profit motivations when attributing authorship to the director. Even as someone conscious of these limitations to authorship, I regularly refer to directors of films and sometimes neglect to mention the writers, rarely if ever mention the producers, and often fail to credit important players in the film making process, such as cinematographers, set and costumer designers, and editors. In short, I sometimes perpetuate the concept of the auteur in spite of my awareness of its fallacy.

In an effort to counter this tendency, I am kick-starting a series called Undermining Auteurism. The idea of the project is to identify artists that have played an important role in shaping the horror genre but do not hold the title of director. The first example I bring forward: Bernard Herrmann, the highly influential composer whose Psycho score remains highly influential in the genre. Other films of note: the original Cape Fear, Taxi Driver, and Sisters. Notice that several of these films have big-name directors at the helm such as Brian de Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorcese, directors who regularly get authorial credit for their work. Yet, Hermann’s work in each of these films can be credited for dramatically impacting the mood by generating tension. Here are a few choice examples:

Of course, one could not discuss Bernard Herrmann in relation to horror without talking about Psycho, a film which has often been described as a precursor to the slasher genre. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the squealing strings characteristic of the soundtrack have become musical shorthand for terror and psychological instability. Just watch the Psycho title sequence:

Now, here is the sequence for the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator:

The latter bears an uncanny resemblance to the former. Other slashers, such as Friday the 13th, also draw heavily from Herrmann’s style. Just watch the beginning of The Final Chapter (scored by Harry Manfredini) alongside the shower scene from Psycho.

The comparison demonstrates the powerful influence of Herrmann’s work on the horror genre, particularly the slasher sub-genre. Still, the same way that Herrmann’s role as a composer undermines Hitchcock’s status as an auteur, it would be a mistake to oversimplify Herrmann’s power as a composer. In other words, the composition could not come to fruition without the labor of studio musicians, sound technicians, and orchestrators.

Hitchcock and an exhausted Hermann. Image taken from

I hope that by looking beyond the director’s credit, this series reveals the intricacies of the filmmaking process. In particular, I expect that these entries will show that the shapers of the horror genre need not only be its directors, but also those who play more particular roles in shaping these films.

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Childhood Cinematic Traumas #4: Fantasia

10 November 2009 at 21:57 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

This is a guest post by Alyx, aka Feminist Music Geek. Thanks Alyx!

Chernabog is about to haunt my nightmares; image courtesy of

When Caitlin started this section of her blog, Fantasia was the first movie that came to mind. But I was embarrassed to write anything about it. For one, I’m not a horror buff. While I can abide by much of the dark comedy Caitlin writes about (though Todd Solondz‘s filmography is as scary as any torture porn), I’m pretty lightweight when it comes to horror. Actually, it wasn’t until grad school that I even started watching horror movies because I had assumed they were misogynistic as well as scary and violent.

My subsequent cursory viewing habits are largely influenced by Caitlin and other horror fans from our co-hort in the media studies program at UT, many of whom identify as feminists, engage critically with the genre’s gender and sexual politics, and take defiant pleasure in looking at the screen rather than away from it. I try to look at the screen, but I usually cover my eyes.

For another, Fantasia is a cartoon. Obviously animation can tap into deep psychological fears surrounding child abuse, lost innocence, and parental death, especially evident in early Disney movies like Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. But does that measure up to the horror elicited from movies by Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, and others that Caitlin has discussed? Also, the lady who runs this blog eats Takashi Miike for breakfast. My childhood fear of a movie that features dancing flora and fauna seems like it would be the first sip of her, and her readership’s, decaf.

But the movie is scary. And its scariness begins with Chernabog, the satanic figure of Slavic mythology who perches atop a mountain to raise spirits from the dead and torture them for his amusement. He is the main character of the movie’s penultimate segment, Modest Mussorgsky’s “A Night On Bald Mountain,” and he will take your soul with a speed and force that rivals Aphex Twin and few others.

My first viewing of the movie was in 1990, when Disney released the movie in theaters and on VHS to commemorate its 60th anniversary. I was seven. My mom and stepfather took me to the local multiplex to see it. My mother was particularly enthusiastic about the screening, as it is one of her favorite movies. She first saw the movie when it was re-released in 1956. At ten, she was so enamored with the pairing of classical music with animation that she attended all three showings that day, alone and transfixed.

I had a slightly different reaction. While I loved the fairies from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” and the mythological creatures in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” I was unable to sleep without a nightlight for fear that Chernabog would come into my room and turn me into one of his debased playthings.

It’s staggering that this segment was in a children’s movie, as it so effectively melds the terrifying might of its main character with the suspense built into the composition. The first time I saw the screen go black as Chernabog’s eyes lit up the screen and the theme reached its crescendo, I was too scared to scream. I have since run into those evil yellow eyes several times in my unconscious.

For a movie that scared me, I know a lot about Fantasia from subsequent viewings, documentaries, and books. I can tell you that it all but bankrupted the studio when it was originally released in 1940, as cinemas weren’t equipped for the movie’s pioneering use of stereophonic sound and audiences didn’t know what to make of its content. It wasn’t until 1969, after several theatrical runs and truncated versions, that the movie turned a profit, three years after studio co-founder Walt Disney’s death.


Vintage Fantasia poster -- blacklight sold seperately; image courtesy of

I can tell you how important it was to get conductor Leopold Stokowski and host Deems Taylor for the movie, as they were prominent figures who popularized classical music. I can also opine what a shame it is that Disney dubbed radio personality/music critic Taylor’s audio with someone else’s voice for the 2000 release, as his boarding school baritone was his trademark.

walt leopold deems

Walt Disney meeting with Leopold Stokowski and Deems Taylor; image courtesy of

I can also tell you what numbers got cut from the final product, including the literal interpretations of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the latter of which Walt vetoed so that the studio wouldn’t appear supportive of the Nazi Party.

Much of this encyclopedic knowledge is due to a time-old affliction perhaps familiar to horror fans and readers of this blog — I became obsessed with my own fear.

In addition to “Night on Bald Mountain,” there are two other segments to Fantasia that also creeped me out. The first was The Rite of Spring.

As a viewer, there are three things that always haunted me about this segment. One is its emptiness, tempered by jolting moments of frenzy. While this compliments the tone of the piece, it also gestures toward this slow-paced, largely dialogue-less movie’s foreignness. There are no traditional speaking protagonists that orient and engage the viewer. Despite being something of a musical, much of this movie takes place in a vacuum, far removed from any traditional notions of community. This segment, along with the abstract treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” illustrate the movie’s airless otherworldliness, slowly unfolding while at odd intervals sputtering into violent action.

Another part that always stayed with me was the fatal battle between the clearly outmatched Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While scientifically impossible, as the two species existed some 50 million years apart, the sequence is brutal.

Finally, the last section, which posits that the dinosaurs were wiped out by drought, shook me. I ached for the doomed dinosaurs, stumbling toward certain death. As an adult, I can’t help but draw analogies between the dinosaurs’ extinction and the present-day threat of global warming. And while the movie makes explicit a known demise, the final shot of the setting sun is, to me, as austere a meditation on mortality as the last scene in Two-Lane Blacktop.

While perhaps the most popular segment in the movie, and the catalyst for turning what was originally to be a short into a feature, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice always left an impression. The main image that stays with me is Mickey destroying the broom. While the broom later appears ominous when it becomes an army of faceless automatons that threaten to drown Mickey, the mouse and his violent actions scared me more.

According to animation historians, this segment marked a transformative moment for the mouse. For one, there was the evolution of his form. In a documentary made for the movie’s 2000 release, animation historian John Canemaker notes that in earlier shorts like “Steamboat Willie,” Mickey was composed as a set of rigid circles, limiting his movement vocabulary. He also had black ovals for eyes, which made him less capable of conveying complex emotions. Animators like Fred Ward were responsible for humanizing Mickey, making his actions and expressions more dynamic. These modifications made him a more alive, relatable character.

It also made him scarier because nice guys don’t commit violence. As the studio’s mascot, Mickey was originally characterized as fun-loving and carefree (note: some girlfriends say he was a jerk to Minnie, but I don’t remember any particular instances). Here, he’s careless, rash, and capable of murder. He trains a broom to fetch water using a spell stolen from his master, only to doze off while the broom mindlessly floods the room. When Mickey wakes up, he decides to solve the problem by wielding an ax and chopping the broom to bits.

Were that not scary enough, his actions are shown off-screen, his shadow projected against a wall. In earlier drafts, Mickey was shown smashing the broom but Walt found this image too frightening and requested that the act be implied rather than shown. As a result, the scene is even more unsettling, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho, leaving the actions ambiguous and open to fevered interpretations.

Regrettably, one piece of the movie’s history I was unaware of until recently was the edits made to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” segment (which you can watch in full here, here, here, and here).

In the original version, there was a black servant character named Sunflower who appears in the middle of the segment, tending to the white centaurettes. Sunflower was black, prepubescent, half-donkey and characterized in a profoundly racist manner. She was removed from the movie in 1969 and has been taken out of all subsequent prints, VHS, and DVD editions.


Sunflower tends to a centaurette while I shudder; image courtesy of

It’s shocking that such an image, along with stereotypical images of Amazonian zebras in “The Pastoral” and Chinese mushrooms in “The Nutcracker Suite” were ever acceptable, even as late as 1940 (though more contemporary examples, like AMC’s Mad Men, suggest that blatantly regressive attitudes toward race were still alive and well later in the 20th century and continue to manifest in the present). While I’m heartened that an effort was made to remove such a horrible stereotype from the movie, and can now make sense of why certain images appeared too large for the frame or were given an awkward pan-and-scan treatment on video and DVD, the telling, overgrown absence create a different sense of unease.

For one, my memories of the “Pastoral” have now changed significantly. When I was a girl, my fantasy life was informed by this segment, along with the Nutcracker segment and other movies like The Little Mermaid and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. I would often run in my backyard or swim in my dad’s pool during summer vacation, pretending to be a centaurette or a mermaid or a fairy.

I also devoted entire murals to these magical creatures who only socialized with their female counterparts and were always topless. Thankfully, my mother never commented on their nudity and encouraged me to keep drawing. My father and stepfather were supportive too, if a little nervous in their suggestions that maybe one of them could use a seashell bra or a dress made of flowers.

I now wonder how my fantasy life was informed by this omission and how it could have changed things if it remained. I asked my mom if it impacted her. She remembered Sunflower from her initial viewing and was uneasy about her rendering, but unsure as to why. It wasn’t until a bit later, when her uncle made an absent-minded racist comment about a black girl they saw in passing that my mom began to process such thinking and what relationship it may have had to the movie’s racist imagery. I’m proud to say that the prepubescent girl who later became my mother reprimanded her uncle.

I also believe there’s cowardice in this omission. I certainly don’t think that Sunflower should be included in the final segment. However, I would appreciate a supplemental documentary that features a historian or archivist mentioning her presence in the movie’s original cut, filmic evidence of that presence, and an explanation of the executive decisions and editing process that ultimately led to the removal. Though Sunflower was configured in a stereotypical manner, she was also a part of the movie and its history and her presence needs to be acknowledged.

Upon review, I am now able to watch Fantasia with new eyes. Much of it is changed for me as an adult, whether for good or ill. But I still have to turn on a nightlight to keep Chernabog at bay.

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