University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin
Seer (Irl, 2008)
Director: Eric Courtney Writer: Martin Andrew Robinson
Principal Cast: Tara Nixon O’Neill, Siobhan Lam, Hannah Jennings, Damian Hannaway, Donal Patterson, Declan Reynolds, Declan McGauran, David Walsh, Rita Evelyn Smith, Rory Mullen
Cinematographer: Alan Kennedy
Music: Kevin Jennings
Producer: Jim Cahill
There has been a recent explosion in Irish horror. McMahon’s Dead Meat, made in 2004, was the first feature to be funded locally and inspired a new genre in Irish filmmaking. Like recent Irish horrors Isolation (O’Brien 2005), Shrooms (Breathnach 2007) and Dead Meat, Seer (Courtney 2008) plays on ideas of fate and free will, the imagery of the rural, the hidden social horrors of the past and the figure of the independent Irish woman.
Horror films, like fairytales, are designed to provide their audience with a cathartic release, a scare which in the safety of the cinema bonds, revitalises and excites us. In these recessionary times, that release is a welcome pleasure. Seer takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotion in the Irish countryside. The narrative begins with seven young people trapped in a farmhouse, one of whom, Mary Perry (Tara Nixon O’Neill), is revealed to be a seer (she has prophetic visions). This story is intercut with her parents’ concurrent search for her from their home (another farmhouse). From a police visit we learn that she went missing from her flat in Kilkenny a week ago and was last seen by a farmer in a country lane struggling with a man. We’ve been duped, the house of seven was a dream world, in reality she is a lone victim. Finally, the film brings us to her true whereabouts, a shed on an isolated farm where she is being tortured by a serial rapist/killer. So there you have it, entrapment, abduction, certain death, all our worst fears brought into visceral focus.
Seer opens with the distorted audio of a news story about a fire in a remote 200 year old farmhouse in the Wexford countryside, matched with images of that house. Cut to a woman in a room who awakes on top of a bed, fully clothed, screaming. She doesn’t know who or where she is and the only clue to her identity is a hospital bracelet on her wrist bearing the name Mary Perry. As the story unfolds, six others go through the same ritual. They discover a deadly creature lurking outside. Tight shots in confined spaces relay the entrapment, claustrophobia and terror of uncertainty they feel. Like Isolation, our ‘knowledge position’ is restricted and it is the unmotivated point-of-view shots which affirm the monster’s presence. From time to time the point of view switches to that of the monster’s as the screen turns to red (a similar device to that used in Daoust’s The Room (2006)).
As a ‘siege horror’ the film starts to resemble Night of the Living Dead (Romero 1968). Four boys and three girls trapped in a house sounds rife for dramatic scenes but here the pacing lags and the dialogue flounders as repetition and boredom takes over, à la reality TV. The characters are all white, heterosexual, attractive and middle-class, and the men control the women (singling out Mary in their ‘witch-hunt’ for the source of their misery). Stuart (Damian Hannaway) takes over the house as patriarch, while Peter (Donal Patterson), in eye-level close-ups styled after A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and with knife in hand, starts to resemble the archetypal slasher. In a key scene he sits tied to a chair as Mary flirts with him, this S&M moment revealing another side to her – until this point she has played the panting, terror-stricken, fainting femme fatale. Now she takes on a sinister edge.
Unusually for a teen/young adult horror, alliances in the house are formed according to gender rather than sexual attraction, although delicately hushed and heated talk of sisterhood might suggest more (or could be read as signifying the masculine femininity of Mary as the ‘final girl’ (Clover 1992)). Following traditional Irish cinema gender codes the men play out the violent rituals of masculinity (they fight constantly and Peter stabs two guys) and the women play out the maternal rituals of femininity (nurturing each other).
Each character — except Mary — is doomed to their fate; an encounter with death, embodied by the terrifying creature, whose penetrative claws recall Freddie Krueger (the killer in your dreams). But this is no ordinary slasher movie. Mary becomes plagued by visions which she passes on to each of the others who in turn, experience violent seizures and go to ‘the dark place’ in their minds, after which they become unhinged and preoccupied by the monster. These visions leave her victims with scratches on their face, unexplained fetishistic marks which link her to the monster and serve as a precursor for their deaths at its hands.
The beauty of the cinematography in fellow housemate Bridget’s (Hannah Jennings) mental shift to ‘the dark place’ stands out as a memorable scene. Here the film takes on a new aesthetic. It moves away from the previous sequences tendencies towards realism and an expressionist sensibility takes over. In a surreal, beautiful tableau Jennings performs a wonderful piece of Gothic acting against the stylised mise-en-scène. The chiaroscuro lighting here cuts the deep perspective shot diagonally to reveal the foreboding path to the monster as an isolated source of light. The light we traditionally associate with life forms a path to her violent death.
The monster is not a lone male stalker in a mask, rather it is an embodiment of the repressed unconscious, it represents our greatest fears, the ‘dark place’ in our minds. It is primordial and undead, a cloaked skull – a fetishistic lack — which stands 10 feet tall. Seen only in glimpses (following Hitchcock, Tourneur et al, what terrifies the spectator is not explicit violence but the art of suggestion, the terror of the unimaginable) it evokes mythology, folklore and the primeval past, all reiterated through other elements of the film such as seers, pentagrams, wake rituals and the living dead.
Mary faces the monster and assumes the power of the gaze implying, as Stephen Neale (1980) has suggested, that if read from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective the monster can be understood as a representation of female sexuality, i.e. it may be Mary’s distorted mirror-image. Linda Williams (1983) argues that in horror the female protagonist and monster share a sexual difference from the ‘normal male’ and so represent a potent threat to male power. This difference is reaffirmed by Mary’s threat to the social order as a seer. The figure of the monster has also been read as a signifier of the repression — particularly sexual repression —produced by ‘monogamous, heterosexual, patriarchal capitalists’ (Wood 1979: 8). The monster becomes Mary’s ally in slashing the norms which oppress her. She seems to share a primitive connection with it.
As an animated corpse, a body without a soul, the monster is wholly abject. It serves as a manifestation of her extremes, of uncontrolled female desire and the primacy of the ego which will do anything for survival. Its claws thus recall the ‘vagina dentata’ motif as it kills — its victims are Mary’s victims and must die for her to survive. In this way, she is an ambivalent vampiric, cannibalistic heroine, both victim and monster. She can be read in Barbara Creed’s (1993) terms as a signifier of the female as abject in horror, the ‘monstrous-feminine’. In contrast to the self-sacrificing masochism of the mother-colleen archetype of Irish film the masochism of others is perversely pleasurable to Mary.
Following the death of the last of Mary’s housemates she reveals herself to be ‘the dark place’ and starts to unravel the meaning of her visions which provokes a fit of mania. It is now that we realise that the house of seven was Mary’s dream world. This may explain the somewhat wooden acting, sound problems and the implausibility of their initial hesitancy to escape. The dream is, like the horror movie itself, an escapist fantasy. Cinema is an analogy for dreaming and shows us our idealised selves in a heightened reality. Where Mary has no control she dreams of a world where she controls others.
Now we understand that only Mary is a fully developed character because she will fulfill the trope of the ‘final girl’. This is her story. We also realise the relevance of the scenes set at another farmhouse with Mary’s parents which have been and continue to intercut the main narrative. (Although these scenes reveal her history they seem an unnecessary distraction.)
The movie cuts to its final location, another horror staple: the cabin in the woods — here a shed on an isolated farm. In the real-world of the film Mary is in the dark-lit shed, gagged and hanging from the rafters by her arms. Under a single light Mary is bloodied, bruised and tormented by a man (the slasher?), who explicitly states his plans to torture, rape and then kill her. Again the film’s aesthetic shifts from realism to expressionism and here the camera style changes from penetrative movement to tightly encircling the pair. This mixture of fantasy and reality is the basis of horror, a genre which combines folk monsters with real ones (e.g. the combination of the fairytale and the real-life child killer in Freddie Krueger), and brings us to the real terror of the film – the psychosis of the real-life boogeymen (as best represented by the fictionalised family of Ed Geins (a real-life American cannibal/killer/necrophiliac) in the farm-set horror Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper 1974)).
The disjointed structure of the film as it skips between the three locations — Mary’s internal world (the house of seven), her parent’s kitchen and the final ‘cabin in the woods’/farm shed — reflects Mary’s crazed — but not insane — mind in this final horrific setting. It also draws us to the constructedness of the film (as do several references to visual art — her mother’s/housemate’s drawings), reminding us that, despite its pretences to reality, it is a work of fiction. We are safe.
With the help of her visions (her dead sister communicates to her the means of escape) Mary breaks free of her objectification (as she steps out of her shackles she steps out of the mirror in which she is framed) anddestroys the killer by smashing his skull in with a spade while screaming manically in true rape-revenge style. We are granted the requisite release of tension. She returns home. Elements of the melodrama now arise as the family’s repressed memories are exhumed and we are finally shown the significance of the others she encountered in the farmhouse and why that place, and that fire, is so important to her family history.
By rationalising the irrational through explanatory family scenes, Seer neutralises its horror. It falls victim to Aristotelian logic and fails to reach the sublimity of terror as that which is beyond narrative control. W. H. Rockett notes: ‘Things seen, fully explained, and laid to rest in the last reel… are mere horrors’ (1982: 132). Seer’s conclusion ties up any and all disturbing loose ends and safely restores the ‘normal’ world under paternal law. And yet the film leaves you with an enduring sense of unease and uncertainty – the dream monster was never killed and so we are denied a full sense of catharsis. The fear prevails.
In contrast to the parodic self-referentiality of so many modern horrors, Seer respects the limitations of the genre. The film’s self-conscious artifice might be rooted in 1970s horror (one of Courtney’s directorial influences for this film) and/or Philip Brophy’s concept of ‘horrality’ (1986), that is, the idea that horrors knowingly play with the audience’s knowledge of generic conventions.
Courtney described his film for US horror site Fangoria as “Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 1948) infused withHalloween”. Made by Carpenter in 1978 Halloween was the first classic American slasher movie and Seerborrows many structural elements from it, including the idea that the real horror lies in the underside of normal, middle-class homes and the repressive patriarchal family. The final scene of Seer, a dialogue between Mary and her father set against the natural landscape of the home farm marries the American slasher film heroine with local images of patriarchy and negates Mary’s independence, as she moves from one man’s control to another.
Seer is a distinctly Irish horror film. The cinematic trope of the rural idyll, briefly displaced, is firmly back in place by the end of the film. This along with the social and familial gender stereotypes (e.g. her mother’s characterisation as soft, irrational, passive and pre-linguistic (she’s also a seer)), Celtic and Christian symbolism, Beckettian paralysis and the absence of sex gives the film a traditionally conservative Irish feel.
Seer is interesting in its use of symbolism and will appeal to local young audiences as a home-grown horror but it’s overwhelmed by its desire to layer too many stories over each other and no doubt hampered by its budget. Nevertheless, the film was well received at last year’s IFI Horrorthon, attracted attention from local and national press, and there has been talk of a general release for the movie and interest from the distributors behind the Saw franchise in America.
Brophy, Philip. 1986. “Horrality — the textuality of contemporary horror films” in Screen (27)1.
Clover, Carol J.. 1992. Men, Women and Chainsaws. London: BFI.
Creed, Barbara. 1993. The Monstrous Feminine. Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge.
Neale, Stephen. 1980. Genre. London: BFI.
Rockett, W.H. 1982. “Perspectives” in Journal of Popular Film and Television 10(3).
Williams, Linda. 1983. “When the woman looks” in Doanne, Mellancamp and Williams (eds). Revision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Frederick MD: AFI Monograph Series, University Publications of America AFI.
Wood, Robin. 1979. “Introduction” in Britton, Lippe, Williams and Wood (eds). American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. Toronto: Festival of Festivals.