Archive for October, 2012

The Revenant Review Part 1: Sole Survivor

Posted in films, zombies with tags , , , , on October 30, 2012 by David N. Brown

Once again, I’m back after some time away (well-spent finishing the “clown project” as Coulrophobia), and I’m introducing another feature that could go on for a long time. Before the Exotroopers got their own adventures, they were featured in Worlds of Naughtenny Moore and especially Walking Dead. The latter project marked the beginning of my interest in the Balkans and my full-blown evolution into a scholar of zombie movies. Back in 2003 or so, the zombie genre was a different and altogether cozier place: The Walking Dead comics were just cresting the horizon, and the first Resident Evil was just behind us, but mostly, fandom was about old stuff (I mean old then… and man I feel old): Night of the Living Dead was “canon”, and George Romero was the prophet; Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator were “new wave”; Evil Dead got respectful attention; and what remained for the true scholar-fan was mostly a vast and motley array of obscure This feature will be about those movies, and I will start with my pick for one of the very best, and (at least when I started looking) the most horrendously hard to find, an early ’80s oddity titled Sole Survivor.

I suppose, at this late date, I don’t need to say much about the story: Denise (Anita Skinner) miraculously survives a plane crash (without even getting her clothes messed up!) Afterward, however, she begins to see strange people who watch her, follow her, and precipitate several accidents. Soon, the strangers’ activities escalate into stalking and assault- and investigators discover that the “suspects” are all recently deceased. Denise worries that she was not “meant” to survive, and some cosmic force is sending the revenants to correct the mistake. Her doctor and new boyfriend (Kurt Johnson, who eerily resembles James Francis Daley of “Bones”) is concerned that she has “survivor’s syndrome”. And a coroner who absolutely steals the second half of the movie keeps wondering why bodies keep arriving in his morgue with blood pooled in their feet… as if they died standing up. The director Thom Eberhardt went on to “cult” status with Night of the Comet and a handful of quickly-forgotten films thereafter (though I remember seeing and liking the comedy Without A Clue in the early ’90s), while most of the cast simply dropped out of sight. (Cameos were made by Leon Robinson aka Leon, who went on to such roles as a black guy who dies in Cliffhanger, and Brinke Stevens, who was already making a name for herself as expendable horror-movie eye candy; amazingly- SPOILER- neither die in this film!) After Final Destination came out, those who knew of Sole Survivor began making comparisons and some litigious rumblings. On the other hand, suspicions have been voiced that Sole Survivor is itself based on a novel called The Survivor by James Herbert,in addition to a clear debt to the film Carnival of Souls.

The most interesting thing about the film is the quite unique conception of the revenants. By the early 1980s, an explicit role of a supernatural force was unusual in a zombie movie: By comparison, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had simply treated the rising of the dead as unexplained (effectively recanting elements of Night), while Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead would set a prevailing trend of scientific/ pseudo-scientific “explanations”. On the other hand, unlike Evil Dead, the film does not fall back on an actual or invented religious or magical system for context, leaving the cosmic forces behind the revenants unnamed, unknown and inscrutable even in supernaturalistic terms.

Even more striking is the look of the undead. By now, I suppose, people are used to seeing zombies with visible decay and gore. (I think of it as the “EC” style, after the infamous comics.) But Romero made Night with the vast majority of the undead looking more or less like ordinary people, and many if not most zombie films continued to follow that example long after modern make-up and effects (not to mention just plain decent budgets) became available. Sole Survivor in particular takes this “old-school”, low-tech approach to the reductio ad absurdum. By the time Romero got to Dawn, he was giving the zombies blue skin that set them apart from ordinary people. But in Sole Survivor, the revenants just look a little pale, and it is in large part for that reason that I consider them the most unnerving specimens I have seen on screen.

Then there are the little things. In two scenes (in my opinion the only ones that really warrant close comparison with FD), the undead are assisted by malfunctioning machinery, suggesting a wider cosmic force at work, though the idea is never developed well. (Probably just as well, as it ultimately begs the question what a squad of reanimated corpse can do that one wayward automobile couldn’t do better.) More attention is given to an evident tendency for the revenants, on performing their mission, to return to wherever they expired, which makes them seem downright tidy (and after all, aren’t they supposed to be a “clean-up” crew for the cosmos?). Then again, when they really get down to the business of doing their dirty work, there’s nothing tidy about it. It’s especially noteworthy that they show no qualms about taking lives beyond their intended victim. They don’t look reluctant about it, either, attacking brutally and with no more than minor provocation, and at times with subtly savage facial expressions. By the time the unforgettable denouement rolls around, the Reapo Men have already racked up an extra body or so. One might criticize this as being inconsistent with the premise of a balancing cosmic force. But I think there’s a valid and interesting idea here, of a Cosmic Force that would prefer “collateral damage” over letting even one person get away.

In 2008, Sole Survivor finally became reasonably accessible through a DVD release by Code Red. (Judging from the size of the trade credit being offered by Amazon to anyone willing to give a copy away, the supply must be getting pretty scarce again). The disc included interviews with producers Caryn Larkey and Sal Romeo (the former of whom costarred as Carla), and brought to light an intriguing backstory: Per the interviews, a distributor obtained the film rights after the director delivered what was to be a final cut (Larkey recounts that a complete print was carried around for showings to prospective distributors), and then turned around and did a “re-edit” that left the film several minutes shorter and the director and producers very unhappy. Unfortunately, neither Larkey nor Romeo was able to give a clear account of just what was removed. (They most specifically mention the removal of “humor” elements, which makes me inclined to give the re-edit crew the benefit of a doubt!)

We just might have some insight on this mystery from the original trailer for the film, which clearly includes a substantial amount of material never seen in the film. The most prominent components are shots of the arm and face of a drippy but altogether generic ghoul, which pretty well fit what would be expected if IFM had shot some original footage just to make the film look like a conventional, commercial exploitation-type horror film. However, another “death’s head” shot (looking strikingly like the Terminator!) was clearly shot separately, and appears to be the same as a face seen briefly on a radar screen during the film (and also used on the film’s posters), but with a longer, more detailed and noticeably dynamic shot. I am satisfied that this much, at least, represents material cut during the re-edit: Possibly, it was simply a longer version of the shot of the radar screen, or perhaps Eberhardt originally filmed at least one additional appearance of the iconic face. If so, then we may have a clue to something that could have made a difference: Where the “Cosmic Force” in the released film is represented almost exclusively through its agents, the original cut could have made it a more direct presence through additional appearances of the death’s head, and perhaps the “ghoul” as well.

Then there is another element of the trailer I rind especially intriguing: the opening seconds of a swirling star field which starts to coalesce into something like a face. I think it is possible, even likely, that the star field animation originally became a “death’s head”. Furthermore, the quality strikes me as high enough that it could have been originally intended for the theatrical release. I see an especially intriguing possibility: The most jarring aspect of the film is the immediate appearance of the title, in quite plain text over a simple shot of a nighttime city street. It would make sense if, at some point, it was planned to have this preceded by the star field, a death’s head, or both.

Who knows? If someone ever finds a copy of that traveling print, we might find out!

See also

Sole Survivor.” B-notes.

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona


The Phantom Clown’s Kin Part 1

Posted in Forteana with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2012 by David N. Brown

Greetings readers, aka innocent bystanders! So, it’s been a little while, and now I’m back with more about “phantom clowns”. Having previously provided a casual survey of what blogosphere scholarship there is on the “phantom clown” phenomenon, I felt like it’s time to try to make some of my own contributions. I have decided that it would be especially valuable to look at the possible “roots” of the phantom clown phenomenon. This will be done as a survey of two parts. The first part will be covering, not Fortean phenomena, but the cultural and anthropological background of the figure of the clown. Hopefully, this will provide an armchair scholarly insight into the evolution of the clowning costume and profession, and it just might give us a clue why the same cultural archetype would be recapitulated in the curious taxonomy of Fortean entities. So, without further ado, here’s a rogues’ gallery of clowns and other costumed rogues you would definitely not want at your kid’s birthday party…


The native American figure of Kokopelli has become a familiar part of popular culture, especially in the southwest. According to the native mythology, Kokopelli is a being who brings fertility to the land, including human babies he is said to carry in a hump on his back (characteristically omitted from pop culture representations). He also has a darker side, as a mischief maker and even a tempter who may entice people to break the moral laws of their tribe. He may even have served as a representation of death: Given that many native tribes believe in some form of reincarnation, his role as bringer of the unborn may be inferred to extend to traffic in the other direction! Due to this complex background, many native Americans have stated in no uncertain terms that they are not comfortable with the way in which Kokopelli’s image has been used. So, one may ask, what does a fertility spirit have to do with clowns. Because, I am going to go out on a limb and present a theory, that Kokopelli is the foundation of one of the strangest traditions of clowning, the “pueblo clowns”.

Multiple lines of evidence point to this connection: First, kachina costumes said to represent Kokopelli are dominated by uncharacteristically somber black and white, the same colors used in the costumes of those weird clowns. Second and even more tellingly, typical representations of Kokopelli show a headdress which, allowing for stylization and perspective, corresponds with a forked headdress which is characteristic of a pueblo clown costume. (This also provides convincing evidence for the antiquity of the clown tradition and costume, and makes it all the more interesting that the headdress is very similar to that of the familiar European clown/jester.) Finally and most strikingly, the ceremonial activities of the clowns match very well with the attributes of Kokopelli: Whatever the tribe considers appropriate, decent, or just plain common sense, the clowns willfully, outrageously and grotesquely reversed. By the Indians’ accounts, these antics are supposed to show the folly of taboo-breaking and the wisdom and virtue of the kachina spirits embodied by other performers. But it is rather hard not to suspect a more complex symbolic conflict, in which the clowns, like Kokopelli, represent a necessary but volatile part of the forces of nature.

The Harlequin

The tradition of the clown can unquestionably be traced to that of the Medieval jester/ fool, as evidenced particularly by the recurring use of the forked or multilobed headdress. (This is as good a point as any to mention a little pet theory of mine, that the murky word “coulrophobia” might be derived from “cowl”, variously meaning a hood, mask or hooded robe, which could broadly apply to this traditional headdress.) In the intervening centuries, the broad tradition can be seen to go through many variations, of which the most famous is the “Harlequins” introduced in the Renaissance. The harlequin is especially significant as evidence of a transition in the style of performance: Where a jester could literally rely on jests, the harlequins were very physical. This opened up the possibilities of “slapstick”, but also for displays of genuine athletic prowess, especially through acrobatics and even staged heroics. The harlequins also marked a significant transition in costume: While the harlequins’ characteristically colorful costumes were definitely in continuity with that of the earlier fool, the telltale headdress was often if not characteristically absent. Also, in the earliest accounts and actual visual representations, the harlequins wore masks. Later use of face paint and artificial noses by harlequins and clowns can be regarded as an evolution of the mask, probably influenced in no small part by simple cost-cutting. But then, there is the kicker: In the harlequins’ combination of physical prowess, colorful costume, and mask, we surely have the archetype of the comic-book superhero!

“The Plague Doctor

Up to at least the 19th century, European clown costumes formed a recognizable continuity. But the fool may not be the only Medieval precursor of the later clown suit. Through the Medieval period, doctors were evidently in the habit of wearing masks, on the theory that it would protect them from the plague. (Given the dismal state of their medicine, there may have been more value in protecting them from reprisals.) The most familiar example is a costume featuring a birdlike mask. Unfortunately, this costume was evidently invented by one Charles Delorme in or around 1619, leaving it uncertain if not entirely doubtful whether anything like it was actually fielded in the Middle Ages. In my opinion, the form of the mask does strongly suggest that Delorme’s “invention” was only an evolution of something older. Spectacle markings around the eyepieces point to a decorative or ceremonial aspect of the costume, which may have been purposefully minimized in the ostensibly enlightened seventeenth century. One might well take note at this point that the harlequins also wore masks, and that these masks often featured long noses. Then there is that bizarre bird’s beak, which calls to mind nothing so much as a shamanistic priest’s costume- and, as we have seen with the pueblo clowns, there is a connection between clowning and animistic religion that must run very deep.

Baron Samedi

Often, it is tricky to separate artistry from authentic history, and this is especially egregious for anything to do with the Afro-Carribean religions. Still, this is one example too good to pass up. Baron Samedi is an unquestionably authentic figure of Haitian vodou, who had the debatable distinction of being immortalized as a character in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. As represented by self-identifying vodou practitioners (see for example a contemporary altar doll), Samedi appears as a figure in a dark suit and top hat, with a face that is either white, or an actual skull. As immortalized by Geoffrey Holder in the Bond movie, Baron Samedi is a witch doctor who appears in his biggest scene in a dark suit with top hat and white face paint in the form of a stylized skull. While the film offers no pretense of attention to authenticity, the scenes with Baron Samedi are surprisingly convincing from an anthropological standpoint. And it is surely of at least passing interest that the central figure of Baron Samedi could be a dead ringer for a subset of phantom clown reports involving dark clothing, such as the egregious “leaping mime” incident!

The Pied Piper

One would be hard-pressed to find a treatment of the phantom clown phenomenon that does not mention this ultimate cultural archetype. Per the lore, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a strangely-clad traveler who used the power of his pipes to rid a town of rodents, then, on being refused payment, rid the town of children too. Any nucleus of documented fact is bound up in two rather cryptic manuscripts. First, a single passage from Hamelin’s records dated 1384 states, “It is one hundred years since our children left.” Second, according to another manuscript written in ca. 1450, on June 26, 1284, a “piper” with clothing of “many colors” “seduced” 130 children from Hamelin, who were than “lost” at a “place of execution”. The church of Hamelin is supposed to have had a stained-glass window representing the Pied Piper. Unfortunately, the window was destroyed in 1660.

Much ink has been spilled trying to construct some real historical event out of this. In the cold light of day, all they have really shown is that there is very little chance that there is any such foundation to be found. The two manuscripts point to one of two prosaic scenarios: Either a number of the town’s residents emigrated to settle another area, possibly against their will, or there was an uprising against clerical and/or political authorities which likely ended in a massacre by said authorities. (I consider the fact that the 15th-century manuscript lends itself to the latter interpretation the one particularly good reason to take it seriously.) As for the stained glass window, granting that it existed at one time, it’s entirely possible that its supposed connection with the legend is simply an interpretation imposed upon a pre-existing, likely symbolic work of art. In summary, if anything happened in the village of Hamelin on or around June 1284, the story passed down about it is nothing but a red herring. Yet, saying as much will bring us no closer to solving what is, from the folklorists’ perspective, the central problem simply, why the legend as we have it took the form it has.

That brings us to the best visual artifact we have, a 1592 painting representing the Pied Piper and an intelligible outline of the legend. It has been speculated that it was based upon the lost window, but if this was the case, there were almost certainly major interpolations, including what appears to be the drowning of the rats. But at least two elements invite serious attention. First, there is the subtly odd foreground figure of the piper. The most striking thing about the figure, and the strongest hint of some deeper archetype, is the that the costume is actually surprisingly plain. The colors are red, green, yellow and white, and the pattern is simple vertical stripes, which in comparison to the harlequins that would have been contemporary with the painter is simple and even subdued. The face is pale, and may be painted. Then there is the hat, another subtly strange detail. It looks very different from any well-known Renaissance or Medieval headgear, being exaggerated in comparison to the utilitarian hats of the peasantry, but far less elaborate than typical specimens from the aristocracy. Curiously, the closest counterparts to the design are mitres worn by priests!

Then there is the most prominent background image, clearly representing the legend’s climax in which the piper leads the children into a mysterious door or cavern in the side of a hill. And what is it with that hill?? Actually, it’s reasonably consistent with a real model: the tumulus burial mounds that dot many parts of the world. Several are known to exist in the same region as Hamelin, Lower Saxony. This association would reinforce the theory that the Piper is an allegorical representation of death. On the other hand, it should readily come to the Fortean’s mind that ancient mounds have frequently been correlated with virtually all forms of paranormal phenomena. Might it not be just conceivable that the “real” Pied Piper was such an apparition?

Phantom clowns as atavisms

I propose, from these examples, a significant conclusion about phantom clowns: Whatever they may be, a significant part of what they represent is a recapitulation of different phases in the cultural evolution that led to what we know as the clown. A number of recurring features in “phantom clown” reports become intelligible in these terms:

  1. Dark or black and white clothing.
  2. Plain white or “blackface” makeup.
  3. Displays of unusual if not superhuman acrobatic ability.
  4. Relatively traditional or archaic clown costumes, as indicated by use of headdresses and especially masks, with parallels to ancient priestly garments.
  5. Appearances in abandoned, neglected or unpopulated areas, including woodlands.

The next logical step is to consider, where else do we see these features in the gallery of Fortean entities? That will have to wait for next time…

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona

Bibliography and further reading

Clowns and Tricksters: An Encyclopedia of Tradition and Culture.   Kimberly A. Christen and Sam Gill (eds).

Reincarnation Beliefs of Native American Tribes.” Gary R. Varner.

“Jester: A Fool and His Clothing.”

“Hamelin’s Children”  Mike Culpepper.