As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading Euro Horror by Ian Olney. I’m more of a cinephile than a student of film, so I don’t always comprehend the language of film theory. Still, Olney’s book is reasonably approachable, and it’s gotten me to re-examine my fondness for the largely disposable genre films of the 1950s-1980s.
To do great disservice to his thesis through half-informed summary, Olney observes that many of these films invite viewers to invert cultural norms and expectations, sometimes through plot (cannibal films that show Westerners as prideful encroachers) but often through performative spectatorship (simplistically, the use of POV shots to experience alternative perspectives). In other words, as the films provide ample titillation, gore, and thrills, they also allow an escape from our everyday points of view.
Euro Horror is absolutely worth a read, if you’re interested in critical analysis of how we interact with film. I really can’t do Olney’s observations justice with my rambling, so please check out the book for yourself.
As I thought over all of this in the shower (where else would one think about horror?) I recalled sequences from a creaky old house mystery I’d recently seen. “House of the Damned” (1963) was described to me as a cross between “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959) and “Freaks” (1932). That may not seem like a glowing recommendation to you, but to me it sounded like a curiosity that simply had to be seen. Ultimately, I believe we may both be correct.
Spoilers are about to be dropped like so many phat beats, but honestly if you have ever seen an episode of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” you already know the entire plot.
The basic premise of “House of the Damned” is that the long-term lease on a secluded mansion has expired, and the owners want an architect to determine what should be done with the place. The final tenant was a retired carnival owner who was a bit of a recluse. In fact, he hasn’t been seen since he paid the remainder of his rent a few months ago. Enter desperate architect Scott Campbell and his wife Nancy, who assists in taking measurements.
I mentioned spoilers, yes?
The majority of the film consists of carnival folk trying to scare the Campbells away so they can continue to stay in the house. One of these characters is played by Frieda Pushnik1, a woman born without arms or legs. She is featured in some of the more effective scenes of the movie, which just happen to involve examples of performative spectatorship via POV shots. Pushnik’s scenes revolve around a cabinet in the large room that the Campbells use as their bedroom and base of operations. The cabinet has a fine mesh front, through which Pushnik watches everything they do.
In the first of these scenes, the camera watches Nancy Campbell undress through a sort of screen2. In a reverse shot, this screen is revealed to be the mesh facing of the cabinet, and we briefly see Pushnik’s impassive face. It’s a startling transition, forcing the viewer to reinterpret the leering, male gaze just shared. Is Pushnik disapproving? Attracted? A threat, or a victim? We don’t have enough context, and so the mystery lingers as the movie continues.
The second sequence involves a guest — Loy Schiller, whose husband brought the job to Scott Campbell. Once again, we look through the eyes of Frieda Pushnik as a woman changes clothes. At least we can assume it is Pushkin observing again, as no evidence is presented to the contrary. It’s essentially the same shot as before, except for the lack of reveal. Again the viewer shares in the voyeurism but is left with unresolved tension.
The final version of the scene at last resolves the tension in a way that inverts the situation completely. The audience looks once more through the mesh of the cabinet, but this time it’s no peep show. Instead Joseph Schiller enters the room, looking for clues to his wife’s disappearance. He notices the cabinet, and as he approaches to investigate, we can’t help but feel trapped behind the door. When Frieda Pushkin is finally revealed, everything falls into place.
The spectator was powerless all along. Pushkin (and the viewer) may have been spying, but she is a passive force — completely at the mercy of the observed should they turn on her. By sharing her viewpoint, we’re put in that same position of helpless observer. In the end we are meant to empathize with the carnies, and by exposing the surveillance in which we’ve participated as the vantage of weakness the film prepares us to wish them well.
I have no idea whether the filmmakers intended this cumulative effect when those scenes were filmed. Certainly there are other — directly commercial — reasons to put in two sequences of women undressing, and having them being watched adds some much-needed danger (as well as a flimsy excuse for the titillation). Just as certainly the inversion of power in the third sequence is deliberate, taking good advantage of the pattern established by the earlier scenes. The revelation of Frieda Pushkin’s vulnerability I can believe was an intentional deflation of the accumulated tension, but was it meant to literally put us in her place?
I don’t know. The effect is there though, and it’s nicely accomplished at that.
1. Frieda Pushnik’s character is not given a name, so I will refer to her by the actress’s name.
2. The tastefulness of these scenes is almost shocking for modern viewers.