It is not only Dr Bird who goes head-to-head with the director of The Birds. Sir Alfred was a master of reminding audiences of what may lie beneath surface reality and of bringing them chillingly close to it. Grandmaster Aldwyn ‘Lord Kitchener’ Roberts’ does so in ‘Love in de Cemetery’ (1962), not only à la Hitchcock but also in the most splendid gothic thriller tradition.
In Rear Window, Hitchcock commits us to appraisal through a different type of looking-glass. Leg in cast, confined to a wheelchair, photographer LB ‘Jeff’ Jefferies is frustrated at being unable to do what he craves: go out and take pictures of anything interesting.
Idle and bored, he spends long hours peering through the lenses of his camera. He ‘travels’ out of his apartment window into the back patio of his apartment building. He ‘spies’ on a crime, watching as his neighbour across the courtyard kills his wife.
There is a particularly sublime passage that bears the unmistakeable imprint of the Hitchcockian aesthetic, when LB is about to confirm his suspicions about the murder he has chanced upon.
We, the audience, see that he sees something; then we see his face as he reacts to what he has seen; then we see him grab his camera lens to take a closer look at what he has seen with the naked eye; then we see through that lens what he has seen; then we see his reaction to what his lens has allowed him to see.
What, we ask ourselves, really does lie behind so many ‘rear windows’ everywhere? The closer we get to actual reality, the more unpleasant it is discovered to be.
That turns out to be the plight of the main character of ‘Love in the Cemetery’.
Kitch takes us there, drawing as much on the Hitchcockian aesthetic (opening for us the way into the unpleasantness of what lies beneath surface reality) as on the tenets of the gothic chill: man pitted against the ghostly. It is man being playfully kicked around within a universe governed by supernatural forces that condescend to indulge in terse interplay with unsuspecting human beings.
It was dark, dark, dark,
In a big, big park
That is the setting of ‘Love in the Cemetery’ which brings to mind the isolated castles and grim landscapes of gothic chill classics like Dark Shadows (the original late 1960s/early-1970s TV series, with the unforgettable vampire, Barnabas Collins, at the core) or the Mel Brooks-directed Young Frankenstein (1974), which exude spooky otherworldliness.
It is perfect territory for naïve human beings who genuinely believe in their resourcefulness to walk into. The drama then revolves around the victims’ ability to come to terms with the fact that, under such circumstances, their supposed resourcefulness counts for little. And, after such acknowledgement, the attempt to find a way out.
Audiences know the genre and are well aware that the odds are heavily stacked against victims. The intrigue derives from being sucked in and, with some degree of pathos, partaking of the futility of the attempt as it unfolds before us.
In ‘Love in the Cemetery’, with surgical precision, we are walked through the genre, encountering, in step with Kitch’s first person main character, pitfall after pitfall.
We begin with the blissful ignorance of the romance-seeking young man attempting to engage in something as deeply human as petting in territory thought to be safe and conducive to intimacy.
Ah felt like a king upon a throne
Me an’ Emelda lyin’ alone.
But there are forces out there that know better. So, what ensues is the uncomfortable realisation of the nature of the world in which he really finds himself:
When ah heard a talk
An’ a creepin’ walk
As ah look around frightfully
We was lyin’ in de centre of a cemetery.
Segue into the initial attempt at escape:
Yuh talk about run!
Ah nearly buss mih head.
Then full realisation of the nature of the enemy, as Kitch chants, his tongue wickedly in his cheek:
Livin’ running from de dead.
Can there be a more cunning way of giving voice to paradox, of making us grasp the eternal realm-of-the-living/realm-of-the dead incongruity?
Ah ghos’ say ‘doh run mih lard!
Come leh we play ah game ah cyard!’
Next comes a closer encounter with the unearthly forces, that toy further with the Kitch character:
What had me sad,
An’ really mad
Ah was jus’ about to start
A little romance wit’ mih sweetheart.
Ah kiss her twice
Jus’ feelin’ nice
When a voice say, ‘Mister yuh brave,
Yuh bringin’ yuh gyulfrien’ on top mih grave’.
Then, inevitably, the two worlds collide:
De scream I make
Ah sure de whole worl’ shake,
Ah now in big trouble
Dis time ah sure ah see de devil.
Ah see a tall, white horse
On top a big, black cross
As ah bawl out ‘Oh gorm, ah dead!’
De horse say, ‘Kiiiiitch, come go to bed!’
And finally, complete concession that it is a realm too formidable for homo sapiens as he is brought à la Hitchcock close to a reality too overwhelming:
As ah reach de street,
A tall gentleman ah meet
Ah was feelin’ so happy
To tell him mih fright in de cemetery.
He said, “I can understan’,
You’re a wild young man.
But still you’re not to be blame
When I was alive, I was just de same.”
In the end, we are left wondering whether our victim does make it out. In gothic chill tradition, intrepid interlopers are never quite let off the hook. In the Hitchcockian tradition, characters are drawn painstakingly close to the acute menace that is reality. Grandmaster Kitch does not fail us on either count.
There is some sympathy for the protagonist’s plight but we also feel the thrill of having got a taste of this supernatural world. From within.
In four verses of vintage calypso, Kitchener contrives to achieve what any good gothic chill director worth his/her salt would with a camera and the film means at his/her disposal. He allows us to embrace a gothic universe carefully presented as anything but familiar, predictable and responsive to our desires. Where does the ghostly-cum-supernatural world begin? Where does it end? With how much of it do we sit in comfortable (dis)belief?
Are those not the questions that have constituted the essence of the gothic thriller since it earned the right to sit at the same table as all the noted, supposedly more prestigious film genres?
Editor’s Note: Columnist Owen Thompson will conclude his four part series on Calypso vs Film on Sunday 18 October.