Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Twenty Two

Isle of the Dead - Part Three

Noir Vermeer
Kyra is framed through a doorway pouring water from a jug into a bowl. It is a lit interior scene which resembles a Vermeer painting, particularly with Kyra’s head covering. The camera moves in to reveal Dr Drossos and Albrecht to either side of her, with Davis and the General accompanying them as if they are Seconds the metaphysical duel of ideas which is about to begin. Kyra, ever the voice of doom, declares that ‘you cannot wash away evil’. In her mind, illness and evil are equated, since she cannot accept that pain and death can be arbitrary and without moral cause or meaning. Dr Drossos mocks her superstitious attitude with a dismissive laugh, and the General smirks along with him. While the Doctor prevails, Kyra’s malign influence is diminished, but the tenets of science and rationalism are thinly layered strata over the instinctive bedrock of magical thinking, which seeks to impute meaning into the processes of the natural world. The Doctor’s outlook has to be repeatedly asserted and proved, and is constantly in danger of being eroded away by the tides of general fear and disbelief. Albrecht decides to play devil’s advocate and take up a counter position to the Doctor’s rationalist worldview. He points to his talk of ‘good winds and bad winds’ and suggests that this kind of language is little different from Kyra’s.

The Doctor explains the scientific underpinning of his statement, explaining how the disease is transmitted by fleas which have an 80% consistency of water, so that ‘the hot wind from the south literally burns them away’. This serves only to underline the fact that they are at the mercy of the winds of fate, however. Knowing the mechanism by which they will find salvation does them little good since they have no way of affecting its outcome. The knowledge that the disease is spread by fleas also makes the obsessive washing of hands and the instruction to avoid contact little more than a psychological salve to make everyone feel that they are doing something to keep the plague at bay. The washing of hands does in effect become a symbolic act of cleansing, which makes Kyra’s remark seem particularly pertinent.

Albrecht continues his devil’s advocacy by pointing out that, from Kyra’s point of view, ‘the gods send plague to punish men for harbouring the Vorvoloka’. The exchange may be an academic play of ideas between the Doctor and the archaeologist, but in the background we see the General following its to and fro intently, his face a picture of doubt and confusion. The nature of the debate is very real for him, the folk tales which are an object of study for Albrecht tapping into a deeper native vein which re-awakens something in his soul. Doctor Drossos, the disbelieving rationalist, provides the traditional professorial definition of the nature of the monster, which is for him is an element of folk history. A Vorvoloka is ‘an elemental wolf-spirit, some such thing in human form. They say it drains people of their strength and vitality until they die’. Again, this detailing of the nature of the beast has a visible impact on the General, with the camera focussing in on his face. The fact that the recitation comes from a man who would dismiss belief in such a creature as utter nonsense merely seems to strengthen its authority for him. It is as if it is being read from one of the ancient leather bound tomes of vellum-paged wisdom which denote unquestionable authority in horror films.

Albrecht goes on, providing the shading for the Doctor’s textbook sketch. ‘Kyra would tell you there’s more to it; that the Vorvoloka is an evil for which the gods punish us mortals’. These are the old gods which must be appeased. The punishment is not so much for moral misdemeanour as for neglect of tradition. This view of the Vorvoloka casts it very much in the mould of the Erinyes, or Furies of Greek myth. These were the three female avengers of broken oaths and matricide (and in some versions patricide) who were born from the castration of Uranus by the titan Cronus. Cronus threw the genitals into the sea, but three drops of blood fell upon the earth and gave birth to the Furies. Robert Graves, in his two volume Greek Myths, describes these figures as representing the Triple Goddess, the three stages of which are present in Isle of the Dead; the youthful Thea, Mrs St Aubyn, the wife, and Kyra, the crone in mourning black. As Graves puts it was the Furies’ ‘original function to avenge injuries inflicted only on a mother, or a suppliant who claimed the protection of the Hearth-goddess’. These were creatures protecting women from male power, which had usurped their former ritual authority. With this island on which female power seemed to prevail invaded once more by male command, maybe the Fates are stirring once more.

The General, whose inner struggle has been plain to see, gets up in a decisive manner and issues his verdict as to the outcome of the debate. The two participants perhaps do not realise the importance of the debate from his perspective. For them, it has just been an intellectual game, and interplay of ideas. But these have represented the General’s divided soul. His conclusion is delivered in the manner of a command. The Doctor is the Doctor and we’ll do as he says’. This decisiveness on the General’s part indicates the absolutism of his world view. He must wholly believe in one thing or another at a level of complete certainty. This all or nothing mentality makes him vulnerable to the insinuations of others should the basis of his belief be undermined. Albrecht bows to the General’s authoritative air, which doesn’t invite debate or disagreement, but fatalistically adds ‘one might as well go out on the cliff and build a votive fire to Hermes’. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is something of a misnomer here, altered from Hades in the original script. As the god of the underworld, this would have been a more apposite figure to invoke, but no doubt the studio felt that the audience would confuse the name with the Christian (or Jewish) appropriation of Hades as an alternative name for Hell.

A dangerous metaphysical duel
Albrecht then proposes a wager, an extension of the game which he and the Doctor are playing. ‘The Doctor can use his science, I’ll pray to Hermes. We’ll see who dies and who is saved’. It is a dangerous game, which seeks to make light of death but which threatens to have a far more serious effect on the non-participants. It is the General’s faith in rationalism rather than the world view of Albrecht and the Doctor which is at stake. If Albrecht ‘wins’ then the General is in effect offered up to Kyra’s influence. The General, once more asserting his authority, allow the wager to go ahead. It is sealed with a handshake, a gesture which immediately breaks the no contact rule and which seems to thereby carry with it the signature of doom. But both sides are basing their actions on false precepts. With fleas as the vector of the disease, such brief contact is of no consequence. And Albrecht is praying to the wrong god. Their assertion of male authority over the areas of science and tradition is highly questionable. The General once more declares that the Doctor’s orders must be obeyed, but his sense of his own authority seems slightly shaken. All the while, Davis watches over the tense scene, the non-intervening journalistic observer.

The Three Fates divided
Mrs St Aubyn is in her room with Kyra, in black as ever, and Thea waiting hesitantly in the background. Youth, middle and old age gathered in one room, they appear as three aspects of the one figure. They are reminiscent of the three archetypal aspects of the divine found throughout religion and mythology. But here, whatever unity may once have been shared has been fractured. Mrs St Aubyn upbraids Kyra over her treatment of Thea, telling her that ‘evil breeds evil’, as if it is a virus. Kyra contemptuously interrupts her warning, voicing the fatalistic opinion that ‘we die when we must’. In her mind, Thea has not adhered to this natural law, living beyond death.

Gazing at Death in the mirror
In the next room, Mr St Aubyn is very ill, and regards himself in a small hand mirror. Mirrors are associated with death in the film in much the same way as the are in Jean Cocteau’s Orphee. In that film, Death’s chauffeur Heurtebise explains to Orphee the secret of mirrors. ‘Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la mort vient et va. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la mort travailler comme les abeilles dans une ruche de verre.’ (mirrors are the doors through which death comes and goes. And look at yourself in a mirror throughout your life and you will see death working like bees in a glass hive.)

Orphee - Approach of Death in the mirror
Mirrors in Isle of the Dead also serve to detect whether the breath of life has left the body, although in this function they prove deceptive. Thea comes in to tell him that Mrs St Aubyn ‘has her illness again’. It is perhaps significant that this has occurred after her confrontation with Kyra. In the original script, Mrs St Aubyn’s equivalent Miss Wollsten confronts Cathy, the character whose corrosive influence most resembles that of Kyra, telling her that she rather than Thea resembles the Vorvoloka; ‘a weak, pale half-dead thing that drains all the life and joy from those who want to live’. Mrs St Aubyn isn’t given the opportunity to articulate her feelings so clearly in the film itself, but her comment about evil breeding evil makes the analogy between Kyra and the Vorvoloka which she is so keen to invoke in others. She is the psychic vampire, who replicates her fear fuelled ideas in a similarly viral maner.

Mr St Aubyn lays down on his bed to die. There is an intercut shot of the statue of Cerberus. The statue serves the same role as symbolic insert which we have already seen with the figurehead in I Walked With a Zombie and the fountain in The Leopard Man. Here, it is immediately followed up by a shot of the General pacing up and down the corridor. The General’s role of watchdog in the tomblike corridor of the house’s upper floor is made clear. He is patrolling outside the deaths door of Mr St Aubyn. Finally he pushes the door in and finds Thea sitting by the bedside. The Consul is dead. Evidently she had sat with him, keeping him company as he faded away. The General asks her where Mrs St Aubyn is, and when Thea tells him ‘she sleeps’, he orders her to go and wake her and bring her in. Thea refuses, and the General is furious at this seemingly nonsensical act of defiance. She is frightened by his anger, but stands her ground, leaving him to repeat her no as an incredulous question.

The needle test - inflicting the compassionate wound

At her husband’s bedside, Mrs St Aubyn stands with Doctor Drossos and refuses to concede his death. The Doctor makes further tests, including using the mirror into which St Aubyn had gazed at his approaching mortality to detect for signs of the faintest breath of life. Mrs St Aubyn is at the edge of panic, asserting that ‘the breath can stop, the heart can stop; it still doesn’t mean death’. It’s as if she believes that there is some deeper component of death, one which takes place beyond the physical. Doctor Drossos offers a clinical definition for her fears, introducing us to the term cataleptic trance, which will become an important element later in the story. But this is not such a case. The General begins to pull the sheet over St Aubyn’s face; the bed has become the tomb. Mrs St Aubyn stays his hand and he defers to her, relinquishing control under these circumstances. ‘What difference does it make’ he shrugs. ‘Uncovered or covered, the eyes see no more’. But is there some other mode of vision which is still active? Once the others have left the room, Mrs St Aubyn takes out a clothing pin and pricks her husband’s flesh. When she sees that there is no reaction, she covers him with the sheet and weeps in earnest. Her anxiety was over the possibility of his being stranded in a half-dead limbo. Actual death comes almost as a relief. Now she can mourn.

Rationalist prayer flag
Outside, on the terrace adjacent to the openings to the tombs, Davis stands with Doctor Drossos, erecting a flag to indicate the wind direction. The elements assert their presence throughout the rest of the film. As the characters place themselves in the hands of fate, these elements take on the mythic significance with which they were embodied by ancient cultures. We have already seen the washing of hands in bowls of water, which has more of a ritualistic than practical rationale. Davis’ fabrication of a wind direction indicator is as much prayer flag as means of scientific divination. The situation of the flag near to the temple of Hermes suggests that maybe the invocation of this god’s aid is not so misguided after all. His winged golden sandals gave him the power to travel as fast as the wind, and thereby identify him with this element. He was also a god of boundaries who guided souls into the Underworld of Hades and had the gift of augury, of seeing into the future. Davis tells the Doctor that the General has put all his hope in him, and he replies ‘yes, I know. That frightens me more than the plague’. He bears the burden of the General’s belief, of propping up the flimsy construct of his faith in man’s control over the mechanisms of a rational world.

Connecting without contact
Mrs St Aubyn emerges from the darkness of the tomb and asks to have a word with the Doctor alone. She confides in him her overwhelming fear of premature burial, and outlines her history of illness, speaking of ‘trances with almost complete suspension of heartbeat and respiration’. In the original script, it was the General whom Miss Wollsten, Mrs St Aubyn’s equivalent, took into her confidence. Thus, she awoke the second of his sleeping ‘Cerberus’ heads. One was fixed on watching over Thea, who he believed had come back from the dead, and one on Miss Wollsten, who feared entering the Underworld before she was dead. Thus the General fulfilled the two traditional duties of Cerberus. In the film, it is the Doctor assures her that should she appear to fall victim to the plague, he will make every possible test. They almost shake hands, before remembering that this small gesture of human contact is denied to them. Their small microcosm of society has become atomised, everyone isolated inside their own solipsistic worlds. But Mrs St Aubyn’s voicing of her fears has reassured her, restored her to some measure of calm acceptance of the proximity of death. ‘Now that you understand, I am no longer afraid’, she says. Her condition also goes some way to explaining the secretive behaviour of Thea, who evidently also knows of her condition and who has been acting out of a sense of protectiveness. In the mouth of the blackness of the tomb, everyone seems to be pinning their hopes on the Doctor. He has become the living embodiment of rationality, of a world which can be measured, understood and managed.

The Rituals of Time
There is now a sequence in which the elements are given full voice. There is an insert shot of the statue of Cerberus, in the manner of Lewton’s symbolic punctuations. Then we see waves crashing against rocks, the interaction of the elements of water and earth. The ebb and flow of the waves measures the passing of time, as well as hinting at the build up of violent forces which work to erode the seemingly solid and indestructible fortress of the rocky shore. We see the vortex of a whirlpool urgently circling inside a bowl, with a montage of hands desperately seeking to cleanse themselves in its rushing waters. Then there is another glimpse of Cerberus preceding another shot of waves and rocks, all conveying a sense of waiting and watching. Then we complete our tour of the elements with a shot focussing on fire in a brazier.

Sacred Flame
We are back at the still point of the ruined temple to Hermes. Albrecht is performing his prayer to the deity who he still erroneously believes to be the god of physicians. Dr Drossos arrives, announcing ‘I just came to see if your prayer would entertain me as much as my medicine seems to amuse you’. It’s a remark made in friendly good humour, with no trace of rancour. Having listened for a while, Drossos adds his own stick to the ritual pyre, adding that it’s ‘my way of saying amen’. In conceding defeat and drawing an end to their game, Albrecht realises that Doctor Drossos is letting him know that he has recognised the symptoms of plague within himself. ‘My friend, what can one say?’ he says, his respect for the Doctor demonstrated by his admission of the emptiness of language in the face of death. Drossos accepts his fate with equanimity, announcing ‘I’ll meet my old familiar enemy, death’.

The flickering lifeforce
Mrs St Aubyn walks along the dark corridor of the upper floor of the house, which has again come to resemble that of the catacombs. The General has taken up his guard dog position outside the Doctor’s bedroom door, which has again become the door to a tomb. He asks Mrs St Aubyn whether she is afraid, and she pointedly says ‘I’m not afraid of dying’. This meeting at death’s door is between the two who have most to lose from the Doctor’s death, the two who have placed their hopes in his abilities as a physician and scientist. There is some kind of understanding between them, and the General allows her passage.

Guardian of Death's door
Inside, the Doctor refuses the opiates Mrs St Aubyn offers to ease his death. He wants to remain aware and observant. His words, weakly voiced but strongly phrased, are unsparingly unsentimental and offer little in the way of hope or comforting faith. They are a rationalist’s prayer; ‘fight death all your days then die, knowing you know nothing’. The General, entering the room at this moment, looks crushed on hearing this. This was the man upon whom he had pinned all his hopes, and whose certainties he used as his anchor. His face is a picture of pitiful sorrow, both for the Doctor and for himself. You can almost hear the sound of his belief in the rational order of the world crashing into a ruin of dusty rubble.

Hearing the Doctor's philosophy laid bare
The General paces restlessly behind Mrs St Aubyn and Thea. Mrs St Aubyn is doing some needlework, her manipulation of the thread to create a picture making her resemble a modern descendant of the Fates. These three inseparable women, physically joined together in some versions of the myth, spun, measured out and cut the thread of life of each living soul. They are essentially another version of the three aspects of the goddess whose dominant influence on earlier societies is preserved in later myth. Thea sits next to Mrs St Aubyn, intently watching her work as if she is involved with it herself.

The Fates - benevolent
Doctor Drossos is dead and buried, and Albrecht now recommends prayer as a preferable and equally efficacious alternative to the washing of hands. He admits he’s been mocking in his advocacy of it up until now, and starts to drift into aimless reminiscences of a platitudinously sentimental nature; just the sort of thing which the Doctor rigorously eschewed on his deathbed. Mrs St Aubyn interrupts, and suggests they offer a prayer to a god who is ‘the strength of the weak and the comfort of sufferers’. It is an appeal to a more feminine god, one who is an embodiment of compassion and protection; New rather than Old Testament. The General conspicuously refuses to join in the group prayer, standing aside and warming his hands over the indoor brazier.

A prayer for the weak
Albrecht offers a rather patronising view of belief as a source of comfort, as if Mrs St Aubyn’s intervention needs the blessing of his seal of authority. The General dismisses this out of hand, seeing it as a retreat into an illusory world. ‘When I was a boy’ he says, ‘I was taught by the village priest and old women like Kyra’. He makes no distinction between Christianity and the old beliefs; they are all to be put aside in favour of ‘what I can feel and see and know about’. Albrecht cruelly punctuates his declaration of faith in the material with the words ‘like Doctor Drossos’. Such a materialistic philosophy loses its practical value when you are dealing with something which you can neither feel nor see nor know about. The Doctor’s dying words have seemingly pointed to the despair which such materialistic self-reliance invites. It is a male philosophy which seeks to wrest the world according to the pattern of one’s needs, and it has no place for powerless, or indeed for the weak. It is the complete converse of the worldview conveyed by Mrs St Aubyn’s prayer, which is why the General, who is no hypocrite, has refused to join in. But he has no response to Albrecht’s unwise and unkindly goading jibe, and walks on out on the assembly. Davis, with customary sympathy for the General, suggests that he felt he could guard them all against death.

A mocking shadow
The General has walked out to stand at the pyre in the temple of Hermes, to which he adds a stick as a votive offering, an immediate refutation of his remarks inside. Kyra emerges from the shadows, as if she has been waiting for him, and laughs with mocking triumphalism. She senses that he is on the verge of wholly surrendering his ‘modern’ worldview, and ready to plunge headlong back into the deep past. She changes her tone as she seeks to draw kinship with him. We see her putting aside her sly, ever-suspicious distance as she seemingly speaks from the heart. Whilst the General has just been fuelling the votive fire of Hermes’ temple, Kyra suggests that they feel the pulse of an even earlier age, one which predates the flowering of classical Greek civilisation. ‘We are dark people out of an old soil, with old blood that moves to ancient sorceries, magic; good spirits and bad spirits’.

The reference to ancient sorceries may be Lewton’s nod to the Algernon Blackwood story of that title, which was a major influence on Cat People. This statement is as close as Kyra gets to a direct articulation of the core of her beliefs, of the world as she sees it. The identification with the soil, the element of earth, suggests a chthonic origin which predates the gods of the Greek pantheon. Perhaps she traces her roots back to the Titans, the race and culture analogous to the gods which were usurped by Zeus and his brethren. Some versions of the mythic stories have the Titans confined to Tartarus, the lowest depths of the Underworld. The linking of blood and soil also suggests a peasant identification of people and land, a localised and national sense of identity bound up in place. In the original script, this is reduced to the level of village blood feuds. The General had defied one such in order to marry his wife, who came from the neighbouring village. But she was forcibly repatriated by her own kin, and died shortly thereafter.

"We face death here"
Kyra draws the General’s attention back to the central fact of their situation, which has become so self-evident that it may have lost some of its gravity. ‘We face death here’, she says, speaking with emphatic directness. ‘And worse things than death’, she continues. ‘Evil things that I know and that you know and Thea knows’. She introduces Thea into their bond of native kinship, invoking an almost mystical vein of inherently intuited cultural knowledge which flows in the blood. She attempts to further elucidate this exclusive, nationalist form of mysticism, describing ‘things that we cannot tell in words, but which we feel – feel and fear’. Her assertion of a level of knowledge which language lacks the capacity to describe seeks to put her beliefs beyond the rational analysis of intellectuals like Albrecht and Doctor Drossos. She could almost be describing the unconscious, the demons and malevolent shadows which she conjures up being culturally specific forms given to universal dreads.

Kyra immediately starts to direct her suspicions towards Thea once more. The Titan Cronus devoured his own children for fear of being displaced. A similar fearful hatred of youth, of the younger generation emerging to displace the old seems to be playing out in Kyra’s mind. It is a pattern which can be seen on the personal and the cultural level, as she seeks to preserve the old ways in the face of mocking contempt from the inhabitants of the modern world, the new Greece. Kyra’s insinuations have now all but fully metamorphosed into direct accusations. With her uncertain origins as well as her youthful bloom in a place of sickness and death, Thea provides a convenient figure for embodying unconscious fears and dreads. Casting her as a demon, a vorvoloka, is a way of deflecting a genuine existential terror of the void, the prospect of the nullity of death. Evil becomes a comforting concept, allowing the creation of something concrete against which to battle. Digging further into the realms of the subconscious, Kyra points to the hours of sleep as a time when suppressed urges are allowed free reign. ‘Think on the hours when one sleeps’, she says. The body may lie still in bed, but what happens to the thoughts, the spirit? With what ancient demons does it spend its time and in what deeds?’ Kyra is quite insightful in pointing to the continuity at the essential or subconscious level of an unchanged human nature, which underlies the surface sheen of modern rationalism. But she lacks the language to formulate these insights in any terms other than projections of peasant bogeymen and night ghouls. She looks pleased at the effect she has had on the General, the purchase her ideas have evidently taken on his mind. He walks back into the house in a speechless daze, as if trying to break free of the mesmeric influence which her proximity casts. The suspicious glance which he throws at Thea as he passes her indoors affirms Kyra’s colonization of his fragile ego.

Identity crisis
Retreating to the solitude of his room, the General wearily takes to his bed. His physical, moral and psychological strength seems to have ebbed to a low level of dazed confusion. At total odds with his customary air of brute strength and certitude, he now seems almost pathetically vulnerable. Davis comes in, and the General addresses him as Oliver for the first time. At a moment of existential crisis, the affinity which these two men feel for one another comes to the fore. The General asks a series of circling questions, spiralling in on the core of the doubts which trouble him. Oliver finds it difficult to answer. The General has been the object of his journalistic portrait, the man whose opinions and views he has sought, and it is disconcerting to have the roles reversed. The General asks whether he is different from other men, and then tries to refine this by asking whether his thoughts are different. He then opens the question out from the personal to a more general ‘are Greeks different?’ He is trying to re-establish some sense of his personal identity, to account for his sense of isolation here. He continues to worry away at the nub of the matter, and asks whether his attitude towards the plague is different. To this question, Davis immediately agrees. He tells him he differs from the others in his insistence on fighting it, like he’s fighting ‘something bigger than the plague, wrestling with something you can’t see’. He likens this to Kyra’s attitude, emphasising a kinship which only serves to direct him further towards her. The General is listening anxiously to Davis, with the same eager and hungry look with which he listened to Doctor Drossos during his debate with Albrecht. He is looking to Davis to provide him with an alternative outsider’s viewpoint with which he can counter the influence of Kyra. He fails to do this. When he asks him about Thea, Davis, rather than provide a definitive refutation of his fears, merely says ‘she’s young’. This evasive answer seems to re-awaken some resolve in the General and he warns Davis against going out to see her. The journalist brushes him off, telling him that they may all be dead tomorrow. But his dismissal of the General is too lighthearted. He has failed to notice a dangerous new sense of certitude which has settled in his mind.

No comments: