Aug 13, 2014
In my less than humble opinion, “Folk horror” (or what one might call “Heimat horror” in certain contexts) is one of the most effective, underused, and under-appreciated sub-genres of horror cinema. Indeed, it is hard to think of a horror film that is more organically immaculate than The Wicker Man (1973) directed by Robin Hardy, yet few filmmakers have had the gall to tackle the sub-genre (though, it was somewhat trendy in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s). From William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) to Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), the somewhat loose and unofficial sub-genre has pretty much always been around and has made filmgoers change the way they perceive their homelands and culture/religious heritages, with The Blair Witch Project (1999) being a more unfortunate example. As a country of ‘liberty loving’ anarchists and sexual degenerates that has never been big on horror or folk history in general, France seems like one of the last places in the world that would produce quality folk horror flicks, yet the nation is responsible for at least one of the most wildly idiosyncratic and inventive works of the subgenre. Indeed, although featuring elements of black comedy, satire, surrealism, and absurdism, Litan (1982) directed by actor/auteur Jean-Pierre Mocky (Les Dragueurs aka The Chasers, Agent Trouble) is folk horror (or, more like ‘anti-folk horror’) in its most preternatural and iconoclastic form. Directed by a mensch from a Polish Jewish family who has fathered at least 17 children (he has claimed that the first was born when he was only 12) and who developed a deep loathing of the Catholic Church after being molested by a Priest as a schoolboy, Litan – La cité des spectres verts aka Le voleur de visages aka Litan ou les messagers de l'au-delà depicts an apocalyptic world where the intellectually-challenged peasants worship death and where religion and traditional culture are more or less atavistic viruses that lead to mass psychosis and countless senseless deaths, among other things. Although Mocky has been directing films for over half a century, he got his start as an actor (in fact, he plays the male lead of Litan) who has worked with Luchino Visconti and Jean Cocteau and is best known for directing commercial oriented comedies and thrillers and certainly not arthouse folk horror. In fact, after being rather impressed by Litan, I attempted to watch some of his other cinematic works and found them completely unwatchable, thus making it seem unlikely that he is capable of directing anything even remotely like surrealist folk horror, yet he did and should be remembered for it by serious cinephiles, if only for that one film. Indeed, while Mocky’s film is clearly influenced by The Wicker Man (there is at least one ‘borrowed’ scene involving masked children peering out of windows), it features a complete and utter disrespect for faith, religion, and traditional culture where as Hardy’s film is a bit more ‘respectful’ when it comes to these cultural ingredients (it should be noted that Hardy's flick was penned by a Hebrew named Anthony Shaffer, hence the film's somewhat negative portrayal of Christianity, yet arguably favorable depiction of paganism). Set in a small eccentric French village during a yearly region-oriented folk holiday that is full of pageantry and flamboyant customs and can probably be best described as a frog redneck equivalent to Mexico’s “Día de Muertos” (aka “Day of the Dead”), Litan depicts what happens when two 'progressive' liberal-minded lovers fall prey to the labyrinthine lunacy of a town suffering from a spiritually retarded sort of mass psychosis where friends run over friends with their cars, jealous husbands brutally slaughter their wives for merely dancing with other men, death is worshiped while life is neglected, and people more or less become degenerate versions of the ancient archetypes they dress up as, or at least attempt to be. Like George A. Romero's The Crazies (1973) meets Juan López Moctezuma's The Mansion of Madness (1973) meets Werner Herzog’s (anti)Heimat flick Herz aus Glas (1976) aka Heart of Glass as directed by the majorly mongrelized lovechild of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roger Corman, Litan is a curious little piece of cultivated arthouse kitsch that reminds one that small villages always beat cities when it comes to truly fantastic, mystifying, and horrifying horror cinema.
As described in an inter-title at the beginning of the film, “Masks, music and dances: in the town of Litan each year, one celebrates deaths thus.” Indeed, automaton-like musicians with red suits and creepy semi-anatomically-correct silver masks (that sort of resemble the face of the eponymous puppet in Sandor Stern’s 1988 horror flick Pin), a man balancing a bike on an outdoor tightrope, an ogre-like peasant shoveling a grotesque pile of what seems to be hay mixed with trash, and mysterious men in skull and quasi-zombie masks are just some of the strange folks celebrating the cherished local holiday, though some people are not exactly excited about the festivities, including a cosmopolitan couple from out-of-town. Indeed, after waking up from a seemingly real nightmare involving the death of her geologist boyfriend Jock (Jean-Pierre Mocky), who has temporarily relocated to the village to study a place called Black Rock, Nora (played by Marie-José Nat, who is probably best known for André Cayatte’s 1964 Anatomy of a Marriage aka Françoise ou La vie conjugale and the holocaust comedy Train of Life (1998) aka Train de vie) becomes quite hysterical and immediately goes looking for her best beau after receiving a dubious phone call regarding his whereabouts, only to run into a number of weirdoes who attempt to approach her on the way, including zombified frogs of the philistine peasant sort, babbling cross-eyed lunatics, and seemingly pernicious fellows in skull masks, among countless others.
After witnessing a decidedly deranged dude intentionally running over a medic with his car, Nora hitches a ride from a car full of malevolent musicians (aka the weird dudes with the red suits and silvers masks), who get a kick out of spooking her, with one sinisterly remarking, “Don’t be scared! Today is Litan’s day, everybody is thrilled!,” after making her squirm with fear. Meanwhile, a group of boy scouts that vaguely resemble the Hitler Youth (they sport khaki-colored uniforms with fascist-esque insignia and whatnot) have tons of good jolly fun while carrying out their yearly tradition of attempting to catch an imaginary monster at Black Rock, but the fun ends when a rather Aryan-looking young man named Eric Bohr (Terence Montagne) is found lying face down in a stream inside a catacomb by Jock, who does what he can to save the unresponsive boy. On top of that, deadly glowing electric eels(?), which are assumedly responsible for crippling Eric, are haunting the waters of the local river and streams. Indeed, with one touch from the electric eels, a person is instantly killed and/or evaporated. When Nora arrives, she accompanies Jock and Eric’s father Monsieur Bohr (Georges Wod) as they take the seemingly half-dead boy scout to the hospital, but things only get weirder from there. Of course, the hospital is a packed madhouse full of babbling nuts sporting makeup and moronic haircuts, violent freaks strapped to beds, and other vaguely human rabble. The doctors there are no less deranged, as one of them dedicates his time to removing the vocal chords of canines, while the head doctor, Dr. Steve Julien (Nino Ferrer)—a rather serious quack who proudly believes in the “metempsychosis of the souls”—has a special secured room in the hospital where he attempts to talk to the dead, which he eventually manages to do. When a corpse has a spirit inside, a person's face appears in its pupil. Naturally, little Eric becomes a guinea pig in Dr. Julien’s dubious experiments. While roaming around the hospital, Jock enters a room covered with walls upon walls of white sheets where he discovers the freshly mutilated corpse of Eric’s father, whose neck has been slit in multiple places. Indeed, there is a conspiracy going on at the hospital and Dr. Julien seems to be heading it.
When Jock and Nora make the mistake of contacting the local police, they find themselves being chased by a lard ass philistine cop named Commissioner Bolek (Roger Lumont) and his fascistic blackshirt officers in a subplot that makes up 1/3 to 1/2 of the film, though everyone is running from something in Litan, be it physical or metaphysical. As Dr. Julien reveals in a conversation with Bolek, when people die in Litan, their corpses are locked in lead coffins and buried in stone vaults, thus hinting at the undead quality of the ancient village’s postmortem citizenry. When the good Doctor discusses his obsession with metempsychosis with Bolek, the cop hilariously states, “It’s always smart and cultured people like you who believe that kind of twaddle.” As a woman that stoically states, “I don’t care what is after death,” Nora—an 'empowered' little lady that is quite ‘liberal’ and ‘modern’ like her husband, hence why the two are not married and do not have kids despite being deeply in love—is innately different from the general Litan populous, with even the scientists and doctors being prone to superstition, irrationality, and mysticism. As the chase between the couple and Bolek and his men continues, more and more people in the town fall into seemingly inexplicable catatonic states. Eventually, Jock and Nora are caught by Bolek, though their imprisonment does not last long, as the village has entered a state more chaotic than Berlin during the remaining days of WWII, which enables them to get out of prison fairly easily (actually, Jock sacrifices himself for his lady love, so Nora never spends a second in a jail cell, though she finds herself imprisoned by the townspeople). When Dr. Julien’s wife becomes a member of the undead, he becomes even more determined to be successful with his experiments and he ultimately manages to talk to his dead rival Koonst via boy scout Eric’s corpse. While being interviewed by Dr. Julien, Koonst ultimately reveals that there is no heaven and hell, but only lonely perennial floating among the dead. While the dead can feel one another, they cannot communicate with each other. As for the meaning of life and morality, Koonst remarks, “We’re dreaming your life and when the dream stops, you die.” Near the end of the film, the only people that have yet to succumb to mass psychosis or death are Nora, Jock, Dr. Julien and his highly attractive blonde female assistant, Bolek, and a gang of ‘three little pigs.’ Indeed, three degenerates sporting real hog heads as masks attempt to pillage the village as well as Nora, but they ultimately succumb in the end as well. While that premonition Nora had regarding Jock's death does not play out as she originally imagined, she and her husband ultimately fall victim to the glowing electric eels as well. During the exceedingly eerie and less than happy ending of the film, all the undead townspeople, who have gone through metempsychosis, meet at the local church and the head pasture declares, “You’d chose Litan’s day to put us through this terrible ordeal, God almighty. But we don’t want to die a second time. We just want to sleep and dream. Be merciful on us, Lord. Sleep. . .And dream.” In a rather bizarre twist, it is revealed that Jock’s spirit has now taken over his dead girlfriend Nora’s body, thus making him a spiritual transvestite of sorts.
Undoubtedly, while watching Litan the following quote from belated French arthouse-pornographer Jean-Daniel Cadinot (Les minets sauvages aka Tough and Tender, Charmants Cousins) certainly came to mind: “An erect phallus is a symbol of life, a cross a symbol of death.” Indeed, homoerotic overtones aside, Cadinot’s critical remark regarding Catholicism certainly highlights one of the major themes of Mocky’s film, as a work that associates traditional culture and Catholicism with death. The fact that the two lead characters, Nora and Jock, have committed the big Catholic “no, no” of living together in sin and out of wedlock only highlights this as two people that have chosen real flesh over ‘metaphysical necrophilia.’ Of course, it is well know that Mocky hates the Catholic Church, though he has softened a little bit of the years in terms of his anti-Catholic sentiment, remarking for a May 2010 article entitled ‘The Arty Semite’ at the Jewish Daily Forward: “Today, priests have become a minority; I never attack minorities.” While a rather strikingly original film, many elements of Litan bare a glaring resemblance to German auteur Peter Fleischmann’s dystopian sci-fi flick Die Hamburger Krankheit (1979) aka The Hamburg Snydrome which, on top of featuring a deadly virus that leaves people in a catatonic state and various anti-Heimat sentiments, also includes malevolent characters wearing goofy skull masks. Featuring a somewhat cheesy soundtrack that seems like it was stolen from some forgotten Italian cannibal exploitation flick from the late-1970s and equally schlocky special effects in regard to the glowing eels, Litan is a rare cinematic work that manages to straddle a healthy median between cinematic class and low-grade trash, as if Mocky thought he could make a multidimensional work that would simultaneously appeal to pretentious art fags and Troma untermenschen, hence the relative obscurity of the film today.
It should be noted that Mocky's film features some of the most aesthetically displeasing and just downright vulgar Frenchmen ever captured on celluloid, as a work that puts Veit Harlan's unkosher National Socialist classic Jud Süß (1940) to shame in terms of unflattering racial caricatures (interestingly, the Jewish director/lead more or less looks like an archetypical French fellow). Of course, as a work that was directed by not just any Judaic gentleman, but one of the Polish persuasion who fell prey to the carnal vices of an unholy pedophile priest, Litan wallows in anti-völkisch and anti-Catholic sentiment in a rather predictable way, yet the film ultimately transcends these rather cliche limitations due to its rather penetrating and peculiar aesthetic prowess and assortment of both aesthetic and thematic idiosyncrasies. Although I am a bit more cosmopolitan than a farmer and I find Catholic services to be somewhat unsettling, I can think of things that are much worse than death-worshiping mystics who worship a Hebraic bastard on a stick. Indeed, redneck villagers are the least of France's worries, as the nation is on the verge of racial and cultural suicide, as demonstrated by its indigenous population’s declining birth rates, dangerously growing populations of mostly hostile aliens from the third world, and prevailing neo-liberal ideologies, which have turned the French into a bunch of groveling cultural cuckolds. While I consider Litan a minor masterpiece of sorts, it mostly seems like pure absurdist comedy compared to the very real and prophetic horrors of a novel like French author/adventurer Jean Raspail’s masterpiece The Camp of the Saints (1973) aka Le Camp des saints, but of course you will never see someone like Mocky cinematically adapting a work like that for the silverscreen. Indeed, true folk horror should feature a scenario where the folk is threatened by an outsider and not the other way around, but then again, a horror flick set in an Israeli settlement featuring IDF thugs as satanic villains sounds like a great and rather relevant concept for a film.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:50 AM
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