Thursday, 26 September 2013

Blind Spots

"I fear to watch, yet I cannot turn away" - Milhouse Van Houten

Attempting to add to a Phil Sandifer analysis isn't usually necessary - I haven't felt the need since I took apart "The Sea Devils" - but the man is a self-admitted dislike of horror, which means whenever Doctor Who veers into that particular stomping ground, he can on occasion miss things.

Which brings us to "Blink", AKA "The Carey Mulligan Mysteries". For those few who haven't seen it, the astonishingly simple premise of "Blink" is alien monsters who will creep up on you and eat you (essentially), but only when you're not looking at them. "What Time Is It, Mr Wolf?" with a bodycount.

Now, because Sandifer is both very smart and steeped in Who lore, he makes a wonderful point about this:
The Weeping Angels are, in point of fact, a gleefully dark Doctor Who joke: they’re monsters that make hiding behind the sofa pointless. No, worse than pointless; hiding behind the sofa is the single stupidest thing you could possibly do in the face of a Weeping Angel.
As I say, lovely.  I wouldn't want to contradict that idea.  But I also think it could stand to be added to, because the idea Sandifer is nodding to is - perhaps unsurprisingly - one horror has brushed up against before.

The central conceit of "Blink" is that the aliens don't move when anyone is looking, and that "anyone" includes the viewer.  There's no other way to interpret the scene of the Weeping Angels wrestling with the TARDIS [1]. The viewer is a direct part of events, Heisenberging things all over the shop with their pesky gaze.

This does two things.  On the most obvious level, it involves the viewer directly in the narrative.  This was being done as early as 1959, when William Castle roped up a fake skeleton to go whizzing over the heads of people watching the premiere of House on Haunted Hill.  The 1974 film The Beast Must Die (also known as Black Werewolf, which rather gives the plot twist away) had a deliriously strange "Werewolf break" towards the end of the movie so that people had time to decide who the werewolf actually was.

Obviously, these early examples are very crude.  Things get more subtle a few decades later, with films like Ju-On. Now, I don't actually see why Ju-On (better known as the original Japanese The Grudge) gets as much praise as it does - it's messy and veers too much into silliness, though I may simply have failed to make sufficient allowances for its small budget. In any case, there is one scene in there that's very interesting for our purposes. Towards the end of the film, one of the characters begins to suspect the forces at work against her aren't quite as... external as she might have hoped, and intuits this has something to do with looking through bars - it doesn't really make much sense. Anyway, to test her theory, she places her hands against her face so she can peek through the cracks in her fingers at a mirror, whereupon her own face is suddenly replaced by that of the dead woman stalking her.

Like I say, this makes no sense.  Ignore that, and focus on what's happening here.  The film is positing that things actually get worse when you're peeking through your fingers. I watched this film with friends as part of my yearly Halloweenapalooza extravaganza, and one person started screaming at this point because she'd been watching this woman watch herself through the cracks in her fingers through the cracks in her fingers.

This is part of a more general theme in the film that the things that make one feel safe - as oppose to actually be safe - are at best useless and at worst counter-productive.  There's a scene where someone hides under her covers only to find the ghost inside the bed as well that performs a similar function.  But the example of the ghost in the mirror is more scary because it directly suggests to the viewer that trying to avoid viewing the horror will make the horror worse.  That it will make the viewer a target.

That's an incredibly powerful idea. The "children behind the sofa" idea so indivisible from Doctor Who is just one way in which a viewer can deal with watching something they can't quite actually watch [2].  Looking away or closing one's eyes is just a less ostentatious method of achieving the same result.  Indeed, it's not just horror flicks that people deal with this way; the idea of "closing your eyes" to both one's own problems and those of the world is of course a well-known one.

Ju-On and "Blink" both tell us that this is a bad idea.  That failing to absorb the horror in front of you will make it worse.  It will make you a target. You've somehow become trapped in something you thought wasn't going to involve you, and you're only hope is to keep your focus on events you'd much rather never have thought about happening.

That's where the core of "Blink" lies, in a deliberately and wonderfully malicious way of messing with the viewer's heads. That this is also a pretty funny joke I cannot deny.  This time round, however, it's the horror we should be focusing on.

That, and the Angels.

[1] Well, there is, and that's that the TARDIS has 360 degree vision.  But even that doesn't wash out other instances in the episode. It's not until Season Five that we see the Angels moving, and as is gleefully pointed out in the comment thread below Sandifer's post, that's only because the Angels are moving in-between the frames.

[2] One of my own favourite coping strategies is to reach for the pause button, which of course then received the "Blink" treatment in Season Five's "Time of Angels", the Weeping Angel's sophomore appearance.

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