Experiments in Terror
review by Gregory Avery, 2 January 2004

The subjects of the recent documentary Cinemania -- a handful of New Yorkers who have devoted their lives to seeing two, or more, movies every day -- are vetted with the inevitable question at one point as to whether they dream of movies. Rainer Werner Fassbinder said that the reason he made so many movies was so that, making one right after the other, it would begin to feel like he was making, or in, one continuous movie, that his life would become a movie. The filmgoers in Cinemania respond that, yes, they did dream of movies, sometimes in black-and-white, usually in the standard screen ratio used before the advent of Cinemascope and widescreen formats (dreaming in Cinemascope and color seems anathema to them). One of my own recurring dreams, not in the form of a movie, is of traversing through what is supposed to be a great multiplex, past many entrances, until, finally finding one, entering an auditorium only to find that the seating is arranged in such a way as to make it impossible to get a good view of the screen or to have an enjoyable experience (note the element of peril and foreboding in this account). Personal dreams don't always come to mind while watching a film, but they did while looking at Experiments in Terror, a collection of short films most of which unfold in their own sort of dreamtime or dream-like circumstances -- a woman displaced in reality, a troubled young girl in a mysterious house, creatures rocketing from Earth to Alpha Centauri and back again. The Hollywood "dream factory" is represented as well -- William Castle, who made going to the movies to become mutually scared in the dark not only fun but a wholesome, all-American activity; the magnificent William Marshall, fanged and unstoppable; and those two inimitable screen ladies, Allison Hayes and Martine Beswick. Experiments in Terror -- which was presented in special theatrical engagements earlier this year, and has just now made its debut on DVD -- also serves as a pleasant reminder that, at a time when movies are getting more and more timid (with big-screen versions of Starsky and Hutch and Thunderbirds, with human actors playing the Tracys clan, coming our way in 2004, whether we like it or not), that people are still stretching the boundaries and doing some genuinely interesting things with film.

One of the biggest surprises in the collection is The Virgin Sacrifice a short 1974 film by the director J.X. Williams, whose career is about to get a big boost through the re-release of his 1965 feature Peep Show, which outlines a conspiracy theory of Laoco÷nian proportions. Starting out with all the banality of a porno loop before the action really gets started, Virgin Sacrifice somersaults into a grand-scale, bona-fide late-Sixties, early-Seventies freak-out, at times both spacey and ravishingly beautiful.

Lloyd M. Williams' Ursula, filmed in 1961, uses faded, watercolor hues reminiscent of early Technicolor to tell the story of a young girl and a patrician woman whose attempts to teach the girl right and wrong have gone seriously awry. Of the more recently-made films, Kerry Laitala's Journey Into the Unknown uses the magnificent Paramount Theater, in Oakland, California, as the entrance to a rabbit hole that sends us down into an alternate universe, one that's part film-noir, part Academy Leader variations, all with splashes of lysergic color. David Sherman's Tuning the Sleeping Machine also goes all out for the abstract and atmospheric, with spectral glimpses of Faust, John Barrymore as Svengali, and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein showing up like glimmers over burning flames. All the way over on the other side of the spectrum is Dawn of an Evil Millennium, which Damon Packard made on super-8 film stock and which shows gushing (literally) demonic creatures swaggering and then blasting themselves, turbo-charged, across time, space, and over space and distance, while the soundtrack teases you with sound effects and half-comprehensible bits of dialogue to try and get a handle on what's going on (this is not meant as derogatory -- you can just sit back and enjoy the play of images in the film).

Hollywood arises through some vintage trailers, and there to be found is William Marshall, magisterial in Blacula -- he had stature in the film because he was always more interesting than the characters who were supposed to be the nominal protagonists (and it was surely meant that way). Allison Hayes, fifty feet tall and looking for her worthless, philandering husband (and boy is she mad!). And does anybody remember why Ralph Bates' Dr. Jekyll turned into Martine Beswick's Sister Hyde after he drank the potion? (Considering that it's Martine Beswick, though, WHO CARES???) The most interesting inclusion is newsreel footage made of the producer William Castle interviewing people going in and out of his new picture Homicidal. Homicidal attracted some notoriety when "Time" magazine said that it was not only better than the movie it was trying to imitate, Psycho, but also included it in the magazine's list of the ten best films of 1961. (This gives you some idea of how wigged-out some people were over Hitchcock's movie when it was first released.) Castle had theaters set up a "Coward's Corner" where patrons could get their money back if the picture proved too frightening (and, in fact, the film does have one genuinely hair-raising moment); Castle's interviews also including asking several people if they would reveal the surprise ending to Homicidal or not (they say "no" -- one character is revealed to actually be another one, but the only way the movie would've worked was if it was the other way around).

The short film that opens Experiments in Terror is Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space, and it's brilliant. The film, made in widescreen and black-and-white, literally flickers to life in the middle of the screen, gradually assembling the main elements: a woman, night, a house, her walking through the front door and into the house. Sound of music, the voice of her teenage son. The image becomes unstable -- super-imposures, reverse negative, sprocket holes and the film's audio track snake across the frame, stretches of image degradation such as burns or decomposure, the magnetic hum of the soundtrack going on and off, then on, again -- as if the film we were watching was experiencing difficulty as it is being shown to us, or had come back from the processing lab really, really bad. Then, things crash in -- a cascade, avalanche, assault. What we see, the setting, the character of the woman, flickers in and out, and long moments when the screen goes blank, as if attempting to obliterate the setting and person we were seeing on the screen. The menace comes from without, but it's not a monster or a psychopath or some commonplace anomaly -- the film itself becomes the intruder, the menace, the element that seeks to do harm, and the character of the woman fights back, even as the attempt is made to displace her, to displace the way and means in which she exists, the filmic image that we are watching from our remove as an audience. The kicker comes at the end, when, as what we are watching quiets down, we hear voices on the soundtrack after the assault of errant sight and noise: she can be heard saying, "The first time, it was..." Then the authoritative voice of a man, as that of a police detective, asking, "This wasn't the first time?" Breathtaking.

The closing film.... The American Dental Association made a big push in the 60s and 70s to promote better dental care, including making short films for distribution to schools or as P.S.A.'s on television, and the distribution of little red dye tablets that, when dissolved, showed where plaque was or was not being cleaned from your teeth. Anyway, someone came up with the insane idea of doing a short dental care film in the form of a haunted house movie, and that's all I'm going to reveal about it, here -- sometimes, the audience has to have the benefit of discovering some things, and some priceless gems, themselves.

Directed by:
Noel Lawrence

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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