Ginger Nuts of Horror
At this year’s FantasyCon, during a panel about ‘The Weird in Weird Fiction’, I suggested that it would be a tough task to achieve a sense of the weird in fantastical settings, because weird aspects need to be juxtaposed with the mundane in order for their ‘wrongness’ to be identifiable. For example, the supernatural horror in ‘Don’t Look Now’ is impactful precisely because the lives of the characters are meticulously ordinary. Or, to pick a dafter example, take Jon Pertwee’s famous comment about contrasting the ordinary and extraordinary in Doctor Who: ‘There's nothing more alarming than coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec.’
Since then, it’s occurred to me that my ‘rule’ doesn’t necessarily follow for young readers. Everything in a child’s life has the potential to be weird – they are routinely subjected to events for which they have no preparation – and bookish kids are as immersed in fiction as they are in real life.
As a kid, I was sheltered from many of the traditional keystone fictions. I saw Spaceballs years before any Star Wars title, and read novelisations of the Filmation Ghostbusters series, believing them to be related to the 1984 film I’d heard about. While I’d become a huge fan of Doctor Who later on, my first experience of the TV show was when I was eight. My cornerstones included some stories set in the everyday world (for example, the William Brown and Jennings series of books) but many related to myths and legends. To me, stories of mortals pitted against the gods were as familiar as tales of pranks and school truancy.
Here’s the point. Despite my familiarity with the underlying stories, when I rewatch the most-loved film of my childhood, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and particularly the scene that fascinated and horrified me the most, it’s the weirdness that stands out.
Hercules and Hylus are exploring the Isle of Bronze when they come across a valley filled with enormous statues on vast pedestals. True to the name of the island, the sky, mountainsides and valley floor are all shades of bronze, whereas the statues themselves gleam like tar. The two adventurers are barely visible at first – they’re like ants compared to the giant figures. They approach from one side, but our attention is taken by the statue of Talos, who crouches as though ready to spring up and strike. He’s looking at us.
The adventurers speak in proclamations: “This must be where Hephaestus moulded the statues of the gods.” “Yes, and set them up for all the world to see.” To them, and therefore to young viewers, the existence of the statues is unsurprising. It’s the fact that nothing is happening that’s unsettling.
Bernard Herrmann’s score to Jason and the Argonauts is stunning, and it’s a huge factor in the building of suspense. When Talos appears, Herrmann’s orchestra is at its most portentous, a precursor of the endless foghorns of Hans Zimmer in recent films such as Inception. The combination of this heavy sound of dread combined with absolutely nothing happening onscreen is incredibly powerful, and hit me hard when I was young. Like Hercules and Hylus, all we can do is watch in awe. There is no danger and yet of course we know there is.
They draw closer (agonisingly slowly – a delaying technique unfamiliar to me as a kid, having never been exposed to horror films at this point) and accordingly, we see Talos closer up. Now he’s staring into space, and the change in camera angle suggests potential movement – after all, wasn’t he staring right at us only moments ago? – even though he hasn’t moved an inch. We’re aware that with just a twist of the neck he would be watching us again. It’s this kind of delicious dread that children must have experienced when encountering the Weeping Angels for the first time in Doctor Who in ‘Blink’ (2007). As much as the fear of statues coming to life, it’s the thrill of not knowing when it’s going to happen.
The camera pans to the open door within the pedestal. Hercules and Hylus now creep even more slowly. No, you fools! Herrmann’s score softens in sympathy, then it’s interrupted by the sudden scrape of the door being opened. Once inside the ‘treasure chamber of the gods’, which is dripping with gold and hanging jewels , there’s a shift to plucked harps. Might magic replace the dread? But no. The orchestra steps down in pitch again and again, becoming more and more subdued, deadening the sense of the wonderful. It’s precisely the same technique Herrmann used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in quiet, careful tracks such as ‘Carlotta’s Portrait’. It’s a signal that things cannot end well.
Hercules is delighted. Hylus remembers the goddess Hera’s warning, delivered via Jason: they should take nothing but provisions from the island. Hercules is a hothead, lionlike and devil-may-care, everyone’s favourite uncle, and we love him. So when the door slams shut and then Hercules forces it back open and then he emerges still holding an enormous brooch-pin which he intends to use as a javelin, we’re conflicted. Hercules is a hero. But whatever happens next is his fault.
Outside, Herrmann’s score gives way to a howling wind that wasn’t there before. All this excruciating delay is masterfully done. My first horror film, around the age of nine, was Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1983), and the scene that upset me the most was when the father teaches the son to count the number of seconds between lightning flashes and thunder to determine the closeness of a storm. The eventual attacking tree may have been horrific, but it’s the delay beforehand that I found unbearable. This sort of withholding of horror is something I aspire to when I write my own stories and novels.
Hercules and Hylus pace around anxiously, as certain as we are that things have turned sour. And still, nothing happens. “It must have been the wind,” Hercules says, but the cut to a closeup of Talos undermines him.
And then there it is.
We hear the creak before we see any movement. Herrmann’s orchestra now responds to the danger rather than prefacing it, and now the foghorns now seem as heavy as industrial machinery. Talos turns his head, that same withheld motion we predicted minutes ago. His eyes are black pits. Rather than leap from his pedestal, he merely shifts around, sizing up the intruders as they scurry away to hide. As he clambers down from his perch, the orchestra gasps in horror, the horns constantly interrupted by that screeching sound of metal scraping against metal. Talos leans back against the pedestal and it’s unclear whether he’s disoriented or whether he’s simply relishing being mobile.
It’s that sound effect that haunted me back then. That squeal of metal on metal could be replicated anywhere: a rusty shopping trolley, a passing bin lorry. It still gives me shudders even now.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about stop-motion animation. My four-year-old son is fascinated by King Kong (1933), having seen a picture in a book, and I’ve been struggling to decide when it’s safe to show him the film. I’ve been reading him Anthony Browne’s wonderful picture-book version, and I think he’s secure about Kong being more complex than simply a monster, and therefore not horrific. But how would my son react to seeing Kong ‘in the flesh’? Stop-motion adds an uncanniness that can have unpredictable results on the viewer.
I think that Talos is one of the perfect vehicles for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion artistry. A statue would move jerkily. It would have a shine, a sheen, and imperfections. Its weight might be oddly distributed and it might stumble. I found – and still find – Talos utterly convincing. I am still scared of him.
In fairness, Talos becomes immediately less frightening once he’s fully unleashed – his frozen potential of movement is far more eerie. When he terrorises Jason and the crew of the Argo the film becomes an adventure once again, and Herrmann’s score correspondingly bombastic, though even at a young age I remember being awed by something as simple as the statue shifting his sword – previously presumed sculpted to his body – from hand to hand. I was somewhat traumatised by the eventual defeat of the statue, though. His Achilles heel is his actual heel, yet when Jason releases the valve it gushes red liquid and then Talos, inexplicably, clutches at his throat, writhing as he dies. That weird juxtaposition of closeup shots of the ‘bleeding’ heel and the statue’s apparent asphyxiation has stuck with me.
In adulthood, there are other parts of Jason and the Argonauts that I find more unsettling. Talos, and the famous skeleton army, provide a thrill, the same pleasure as the horror films that I watch for tense satisfaction rather than to provoke any real fear. Notably, it’s in the uncertain, elongated pause after the Hydra’s teeth are sown and the skeletons rise from the ground, where they remain static and immune to commands, that still elicits a pleasing shudder. Nowadays, I find that the most horrible element of the film is the blinded King Phineas’s torture by the harpies, in which they steal his food just as it’s laid out each day. His flailing and resigned misery represents a kind of down-to-earth horror that has more impact upon me as an adult.
Probably, my four-year-old will end up watching King Kong at some point in the next year. But Jason and the Argonauts, with all its potential as a gateway to horror films? It’s a tough call.
Daniel Faint is on the run with a stolen time machine.
As the house-sitter of a remote Cumbrian mansion, he hopes to hide and experiment with the machine. But is the Manor being watched by locals, his twin brother or even himself?
Daniel is terrified about what the future may hold but, as he discovers, there can be no going back.