Cinema has always possessed the capacity to unnerve. Early adopters, such as the great showman Georges Méliès, recognised the medium’s ability to shock and mesmerise. It was part of a night of theatrical spectacle, alongside sword-swallowers and ladies being cut in two. Méliès aimed to play tricks on the crowd using special effects and shocking changes of pace to place them firmly at the edge of their seats. One of his earliest films featured a man in a hotel being attacked by a giant bedbug and others covered nightmares, haunted castles and demons. But even before Méliès, The Lumière’s seemingly innocuous Arrival of the Mail Train drove the audience into paroxysms of fear, driven to the back of the room, thrilled and threatened.
Cinema acted as a reflection of our own lives, so, with the slightest tweak of subversion, the real world would crumble, replaced with something disturbing. From the red, hooded figure in Don’t Look Now, to Barry Foster gutturally uttering “lovely” to his victims in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, to the freaks in Freaks and the expression on the face of Aleksei Kravchenko at the end of Come and See; with just a few frames, film can firmly place us in the centre of a nightmare. Somewhere that we want to recognise, but feel the need to escape from.
A new season at the Barbican, Step Into The Dark, intends to explore the surreal and the sinister. With films dedicated to the Seven Deadly Sins, Silent Horror and the Dark Heart of Fairy Tales, our intrinsic fear of the dark and the horrors it can hide are investigated. Luminaries such as Mike Leigh, Vivienne Westwood and Kazou Ishiguro introduce such unnerving classics as Carrie, Le Plaisir, La grande bouffe, Beauty and the Beast, Killer of Sheep and The Golem. Films from all genres, spanning almost the entire history of cinema, but all bearing a dark centre and a keen, threatening edge.
So much of cinema-invoked terror is entirely personal. For me there is nothing creepier than those pre-war cartoons such as Betty Boop or Koko the Clown that always seemed to feature a skeleton playing it’s own body like a xylophone. I still can’t watch or even think about Un Chien Andalou, or that particular Pixie’s song inspiring scene which documentary makers seem to gleefully include in every film about film.
It’s not just the films themselves. The cinema environment can firmly land you in an unnerving place. The digital era has eradicated one of the most wondrously unsettling aspects of movie going; when films would burn in mid-projection. It never failed to freak me out. There would be a judder, a hiccup, an unnatural freeze and then faces would suddenly pull apart and the landscape collapse as the celluloid boiled and split. Then the lights would suddenly come up and all patrons would blink and frown at each other.
It happened fairly frequently at the Scala cinema in Kings Cross. That was the location of another unnerving cinema moment, when the Scala cat leapt on me during Carry on Screaming, featured in an all-nighter of Carry On films. It might have been the booze, the lack of sleep or the appearance of Harry H Corbett as a werewolf, but it completely terrified me.
So the darkest dreams of cinema are personal to all of us. Filmmakers try to probe and reveal these elements sure to unsettle us in a way we never saw coming. Why do we like to be scared? It reminds us we’re alive, I guess. And as long as there are movies, they’ll be moments of shock, of horror, of complete abandon. It’s what keeps making us step into the dark.