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’SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY was something that was traumatizing me since I was 15 years old,’ says Canadian underground film director Karim Hussain (Offscreen, 2000). ‘I had been doing a Super-8 version of SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY over a period of many years. I started in a very bad place called Ottawa, a very conservative city in Canada where I grew up. I was doing little odd jobs, since about 7, and I would buy Super-8 and shoot film. The Super-8 version had taken a few years, and eventually I came to Montreal where I met Mitch at a film festival. We were interested in the same films, and he was also making short films. So we got together, I helped him out on one of his short films, and afterwards I came to Montreal again to shoot a chunk of the Super-8 SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY.’ Karim Hussain and Mitch Davis are two radical visionaries of independent cinema. Among their very rare projects, mostly made over a long period of time, are the apocalyptic compilation-film SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY and the intense psychological drama DIVIDED INTO ZERO. Both films have earned reputations of legend on the international festival circuits, but neither have been easily available for viewers to encounter on video…

‘I would rather see people have a film experience that they will hate, but never be able to forget…’ is an artistic  credo of Mitch Davis. DIVIDED INTO ZERO and SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY keep this promise. Karim Hussain, a filmmaker specializing in art-house, fantasy and genre cinema, has been making films since seven years of age, starting in Super-8mm and then moving up his first feature film. He has Co-Written the screenplay for the Spanish film BLOODLINE to be shot by Nacho Cerda, Co-Wrote, Co-Produced and Photographed the 35mm short film LA DERNIÈRE VOIX.. His 2nd feature film, the 35mm ASCENSION, he wrote, directed and photographed. His films were shown at many festivals worldwide and were awarded equally often. Very similar reads the biography of Mitch Davis: The Haunted Mansion of Disneyland left a lasting impression on him when he was only six years old. Ever since, the iconography of horror had an iron grip on him. His filmmaking abilities were acquired autodidactly by the extensive study of his favorite films, particularly George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MARTIN and Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. ‘I’ve always been a sort of celluloid masochist’, he said in an interview with the :Ikonen: magazine, ‘I really love the films that flood my emotions and make me feel haunted for hours or even days. I love films that hurt me.’ Since 1997 he could go on a quest for such works, as he became a co-director of Montreal’s  FanTasia film festival, where he collaborated with Hussain for many years. He writes for many film publications and has contributed chapters to such books as EYEBALL and ART OF DARKNESS. Davis has also produced RICK TREMBLES’ GOOPY SPASMS LIVE CARTOON SHOW (2004), is Associate Producer of Phillippe Spurrell’s 35mm feature THE DESCENDANT (2005) and is now completing his new film GOD’S LITTLE GIRL (2005), about a woman’s hallucinatory crisis in faith following the cribdeath of her baby.

 

Looking on Davis’ own cinematic efforts, you will observe, that he has fulfilled his wish for a ‘hurting cinema’ himself: Particularly DIVIDED INTO ZERO cultivates a bizarre visual world that spares no unpleasant detail. This is even more staggering as the movie touches multiple taboos at a single blow: Reclusion and isolation, masochism and sadism, age and pauperization, and last but not least, child abuse – one of the greatest taboos of the western industrial society. In pithy sequences, all these topics are being transformed into highly symbolic arrangements of images and sound, sometimes disconnecting themselves during the film’s 30 minutes of running time from all narrative coherence and evoking a cinema of immediate moments: Davis’ films thus work like a happening, a performance that is eager to raise a direct sensual affect in the viewer. Neither DIVIDED INTO ZERO nor SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY are about a coherent story in the sense of commercial cinema. Both films rather work as collages of desire, fear, of rage and desperation. Human crises are not played down or euphemized by ways of overflowing estheticization – which distincts Davis from his idols Bava and Argento – but are virtually exaggerated into the unbearable. This transforms the short film DIVIDED INTO ZERO, which actually portrays the subjective psychogramme of a dangerous and neurotic killer, also into a ‘cry for help’. The film drives its audience into an ambivalence of agonizing empathy and absolute disgust. Even though the short culminates in the murder of a young girl, it doesn’t solely portray the way of a killer that is paved with anonymous corpses, but also grants some respectful space for the victim. The images of the staring girl, who is already badly wounded, fade just as little as the haunting moments showing the degeneration of the killer’s aging body. DIVIDED INTO ZERO has screened at countless film festivals and museums, including Sitges, Fantasporto and the Warhol Museum. It won the Jury prize at the 1999 Chicago Underground Film Festival.

 

SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY extends a comparably dramatic concept to feature length. Karim Hussain took on the director’s duties this time, worked on the film for five years. The movie depicts man’s (disturbed) relationship with his environment in three main episodes. In an expressively illuminated introduction, the viewer is prompted to destroy his left, rational half of the brain and to obey to the right, the instinctive hemisphere. The film works on this level: associative, instinctive, animalistic. After a short overture – the ovarian eyeball episode – we slither head over heels into ‘Human Larvae”, the story of a love-hate relationship between a man and his pregnant sister that ends with a dramatic birthing sequence. ‘Rebirth”, the second – less narrative – episode portrays a pagan ceremony, the orgiastic-sexual worship of nature. Naked bodies, soil and trees merge into an archaic celebration of life. The film’s climax and end is ‘The Right Brain / Martydom’, the destructive episode of the movie. Here we take part in the Hieronymus-Bosch-inspired voyage of a man who experiences the violent disintegration of his body and a crucifixion. The individual stations and themes already imply that this film is less about suspenseful story-telling, but rather about the ritualistically structured staging of a shamanistic death vision. ‘It was structured like a fever dream,’ says Hussain in Fangoria (2000), ‘there is not necessarily one consistent narrative. Sometimes it will go off in a very comprehensive tangent and then sometimes it will go completely surrealistic and stream of consciousness. Which is why there are narrative segments in the film, and sometimes valleys, almost like strange commercial pauses in-between the full-on narratives. […] In fact the film is also inspired by education films from the National Film Board of Canada, especially at the beginning, with the very cold and dry explanations about the right brain.’

 

Hussain’s and Davis’ vision of cinema is that of a deliberate crossing of boundaries. Thereby, the mis-en-scene consciously seeks after niches that allow for a deeper penetration into viewer’s mind. In that respect, they achieve in their own way the cinematic vision of a ‘Theatre of Cruelty”, as conceived by theater-theoretician and actor Antonin Artaud at the beginning of the 20th century. Artaud intended a comprehensive expansion of the audience’s consciousness by all means of the theater. His intention wasn’t necessarily the depiction of violence – admittedly that was also part of it – but the ‘cruelty’ of the mis-en-scene for the viewer. Even before, the Parisian ‘Theatre of Grand Guignol’ presented violent spectacles during which shocking scenes and other sensual motives produced similar effects.

 

On the other hand, cinema in the likes of Hussain and Davis would not be conceivable without the ever newly defined social boundaries and taboos that are meant to be broken by art. The French philosopher Georges Bataille deemed the artistic crossing of boundaries, the ‘transgression”, the only way to advance to an essence of being, to the ‘sacred’ itself. What Bataille sees as the ’sacred’, manifests itself in a deeply personal existential experience that he expresses in his theory of eroticism. Eroticism in its transcendental quality can only be lived within the realms of a ‘crossing of boundaries”, during which the excess energies are to be ‘wasted” in an orgiastic way. The self-determined existence of man can only unfold in these acts of crossing and the abandonment of an ‘ostracized part” of the self. Thus, Bataille’s theories are of great value for the interpretation of works of art that reside in the irrational. SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY may be regarded in its very own way as a version of border-crossing, transgressive cinema. Hussain and Davis are seeking after an absolute, final truth beyond the banal experience of the ordinary. In their terrifying, oftentimes taboo-breaking visions of sexuality, decay and death, they are approaching the ‘sacred’ that Bataille talks about. For this purpose, they disintegrate rational and narrative references more and more, concentrating entirely on the unsettling ‘dream play’ that originates from the ‘right half of the brain’ (as it is said in the film).

The world is full of spirits – there is a world beyond our imagination. Who knows what lives between heaven and earth – between life and death. Who knows where souls go when death finally arrives. All animistic cultures believe in the soul and in spirits. Japan has its Shinto religion which builds a perfect spiritual background for the traditional and the new ghost stories – a culture in its own right. But we do not have to turn to the Far East… At the end of the Nineties we witnessed the rise of another cinematic new wave: the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers. These films – among them THE OTHERS, THE NAMELESS and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE – create a special vision du monde, influenced by catholic ideas of guilt and sacrifice, occult rituals, and ancient myths. This article will try to shed some light on this phenomenon and present the key elements of a special kind of European suspense cinema that is slowly but steadily acquiring a cult following.

Abandoned souls

A mother, Grace (Nicole Kidman), and her two children (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) are living at a lonely country estate. It is the year 1944, briefly before the end of World War II. Walls of fog are covering the English countryside in autumn. Grace’ father and her husband are missing in action, the house-keepers have mysteriously disappeared. Out of the blue, it seems, a trio of caretakers appears at the estate: a friendly old lady, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a mute girl (Elaine Cassidy), and a grumpy old butler, Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes). They could not have been aware that Grace was looking for servants, but as they are in the right place at the right time, they are hired… This is the beginning of Alejandro Amenabar’s film THE OTHERS (2001), a gothic dream-play inspired by Henry James’ classic novella of psychological horror ‘The Turn of the Screw’. This is a least what it seems…

But the young mother has more severe problems: her children both have a deadly allergy to light. They have to live in darkness by day, the curtains must be closed all the time. In their isolation the children seem to have developed a disturbing obsession: they report strange noises, curtains are opening and closing by themselves, piano music is playing… A family of ghosts seems to visit them from time to time. As the film lingers through the gothic twilight of the foggy surroundings, Grace tries to unveil the secret. Some day her husband returns home, but his behaviour is as strange as everything in the house. He is apathetic, like a living dead person. And finally the housekeepers are threatening the children.

The last sequence presents one final twist to the almost classical storyline: the point of view changes to neutral observation and it turns out that we have spent one and a half hour with a family of ghosts. All the obsessions and neuroses find their explanation in the fact that the ‘ghost’ haunting the mansion are the real people living in the house, who are not aware of their neighbours in another dimension. THE OTHERS is not a real terror-movie but a highly stylised drama about the loneliness of abandoned souls, living in a half-world between our world and the beyond. Amenabar created a sterile surrounding, often missing any atmospheric sound, totally reduced to elementary sounds. The visuals are dominated by brownish and golden colours, often washed out, monochromatic, sometimes covered by rising mist. THE OTHERS live in a world between the boundaries: a world of fog and darkness. But they still have the urge to preserve their essential family values. Grace desperately tries to save the family. She is blind to the fact that everyone around her is devoid of life and vitality. Amenabar’s film breaks the rules of ‘reliable narration’ that genre-film normally depends on. But at the same time his film does not lie. He simply demonstrates the subjectivity of cognition and narration. THE OTHERS is not a film about death – it is in fact a film identifying with the dead, a bleak portrait of useless longing for life.

Even in his earlier cinematic efforts, Amenabar concentrated on the darkest aspects of existence: TESIS (1996) is a tense thriller about snuff-films produced at a film school. As a female student realizes that a teacher and other students are involved in this macabre project she finally has to fear for her life. OPEN YOUR EYES (1999) – which was remade in the USA as VANILLA SKY (2002) – tells the baffling story of a successful womaniser (Eduardo Noriega) who is trapped between two different women, one of which tries to kill him in a car crash. But he survives and is forced to wear a mask to hide his horribly damaged face. More and more reality-levels seem to shift. His consciousness begins to jump between past and present. The mystery of the film is finally solved in the science-fiction-context: he is struggling with implanted memories while his body is frozen to wait for better medical care in the future. Even here the ambitious director brings to life a cold and stylised film-noir-world, the artificial dream-state of a haunted and disturbed character – perfectly executed in the first sequence in which Cesar (Noriega, here named after the somnambulic hero of Robert Wiene’s CABINET OF CALIGARI) wakes up in the morning, gets up and drives downtown – only to realize that he is the only living person in this world. Then the bell rings again… But where does imagination end and reality begin? Cesar as can be seen as one of those twilight creatures, an abandoned soul lost between memories of the past and an imaginative present.

Another dark ghost-story, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001) by Guillermo del Toro, offers its audience a gothic-horror-variation of Agustí Villaronga’s intense TBC-asylum-drama EL MAR (1998), which also takes place in the time of World War II. Del Toro’s film is paradigmatic for this New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers, especially for its monologue, which is spoken by an old male voice over images of an abnormal embryo with a comb-like spine: “What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain perhaps? … A sentiment suspended in time? … like a blurry photograph … like an insect trapped in amber?” The ghost as a phenomenon questions the nature of life and death, of reality and imagination. It transcends the physicality of the human body and signifies the existence of a soul…

The world of DEVIL’S BACKBONE (a reference to the embryo of the title sequence) is very complex, and there are several possibilities of defining its ghost-like nature… In an impressive top shot we follow a huge black bomb falling down to earth and crashing into the inner yard of an isolated mission estate in the desert. The year is 1939, the Spanish Civil War. Ten year old Carlos, whose father was killed in battle, is brought to the mission, which now has the function of an orphanage. There he discovers the secrets of this estate: the unexploded bomb in the yard is a constant threat to the people, like a ticking time-bomb; in the basement below the kitchen, the ghost of Santi seems to live, a boy who was drowned there and finds no peace; and there is Jacinto, an angry young man who spent his whole youth in the mission and now tries to rob the gold that Carmen, the headmistress, and her elderly husband Casares guard for the rebels. Carlos soon realizes that Santi has been killed by Jacinto for he had discovered the young man’s secret longing for the gold-treasure. Now he speaks to Carlos to warn him: Something terrible is going to happen… Indeed, as Jacinto violently tries to get his hand on the gold, a huge explosion kills many of the boys and Carmen. The survivors are locked away to be killed later. But the boys manage to drown Jacinto in the fountain where he had killed Santi. Casares unlocks the door and the boys escape.

The film reaches its turning point right in the last frame where the old man Casares stands in the shadow. In the background we see the boys run away. Casares repeats his introducing monologue, closing with the insight that he himself is a ghost, having been killed in the explosion long before he could have freed the orphans. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE can be seen as classic gothic fiction, like THE OTHERS very similar to Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’. For a long time the film shifts between psychological and metaphysical levels of reception. It is never made clear whether we see Carlos’ subjective visions or an objective incident (dealing with the supernatural). It also appears very strange that the film starts with an old man reflecting the key phenomenon and then switches to a young boy. We could easily take the old man’s voice as the adult voice of Carlos – but the turn in the end changes the perspective radically: With the shadowy ghost of Casares the film finally enters the world of fantasy. Del Toro’s best film to date is therefore closely connected to the ‘unreliable’ narration of THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS which are also told from the viewpoint of the dead. And yes – a ‘ghost’ is probably everything that Casares mentions: a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over – like an insect trapped in amber… But what happens if the dead envy the living?

THEY’RE WATCHING US (2002) by Norberto López Amado in a way refers to Robert Harmon’s Horrorthriller THEY (2002) about living shadows behind the mirror terrorizing and kidnapping the unhappy chosen few who are able to be aware of ‘them’. Amado’s dark film tells the story of police inspector Juan (Carmelo Gómez) whose sister disappeared in a mysterious manner during a school play. In the present Juan has a family of his own with two children. But a new case will knock his life out of balance: During his research on the disappearance of a wealthy businessman three years before he discovers that during the past decades thousands of people have disappeared without a trace. The final proof of the disappeared man’s life is a videotape – filmed via a mirror – on which Juan discovers strange shadowy creatures who seem to exist in a twilight-world between life and death. Even in the city and on the subway he begins to see those shadows, appearing in reflecting surfaces. He discovers that these are abandoned souls who never totally passed away into the realm of death. Now they envy the living and therefore terrorize them. Juan realizes that his children, especially his daughter, see them as well. Even in his past the shadows were there and pulled his little sister over to their side. To save his little daughter the policeman sacrifices himself: He enters the real ‘night-train’ into the abyss. In the last sequence we witness that he is still present for his daughter – who is the next of the chosen ones, but with a shadowy guardian angel on her side…

Amado’s film creates a very dark and brooding atmosphere via stylistic means that we know from Jaume Balaguero’s films THE NAMELESS and DARKNESS: monochromatic, mainly brown and green colour-schemes, a low frequency drone on the soundtrack, high-contrast chiaroscuro-lightning, and finally the discovery of occult symbolism (within a dream sequence). Juan is yet another haunted soul (as in DARKNESS), a dark father figure that becomes a threat to his family (especially when he shoots at his children in panic). He is the original source of evil within the family – although that is not his fault, for he is a victim of the twilight world himself. The only way to save himself and his kin he has to sacrifices himself for the benefit of a (fleeting) peace. In the end it is clear that he passed the curse over to his daughter. The idea of self-sacrifice to restore the order is clearly a very conservative element in most of these Spanish films. On the surface, a scepticism concerning supernatural and spiritual elements seems to dominate that slowly passes away. Without being explicitly ‘Christian’ or ‘catholic’ in their attitude these films nevertheless glorify conservative Old Testament ideas of martyrdom and redemption.

Pain and sacrifice

Deeply connected with Spanish mysticism is the myth of pain, sacrifice and martyrdom. It comes therefore as no surprise that the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers often contain connections of physical pain, spiritual suffering and redemption.

THE NAMELESS (1999) by Jaume Balaguero, the most complex key-film in this context, goes far beyond any moral ideas: here we come to know the leader of a sect that glorifies pain and agony and longs for the total destruction of individuality. The believers are called THE NAMELESS for they loose everything except the ability to give and receive – pain and agony. Their guru had once been the victim in a Nazi concentration camp, but the conclusions he drew from his painful experiences is not the fight against inhumanity but the celebration of pure and total agony. This is a truly radical model, and the film deals quite consistently with it: The female protagonist – the mother who seeks for her daughter – will finally realize that her ex-husband belongs to the cult and uses their daughter as a means to provide her with the greatest pain of all: She will loose her beloved a second time. The adolescent girl shoots herself in front of her mother (and that’s the end of the film!). From this point of view everything that happened throughout the film has been in vain: the reporter dies in vain, the mother’s hopes are destroyed. Her future is bleak. In Balaguero’s film we are confronted with total nihilism. The world as he sees it is built of guilt and latent evil that can break through the walls at any time. It comes as no surprise that his follow-up circles around ‘darkness’ itself … the end of everything. Total nothingness.

In KILLING WORDS (2002) by Laura Maná the attractive psychiatrist Laura (Dario Grandinetti) is in a desperate condition: Bound to a chair he kidnapper forces her to watch videos that show him a vicious serial-killer. At the same time he shows her his list of victims – and her name is already at the end. The killer begins to play a cruel game with her: in case she wins, she will be free – but if she looses, he will extract on of her eyes. And so forth… – This kind of sadistic cruelty to an unwilling victim seems essential to catholic societies. It reminds us of the great success Mel Gibson’s idea of the PASSION OF THE CHRIST had in Latin America, Italy and Spain. Catholic dominated culture seems obsessed with violent sacrifice, passionate suffering and redemption through violence. And the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers perfectly mirrors this moralistic excess.

IMPULSE (2002) by Miguel Alcantud  shows some similarities to KILLING WORDS but appears to be more of a psychological drama than a thriller. Here a young suicidal woman, Sara (Ana Risueno), witnesses an act of murder by a passionate serial killer, Jaime (Daniel Feire), – who is an elementary-teacher in his everyday life. The attractive and cultivated man pushes someone in front of an underground train. What appears as an accident is actually part of a killing spree. Jaime has this uncoordinated impulse to kill people spontaneously, sometime in a row, sometimes within several weeks. Later he collects the newspaper articles on his victims from the internet. Supposedly out of her latent death wish, Sara starts to blackmail the killer. She says that she has filmed the murder. Between the two disturbed characters, a strange relationship begins to grow, one that circles around the fatal ‘impulse’ to take lives… Secretly Sara hopes that Jaime will finally help her to find – death. This could have been a suspenseful thriller filled with sadomasochistic subtexts etc. but turns out to be a very tame psychological drama about a lonely woman in trouble. Music – in this case very jazzy –, advanced photography, and eccentric editing contribute to an existential seriousness that finally damages the sensual and metaphorical impact of the idea. What could have been a most intimate gaze into the human abyss is in fact a conventional and lame vehicle for ideas. In the last frame Sara finally sits in the bathtub with the blade in her hand to slit her wrists while Jaime is filming her with a video-camera – but she refuses. This strange love between two people obsessed by death gave her power to live – a macabre ending in its own right.

Father, Son, Unholy Spirit

A dark male figure slowly walks through a dimly lit hallway toward us. Photographed from a low angle central perspective, such shots remind us of classical gothic horror films. They are also a key framing device in the Spanish mystery thriller, mainly focussing on one of the most important protagonists: the evil father. We see such shots in Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness (2002) and The Nameless, as these films build up the whole drama around the haunted, possessed and threatening father who is unable to protect his family.

Also based on a novel of British writer Ramsey Campbell (the author of NAMELESS) is SECOND NAME (2001) by Paco Plaze, a dark psychological thriller that appears to be a kind of prototype of this New Wave along with THE NAMELESS. This time the plot is told from the perspective of a young woman Daniella (Erica Prior) who used to have a very close relationship with her caring father. Right at the beginning of the movie this man commits suicide – seemingly out of the blue. Daniella is shocked – and even more so when his grave is discovered empty some days later. Since the police doesn’t care too much about the vanished corpse, she takes the investigations into her own hands. Soon her father’s body is found at an old cemetery: mutilated and bound with barbed wire to a piece of wood. Her research lead sher into two different directions: the first one is connected to a strange professional hitman who seems to follow her and collects photos of Daniella; the second track has to do with a religious sect called the ‘Abrahamites’. They believe that biblical Abraham did in fact kill his first-born child – and that the bible is interpreted erroneously. To gain success in life, the ‘Abrahamites’ ritually kill their first-born children. And that’s the key to both the evil-father theme and the solution of Daniella’s father’s suicide. The woman soon realizes that a lot of people are involved in the death-cult, even her father who tried to run away from his ‘ritual duty’. Like THE NAMELESS this film has a downbeat shock ending that seems to affirm the continuity of the ‘Abrahamitic’ cult.

Paco Plaze, for whom this is his debut to feature films, does not have the stylistic strength of Balaguero, but SECOND NAME succeeds in several aspects: it has a very bleak piano-score, spiced up with gothic chorals; it makes effective use of make-up and violent special effects, and it features some impressive camera angles. Nevertheless the theme of the evil father is not very elaborate in this film – simply because it is split up into different characters. Nonetheless, SECOND NAME presents a whole society based on the concept of a destructive patriarchy. From this perspective the female point of view makes absolute sense. Unfortunately, it is not Plaze’s talent to build up tension as effectively as THE NAMELESS or the supernatural examples mentioned above. The highlight may be Daniella’s discovery of a dead child buried under a tree in the garden of her close relatives. At that point there seems no way out of this destructive system…

Jaume Balaguero’s DARKNESS also culminates in a ritual executed by a possessed father getting deeper and deeper into a fatal system. But the genre-context is completely different: the film simply works on the basis of elements taken out of THE SHINING (1980) by Stanley Kubrick and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) by Stuart Rosenberg. A family with two children moves into a Spanish country house where something seems wrong. The mentally unstable father drifts more and more into the obsessive idea that there is ‘something’ in the past of the house, while the adolescent daughter Regina (Anna Paquin) discovers bruises on her younger brother’s (Stephan Enquist) face and body. She tells her mother (Lena Olin) – who is very passive and ignorant – that she suspects her father of violating the boy. Annoyed by an aggressive father and an ignorant mother Regina escapes to her Spanish boyfriend Carlos (Fele Martínez) to help her. As the films offers up some genre-quotes, director Balaguero is finally in his element: Connected with a scientist, a friend of the family (Giancarlo Giannini), the disturbing truth about the house is revealed. It was once owned by three strange women who used to performs human sacrifices in praise of the World Serpent (Uroboros). Beneath the living-room-floor is a ritual place where a number of young boys were sacrificed. When the last blood is spilled darkness itself will cover the earth. The father-turned-abuser in this case seems to be the last chosen ‘high priest’ to close the circle. But things are not as they seem: Not his son has to die but he himself. And he is finally killed by his family as he became a threat to their lives. Unfortunately this preventive killing closes the circle. Finally darkness is raised… Rarely has a film bathed in such apocalyptic ideas: In the end, light simply disappears out of the frame. Total DARKNESS is raised. The cult of the evil father has succeeded. The supposed ‘bringer of life’ is really the destroyer of everything.

At another place: Santiago de Compostela 2002. Jacobo (Juan Diego Botto), a young sculptor of twenty years, returns to his hometown after many years. His mother is mentally ill and lives in an asylum. Jacobo wants to care for her and visits her. In the asylum he meets some figures his doomed past whom he would have preferred to forget. They remind him of strange incidents of his past from which he tried to escape his whole life: Xavier Villaverde’s WHEN THE BELL Chimed 13 (2002) finally turns out to be the ultimate evil-father-drama. In the first sequence we see him as a young boy trying to copy the art of his father. When the father arrives he is dissatisfied with his son’s work. Actually it is the night when he wants to leave his wife together with his son – ‘to protect him from the mentally unstable mother’ as he says. But right at midnight, when the bell chimes, the mother seems to shoot her unfaithful husband. As Jacobo remembers just at that time the bell chimed once more: 13 times. All his life he secretly believes that this incident had been of supernatural origin. This belief is linked to his mother’s obsession that her husband never really died and is haunting her with his ‘eyes in the walls’ around her.

Indeed Jacobo soon meets the ghost of his father in an old cathedral where the sculptor was supposed to build a marble statue. The evil ancestor wants to force his son to fulfill the unfinished work. Jacobo – who is not as talented as his father – agrees. In a strange supernatural act their hands melt together within a clay sculpture. The young man is now obsessed by the ghost of his aggressive father. Not quite himself any more, he tries to rape the woman his father once loved. His mother dies of a heart attack, and the woman is killed by accident. Every act of resistance against the will of his father results in another catastrophe. But with the skill of his father’s hands Jacobo finally manages to finish the statue.

The film makes it increasingly clear that this is only one side of events: Jacobo’s point of view. A young girl who loves him tries to solve the mystery surrounding Jacobo and realizes with the help of a befriended psychiatrist that our antihero suffers from schizophrenia – like his mother. His father seems to live within him. Villaverde’s direction shifts between supernatural horror and sophisticated psychological thriller. In the film’s final within the cathedral we reach the level of latent guilt again: The bell did actually not chime 13 times. Between 12 and 1 there is one hour lost in Jacobo’s memories. And the viewer can guess what really happened: The little boy killed his father himself – trying to stop the man from beating up his mother. When this truth is revealed Jacobo is freed of his haunting visions. Or so it seems – for the final sequence shows him in his father’s working place now threatening his own little son. But he again manages to keep control…

WHEN THE BELL CHIMED 13 may not be as strong as the cinematic predecessors – but this film works perfectly within the father/son/unholy spirit-context: the generational conflict is being passed on from one generation to the next like a virus. Villaverde makes prominent use of sacral locations, especially the cathedral, where father and son create a huge crucifixion scene in white marble. Even the showdown takes place in the tower of the cathedral. The sacred place can not protect the victim’s of destructive patriarchy.

The ‘rightful path’

As we have seen, the New Wave of Spanish Mystery Thrillers celebrates, in a very stylish and at the same time strikingly conservative way, the battle of occult versus Christian powers. They show a world of permanent temptation – the latent seduction to go the ‘wrong path’ willingly. Even if they show characters with a connotation of ‘innocence’ – e.g. the children – the seed of evil is already present. The innocent become guilty simply by being the tool of evil – as shown to great effect in the end of THE NAMELESS. The only way to be granted redemption is through self-sacrifice – a totally violent act to purify the ‘stained’ world.

Most of these Spanish thrillers avoid admitting that they are constructed within a system of catholic guilt complexes. They focus on the stated opposite: the occult world, the shadow world, the twilight zone. In these destructive circles of fate, the protagonists get punished for their involvement in occult rituals and practices. On the visual level of the films, this is represented by a conflict of ancient symbolism and the icons of Christian belief. In this context, it is also quite very fascinating that, despite being mainstream films, the films I have discussed also avoid happy endings: in the end there is either the destruction of the protagonist’s soul, ultimately his death, or – as in DARKNESS – apocalypse itself. Through the back door, a restrictive moral, a kind of reactionary ‘medieval’ Christian vision du monde, sneaks in. And this is truly frightening.

A genre such as the horror film is virtually non-existent in Austrian cinema. Well-known especially for their avant-garde and experimental productions, everyday topics and problematic dramas, Austrian films are comparable to the art films of New German Cinema or to the kind of German TV movies that share a similar “anti-cinematic” take on the medium. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Gerald Kargl’s serial-killer film Angst (Fear, 1983) has never been distributed commercially, not even on videotape or DVD. Even today this disturbing horror-thriller—which follows the bloody course of a twice convicted serial-killer through the Austrian countryside—can hardly be seen because of its disgusting crime scenes, scenes which are not suitable for television either. In contrast to Kargl’s only film to date, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) was shown at film festivals all over the world (from Cannes and Munich in 1997, to Rotterdam and Miami in 1998), and could be considered something of a box-office hit. But even if writer-director Haneke—born in Munich, Germany in 1942—had already received several prizes for Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent, 1989), Nachruf für einen Mörder (1991), Benny’s Video (1992), Die Rebellion (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, 1994), his films have been heavily criticized, even by young Austrian film critics, for their didactic approach to the mass media and mainstream cinema. Nonetheless Haneke’s “Kammerspiel”-like Funny Games is a rare and important example of the Austrian horror-thriller, as is Kargl’s semi-documentary psychodrama Angst.

Deadly passions of a home invader

Angst is based on an actual case of triple-murder, the “Kniesek case”, which is as famous in Austria as the Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kürten trials in Germany, or the Ed Gein case in America. Like these and other serial killers, Werner Kniesek from Salzburg—who killed three people out of pure lust in 1980—stands as a threatening symbol of senseless death and destruction for its own sake. “I just love it when women shiver in deadly fear because of me. It is like an addiction, which will never stop”, said Kniesek in front of the judge. His psychiatrist classified him as “extremely abnormal but not mentally ill”— an explosive mixture of lust for destruction and addiction to physical violence. He probably should never have been set free.

Kniesek was born in 1946, the spoiled son of an Austrian widow and an African-American soldier. His mother used to call him a “cute little black baby”, and as a child he really was what his mother expected: a nice young boy. In his adolescent years, he developed a criminal instinct which lead him to commit a number of burglaries in his hours off school. In 1962, Kniesek planned to leave the country. First he took a great amount of money from his mother, then he stabbed her several times with a breadknife. Kniesek was then sixteen years old. He left behind his critically-wounded mother and took the train to Hamburg. Two days later he was caught by police, convicted, and sent to prison. Only two years later he managed to obtain his release. He married a prostitute, committed several house break-ins, and again tried to kill a woman, but his 73-year-old victim survived. For the second time in his short life, Kniesek was locked up in jail.

In 1980, a few weeks before his sentence was up, Kniesek got the chance to go free to search for some work. Immediately he drove to Upper Austria, the town of St. Poelten, where he broke into the villa of a middle-aged widow named Gertrud Altreiter. There he found the son of the family, who was dependent on a wheelchair. In his confession, Kniesek explained that he knew he would kill the boy, but not at that moment. Later that day the mother and her daughter returned home from a shopping trip. Kniesek threatened the two women with a gas-pistol, bound and gagged them, and carried his helpless victims into two different rooms. In self-defence the daughter tried to seduce Kniesek, but the cold-blooded killer just stated that soon they would all be dead. His first victim was the disabled son whom Kniesek strangled to death, subsequently showing the corpse to the panicking mother before killing her as well. The horrifying chain of events climaxed in the violation and torturing of the 25-year-old daughter for several hours. Finally, Kniesek murdered her, along with the family cat, whose crying had bothered him. Afterwards, the killer spent the night side-by-side with his dead victims.

“I killed them simply out of the lust for murder”, Kniesek later stated. “I even gave the elder woman some medicine so that she would live longer.” His attempt to commit suicide in his single cell failed. During the trial, the killer expressed the wish to be jailed in a special institution for pathological criminals, because from childhood on he had felt the desire to kill people, and given the opportunity he would commit murder again and again. The case escalated again when Kniesek nearly managed to escape from prison three years later. During this period of public outrage, the possibility of reintroducing the death penalty in Austria was discussed more seriously than ever.

Inside the mind of serial killer

In Angst, Gerald Kargl’s cinematic adaptation of the Kniesek case, some of the authentic facts are changed, the names of the people and cities altered, and certain of the events modified. The most obvious and significant change is the director’s decision to add the killer’s voice-over, as he quotes passages from other serial-killers’ confessions, especially those of Peter Kürten, the so-called “Vampire of Düsseldorf.” This strictly subjective one-person drama is shot with a strong use of high-angle shots and handheld camerawork, and the minimal narration shows similarities to Aristide Massaccesi’s Italian stalk’n’slash-epic Rosso Sangue (Absurd, 1982). But in fact, Kargl manages to direct a European counterpart to John McNaughton’s Henry:Portrait of a Serial Killer (USA, 1986/1990): irritating, gory, and absolutely hopeless.

Angst is exceptional in Austrian cinema for at least two reasons: it is both a “true crime” semi-documentary, and a horror-slasher film resembling those from the Italian tradition. Yet it is different as well. The film confronts the viewer with the most horrible details of the authentic case, and stands as the collaborative effort of first-time-director Kargl and his writer-cameraman Zbigniew Rybczynski; the third “author” is composer Klaus Schulze (from the “Krautrock”-group Tangerine Dream), whose cold yet haunting electronic rhythms add a great deal to the alienating atmosphere. The soundtrack mainly consists of pre-existing pieces, most notably the charming melody of “Freeze”— a track also used to great effect in the moonlight love scene of Michael Mann’s serial killer drama Manhunter (USA, 1987).

Angst uses real-time narration nearly all way through; only a few ellipses appear in the second part, but most of the film is staged in detailed on-screen action, filmed with long handheld shots, sometimes even in planned sequences. Dialogue scenes are extremely rare, due to the concentration on a subjective, one-person drama. The film starts in a prison cell, establishing the killer (Erwin Leder) through an off-screen monologue in which he reflects about his past, his deeds, his needs, his sexual desires, and his supposedly lost childhood. The film’s irritating atmosphere is established via clear, often high-key, but always greyish visuals— only broken by some stylish chiaroscuro in the cell. When released from prison ten years later, the off-screen narration leaves the viewer with no illusions: the killer will be stalking his next victim soon. When he enters a small diner we are forced to “scan” the guests through the killer’s eyes. Every human being is a potential victim. First he enters a taxi, directs the female driver into a forest, and tries to strangle her. But he fails, as she has sensed something weird the whole time. His potential victim manages to kick him out of the car and escapes. The killer flees through the forest until he reaches a huge villa. He breaks into this supposedly empty house and meets—here the semi-documentary begins—a disabled and mentally retarded young man in a wheelchair (Rudolf Goetz). Soon the other occupants of the house arrive: a middle-aged woman (Silvia Rabenreither), and her adolescent daughter (Edith Rosset).

Accompanied by his own quietly spoken voice-over, the killer starts his bloody “work”: the son is drowned in the bathtub, and the mother gets strangled in her bedroom. The daughter tries to escape, but the killer hunts her down in the basement garage and viciously stabs her with a bread-knife. Here the most disturbing sequence of Angst runs its course: after massacring the young woman in a total frenzy, the killer rapes the corpse post-mortem. All of this is shot in real-time. After this disturbing climax, the film returns to its low-key narrative, and shows us the killer’s actions after the murders: having slept at the crime scene, he washes himself, stuffs the corpses in the trunk of the family’s car, and—once again—visits the diner from earlier in the picture. While there, he behaves so suspiciously that immediately the police are on to him. Finally they force him to open the trunk, a sequence filmed in the long, circling tracking shots Hollywood-cameraman Michael Ballhaus would later become popular for, symbolizing the circle of crime and punishment in which the killer is so consciously trapped.

What is so frightening about Angst, what makes the film a horror film in the true sense of the word, is that the killer is characterized as a threat to every human being crossing his path. To be seen by him is to be his potential victim. He easily invades the residence of a bourgeois household— a place that is normally synonymous with warmth and safety. And he brings murder to a dispassionate middle-class society in which “death” would appear to be the only and last taboo. Interestingly, the disabled son seems to be “hidden” by his own family in this villa by the edge of the forest.

As noted earlier, Angst’s dramatic structure is reduced to only a very small amount of narration: we are simply shown the killer’s murder spree on his one and only day of freedom. What might cause some empathy with this dangerous character—his own first-person-narration—in fact functions to alienate the viewer even more. This because the voice-overs simply double on the verbal level the monstrous incidents shown to us in all their graphic horror. Through the use of this technique, the film creates a distance between audience and protagonist that never really subsides. The murder sequences may be visually shocking, but they are also deeply reflective. Kargl avoids providing any type of entertainment, conventional thrill, or suspense. In fact, both Kargl and Haneke seem to believe that entertainment through stalk’n’slash splatter films is a sign of cynicism and should be avoided. As a result, both have tried to develop directing methods marked by intellectual distance. Austria is a true middle-class society, and the greatest fear of the middle class is the invasion of the bourgeois home by unpredictable elements, be they of foreign origin—this is where racism comes into play—or be they mentally ill. To make his fable even more extreme, Kargl avoided the African-American origins of the real Werner Kniesek; in his film, the killer looks more like a “normal” guy no one would recognize or pay much attention to in the streets. Angst’s killer belongs to virtually the same bourgeois background as his choice of victims. This would seem to be the real Austrian nightmare, one which Michael Haneke has used as inspiration for several of his films.

Trapped in fear

The situation is quite simple, clearly structured, and well-known from numerous thrillers and horror films: an upper-class family (father, mother, son) is trapped in an isolated house (their own luxurious holiday home nearby some Austrian lake), captured by two dangerous criminals who turn out to be serial killers. But unlike other home invaders—for example the psychopathic criminal in Cape Fear, played by Robert Mitchum in 1961 and by Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake—Funny Games confronts the viewer with a pair of seemingly harmless, almost innocent looking young men. They aren’t much older than eighteen, and they look just like regular boys from a bourgeois neighbourhood. They are both wearing white sweaters and short trousers; only their white gloves, which may remind viewers of the “horror-shows” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1968), don’t fit in with the fresh boyish look. Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)—who refer to themselves with nicknames such as “Tom and Jerry” or “Beavis and Butthead”—seem well-educated, talk eloquently, and act politely. At least at the start. They are not the “usual” criminals who will break into a house to steal money, or to commit rape. They are just boys who want to play games. Only their kind of game is a very disgusting and ultimately deadly one.

First of all, Peter and Paul (two Christian names, as we know) have to choose their “teammates”, and the newest member of the cast is the Schober family, who has just arrived at their holiday residence. Anna Schober (Susanne Lothar) is preparing supper in the kitchen, while husband Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and son Schorschi (pronounced “Georgi”, Stefan Olapczynski) are busy fixing the sailboat for tomorrow’s voyage. Meanwhile, Peter waits at the entrance, and when Anna finally notices the shy-looking, embarrassed boy at the front door, he introduces himself as a guest of the Berlingers, a neighboring family, and kindly asks if he might borrow some eggs. Unlike the family dog, a German shepherd named Rolfi who instinctively attacked him in the garden earlier, Anna doesn’t recognize the danger posed by Peter. So she believes it is an accident, mere clumsiness—not bad will or a calculated act—when he drops the eggs in the hallway and a little later on the mobile phone in the sink.

Soon the awkward- looking boy is joined by a pert and insolent friend. First, Paul asks Anna if he may use one of her husband’s golf clubs (with which he will kill the dog a little later), then he begins to patronize her harshly. At first the woman is irritated, and then she is frightened, but she is not willing to be in a “game” she does not know and the rules of which she cannot understand. In a first act of resistance, Anna bravely orders the home invaders to leave. But Peter and Paul won’t go, leaving Anna feeling upset, insulted, and humiliated. She attacks Paul. Just at that moment, father and son return from the lakeside. Georg doesn’t understand what is going on, and is willing to believe in a kind of “unfortunate misunderstanding”, as Paul puts it. Although Peter and Paul are back to behaving very politely, the situation is already strange, explosive, and threatening— getting out of control. So it comes as little surprise to the viewer when Paul threatens Georg with physical violence after being ordered to leave, and that Georg reacts by slapping Paul’s face, like a father might do to punish his naughty child. But it comes as a total shock when Peter responds by striking Georg with the golf club, shattering his kneecap and sending the entire family into a state of utter panic. From that moment, right up to the end of the film, we are all involved in a “game” that we cannot accept or explain, one which isn’t “funny” at all— not for the terrorized family, and not for the viewer who is terrorized as well because he or she can’t help but identify with the victims.

All the way through the film—and increasingly as Georg, Anna, and their young son Schorschi are degraded, tortured, and eventually “dehumanized” by the cold-blooded home invaders—one thinks about how this innocent family might escape from their horrible, inhuman, and apparently fatal situation. Although there appear to be several chances for a happy ending (e.g., some friends come along with their boat, Schorschi escapes from the house, Peter is shot by Anna), in the end we come to realize that there is no way out, just as there is no real reason for the brutal and cynical actions of the assailants. For Schorschi, Georg, and Anna—and for the viewer as well—the “game” goes on and on, until the family finally loses the “bet” made on their behalf by the young men: that, as Paul says, “in twelve hours, you three will be kaput.” It is a bet the family is forced to accept, and one it never had a chance to win.

First the family has to guess why Paul still has a golf ball in his pocket, even though he has already used the club (to kill the dog). Afterwards, Anna must search for Rolfi’s corpse with Paul—who leads her around by saying “hot” or “cold”—acting as her guide. Later she has to take off her clothes in order to stop the torturing of her son. Her husband too must participate in this “game”: “Take off your clothes, my sweetheart”, he is forced to say. Up to and including the final “Good Wife” game, in which Anna is presented with two options—one, she must choose whether her husband dies by knife or by gunshot; or two, she can take his place and die first—all of the “games” are based upon physical torture and psychological humiliation, beginning with Paul’s killing of the family dog with a golf club (off-screen), and reaching a dramatic climax in Peter’s murder of Schorschi with a hunting rifle. We do not see the shooting of the little boy, because the camera stays with Paul calmly making some sandwiches in the kitchen. But we can hear the shot, despite the fact that the television set is roaring the whole time. And we can hardly ignore the screams of Georg and Anna, filled as they are with grief and despair.

Haneke and his cinematographer Jürgen Jürges—who worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder several times in the 1970s, and with Helma Sanders-Brahms on Deutschland Bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother, 1980)—withholds from the viewer all the familiar images of blood and gore. As opposed to Kargl or (to mention just one example of a prominent and ambitious Hollywood auteur) Oliver Stone, Haneke seems to have no confidence in the cathartic effect of violent images. Haneke’s films instead force the viewer to listen to, and imagine, violent action, it’s effects discovered afterwards, reflected on the victims’ faces. In Funny Games, it is Anna’s ravaged face especially that we must stare at again and again: a face that gradually loses—torture by torture—all traces of human dignity, destroyed by escalating acts of humiliation forced upon her by her tormentors.

When Paul returns to the living room after Peter’s killing of Schorschi, all we see at first is the blood-splattered screen of the blaring TV set. We can’t see the perpetrators or the hostages; we just hear the broadcasting of an auto race, and Paul talking with Peter about the latter’s “bad timing.” With a simple cut, the entire perspective changes. From a distance, the camera now shows us the whole room, revealing the immediate aftermath of a horrible act of senseless brutality. The boy’s dead body lies on the floor; Anna, legs bound and hands tied behind her back, squats in a corner, staring motionless at the floor; and Georg lies between two sofas, tied up and semi-conscious. For almost ten minutes—what seems like an eternity—we are forced to stare at this scene, without any cuts to alleviate our discomfort. We watch Anna hop about helplessly, first to the television set in order to turn it off, then out of the room, into the kitchen. The killers have left (but only for a while); their victims are all alone. When Anna returns to her bound and injured husband, she puts her arms around his tortured body. Georg starts crying, filled with a despair so intense that he quickly reaches a point of near-total exhaustion. It is during the moment of silence that follows that we as viewers might begin to understand what Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) could have meant by the phrase, “the horror”, at the end of his journey through darkness in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). In a situation that is both terrible and absurd, one that exists beyond the pale of all reasonable behavior, psychological motivation, or logical explanation, monsters rule the imagination— monsters of a deranged mind which can be evoked but not exorcised by violent pictures. Imagination is thus the true home of horror.

Welcome to the circle

Haneke’s The Seventh Continent confronts us with the suicide of a family. Benny’s Video presents a young video freak, played by Arno Frisch (“Paul” in Funny Games), who first watches the killing of a pig several times, then murders a young girl just “to see what killing is like.” In 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, a confused boy runs amuck in a bank. In Funny Games, Georg asks his torturers at least two times, “Why are you doing this?”, but Paul’s replies can’t be taken seriously. He is just playing “answer the question”, and repeating the kind of psychological verbiage offered in numerous crime stories again and again: his parents got divorced, and therefore the boy became homosexual, or had an incestuous relationship with his mother, or became a drug addict because of the brutalizing milieu in which he lived, etc. But none of these more or less “politically correct” explanations fits the “game” being played here. The only aim and motivation of these killers is fun, pleasure, amusement, or—as Haneke himself believes—the satisfaction of that pure, sadistic lust typically evoked and fulfilled by mainstream sex-and-crime cinema, and especially by horror movies.

Paul is upset about the premature killing of the boy, but only because Peter’s rash action reduces the perverse possibilities of their sport. When Georg begs him to finish the deadly game because “it’s enough”, Paul replies that “We are still under feature length.” Directing himself to the viewer, he continues: “Is it already enough? You want a proper ending with a plausible development, don’t you?.” The rules of the game determine the action, and the supreme rule is to obtain pleasure from humiliating one’s captives. As soon as the victims can no longer stand the torture, and so submit to their predicted fate—as soon as they surrender unconditionally—the lustful possibilities of the game are exhausted, and these “teammates” aren’t of interest anymore. Only now can the dehumanizing play be finished. Georg, lying tied up and practically unconscious on the sofa, is shot with the hunting rifle, just like his son before him. Anna is thrown overboard off the boat in the morning, her legs bound together and her hands tied behind her back; “Ciao, bella”, is Paul’s cynical farewell. All dead, game over, time to start a new game, maybe a variation of the last game or perhaps just the same old game once again. It is 8 a.m. when Peter and Paul arrive at another luxurious holiday home on the same Austrian lake. This time it is Paul who gently asks for some eggs, and as the young man enters this next victim’s house the frame freezes, with the home invader’s diabolic look staring directly into the camera, right into the viewer’s eyes.

“I try to find ways of representing violence as that which it always is: as unconsumable”, Haneke says. “I give back to violence that which it is: pain, a violation of others.”[i] Most of his films, not only the well-known Benny’s Video and Funny Games, are reflections on violent life in a media saturated society, or, to be more precise: reflections on mediated life in a violent society. Haneke studied philosophy, psychology, and drama in Vienna, then became a playwright with the Südwestfunk Theatre Company from 1967-70 before writing scripts for German television. As a film-maker, he uses generic topics as experiments in which the protagonists—the good ones as well as the bad ones—are forced to behave like laboratory rabbits. There is no such thing as free will allowed, and no “emotional development” either.

The characters we watch in Funny Games are just figures (“experimental subjects”, one might say) playing roles, testing the limits of the human subject. When Anna shoots Peter in an act of desperate resistance, Paul panics. Having lost control over the “game”, he hysterically grabs the TV remote control and rewinds the scene— the same diegetic episode we have just witnessed. This sequence, criticized for its obvious didacticism, may remind us of Pirandello, or it may be understood as a kind of “class-action revenge” taken by the director against all those viewers who fastforward through the “boring” parts of movies watched on video (as David Bartholomew puts it). Nevertheless, the sequence does makes sense within Haneke’s vision du monde. The issue is not whether the viewer mixes up fact and fiction. For the fact of the matter, according to Haneke, is that fiction is real and reality a fiction. During their sailboat ride on the way to their next victims, Peter tells a science-fiction story which deals with two “parallel” universes, one real, the other fictional. The hero of the story lives in cyberspace, in the “anti-material world”, while his family remains in the “real” world. There is no communication between these two worlds, and if there is any difference between them, one has no way of telling what it is. The fiction you see in a movie is as “real as reality”, Paul says, a reality you can observe “as well as a movie.” In today’s mass mediated society, the “ecstasy of communication” just doesn’t make sense anymore.

Shock value

Kargl’s almost unknown psycho-thriller Angst and Haneke’s notorious “Kammerspiel”-like horror-drama Funny Games are separated by a gap of almost fifteen years. During this time, cinema itself underwent major changes. In the early 1980s, when postmodernism emerged as a dominant cultural form, the last lethal whimpers of the sexual revolution which took place in the late 60s-early 70s finally led to the success of the slasher genre. In Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and the like, juvenile bodies, once engaged in “free love”, were stalked and slashed by perverts who represented the restrictive morality of a “new conservatism.” In effect, the psycho-killers of these films act as moral executors to punish the lustful behavior of a sinful youth. At their hands, the “sexual body” experienced its total destruction. “Free love” was shown to be a risk—corresponding to the era’s new conservative politics, especially in the USA—in the age of an ever-growing HIV plague. Kargl’s Angst appeared shortly after the slasher genre reached its height with Lucio Fulci’s graphic and disturbing Lo Squartatore di New York (The New York Ripper, 1982). But the Austrian director was not willing to join the ranks of his exploitation horror peers. His work is contrary to the likes of Fulci’s misogynistic thriller or Ruggero Deodato’s home invader-class drama La Case Sperduta nel Parco (The House on the Edge of the Park, 1980).  Angst avoids any moralistic subtext in its pursuit of depicting the ultimate in alienating, antisocial behavior. The killer embodies the precise opposite of the utopian sexual being the 60s so desperately attempted to invoke: his sexual pleasure is the termination of life.

Funny Games also employs the theme of bourgeois-home invasion, but in a very different way. Haneke’s film was made around the same time that Wes Craven began his comeback with the semi-ironic high school slasher Scream (1996), in which two boys terrorize and finally kill their classmates just for the fun of it, and corresponding to genre rules.[ii] Scream may be seen as the sensationalistic, mainstream companion to the Austrian film. When the “master narratives” of bourgeois morality have all but disappeared, the killing game becomes party event— nihilistic but entertaining. Like the Kniesek character in Angst, the killers in Funny Games enjoy the “angst” of their victims, so long as they show the will to resist. But unlike him, they are not driven by destructive instincts; in fact, they don’t seem to have emotions at all, save perhaps a desire for amusement. Here, all efforts at psychological explanations fail, all negative emotions expressed are simulated, just strategies in a game. Haneke doesn’t show the gruesome act of murder itself— the destruction of the body actually happens outside the frame. This makes a kind of sense, considering that the death of the victims marks the end of the “game.”

The pleasure of these (not at all funny) games lies precisely in breaking the victim’s will to resist. When that will is broken, the killers loose interest, get bored. Killing becomes a mere triviality. Thus, the end of the film marks the beginning of a new circle. Playing with the last taboo of western civilization, the taking of life, the killers manage to rise up against the unwritten laws of materialistic society. Their “game” produces nothing but morbid entertainment. What makes no sense, what lacks any productive value, may not be, and probably never has been. The fatal system of the boys’ game reflects the Sadean orgies of destruction: every living body is just another toy in the hands of the “master.” What is truly shocking about this cold and cynical film is the fact that two well-educated, sometimes seductive young killers are shown to embody the apocalyptic, self-destructive side of a society that has already lost its ethical values: if “anything goes”, nothing will preserve the utopian dreams of the reasonable, moral human being.


NOTES

[i] Haneke, M. “Director’s Statement”: http://www.attitude.hostrack.net/AttitudeFilms/.

[ii] For more on the slasher/stalker subgenre and its revival in the wake of Scream’s phenomenal success, see Dika, V. (1987) “The Stalker Cycle, 1978-81”, in Waller, G. (ed.), American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), and Schneider, S.J. (2000) “Kevin Williamson and the Rise of the Neo-Stalker”, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 19.2, 73-87.