Friday, 5 October 2012

Monster Cam

There deserves to be a history of that technique, common to many horror films, in which the audience sees as if from the killer or creature's perspective. A shaky handheld camera brushing through leaves and shrubbery, poking round corners, lurking, crouching, a heavy breathing soundtrack. These elements will be familiar to any fan of the slasher genre.

To a certain extent, the origins of this technique must be technologically determined. It is scarcely possible to imagine without a camera sufficiently light and flexible to be highly mobile. The development of handheld camera technique (form Vertov onwards?); the invention of the steadicam;  the techniques and special equipment necessary for underwater shooting, as in Jaws and Zombie Flesh Eaters; these will need be signal moments in its development.

Perhaps we will find the roots of the point-of-view-as-monstrous in film noir: Polonsky's Force of Evil, Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake. A little later, in 1950's alien invasion films like It Came From Outer Space, in which a sort of blobby, wobbly effect irising the frame - and originally in 3D - makes us aware that we are seeing through alien eyes. From there, we will find it used extensively by Hitchcock, most notoriously in Psycho - a film which had a profound effect on the development of subsequent shockers (the influence of Hitchcock on Mario Bava and Dario Argento, for instance, is well known). Likewise, those British horror films with Freddie Francis as either director or cameraman.

There is a moment in Harry Bromley Davenport's bizarre British sci-fi/horror, Xtro, in which the build-up of tension towards one of the earliest attacks by the dad-creature (echoes of PKD's 'Father Thing') is suddenly interrupted, and for no apparent reason, by a scene in which the boy, Tony (played by Simon Nash) walks in on his mother and her boyfriend in flagrante. From the way it is cut in, between two sequences of monster cam, creeping up in the undergrowth of a completely different house; from the way this moment seems at first to bear no relation narrative-wise to the surrounding events; one can only conclude that its express intention was the association of the monster cam technique with the primal scene of Freudian psychoanalysis. A similar development can be found in the more recent ,Splice. Here the process of getting under the skin - and by extension, through the eyes - of the spliced animal, Dren, proceeds - as if by a matter of course - from the moment Dren watches her two creators getting down on the sofa.

From the beginning of John Carpenter's Halloween, we seem to be in similar territory. Nonetheless, through the course of the film's first two sequels, as the antagonist becomes more and more inhuman; the killer p.o.v. shot becomes associated with a machine vision which brings the narrative of this most controversial - supposedly even amoral (shades of Theodore Roszak's novel Flicker) - of cinematic techniques back to the question of technology. The express purpose of Halloween III in particular, as with so much of the work to bare Carpenter's name in this period - seems to be to draw a direct link between George Romero's zombies and the automation of American factory life, the increasing spread of techniques of control and surveillance in society. This potentially brings the development and spread of CCTV technology back where it belongs - as part of an aesthetic history of the cinema, and leads ultimately to the so-called New Aesthetic indelibly associated with the Cameron-ite project of Old Street's 'silicon roundabout'; likewise to the found footage thrillers of the last decade and a half, from Blair Witch to Rec, Cloverfield, and perhaps in particular Paranormal Activity.