Deviance Under the Dome: Horror/Science-Fiction Hybridity as Uncanny in feature film The Perimeter

Ian Dixon, SAE Institute |

What if two children were trapped in a forest under a deadly, invisible dome? This is the premise for the horror/science fiction feature film The Perimeter currently in production, written by AWGIE award winner Stephen Mitchell (2015) and directed by Ian Dixon. This exegetic research outlines several years of gestation, which questions: the story; the efficacy of psychoanalytic projections within the text; and the practicality of shooting the film under low-budget conditions.

Initial research into horror-sci-fi hybridisation suggests that contemporary audiences expect visceral, even Freudian material, the tropes of horror and the speculative ‘nova’ of science fiction (Cleary 2005; Suvin 1979). This begs the question: where is the non-diegetic relevance of such horror deviances as applied to science fiction when the very signifiers of deviance have become mere cinematic cliché (and therefore no longer deviant)? We also ask: how does uncanny material inveigle itself throughout the text when the film’s genesis was simply the availability of practical elements: a Eurasian baby, a seven-year-old girl and a house in the forested mountains?

Research involves the history of both genres and implications for consciously constructed, uncanny material. We investigate the perversions inherent within the traditionally reactionary horror film when cross-pollinated with SF (Cleary 2005). Thus, Freud’s essay on The Uncanny (1990), although disputable in a therapeutic sense, remains applicable to practical filmmaking and discourse (Metz 1977). Also consulted are Adam Roberts’ (2002) Science Fiction; Stephen Cleary’s (2005; 2012) lectures on horror and low-budget filmmaking; and Barbara Creed’s (2012) appraisal of the monstrous-feminine in Alien (1979). The paper represents practice-led, self-reflective and accumulating action research via the case study of The Perimeter. This interdisciplinary pursuit forms a confluence of academic speculation and industry acumen as both film and research are still in flux.

Story as Cinematic Form |

Initially then, we must provide an outline of the plot:

Credit: Mike Williams (Photographer/DOP) and Stephen Mitchell (poster designer)

Credit: Mike Williams (Photographer/DOP) and Stephen Mitchell (poster designer)

In a remote Australian forest, nine-year-old Sarasi Faraday races through the darkness of her isolated family home. Somewhere in the darkness she can hear the screams of her one-year-old sister Nayana and the vicious, snarling attack of their once loved family dog Tripi. With her parents killed by an invisible perimeter that has mysteriously imprisoned their home, Sarasi is trapped. She has no food, no power and no-one to help her. When the intensifying perimeter cuts off even sunlight, can she withstand the terrors of the dark and combat her starving dog to scavenge the corpses of birds who have flown unwittingly into the deadly field? Will she keep her baby sister alive? Does she have the strength to emerge from the protected innocence of childhood and become the savage, survivalist she needs to be? What if escape is right under her nose, but demands a brutal choice no child should ever have to make? (Mitchell 2014).

Stephen Cleary’s (2012) masterclass in ‘lo-bo’ cinema initiated the production for this horror/science-fiction feature film The Perimeter. The imperative was simple: what do we have and what can we make? All other elements flowed from this source (Cleary 2012). Despite synchronistic communication between writer and director derived of thirty years working together, there remained an unsaid/unsayable in our creative and analytical methodology: a complimentary, Lacanian objet petit a (1977), an attempt to explain the maternal sublime, which ‘eludes discourse’ (Creed 2012). This nexus provided rich unconscious material, subsequently applied with firm understanding of genre.

Considering conflicting theories regarding the history of horror and science fiction independently, we sought, not to emulate, but to recognise the influence of certain tropes and nova as they arose within the text. This we deemed preferable to imposing interpretation or worse, prohibition (R. Hall, personal communication, 19 June 2000). Whether the subject matter of the film resulted from our unconscious material or from the ‘optical unconscious’ culturally ingrained through contemporaneous politics remained to be seen (Baishya 2011, p. 3).

Science Fiction History and Influences |

Roberts posits a polemic between the ‘literary verisimilitude’ of realist forms and the imaginative speculation of SF, suggesting that SF imagination allows the author to: ‘invent things not found in our world’ (2002, p. 2). Roberts adopts Darko Suvin’s defining concept within SF, the ‘novum’: the central ‘thing or things that differentiate[s] the world portrayed in science fiction from the world we recognize around us’ (cited 2002, p. 6). Indeed, Roberts suggests that SF has scientific speculation at its core.[1] Roberts also cites Suvin as postulating SF’s ‘interaction of estrangement and cognition’ necessitating ‘an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’ (1979, p. 8-9). In the case of our film, it is the mysterious perimeter and cyborg baby as single entity, which dominate as nova: its exigencies collide the audience’s cognition against their confusion, while the writer delves into alterity, thus grounding the film firmly in the genre’s traditions (Roberts 2002, p. 6).

The history of SF in cinema and literature remains relevant to Perimeter. Firstly, Roberts and Malmgren (1988) exemplify visionary authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, while signaling the latter as superior. Roberts also illustrates that various critics place Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as progenitor of the SF movement in literature. H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau re-imagines Shelley’s text (itself a ‘retelling’ of Milton’s Paradise Lost) and is singled out as exemplary work of horror-science-fiction (Roberts 2002, p. 57/61).

In cinematic precedents, we note Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film Godzilla (another reinvention of Frankenstein (Newman 2011)). Further, the evil Other in the guise of human child references John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), re-titled Village of the Damned (1960, 1995) twice for cinema, which also plunder the wellspring of horror (Mitchell, 1015). Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is of particular relevance as the corpse of Sarasi’s mother is reanimated for dramatic effect – possessed by the girl’s (projected and) perverted super-ego, a plot device already heralding uncanny horror (Freud 1983).

History, Influences and Efficacy of Horror |

Credit: Stephen Mitchell

Credit: Stephen Mitchell

In examining genre history, we consulted Cleary’s (2005; 2012) Arista lectures and masterclasses to acknowledge historically ingrained principles in horror. Tracing the influence of religion on Western horror for the past millennium, Cleary (2005) notes a plethora of influences from the Vatican Inquisition (1234) to the theatre of the Grand Guignol (1890s) and, naturally, Byron, Shelley, Wollstonecraft and Dr Polidori’s infamous (alleged) night on laudanum in Geneva (1816). Wollstonecraft’s resultant work Frankenstein is claimed by proponents of horror and SF alike.

Cleary illustrates certain conventions utilised in horror film, such as: the ‘final girl’; the ‘choke effect’; liminality regarding Thanatos as wish-fulfilment; and crossing the ‘Taboo Line’: where thriller approaches the dividing line between life and death, horror axiomatically crosses over it (2005, p. 18). For Cleary, horror opens a Gap through Freudian (uncanny) castration anxiety and Kristevan abjection and is premised on a dominant emotional quality of fear. Indeed, there are four key varieties of fear: dread, terror, horror and unease: defined by their relationship to time and audience positioning. Cleary (2005) also laments the horror genre’s tendency toward misogynistic interpretations.

In cinematic precedents, German Expressionism prevails. Further, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Let the Right One In (2008) as ‘Soft’ and ‘Quiet’ renditions of the genre respectively are also consulted (Cleary 2005, p. 29). Cleary describes these categories as ‘Horror Tones’ where Soft depends on ‘suggestion, atmosphere and ambiguity’ and Quiet allows ‘psychological depth’ through ‘accumulated building of meaning’ (Cleary 2005, p. 29).

Finally, in discovering meaning through genre hybridity, research intimates Ridley Scott’s Alien. Indeed, descriptions of Alien as ‘overdressed cheapie’ underestimates the value of refreshing such derivative forms by ‘fictional inhabiting’ (Newman 2011, p. 236): a process which Cleary (2005) and Roberts (2002) both champion. Further, Mitchell notes that: ‘SF has always had its hand in horror’s pocket’ (personal communication, 13 February 2015).

Hybridisation: Implications for Uncanny Material |

Credit: Mike Williams (Photographer/DOP) and Stephen Mitchell (poster designer)

Credit: Mike Williams (Photographer/DOP) and Stephen Mitchell (poster designer)

In his essay, The Uncanny, Freud (1990) identifies the unsettling effects of the returning repressed, which bears a dual nature: familiar and estranged. The resultant, irrational fear iterates Freud: ‘belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror’ (1990, p. 121). Freud opines that individual responses to uncanny material vary according to the subject and, although thriving on strangeness, remains simultaneously familiar (Jentsch, cited in Freud 1990). Freud (1990) illustrates that this repressed material is particularly uncanny when associated with: castration anxiety as overvaluation of the eyes; re-animated bodies of the deceased; intrauterine fantasies (particularly of being buried alive); the sense of déjà vu associated with images connoting female genitalia; as well as patricide and the primal scene. These psychoanalytic phenomena are employed in Perimeter as device. Thus, exploiting our polymorphous perversity becomes (potentially) uncanny for our audience and references Freud’s comment:

The situation is altered as soon as the writer pretends to move in the world of common reality… he deceives us into thinking that he is giving us the sober truth… (1990, p. 150).

Contrasting Freud, Roberts suggests the SF setting should be distinguished from our own reality. However, in the cross-pollination of genre, we discover a nexus between Freud and Roberts. Indeed, Roberts refers to H. G. Wells’: ‘impeccable sense of the interlinked beauties of the familiar and the strange’ (2002, p. 62), which effectively solicits the uncanny. This accords with Suvin’s assertion of an ‘interaction of estrangement and cognition’ forcing the audience to reconceptualise their familiar reality (Suvin cited in Roberts 2002, p. 20). This simultaneous estrangement/cognition pertaining to SF is augmented in Freudian-horror terrain where cognition is pushed across the ‘Taboo Line’ (Cleary 2005, p. 18).

The insistence of such tropes, even clichés of uncanniness, nevertheless allowed us to reflect on themes chosen unconsciously. Indeed, Freudian ‘discoveries’, such as intrauterine fantasy and castration anxiety were enhanced during the script editorial process. Further, although much written material for Perimeter was sacrificed to obtain an economical plot, we did not dispose of uncanniness or abjection by virtue of our own prudishness. Thus, SF space was rendered ‘dirty’, indeed deviant, by association with horror (Newman 2011). This fused Mitchell’s SF fanaticism with my own fascination with horror, by utilising Freudian symbology.

The Perimeter as Practice-led Contribution |

Credit: Stephen Mitchell

Credit: Stephen Mitchell

The Perimeter exploits hybridisation to create a diegetic world in which the horror rises ‘organically’ within the design, such that theme emerges alongside criticism. By examining all these aspects, we hope to steer audiences away from reactionary or misogynistic interpretations. In The Perimeter, the viewer’s identification with camera (Metz 1977), indeed their sense of rupture seeking resolution (Mckee 1999), allows us to position them as co-creators, who, by virtue of their discomfort, maintain pluralism in reading the film: immersing themselves in four flavours of delicious fear, while keeping an intellectual eye on the subverted form. Thus, screenwriter, director and audience merge to form a breeding ground for disavowed perversion. Deviance and polymorphous desire are therefore embedded within Perimeter’s mise-en-scène through practical applications. Indeed, only with contemporary film technology can we synthesise an achievable, yet intriguingly uncanny SF environment at low cost (Cleary, 2005).[2]

The Perimeter’s first approach, therefore, is to solicit uncanniness through historical reference. Initially, Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen as narcissistic and castration imagery projected onto innocent children counterpoises the film’s real-world setting as voiceover. Further, our protagonist reinvents the traditional genre convention of ‘final girl’ by virtue of her pre-pubescence (Cleary 2005), thus subverting the hegemonic, white male gaze. Further, the baby as shape-shifting Other in the guise of child references Wyndam’s Village of the Damned. Reference to Frankenstein and Dr Moreau also prevails as innocence transforms into monstrosity through the intervention of human evil and technological deviance.

Cinematic history, horror and SF provide precedents for our diegetic world. Indeed, as Malmgren points out: ‘the generic distinctiveness of SF lies not in its story but in its world’ (1988, p. 259). There are three main diegetic worlds in The Perimeter. All bear uncanny, indeed fairytale proportions: magic hour in the forest; preternatural night; and the haunted house. The last may seem clichéd, but emanates from the serendipitous discovery of an Edwardian mansion just two hundred metres from base location.[3] Here again, practicality precedes and precipitates meaning.

Credit: Mike Williams (Photographer/DOP) and Stephen Mitchell (poster designer)

Credit: Mike Williams (Photographer/DOP) and Stephen Mitchell (poster designer)

Our first task, therefore, is to render this triumvirate world in cinematic terms. Roberts’ (2002) claim that SF ought differ from reality demands our reinvention of the ordinary. Thus, the vaginal implications of camera sliding through forested valleys has the uncannily familiar mother’s body inherent within the mise-en-scène granted salience by its Maxfield Parrish/Heidelberg School lighting plan: the very rupture within the filmic idea forms of a nexus between the two genres: familiar and estranged simultaneously, in short, uncanny (Roberts 2002; Freud 1990). However, the addition of womb-like perimeter renders the maternal presence archaic, in Creed’s (2012) sense: not merely Oedipal, but pre-Oedipal and, since oral sadism peppers the diegesis, Freud’s unpaid dues to the archaic maternal (‘the mother in her generative function’) are manifest.

Once the uncanny world, this unheimlich heimliche, has been established, we exploit Cleary’s (2005) four fears to insinuate horror within SF, for example, by taking advantage of children’s terror of the dark. Further, by playing with time and narrative point of view, the balance of all four fears establishes the film’s Soft/Quiet mood (Cleary, 2012). Unlike high-concept horror-sci-fi, lo-bo grants license to take diegetic risk. According to Cleary (2012), deviation from normalcy liberates the lo-bo filmmaker to potential notoriety. Consequently, the ‘final girl’ of our story, already challenging hegemonic constructions, does unspeakable things in order to endure, thus condensing sibling rivalry with desperate survivalism (Freud 1983). However, it is we middle-class, white, male filmmakers machinating her moves and personifying the Freudian ‘evil eye’ within the filmic text (1990, p. 140). We therefore question our (unconscious) hegemonic stance within our respective genre fixations.

Genre hybridity also precipitates new thematic possibility. As such, The Perimeter visits: the myth of innocence vs. inherent corruption (Hutton, Miller & Braithwaite, 2014); nature vs. the machine; and imperialist fears of indigenous presence. Challenging Roberts’ (2002) notion that otherworldliness is axiomatic within SF is the setting of The Perimeter within a natural, Australian environment. The film’s dichotomy between nature and the synthetic, which Hutton, Miller and Braithwaite (2014) illustrate as frequent theme in SF,[4] especially when set within dystopian futures, thus creates a thematic paradox. Further, the cross-pollination of genre essentially ‘Other-ates’ nature, forcing the natural to join forces with the artificial as complimentary, uncanny antagonists to Sarasi. For example, the dog’s essential uncanniness mimics George Romero’s (1968) compounding of living family with zombified (dead) aggressor: the dog is both unrepentant machine and product of nature by virtue of audience camera identification (dog’s point of view) (Metz 1977).[5] Our allegory thus exploits imperialism’s attempt at taming the wild and the returning repressed simultaneously (Baishya, 2011). Further, the forest is both mother’s vagina and (hostile) womb exacerbated by her rotting corpse of in its midst (Creed 1993). Thus, the perimeter signifies womb: indeed, a womb within a womb, literally trapping nature within the synthetic, and as Baishya (2011) points out, the confluence of perversion and evil, the collapse of present and past renders the allegory cognitively disturbing.

Further, the nature vs. machine dichotomous theme begins with the primal scene. As Creed explains Freud, the child observes or fantasises her parents’ in the act of sexual intercourse (2012, p. 1). In our film, an orgasmic crossing of the perimeter initiates an unholy alliance between science and fiction: ‘two seemingly opposite poles’ (Redmond & Griffiths 2014, p. 3). Thus, the strange and familiar collide at the nexus of SF and horror as the dying parents’ scientifically perverse (implied) coital act literally births the monstrous perimeter.

Credit: Mike Williams (Photographer/DOP) and Stephen Mitchell (poster designer)

Credit: Mike Williams (Photographer/DOP) and Stephen Mitchell (poster designer)

As such, the central SF mystery is augmented in extra-diegetic terms by the underpinning horror of the primal scene. Further, the death of the mother as a result of the perimeter’s electric shock (a further sublimation of infantile sadism) initiates the power of the archaic womb: dying in one scenario, birthing in the next. Indeed, as Creed (2012) illustrates of Alien, the extreme primal fantasy depicts the child regressing to womb to watch the parents having sex (Freud 1981a, p. 417), even watch themselves being conceived, to ask, like the ‘Riddle of the Sphinx’: ‘Where do babies come from?’ (Creed 2012; Freud 1981b, p. 360).

Death also prefigures thematically within the natural/artificial binary of The Perimeter. Indeed, as Creed (2012) illustrates: ‘The archaic mother is present in all horror films as the blackness of extinction – death’. In The Perimeter, birds fly freely, until electrocuted by the invisible perimeter (in the tradition of Frankenstein), reversing the womb’s procreativity and insinuating death. Here, SF literally collides with horror, the perimeter at its interface. While the perimeter signs womb (‘fullness’/‘emptiness’ (Creed 2012)), all its invisible machinations (like being buried alive as Freudian (1983), intrauterine wish-fulfilment) remains uncanny: a Gap opened in SF logic; a place where horror prevails.

In further observation, while hopefully identifying with the protagonist (Metz 1977), the adult spectator remains outside the magical core of childhood and as such, reads the child’s naïve attempts to survive as axiomatically fated, death an inevitability germane to horror: the tiny final girl meeting her demise (Cleary 2005); her fate worse than death (McKee 2011); the mother’s dead eyes focussing as direct camera address. Thus, the uncanny hovers in the mise-en-scène from inception. Indeed, as Creed (1993; 2012) illustrates of the archaic mother in Alien, her presence implicates death and men’s fear of the parthenogenesis simultaneously. Thus, Perimeter’s monstrosity is located in the science-fiction nova itself: the electrified feminine, the mystical womb. Consequently, Creed’s (2012) assertion that, ‘A large part of the ideological project of Alien is the representation of the maternal fetish object as an ‘alien’ or foreign shape’, implicates Perimeter disquietingly. Creed’s finding Freud lacking for the pre-linguistic, the archaic, the progenitor of life, recognises the possibility of womb-memory at play within Perimeter, an uncanny defying even Freud.

Further, as manufactured as The Perimeter’s peripatetic womb may seem, it bears a personal uncanny for both its creators. Curiously, the writer revealed during the process that he was conceived with a twin who died in the womb, so the peril of two tiny sisters under a deadly, constricting dome represents particular uncanniness for Mitchell. Further, the director’s daughter (The Perimeter’s baby) experienced the same intrauterine phenomenon, which causes an uncanny frisson when pondering the coincidence. Could the uncanny, entrenched within the filmmakers, actually reach the audience given their lack of identification with such unique trauma?

By way of an answer, we suggest the adult audience is subsumed in a subtextual mourning for their own childhood, a loss further implicating castration. Indeed, childhood itself is uncanny to an adult: as Freud illustrates, yearning after an object we once were, constitutes a narcissistic projection onto the diegetic children (Freud 1984). Given these possibilities (which only the finished production may attest to), it seems the uncanny is not an outmoded cinematic formality and the relevance of horror-SF deviance remains intact.

Conclusion |

Although presumed Freudian unconscious material as reiterating structuralist device for horror-makers represents hackneyed terrain, the benefit of this research is that the history and (uncanny) familiarity of both genres can be examined through the creation of an original feature film. Further, all elements are still in flux as we move into production: a process, which began with Cleary’s (2012) notion of genre specific writing beginning with the camera.

There yet remains an extra-horrific interpretation of our ending: that the destruction of the womb and the exposure of the child, albeit narratively interpreted as grief for the lost motherhood, might be an active patriarchal attempt to destroy the fear of the archaic mother repossessing her offspring. As Creed (2012) illustrates of the perennial horror film ending: the self is reconstituted as ‘the monster is ‘named’ and destroyed’. The filmmakers remain vigilant against such misogynistic and pro-imperialist interpretations.

[1] John Truby (2005) suggests that scientific speculation and establishing of world or context is vital for the SF screenplay and distills to a broad structure as genre convention.

[2] Modern, digital cameras and offline editing can render feature length production at comparatively low cost.

[3] This mansion bears uncanny resemblance to the Dakota Building from Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

[4] Particularly YA SF.

[5] Night of the Living Dead (1968).

References

Merritt, F 2013, ‘Freud, the Oedipus Complex, and The Hunger Games’, Essex Student Research Online, Autumn, viewed 16 July 2014, <http://www.essex.ac.uk/journals/estro/documents/vol6/Full_Issue_6.1.pdf>.

Freud, S 1913. Totem and taboo, Hogarth Press & The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, London.

Lacan, J 1977. Four fundamentals of psycho-analysis, Hogarth Press & the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, London.

Rogers, BM & Stevens BE, ‘Introduction: the past is an undiscovered country’, in Classical traditions in science fiction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 1-8.

Ryan, MD 2014, ‘Monster factory: international dynamics of the Australian horror movie industry’, in Merchants of menace: the business of horror cinema, Bloomsbury Academic, London, pp. 75-90.

Stoker, B 1988. Dracula, Tom Doherty Associates Inc, New York.

Filmography

Godzilla 1954, motion picture, Toho Studios, Tokyo.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956, motion picture, Allied Artists Picture Corporation, Los Angeles.

Let the Right One In 2008, motion picture, Sandrew Metronome, Stockholm.

Night of the Living Dead 1968, motion picture, Image Ten, Pittsburgh.

The Perimeter 2015, motion picture, Fire Horse Films, Melbourne.

Picnic at Hanging Rock 1975, motion picture, South Australian Film Corporation, Adelaide.

Village of the Damned 1960, motion picture, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, London.

Village of the Damned 1995, motion picture, Alphaville Films, Los Angeles.

Bio

Ian completed his PhD Doctorate on the films of John Cassavetes at Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne in 2011, where he also studied a postgraduate filmmaking degree. Ian has delivered academic papers internationally and currently lectures in Screenwriting and Semiotics at SAE Institute, Melbourne. He has directed television for Neighbours, Blue Heelers and SBS TV (his episode, ‘Wee Jimmy’, won a Best Director award at the San Francisco International Film Festival). Ian Dixon’s debut feature film Crushed (2008) screened at Cinema Nova in 2009. Ian has also been funded to write feature films for the Australian Film Commission and Film Victoria. Ian spent over twenty years as an actor (he took over from Guy Pearce to play the lead in Grease). In television, his work can be seen on Underbelly, Rush, City Homicide, Guinevere Jones, Martial Law, Blue Heelers, Stingers, Heartbreak High, Shadows of the Heart etc.

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