Apparitions: The Spectral Screen Horror Season

'The Horror, the Horror!' can be found at Queen's Film Theatre

As Orwell’s Room 101 (and a recent Dr Who episode) taught us, we each have a place wherein lurks our greatest fear or horror.

If you are arachnophobic, even a documentary – never mind a fiction film about spiders – will give you shivers. On the other hand, we are more accepting of screen terror and violence than before.

When the original Japanese Godzilla was first shown in the UK in the 1950s it was classified as a Horror Film and given an X certificate. Today it is classified as U. What will future generations make of the torture-porn of the Saw and Hostel franchises?

So, the cinematic genre called 'Horror' is one of the most long lasting but it is also one that has more sub-groupings than almost any other. Praise therefore to Queen's Film Theatre for trying to make sense of one very important part of the genre.

As part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens, QFT are staging a mini-season of scary movies called 'Apparitions: The Spectral Screen' plus a rare screening of the 1957 film Night of the Demon based on MR James’ 'Casting the Runes'.

I mention this first because its director, Jacques Tourneur, also directed the horror Cat People. In that, for budgetary reasons, he kept the evil feline in the shadows. The end result was a film that played on what we didn’t see (but could imagine with dread) rather than what we did see.

Tourneur was therefore unhappy when the Night of the Demon studio insisted on showing audiences the less than horrific (read: risible) demon. It gives a bathetic end to what is still a psychologically gripping film. The BBFC agrees: today Night of the Demon is rated PG...

The seven films in the Apparitions season are, in chronological order, 1945’s Blithe Spirit; Carnival of Souls of 1962; 1963’s The Haunting; The Shining from 1980; 1998’s Ring; the infamous The Blair Witch Project from 1999 and The Devil’s Backbone of 2001. Of these seven, only one, Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s The Shining still has an 18 certificate.

Let’s not quibble about what isn’t here – no need for Transylvanian Counts, zombies, Freddy K or incessant in-your-face dismemberment – and applaud what is on offer as an intelligent choice by a programmer.

This collection plays on our parallel love and fear of the spectral. Ghosties and ghoulies and long leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night have enthralled audiences in all cultures for centuries long before cinema came along. For different cultures, however, the acceptance of the supernatural is embedded in unique societal conditions.

For example, take Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (Oct 26). As well as reflecting del Toro’s own auteurist agenda, it helps to know that Spain and Mexico have, together, made more films featuring the supernatural than any other country. Thus a film-maker from those countries is working within a long and wide 'local' tradition as well as creating for international audiences.

The ghost in the house (in this case an orphanage, a locale that crops up in a surprising number of Latino films) is, I am told by a Mexican friend, a staple plot. All houses – even new apartments – have at least one.

Some may be malevolent, but some are friendly. This is a country that turns the 'Day of the Dead' into a fiesta.

In Japan, as some writers on Japanese cinema have noted, the ghost (often female) is a figure of dread. It is a possible trickster whose appearance presages the demise of the person who encounters it. Hence The Ring (Oct 27) in which modern technology – a videotape – replaces the traditional mark of death that is passed to a human.

That leads me to mention remakes. Robert Wise’s The Haunting (Oct 24) is a classic of the 'Haunted House' sub-genre. In 1963, censorship determined that there is greater sense of foreboding than of explicit terror. That means that the one truly terrifying scene comes out of left field and still has the power to scare today.

In contrast, the lamentable re-make – with poor Liam Neeson as one of the characters trapped in Hill House – is laden down with CGI special effects throughout. To the extent that we never care what happens to the humans.

The same problem dogged the mini-series remake of The Shining. Although created by Stephen King himself, author of the original novel, it fails because King didn’t understand why the Kubrick film (Oct 22) succeeded. Watching it, we care about the possible fate of Shelley Duvall, little Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers in the huge Overlook Hotel.

Kubrick’s The Shining is so compelling that entire parts of it have crept into our collective memories: that carpet (referenced in Dr Who), that trike, those corridors all seem familiar... but you need to experience them fully on the big screen.

Kubrick had a massive budget and months of shooting time, but the rarely seen Carnival of Souls (Oct 23) is a cult film with a director and actors you likely have never heard of.

Carnival of Souls wonderfully overcomes its small budget by using existing interior and exterior locations (suitably set dressed) to evoke a really twisted take on the ghost story.

Blithe Spirit (Oct 22) is imbued with the caustic wit of Noel Coward – and directed by David Lean shows that spectral appearances can be fun.

But of The Blair Witch Project (Oct 25) all I want to say is that it was a phenomenon rather than a good film. I still recall the mass hysteria and (real) vomiting when it was premiered at QFT in 1999. Unlike most of the other films, I doubt that it still has any power left to frighten us.

The seven films in the Apparitions: The Spectral Screen season are showing from October 22 - 27. More details can be found here.

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