The received wisdom about American horror films of the late sixties and early seventies is that they were snarling manifestations of the ongoing social and political disillusionment that had overtaken the culture. Works like Adam Simon’s documentary The American Nightmare and Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value aim to create narratives—both political interpretations and origin stories—around the major horror works from Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, George A. Romero, John Carpenter, etc. And the sense of historical import that has sprung up around films of such varying quality as The Last House on the Left (crummy), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (masterpiece), and Night of the Living Dead (best watched at 3 a.m.) has threatened to dilute their dangerousness. These films are now institutions, and their makers have become symbols of a mythologized era rather than the ragged thrill-givers they started out as. That’s all fine, since each of these directors fostered a remarkably influential style, but such enshrinement tends to obscure all other horror films of the time period. Of particular interest to me are those journeymen auteurs who dipped their toes in the horror pool rather than made it their vocation. (If 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby has an authenticity and emotional eloquence missing from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead from the same year, it’s perhaps because Polanski had no interest in making more devil-baby movies.)
Robert Mulligan, for instance, must not have seemed an obvious choice in 1972 to adapt The Other, Tom Tryon’s bestseller about strange goings-on among the members of a Connecticut farm family during one summer in the 1930s. All of the terrors that befall the clan seem to stem from the odd behavior of a pair of preadolescent twin boys, particularly Holland, who seems more rambunctious than his reserved brother Niles. Yet The Other hardly offers a rote evil-twin scenario. As it turns out, Mulligan was (to these eyes, at least) a perfect fit for the film, which forgoes any horror pyrotechnics or overdetermined haunted-house atmosphere in favor of scenes of unsettling naturalism that allow the plot’s revelations to feel like genuine ruptures. The Other never really looks, moves, or sounds the way you expect it to, and Mulligan—previously best known for exquisitely low-key films (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Stalking Moon, Summer of ’42) that feel more like idylls than traditional movies with cause-and-effect narratives—doesn’t much change his style just because he’s making what is ostensibly a horror film.
This superlative studio craftsman was a master of letting a scene play out in unforced rhythms and past the point where most directors would cut. There’s no hurrying The Other, which quite naturally has been dismissed as “tedious.” The film rather becomes another overused word, “spellbinding”—especially appropriate for a film in which there is the intimation of psychic ability on Niles’s part. The pacing in the film is so languid and eerie that when the really terrible things start to happen (a seemingly accidental death by pitchfork; a bad fall down a staircase; a missing baby), they feel like the hazy memories of some long-forgotten bucolic summer. The nightmarish occurrences in The Other exist on the same continuum as the nostalgic reminiscences in Mockingbird and Summer of ’42, oddly. There’s a profoundly personal bent to the emotional terrors here, as though the whole movie is emanating from the mind of a child (a feeling enhanced by the wide-eyed, over-enunciating, faux-naïveté of towhead twins Chris and Martin Udvarnoky.) It might not leave room for much in the way of political reading, but its central idea of a single mind inhabiting two separate people puts it in line with other tales of split personalities and psychological trauma from the era, whether occult or not. In 1972, even Robert Altman tried his hand at one of these. In many ways Images feels like a test run for his ambiguously supernatural masterpiece about soul transference, 3 Women (1977), but it also fully stands on its own as a superb work of extreme mental distress.
Is Images a horror film—and thus Altman’s only horror film? I would argue yes, as the primary emotions it elicits aren’t really all that different from, say, Mario Bava’s The Telephone, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, or, particularly, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Susannah York, seemingly channeling Julie Christie at her most disturbed, plays Cathryn (homage to Deneuve?), who’s careering towards a crack-up from the film’s get-go. Rather than a sympathetic tale of one woman’s schizophrenia, Altman goes for pure experiential cinema, terrorizing Cathryn, and us, with a succession of phantasms, that pop up all about the ’scope frame with creepy elegance. In their apartment and then even more so at a secluded country house where her husband (Rene Auberjonois) takes her for a getaway, Cathryn is haunted by her own demons—guilt over affairs and her inability to have children—that manifest as apparitions, both of the men of her past and her own projected self. Like Deneuve’s Carol in Repulsion, she ultimately retaliates by taking violent revenge against those who haunt her, whether imagined or flesh-and-blood.
What’s oddest about Images—and what makes it stand apart from Altman’s other films of any era—is its lack of irony. There’s no distance between the filmmaker and the material, its earnestness presumably a result of the director’s relative youth (though it must be stated that he had already made Brewster McCloud, M*A*S*H, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, none of which scream babe-in-the-woods). Unlike most of Altman’s movies of the period, Images doesn’t call attention to itself as a genre picture, even if it’s clearly a work of shock-horror, and neither does it deconstruct anything. It’s evidence of a director stabbing out in a direction opposite from where he’d previously excelled, trying on a new coat to see if it fits. If bloody tales of murderous schizophrenics would not turn out to be Altman’s raison d’être, then at least one can say that his aesthetic—of cluttered widescreen images, penetrating zooms, and multilayered soundtracks (here carried along by an early, unsettling John Williams score)—perfectly complements the claustrophobic interiority of the psychological terror film.
Unlike Altman and Mulligan, Bob Clark was at one point known strictly as a horror director. A good decade before Porky’s and A Christmas Story made Clark a symbol of crude yet cuddly mainstream comedy, he was elegantly crafting schlock such as Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Black Christmas, and 1972’s Deathdream (released in the U.S. in 1974 as Dead of Night). Like The Other and Images, Deathdream is also something of a tale of doubling, albeit of a more standard horror variety. It’s also the only explicitly socially engaged film of the three, wrestling as it does—in its admirably crude way—with the ghosts of the ongoing Vietnam War, making it the most outwardly political horror movie of the entire era. This isn’t allegory, but the living, breathing, rotting real thing.
In an updating of W. W. Jacobs’s over-referenced yet perhaps underappreciated 1906 short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” a grieving middle-aged couple (John Marley and Lynn Carlin, both survivors of Cassavetes’s Faces) is surprised to see their son, Andy (Richard Backus), return from a tour in Southeast Asia soon after receiving notice of his death. However, things seem a little off with the lad, who’s given to abnormally long sessions in the attic’s rocking chair, its incessant back-and-forth squeaking throughout the house day and night. He is not the same Andy. He’s hollowed-out, has somehow been replaced. Things get immeasurably worse when he finds a taste for blood (as well as a marked distaste for dogs). Neither a zombie flick nor a story of vampirism, Deathdream is a real-world tragedy in supernatural horror duds.
Its deep shadows seem not mannerisms of the genre but reflective of a spiritual void—a visualization of severe posttraumatic stress. The peculiar elegance of Deathdream is also apparent in The Other and Images. As with all horror films, these three desire to jolt and petrify the audience, but their directors are storytellers first, thrill-seekers second. Clark’s antiwar film comes out of the inky black like a terrible nightmare, one from which it never wakes, even in a grave finale that, in its intimate sadness, reminds you that, especially in horror films, social commentary only resonates when we care about the personal as well as the political.
Michael Koresky is the staff writer of the Criterion Collection, as well as the co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. His writings have appeared in Film Comment, Cinema Scope, indieWIRE, Moving Image Source, and The Village Voice