Puzzling Pictures 3 Explained: A Sense Of Wonder

Caution! No sense of humour? Impervious to irony? Please do not read on. You have been warned.

For the rest of us, let's look back in the Archives to Saturday 16.12.17. The question was as follows: “I wonder whether any thoughtful reader can work out what links all of these frightful films - and why I blame Gene Autry?”

Well, as you may have surmised, they’re all horror films. “Faust” is Murnau’s cinematic reworking of the Faustus legend, cf. Marlowe’s “The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus”. “Island Of Lost Souls” is the best of several film versions of Wells’ “The Island Of Dr Moreau”. “Las Manos De Orlac” is really “Mad Love”, from Renard’s “Les Mains d’Orlac”, again, probably the best of several film adaptations. (I had to import my copy of the DVD from Spain, which explains the curious cover. Don’t worry, it plays in the original English language version.) “Dead Of Night” - well, surely, enough said. “El Caiman Humano” is, of course, the very wonderful “The Alligator People”, again, a foreign import which plays in English.

There are other links: celebrated directors, famous actors, critical acclaim, and classic film status - with the possible exception of “The Alligator People”, some would say.

Oh, and if you admit to watching any of them, in Christian circles, then you’re quite likely to get tutted at.

It’s hard to spell, isn’t it, that alveolar click? Is it “Tsk, tsk!” or “Tut, tut!”? Nevertheless, you know it when you hear it. I heard it a couple of weeks ago in a café. A young friend handed me a copy of a horror film that he thought I might like; his companion pulled a face, and began to tut. In response I gave him my justly celebrated impression of a Kandarian demon from “Evil Dead II” - the sotto voce version, of course - I didn’t want to clear out the whole place. He pulled his face even more, mumbling on about unwholesome influences and dark forces and…

...suddenly, I was sitting in my own living room, decades earlier. Our visitor, a jowly, florid-faced gentleman, was sitting opposite me, in the cane rocking chair by the bookcase. He was chatting away in jovial fashion, telling us a few home truths about our mutual church acquaintances, and how he’d been to bible college, and why you shouldn’t hold any important office if you hadn’t: all very entertaining, and yet, he didn’t seem to be happy. When he thought I wasn’t looking, he would shoot a quick glance in the direction of the bookshelves. He worked his way down, past poetry, prose and drama, gardening and DIY, until he reached several scholarly tomes on films - particularly on horror, science fiction and fantasy in the cinema. I sat back and waited.

I didn’t have to wait long. Out it came: “Those books! Those books! You’ve got to get rid of them!”

"Why would I want to do that?”

"The occult! The occult! They’re satanic! Get rid of them! Take them out in the backyard and burn them!”

I tried telling him that they were serious studies of cinema, and not books of occult lore, grimoires, or even knockoffs of the Necronomicon, but there’s no arguing with that kind of magical thinking: horror - occult - satanic - Acts 19.19: “And a number of those who had practised magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all.”

A few years later, I watched this same man, along with a group of deacons who didn’t hold with biblical preaching, turn a whole congregation against a pastor, with an unholy mixture of lies, half-truths, smears and sneers, simply because his own righteousness had not been rewarded by his being given any important office in that church. More magical thinking: “If you can’t recognise my true spirituality, then you yourself are an immoral man, and quite likely under satanic influence.”

And then, I’m back in the café, wondering again where people get their ideas from. In my last church, I listened in amazement to one brother telling me, entirely seriously, that David Blaine had sold his soul to the devil, because he’d seen him - on television - flying up between two buildings. He hadn’t even got the name right - the performer in question was Dynamo, a.k.a. Steven Frayne from Bradford, stage and TV magician and illusionist. (Geddit?)

Sometimes, even Reformed pastors, who ought to know better, seem to fall for magical thinking, when they want to have a go at something they don’t like or understand. One man, for whom I have the greatest admiration in almost every respect, asked me if I ever went into a trance when I was listening to “rock ‘n’ roll” (a bit of a giveaway, that, like “pop music”). He went on to prove that all rock music is satanic, because Bob Dylan had admitted in an interview that he’d sold his soul to the devil in return for fame and fortune. That would be the Mr Zimmerman who doesn’t take kindly to interviewers asking him asinine questions, and always responds with obviously sarcastic answers, I take it?

This curious belief that you can “sell your soul to the devil” is itself a product of popular culture, and has no biblical basis that I can see. In folk tales and films like “Faust”, for instance, it’s usually used as an allegory, often for something as simple as showing that the end does not necessarily justify the means. In reality, without Christ as Saviour and Lord, you’re utterly lost, already.  

But, back to Gene Autry. When I was a child, like many of my generation, I would be sent off to the cinema on Saturdays, with enough money for a ticket and some sweets. The children’s matinées were good value for money: a cartoon, the coming attractions, a full-length feature film; and, most exciting of all, the serial! Made many years before, these episodic American adventures, hurriedly produced and churned out cheaply by the dozen, were nevertheless exciting and engrossing, with the cliff-hanger conclusion to each episode leaving you longing for more.

My favourites were the ones that involved at least some elements of fantasy and science fiction, with characters like Batman, Superman, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers - and, in a bizarre twist, Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy”, in “The Phantom Empire”, a.k.a. “Radio Ranch”. I won’t attempt to describe it: you need to see it to believe it, and to experience the strange poetry it possesses. All those disparate elements thrown together: singing cowboys, a radio show, a dude ranch, a group of evil scientists, a strange, advanced, scientific civilisation far beneath the earth, robots and ray guns, radium and revolutionaries - and the Thunder Riders, galloping up to a sheer cliff face which opens up like some gigantic garage door as their leader throws up his arm, then plunging down into the mysterious darkness of Murania.

I’m a cessationist; and, also, I don’t believe in magic at all, except for the artistic variety: the kind which leaves you with nothing more malign than a heightened sense of wonder.

Some films are bad, of course, and Christians should avoid them. Some books are bad, but that doesn’t mean they should all be burned. Some music might well adversely affect those who are easily led; but then, so does football, with far worse consequences, and I’ve never heard anyone preaching against it. Have you? 

So, blame Gene Autry if you like, but don’t tell me I can’t enjoy horror, fantasy and science fiction films - and various other aspects of popular culture - unless you can make out a sound, sensible, biblical argument against them. I’ve already listened to enough magical thinking from both fat-headed fundies and charismaniac crackpots to last me for the rest of my life.

Right, I’ve got that off my chest. What about another viewing of “The Alligator People”? And then, perhaps, an experiment or two down in the laboratory?

What could possibly go wrong?