The Return of the Cinematic Dead

Curator's Note

Film is horrific in its origins. As Éric Dufour argues, the Lumiere brother’s film – L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat – is the first horror movie (and even that cinema begins in horror). Like all good horror, film makes dead things live, it animates them. Cinema makes an animate of all. Alan Cholodenko has argued that all cinema is a form of animation: ‘not only is animation a form of film, film, all film, film “as such”, is a form of animation.’ It is not that all and any horror/wonder in cinema, therefore, is within the story, understood as a narrative genre, or in the presence of some kind of monster, or in the performances, or indeed in any other element of the mise-en-scène. It is potentially in all of these contents in as much as film can make anything animate in weird, horrific ways. It is in the ‘how’, how these contents are shown, how they appear (or make themselves appear) out of the background, like a train – or a little girl. The how of film, when horrific, is a way of showing that renews the optical with weirdness – the weirdness of that being alive. Contemporary Japanese horror cinema, (‘J-Horror’), is good at this. It goes beyond the intermingling of human and animal that characterises much Western horror such as The Wolfman, Cat People, The Fly, and so on, and instead mixes the living and the inert, the optical foreground and background, centre and periphery. But it does so in order to show, as perhaps only film can, that what we saw as dead is actually alive, and always was. Japanese animism is not a haunting by the actual dead, but the return of the variously supposed dead, those disregarded in the background. We might say that J-Horror is ‘background-oriented’. Or rather, it concerns those moments when the background will no longer be ignored and re-asserts itself as a kind of optical subject, an alter-human that was never, in-itself, an object at all, but only seemingly so through our disregard. This is its revolt, its return that forces us to look back at it – the image itself as protagonist. The horror, the monster, is not in the foreground anymore but the background. This is not a case of ‘look out behind you’ (for a monster): it is the ‘behind’ itself as emergent monster.


Thought provoking post John, thank you for a good read. Your take on J-Horror has me thinking of it in terms of a "return of the cinematic repressed." And, is it not also interesting how we find the power of the Lumiere's cinema in the presentation, as opposed to the explicit representation? That is, the train's arrival is interestingly background-oriented, moving into sight as if dead on (as the old anecdote goes), scaring those in the front row. Cinema, here, seems to image the coming of modernity itself, the animated-machine rising to life with all its horror/wonder.

Thanks John for a great post and amazing clip. I think Ringu is extraordinary and shows, yet again, how the best horror relies more on suggestion and implication than assertion or demonstration (as you say, revealing what is horrific, disturbing, or uncanny in the background). Here the background is not only psychic or unconscious, animal or sexual, but technological and audiovisual: it is the video image itself that is fatal and the telephone network that announces its fatality (makes me think of Cronenberg's Videodrome). And it's specifically oriented towards (Japanese) youth culture, cursed by a repressed past and captured by the desire to see. The deadly images and sounds, suggestive and fascinating, though we experience them only obliquely, propagate themselves via rumour and gossip, informal networks of communication. Imagine another (non-American) remake today, using twitter or facebook! For all the power of background sound and of visual suggestion, it's still the visceral-bodily features that get to me: those gnarled fingers, missing fingertips, uncanny crawling, and hair without a face. I don't want to look, want to get away, escape the deathly image intruding into my living room, taking possession of my mind, but I'm captured by the image, cannot look away ...

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