The Nightmarish World of Maya Deren

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Those of us who appreciate the eclectic programming on TCM Underground are in for a real cinematic treat on Saturday, March 29th. At 12am (PST)/2am (EST) TCM will be airing Pip Chodorov’s 90 min. documentary FREE RADICALS: A HISTORY OF EXPERIMENTAL FILM (2010) followed by two hours of groundbreaking, experimental and avant-garde short films made by some of the mediums most accomplished directors including Maya Deren’s seminal classic, MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943).

I was first introduced to MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943) during a film studies course in college and was immediately taken by Deren’s imaginative and macabre vision. Her 14 minute 16 mm film appeared to embrace the eerie languid imagery found in silent horror cinema but it also seemed incredibly modern. If I hadn’t been told the film was made in 1943 I would have assumed it was made in the 1960s. I quickly realized that Deren’s work had significantly influenced many of my favorite horror film directors who had been incorporating and repurposing her ideas into their own films for decades. My professor wasn’t particularly interested in my observations and the conversation about Deren in the classroom centered on feminist theory and the director’s personal history, which intrigued me. Deren’s preoccupation with ritual, magic, witchcraft and voodoo was evident in MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON and suggested to me that although she may not have set out to make a horror movie with her husband (Alexander Hammid), her vision was probably informed by the esoteric nature of horror cinema. Today Deren’s influence can still be felt and countless better known directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Andrzej Zulawski, Dario Argento and David Lynch may have been inspired by her work.

MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON appears to take shape within the troubled mind of its doom-laden female protagonist. It’s propelled by dream logic without any familiar narrative structure but it contains elements and visual metaphors found in countless horror movies beginning with a locked door that leads viewers into a vacant house that seems alive with apparitions. The phone has mysteriously come off the hook and a record plays without assistance. Shadows take on a life of their own while faceless figures wearing dark robes roam the grounds. And throughout the film vacant mirrors as well as very large and unforgiving knives keep appearing at the most inappropriate times until the film ends with a surprisingly gruesome twist. This is the stuff of our shared nightmares and our darkest fantasies, which have been defining horror cinema for decades. In the words of Dan Aykroyd from TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), “Do you want to see something really scary?” Then tune into TCM on Saturday night to catch Maya Deren’s MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON. She may not be a name that’s often bandied about by my fellow horror film enthusiasts but what follows are a just a few examples of how her work may have drawn inspiration from horror and fantasy cinema as well as influenced it. But be forewarned! This gallery of stills could chill you to the bone or set your teeth on edge.

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Top: NOSFERATU  (1922) & HAXAN (1922)
Middle: MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)
BOTTOM: PSYCHO (1960) & THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA (1971)

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Top: METROPOLIS (1927)
Middle: MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)
Bottom: PSYCHO (1960) & REPULSION (1965)

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Top: THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)
Middle: MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)
Bottom: EYE OF THE DEVIL (1966)

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Top: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928)
Middle: MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)
Bottom: THE OTHERS (2001)

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Top: MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)
Bottom: HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1970)
& FOUR FLIES ON GRAY VELVET (1971)

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 Top: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) & MAD LOVE (1935)
Middle: MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)
Bottom: SUSPIRIA (1977)

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Top: NOSFERATU (1922)
Bottom: MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON (1943)

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Top: MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON (1943)
Bottom: FULL CIRCLE (aka THE HAUNTING OF JULIA; 1977)

8 Responses The Nightmarish World of Maya Deren
Posted By george : March 28, 2014 1:42 am

Just speculation, but I suspect the creepy video in RINGU (and its U.S. remake, THE RING) was inspired by the images in MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON.

Posted By Doug : March 28, 2014 6:28 am

Thank you, Kimberly, for another excellent post about a part of film history of which I am woefully ignorant. I had never heard of Deren, and my first thought on seeing the picture at the top of the post was that it was Gina Gershon.
From the screenshots you displayed it is obvious that many filmmakers have been influenced by her work-I look forward to seeing her films someday. I’m sure that with your advance warning, many DVRs will be set for TCM on March 29th. Time zones are tricky for me-I would probably set the DVR for a longer block of recording just to make sure.
“Meshes Of The Afternoon” sounds fascinating-even the title plays against assumptions, as who would expect a type of nightmare in the afternoon?

Posted By James : March 28, 2014 11:25 am

Kimberly -

Thank you for including a still from Full Circle (aka The Haunting of Julia). I’m a serious admirer/booster of this movie, adapted from an early Peter Straub novel. For many years, it was very difficult to see (as far as I know, there hasn’t been a home video release in a long time, if ever), but it has turned up on Netflix Instant recently. I think it did very poorly at the box office in 1978, but deserves attention.

Mia Farrow had about a decade after Rosemary’s Baby where she acted in a series of horror/thriller films, and I think Full Circle is the best of these (and the last, as well). It’s a very suspenseful film, with great visual atmosphere and suggestion, and tension – more of a cinematic chamber piece with a sustained, somber mood rather than an outright horror film (the still you used, aside). Full Circle also deals with a theme that isn’t quite common in the genre – a mother’s loss of a child.

Excellent score – a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments – by Colin Towns, as well. I’ve been looking for the full soundtrack for quite some time (I do have the main theme on an mp3), with no luck.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 28, 2014 5:46 pm

Thanks for the comments! Doug, your feedback really made my day.I started writing about film because I hoped to inspire folks to seek out the movies I was discussing that were often forgotten, lessor known or hard to see as well as show them in a new light. I hope you’ll be able to record MESHES and give it a look when you can. Much like UN CHIEN ANDALOU, which I wrote about last year, it’s an important film that inspired a lot of horror cinema.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 28, 2014 5:52 pm

James – Glad to find another FULL CIRCLE fan here. It’s long been one of my favorite horror movies. I enjoy a lot of the films Mia appeared in during the late ’60s/early ’70s but I’m particularly fond of FULL CIRCLE and probably appreciate it more than ROSEMARY’S BABY in some ways. It’s an incredible creepy film but also rather sad and you’re right, the soundtrack is terrific and it has a great supporting cast!

Posted By Craig Fischer : March 28, 2014 10:57 pm

The mirror-faced, robed figure in MESHES has also been an influence, particularly in music videos. About 50 seconds into the White Stripes’ Lego-animated “Fell in Love with a Girl” (2002), two mirrored, robed figures walk quickly across the screen, and in the video for Janelle Monet’s “Tightrope” (2010), the same figures act as the emissaries for Monae’s dystopian fictional society.

And then there’s the similarities between Deren’s AT LAND (1944) and Madonna’s “Cherish” video (1989)…

Posted By Klara : April 2, 2014 1:14 am

I am also a major ‘The Haunting Of Julia’ fan. I planned to write something on it a couple of years ago but I haven’t gotten around to it — happy and not surprised to see it pop up in one of your posts, Kimberly. The first time I saw it was on late night TV as a teen and it never left my mind. I’ve watched it many times since and it always affects me the same way. It’s one of the essentials for creepy soft focus 1970′s horror films. There’s just a feeling of sadness and dread throughout. And something sophisticated about it, too. I also love the music and I enjoy the decor and settings. There’s a loneliness to the whole picture.

Posted By swac44 : April 2, 2014 1:34 pm

That top image of the woman at the window has been haunting me since my teen years, when I first saw it on the cover of the seasonal movie guide for Halifax’s late, lamented rep cinema Wormwood’s Dog & Monkey Theatre. And yet, I haven’t seen MESHES to this day (and missed out on the TCM airing, dagnabit). I guess it’ll haunt me for some time to come.

Full Circle is kind of the same way, I read the Straub novel after being captivated by his Ghost Story, and discovered it was set in London’s Holland Park, where I’d stayed only a year or two before, at the Youth Hostel located there (not too far from Kensington, Hyde Park & Buckingham Palace). I’ve returned to the book since then, but have yet to see the movie, even though I remember seeing it on VHS rental shelves in the early days of mom & pop video stores. Maybe the chance to see it on Netflix will finally get me to sign up for that service, we’ll see…

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