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Friday Night Horror: Nicholas McCarthy, The Game of Redemption, Part 2

“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
– 2 Peter 3:10

Part 1 of this essay analyzed Nicholas McCarthy’s three feature films —The Pact (2012), At the Devil’s Door (2014), and The Prodigy (2019)— as successive chapters of a single heroine’s journey through a multi-level reality.  It situated that journey within a greater narrative framework called the Game of Redemption, which depicts the metaphysical dialectic that unfolds as an angelic League of Sisters contends with a Diabolical Conspiracy.

Part 2 of this essay will describe the system of cinematography and mise-en-scène that McCarthy uses to render the Game of Redemption discernible.  This system is organized around the analog clock face and its 12 hours, and it is rooted in the films of David Lynch.  Within the Game of Redemption, each hour of the clock serves a particular function—these will be described below.

The 12-Hour Clock Face in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

“And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.”
– Ezekiel 1:19

The analog clock face and its 12 hours provide a scheme of visual organization that is uniquely well-suited for cinematic narratives that concern themselves with cyclical repetition and attempts to transcend it.  Most, if not all, of David Lynch’s films use the 12-hour clock face as a basis for blocking, composition, and set design.  This scheme is present as far back as The Grandmother, and it features prominently in Twin Peaks: The Return.

In a recent appearance on the horror podcast Dead Meat, McCarthy credits the Winkie’s scene in Mulholland Drive with teaching him a number of important filmmaking techniques.  A careful examination of this scene reveals that it, too, is organized around the 12-hour clock face: the dreamer, Daniel, initially occupies the 6:00 position, and he is led by his companion to a transformative encounter at the 12:00 position.

Given McCarthy’s interest in cinematic horror and the numerous references to Twin Peaks that are sprinkled throughout his films, it seems likely that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was responsible for drawing McCarthy’s attention to this pattern in Lynch’s filmography.

Part 1 of this essay described the Game of Redemption as a continuation of Laura Palmer’s struggle with BOB; it therefore seems appropriate to begin Part 2 by discussing the role of the 12-hour clock face in Fire Walk With Me.  For the sake of brevity (and accuracy), this discussion will be limited to the critical hours of 11:00, 12:00, and 1:00.  In Fire Walk With Me, BOB’s murderous violence is the primary cycle of concern.  Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley try to make sense of it, Dale Cooper can’t help but feel it, and Laura Palmer gives up her life to end it.  Because of Fire Walk With Me‘s preoccupation with imminent violence, the hours of 11:00, 12:00, and 1:00 take on special significance.

12:00 indicates the moment of truth, when one cycle ends and the next has not yet begun.  It marks a culmination point within a dialectic and an opportunity for the dialectic to transcend itself.

Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me, Phillip Jeffries, Philadelphia, FBI, Blue Rose, David Lynch

By the time the clock strikes 1:00, it’s too late: the golden opportunity has given way to the darkness of future past.  The events that transpire between 11:00 and 1:00 are therefore of critical importance.  This is a time when all goodness is in jeopardy.

Log Lady, Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me, All Goodness Is In Jeopardy

The Missing Pieces supplement to Fire Walk With Me includes an extended cut of a meeting that takes place in the room above The Convenience Store.  In this scene, BOB’s future plans begin to take shape.  The critical hours of 11:00, 12:00, and 1:00 literally structure the set—they are clearly discernible in the room’s three windows.  A number of special effects cement the connection between the scene and the 12-hour clock face.

The various presentations of Laura’s “doorway picture” are similarly organized around the critical hours of  11:00, 12:00, and 1:00.  In the scene below, Laura’s doorway picture is first shown in the 12:00 position.  When Mrs. Tremond offers the picture to Laura, it is in the the 11:00 position.  When Laura holds the picture in her hands, it is in the  1:00 position.

By accepting the doorway picture, Laura has initiated a cycle within a cycle.  When she hangs the picture up on her wall, it assumes the 12:00 position with regard to her prone body.  Soon afterwards, it begins to act as a gateway that connects multiple levels of reality.  This suggests that 12:00 is the witching hour or the moment of truth—a time when the familiarity of cyclical repetition gives way to unshaped potential.

The Moment of Truth

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:12

The Game of Redemption follows a single heroine as she makes progress towards a full realization of what has been done to her and what she may yet become.  When this heroine attains realization at one level of reality, she ascends to a higher level and the cycle begins anew.

In McCarthy’s films, as in Fire Walk With Me, the time of transformative clarity is represented by 12:00.  In all of McCarthy’s films, reaching the 12:00 moment of truth is the protagonist’s goal.  Since each of McCarthy’s films depicts a different level of reality, the moment of truth appears differently in each one.

In The Pact, the protagonist (Annie) belongs to an angelic League of Sisters, and the film begins as she voluntarily descends to a lower level of reality to advance their cause.  Annie soon becomes enmeshed in the Diabolical Conspiracy that opposes The Sisters, and by the end of the film she has become partially co-opted by them.

Throughout the film, Annie remains unaware of The Devil within, and so looking in the mirror is her 12:00 moment of truth.  The final shot of The Pact depicts one particular iteration of this confrontation.  In it, the camera passes through a barrier and brings Annie face to face with the killer she has become.

The Pact, Annie, Mirror, Twelve O

At the Devil’s Door concerns itself with the League of Sisters’ efforts to support and redeem Annie.  Since their goal is to move Annie beyond her current level of reality, the 12:00 moment of truth takes the form of a window.  The Sister who volunteers to help Annie passes through a series of forms as she progresses towards this goal.  Her intervention is successfully concluded when one of these forms, Vera, escapes through a window with her child in tow.

Hannah, Window, 12:00, Twelve O

The Prodigy represents the League of Sisters’ attempt to build upon their previous success.  At the Devil’s Door concluded with mother and child driving off into the proverbial sunset.  In The Prodigy, the 12:00 moment of truth therefore challenges the protagonist to embrace her child despite his partial co-option by The Devil.  This, after all, represents the same forgiveness that The Sisters have extended to Annie.  In The Prodigy, things go wrong —but not totally wrong— at the 12:00 moment of truth.

The Prodigy, Miles, Sarah Blume

As McCarthy’s heroine ascends through levels of reality, her proximate goal goes through the permutations just described —but her ultimate goal of ascension remains unchanged.  In McCarthy’s films, as in Fire Walk With Me, one is reminded of this ultimate goal by a companion who points up.

Overview of the Game of Redemption

“The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:6

McCarthy’s films, like those of Lynch, organize their cinematography and mise-en-scène around the 12-hour clock face.  They place similar emphasis on the hours of 11:00, 12:00, and 1:00, and these hours function in McCarthy’s films much as they do in Lynch’s.  12:00 marks the witching hour and the moment of truth, a time when things transform.  1:00 marks the first stage of a cycle, either recurrent or unprecedented.   11:00 marks the critical juncture when all goodness is in jeopardy.

McCarthy’s films differ in that they presuppose a narrative framework that I have been calling the Game of Redemption.  Part 1 of this essay situated the Game of Redemption within the context established by its cinematic and Biblical precursors.  Part 2 of this essay focuses more squarely on how the Game operates.  Generally speaking, the Game unfolds as an angelic League of Sisters strives to free its allies from sexual abuse, violence, and deception.  The Sisters are opposed by the Diabolical Conspiracy, a Satanic cult that orchestrates the ritualistic rape and dismemberment of women and girls.

In McCarthy’s films, each hour of the analog clock face assumes a specific function with regard to the Game of Redemption.  A brief overview of the clock face and  12 hours appears below.  These will be discussed in more detail in the following section, at which point visual evidence drawn from The PactAt the Devil’s Door, and The Prodigy will be provided.

The cardinal points of the 12-hour clock face —12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00—are assigned to the human beings caught up the Diabolical Conspiracy.  For the sake of simplicity, this essay will emphasize the roles assumed by mothers and daughters.  Given The Conspiracy’s patriarchal structure, it is possible that male children are initiated differently—if not cast out altogether.

The hour of 11:00 is assigned to The Conspiracy’s high priest.  This figure enacts the ritualistic rape of underage girls that is the hallmark of the Black Mass.  The Black Mass occurs at 12:00, the witching hour and the moment of truth.

HOUR OF THE CLOCKPHASE OF THE GAMEENERGETIC EFFECT
1:00GROOMINGThe Baby is contaminated by Devil energy
2:00DOUBTSister energy arises within The Baby
4:00PROTECTIONSister energy becomes dominant within The Mother
5:00DECEPTIONDevil energy becomes dominant within The Mother
7:00REMEMBRANCESister energy re-asserts itself within The Maiden or The Mother
8:00DENIALDevil energy re-asserts itself within The Maiden or The Mother
10:00DETERMINATIONSister energy propels The Maiden or The Mother
11:00RESISTANCEDevil energy frustrates The Maiden or The Mother

The remaining clock hours are assigned to the actions taken by mothers and daughters as they conform to or rebel against the dictates of The Conspiracy.  The hours from 1:00 to 5:00 concern the indoctrination of daughters as they are prepared for the Black Mass.  The hours from 7:00 to 11:00 deal with the aftermath of that particular crime.

OUTCOMECONSEQUENCECLOCK HOUR EFFECT
The Killer's burden is assumedThe Maiden descends voluntarily12:00 feeds 6:00 at a lower level of reality
The Killer's pain is healedThe Maiden and The Killer ascend12:00 feeds 1:00 at a higher level of reality
The Killer's plea for mercy is refusedThe Maiden becomes another version of The Killer12:00 feeds 11:00 and 1:00

The hours from 1:00 to 5:00 are encapsulated by the decorative arrangement that appears in McCarthy’s 11-minute version of The Pact.  This same decorative arrangement appears in the full-length version of the film, with a few minor differences.

The Pact, Nicholas McCarthy, Madonna

In this particular arrangement, the red object stuffed into the brown boot (1:00) signifies the injection of Devil energy that occurs when The Conspiracy subjects a young child to sexual grooming.  The priest statuette (2:00) signifies the perverse “educational” role that The Conspiracy assumes when quelling the young child’s doubts regarding this inappropriate form of contact.

The ceramic Madonna bust (3:00) signifies The Mother, who must choose whether or not she will subject her child to the sexual abuse that perpetuates The Conspiracy.  The angel statuette (4:00) signifies the protective instinct that may inspire The Mother to shield her child from The Conspiracy’s abuse.  The white boot with its dark laces (5:00) signifies the “little white lies” that she will tell if she decides to obey The Conspiracy.

The hours of 2:00, 5:00, and 7:00 serve a special function within the Game of Redemption.  Typically, the 12-hour clock face works in McCarthy’s films as a form of subtext, lending a subtle yet discernible significance to the events that appear onscreen.  The hours of 2:00, 5:00, and 7:00 work differently in that they also perform a textual function: they provide the protagonist with clues.

Clues discovered in the 2:00 position are a mixture of signal and noise —they may mislead the protagonist.  Clues discovered in the 5:00 position are unadulterated noise —they misdirect the protagonist.  Clues discovered in the 7:00 position are unadulterated signal —they direct the protagonist towards the 12:00 moment of truth.

Players in the Game of Redemption

 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes.”
– Genesis 19:8

The cardinal hours of 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00 are assigned to the mothers and daughters of the Diabolical Conspiracy.  The hour of 11:00 is assigned to The Conspiracy’s high priest because he is a cipher for The Devil.  His decision to accept that role places all goodness in jeopardy.

The high priest is a descendant of Cain, and his participation in the Black Mass is necessary for it to have its desired magical effect.  When the high priest enacts the rite of ritualistic rape at 12:00, an inversion of transubstantiation occurs, and the body and blood of his victim are transformed into those of The Devil.  By partaking of The Devil’s flesh and blood, the members of The Conspiracy are granted youth and vitality.

The following discussion will refer to The Conspiracy’s high priest as The Killer.  This term encapsulates the high priest’s defining characteristic (descent from Cain) and his designated function within The Conspiracy (ritualistic rape and dismemberment).

Clock

12:00 is The Baby. The Baby is a daughter who is born into the Diabolical Conspiracy.  The Baby is subjected to sexual grooming as a part of her indoctrination.  When she begins to menstruate, she becomes The Maiden, and she is subjected to ritualistic rape as a part of the Black Mass.

6:00 is The Maiden. The Maiden is a daughter who is offered up to The Conspiracy as tribute.  She must walk the thin line that joins 6:00 to 12:00, at which point The Killer will enact the high rite of ritualistic rape.  When this rite is enacted, The Maiden’s body and blood become those of The Devil, and The Devil becomes a part of her. 

3:00 is The Mother.  The Mother is a woman or girl who has conceived a child while still caught up in The Conspiracy.  This woman or girl is faced with a choice: she can raise her child in accordance with The Conspiracy’s dictates, thereby ensuring long-term abuse, or she can attempt to protect the child, thereby ensuring reprisal by The Conspiracy.

9:00 is The Crone. The Crone is a woman who has subjected her daughter to ritualistic rape at the Black Mass.  The Crone must now look back on her life and come to terms with what she and her daughter have become.

One might expect that the successive stages of the lifespan would demand that these roles be positioned differently around the 12-hour clock.  However, because the Game of Redemption emphasizes perception and understanding, the figures mirror one another.

The Baby is the beginning of the future, and the hour of 12:00 is therefore assigned to her.  The Maiden is a reflection of The Baby.  She too is an innocent who has not yet been compromised.  The hour of 6:00 is therefore assigned to her.

The Baby and The Maiden, when combined, give rise to The Mother and The Crone.  Like The Baby and The Maiden, The Mother and The Crone mirror one another.  Since The Mother is defined by her pregnancy, the hour of 3:00 is assigned to her.  The hour of 9:00 is assigned to The Crone because her life is nearing its completion.

With the exception of The Baby, each of these figures is faced with a choice.  The Mother must choose between The Conspiracy and her daughter.  The Crone must choose between penance and fruitless rumination.  The Maiden must choose between escape and intercession.

The Maiden’s role is in the Game of Redemption is unique.  If she runs away from The Conspiracy, as Annie did at age sixteen, she ensures that its violence will continue.  In this instance, another innocent daughter will assume the role of The Baby.

If The Maiden refuses to approach the 12:00 altar, this is tantamount to running away —but in this instance, The Killer assumes the role of The Baby.  It ought to be remembered that The Killer is similarly enslaved by The Conspiracy.  Unless he is met at the 12:00 altar by a daughter, he cannot refuse to perform his designated function, and his continued bondage is thereby assured.

The Maiden is therefore faced with an impossible choice: if she does anything other than walk through the darkness towards 12:00, she will perpetuate The Conspiracy.  Because of the unique role assigned to The Maiden, the Game of Redemption is a matter of time (12:00 moment of truth), times (cyclical violence) and half a time (The Maiden’s journey from 6:00 to 12:00). 

I wish to emphasize that the Game of Redemption is concerned with roles and relationships that are essentially mythical in nature.  My description of its inner workings is not intended to advise survivors of sexual assault on how to live their lives.  Fictional tales, mythical or otherwise, afford an opportunity to reflect on human reality.  This type of reflection may or may not translate into practical matters of restitution and justice.

Phases in the Game

“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
– Genesis 3:16

The clockwise progression from 1:00 to 12:00 depicts one’s participation in the Diabolical Conspiracy, either as willing participant or unwilling victim.  It must be emphasized that everyone caught up in The Conspiracy suffers as a result of their involvement —no one escapes from it unscathed.

The Conspiracy perpetuates itself through the centuries as mothers give birth to daughters and then offer them up to The Devil.  The Conspiracy demands this form of tribute because its rituals require the blood of innocents to have magical effect.  The high rite of the Black Mass enables its adherents to remain perpetually youthful.  Mothers may acquiesce to The Conspiracy’s demands for any number of reasons —but avarice, fear of mortality, or fear of reprisal are likely foremost among them.

Clock

The Prodigy, Miles Blume, Jackson Robert Scott

1:00 is Grooming. Soon after birth, The Baby is trained by its mother to accept sexual abuse. 

The Prodigy, Jackson Robert Scott, Paula Boudreau

2:00 is Doubt. As The Baby grows older, she begins to question what’s being done to her.  This is effectively a plea for mercy. 

At the Devil

4:00 is Protection.  When faced with her daughter’s plea for mercy, The Mother must choose how she will respond to it.  If The Mother values her daughter’s humanity, she will protect the child from The Conspiracy.

The Pact, Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien

5:00 is Deception. The Mother, however, may choose to favor The Conspiracy and the benefits derived from her participation in it.  If so, she will deceive her daughter (5:00), preparing the child to assume her designated role as The Maiden.

At the Devil

When The Maiden is offered up as tribute, she is forced to walk the thin line that joins 6:00 to 12:00.  At the 12:00 moment of truth, The Killer uses The Maiden’s body to perform the Black Mass.  Despite their different roles as victim and accomplice, both mother and daughter are forever altered when this rite is enacted.  They are henceforth haunted by a dim awareness of the enormity of the crime that has occurred.

The Pact, Stevie, Haley Hudson

7:00 is Remembrance. In the aftermath of the Black Mass, undeniable reminders (7:00) occasionally arise, piercing through the mental obfuscation that The Devil imposes on his underlings.

At the Devil

8:00 is Denial. Remembrance of one’s victimization or complicity is overwhelming, and therefore mother and daughter would both prefer to look away (8:00).  This course of action ensures that The Devil’s contamination will continue to fester.

At the Devil

 10:00 is Determination. As time passes and one ruminates on what has been done, one is faced with a choice—remain in place (9:00) or resolve to confront The Killer who enacted the high rite (10:00).

The Prodigy, Jackson Robert Scott, Nicholas McCarthy

11:00 is Resistance. When The Mother or The Maiden crosses the threshold at 11:00, The Killer retreats, leaving a trail of frightening images in his wake. Because The Killer is only a cipher —a stand-in for The Devil—he has little power of his own.  His only hope is to misdirect the pursuer or meet her once again at 12:00, where their respective roles can be transcended.

The Pact, Stevie, Haley Hudson

The hour of pursuit marks a time when all goodness is in jeopardy.  If The Killer’s frightening images stoke his pursuer’s wrath, she may strike out in vengeance and become a killer herself.  If she is turned away by The Killer’s frightening images, she is denied her moment of truth.

Ending the Cycle

“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
– Matthew 7:14

There is only one way to end The Conspiracy’s cycles of violence: The Maiden must meet The Killer at 12:00. The Baby is helpless to act on her own, and The Mother and The Crone have already been compromised.  The Maiden alone is capable of preventing recurrence.

By meeting The Killer at the moment of truth, The Maiden is faced with a mirror.  The Killer and The Maiden have both been wronged by The Conspiracy, and they have both been touched by The Devil.  If The Maiden wishes to end The Conspiracy’s violence, she must look into the eye of The Killer.  There are three possible outcomes of this ordeal.  

OUTCOMECONSEQUENCECLOCK HOUR EFFECT
The Killer's burden is assumedThe Maiden descends voluntarily12:00 feeds 6:00 at a lower level of reality
The Killer's pain is healedThe Maiden and The Killer ascend12:00 feeds 1:00 at a higher level of reality
The Killer's plea for mercy is refusedThe Maiden becomes another version of The Killer12:00 feeds 11:00 and 1:00

The Maiden descends.   If The Maiden sees The Killer as a fellow victim, she may take on his pain as her own.  This is tantamount to the voluntary descent of a “higher level” Sister.  The Maiden then returns from 12:00 to 6:00, and she advances The Sisters’ cause at a lower level of reality.  This outcome is depicted in the opening scene of The Pact.

The Maiden ascends. If The Maiden sees The Killer as a fellow victim, she may choose to heal his pain by embracing him as a fellow human being.  By reaching out in this way, The Maiden transforms the 12:00 moment of truth from a mirror into a window.  The Maiden then ascends alongside The Killer, and she advances The Sisters’ cause at a higher level of reality.  This outcome is depicted in the climax of At the Devil’s Door.

The Maiden fails.  If The Maiden takes revenge on The Killer, she perpetuates violence instead of opposing it.  If The Maiden averts her gaze, she refuses who she is.  In either case, she blinds herself to The Devil within and remains a mere vessel.  The Maiden then becomes another version of The Killer (11:00) and she goes out hunting for some echo of The Baby she once was (1:00).  This outcome is depicted in the final scene of The Prodigy.

By emphasizing the successive phases of the Game of Redemption, this essay may give the impression that McCarthy’s films are mechanical and lifeless —nothing could be further from the truth.  The Game of Redemption is primarily subtextual, and its inner workings do nothing to detract from the films’ other aspects.  On the contrary, they make available a whole realm of meaning that seamlessly blends with the events that appear onscreen.

Special Moves in the Game of Redemption

“If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”
– Galatians 5:25

Each of McCarthy’s feature films introduces new “special moves” into the Game of Redemption.  These special moves are primarily concerned with spirit possession and splitting identities.

The Pact, Annie, Caity Lotz

Spirit possession is the characteristic special move of The Pact.  Annie’s childhood home is haunted by the spirits of her adoptive mother, Judy, and her biological mother, Jennifer.  Both of these spirits take possession of those who enter the house.

Judy’s spirit attempts to take control of Annie and Annie’s sister Nicole, acting through them to perpetuate The Conspiracy.  Jennifer’s spirit successfully enters Annie’s cousin, Liz, guiding her towards the moment of truth.  The spirits of Jennifer and Judy also engage in classic poltergeist activity, thereby influencing Annie’s investigations for good or ill.

Deliberately splitting identities is the characteristic special move of At the Devil’s Door.  When Charles Barlow impregnates the protagonist Hannah, his identity is split into a white demonic form and a black demonic form.  The white demonic form causes Hannah’s identity to split into the paired forms of Leigh and Vera.

Charles deliberately splits Hannah as a kind of insurance policy.  He accurately predicts that Annie’s violence will complicate the League of Sisters’ rescue mission, and so he creates back-up versions of Hannah to prepare for that eventuality.  Later on, Hannah voluntarily splits her own identity, forming an identical double —another sign that she is a relatively advanced Sister.

These various identities are eventually recombined through acts of self-sacrifice: one version of Hannah hangs herself, Leigh causes her own heart to stop beating, and Vera puts herself into a coma so that she can’t avoid giving Judy another chance at redemption.

The Prodigy combines the special moves of spirit possession and splitting identity to form Miles Blume’s bifurcated spirit. Whereas Hannah’s identity was split to become pairs of visible forms, Miles’ bifurcated spirit allows him to emit an invisible scout.  This invisible scout educates or takes possession of those around him, so that he and Miles can maximally accelerate the ascension process.

For instance, it is most likely Miles’ invisible scout who inspires his father to go stay with Uncle Tony for a few weeks.  The father’s absence affords Miles an opportunity to educate his mother one-on-one, preparing her for the moment of truth.  Of course, it goes without saying that Uncle Tony’s namesake is the most celebrated invisible scout in all of cinema history.

The special moves in the Game of Redemption are proof of McCarthy’s capacity for innovation, but they also connect him to a larger cinematic tradition.  Like Cronenberg, Kubrick, and Lynch before him, McCarthy views the horror film as an invitation to contemplate the ultimate.  These filmmakers are united by a keen appreciation of the ways in which cinematic horror provides a culturally sanctioned refuge for a concern with the spirit, one unbeholden to any previously established scientific theory or religious tradition.

Gnostic Horror

“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
– Genesis 1:2

Because cinematic horror must generate and manipulate an aura of menace to succeed as entertainment —let alone as art—  it presupposes a narrative template in which human life is both precious and paltry.  The typical horror film maintains its aura of menace by ending (or threatening to end) human lives.   It implicitly assumes, therefore, that humanity is sometimes or always a plaything.  However, because this same narrative template assumes that human lives that are “at stake,” it implicitly asserts that these lives have some undeniable, if ill-defined, value. 

These two presuppositions bestow upon the horror film a kind of latent spirituality.  The menace of any given horror film needn’t be “supernatural” for this to be the case: it is enough that its narrative template presupposes the interaction of human lives with an overwhelming an alien force.  McCarthy’s films, like those of his precursors, raise the stakes by presupposing a fluidity of space, time, and identity that is uniquely cinematic.  These films, by reveling in their own unreality, are not “supernatural” so much as gnostic.

The impossible architecture and continuity errors of The Shining represent one particular use of the narrative freedom afforded to cinema.  When these anomalies are not dismissed outright as regrettable lapses of judgement, they are typically understood to be a technique of psychological manipulation.  According to this interpretation, The Overlook Hotel’s discontinuities are intended to arouse an emotional response from the viewer.  While they intensify the aura of menace that pervades The Shining, they have no narrative significance.

I would assert, however, that these discontinuities have every right to be regarded as legitimate narrative events, on a par with those that more readily conform to one’s assumptions regarding how the world operates.  According to this interpretation, the Overlook Hotel  and its environs simply exist in a way that produces seamless discontinuity.  Since there is no “actually existing” Overlook Hotel beyond that displayed onscreen, there is little reason to discount this possibility.

When The Shining is viewed in this way, it becomes an invitation to contemplate the ultimate.  By presupposing the invisible and the impossible, rather than asserting either, it converts the latent spirituality of cinematic horror into a mode of gnostic inquiry.  By presenting an imagistic narrative that is unbeholden to any outside frame of reference —and which refuses to conform to the assumed solidity of everyday existence— The Shining does not depict a world so much as create a narrative zone.  The boundaries of this zone are undefined, permeable, and responsive to human activity.  Within this zone, human lives participate with one another in ways that might otherwise seem impossible.  The permutations of identity undergone by McCarthy’s heroine are one particular instance of this phenomenon.

McCarthy’s Game of Redemption makes use of the same narrative freedoms as The Shining, but it structures their operation through its use of the analog clock face, the Satanic cult of Rosemary’s Baby, and the story of Laura Palmer.  Each of his feature films therefore presents two narratives simultaneously.  The official versions of The Pact, At the Devil’s Door, and The Prodigy are carefully crafted horror films.  While they make effective use of “the supernatural,” they have little to say about the nature of reality.  When these same films are regarded through the lens of the 12-hour clock face, however, they disclose their participation in something much larger.  This latter narrative is the Game of Redemption.

Conclusion

McCarthy’s Game of Redemption takes up the narrative template established by Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and expands it into a complicated ascension process that plays out across multiple levels of reality.  His system of cinematography and mise-en-scène allows the viewer to discern the inner workings of the ascension process.  By introducing new “special moves”  into each film, McCarthy prevents the Game of Redemption from becoming a closed system.

McCarthy’s nuanced understanding of genre conventions allows him to explore human emotions and metaphysical abstractions simultaneously.  This marks him as an heir to a cinematic tradition that’s best exemplified by Twin Peaks and The Shining.


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Written by Andrew Kersten

Andrew first became interested in "Twin Peaks" while studying at The Evergreen State College.

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