by Rich Moreland, July 2016
In this post, we’ll consider the concept of time and how its dimension enriches Amy Hesketh’s take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Olalla.
As scriptwriter and director, Amy floats her Olalla between centuries, stepping beyond the original Victorian version by incorporating time as a dominant motif.
* * *
Olalla is marvelously complex. The casual observer who believes Amy Hesketh simply picks up the story where Robert Louis Stevenson left off is short-changing the film. She has integrated her modern tale with Stevenson’s in a cleverly scripted narrative.
More than a century separates Amy from the Victorian author, who also penned the macabre Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. That’s important because Olalla requires an understanding of time.
It can be a bit complicated, but here’s what I think is going on.
A Hundred Years
Stevenson’s short story was published in 1885, but the narrative takes place in an earlier time period, the Iberian Peninsular War (1807-1814) in which the English fought the French.
Dropping hints that Olalla is a victim of her family’s past, Stevenson let’s it go without explanation. Amy picks up the thread by illustrating Olalla’s past with flashbacks set in the late Victorian Age.
As evidence of Amy’s approach, we have the period portrait over the living room hearth and the clothing of Olalla, Felipe, and the girls as a contrast to modern times. By the way, note its placement in the box cover shot above.
In other words, Amy uses Stevenson’s Victorian Era as her back story, moving the narrative forward by a century or more, depending on how we interpret her use of present time.
Here’s what I mean.
In the film’s opening scene we find the modern Olalla and her boyfriend in their apartment watching Nosferatu, the 1922 silent film widely recognized as the original vampire classic.
The TV is a flat screen with posters of other Pachamama films, Barbazul and Dead But Dreaming, on the wall above it. Okay, its product placement but everybody does it.
Here is where things get interesting. The boyfriend mentions that due to lost prints, a reconstruction of Nosferatu was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1985. In a nod to the original story, that is exactly a hundred years after Stevenson’s publication date.
There’s more. The boyfriend also remarks that Nosferatu is an example of German Expressionism, itself a lost form of film making. His comment lays the ground work for Amy to push beyond the Expressionist label. It’s a stroke of genius. Here’s why.
Dr. Mel Gordon in his book, Theater of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, asserts that the “unexpected brutalities and overall mad feeling of the German Expressionist film had less to do with Expressionism from the German stage than the influence of the Grand Guignol.”
This insight alone elevates Amy Hesketh’s production to levels akin to the horror films of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee because she uses the realism of the Grand Guignol without over indulging the fantasy aspect of the story.
Simply put, when it comes to fantasy, Amy Hesketh is more interested in the lessons of the Parisian horror stage. Naturalism compliments fantasy rather than the supernatural directing it. For that reason, we have the crucifixion at the end. It’s the real deal, no vampire imaginations needed.
By the way, though the vampire’s name in Nosferatu was changed to Count Orlok, as the boyfriend notes, Bram Stoker’s estate sued over the unauthorized use of the Dracula novel. Nosferatu’s prints were ordered to be burned; fortunately, some survived.
The First Rule
Amy’s screenplay employs everyday items to illustrate the atrophy of Olalla’s modern family. For example, there is an old rotary phone in the apartment Olalla uses when she reports her dastardly deed to her sister, Ofelia.
A cursory review of Olalla’s family hacienda furnishings shows us an antique radio in Ofelia’s room, and kitchen appliances–a coffee pot, tea kettle, and meat grinders–that recall an earlier time. Later, the party music comes by way of vinyl and a turntable.
This is not to suggest that these things are not still in use today, it is merely to point out their importance in understanding the story.
In other words, is the family living in a past (exactly when is not clear) that connects them within a century of Stevenson? If so, Amy Hesketh is putting the Olalla puzzle together within the bounds of its major motif and re-establishing the first rule of good vampire tales, they cut across time. . . everyone lives simultaneously in the past and present with no vision of the future.
Keep this in mind because Amy’s handling of that part of the story is brilliant, as we will see.
Ofelia’s fetish sexuality resides in Bettie Page, whose posters she has in her room. Also, her bangs are all Bettie and she sports the dominatrix-like corset and garters the pioneering bondage model popularized. Of course, these BDSM accoutrements are favored today, but in this case it lets us know that Ofelia’s self-image is 1950s/1960s oriented, another variance within of the time motif.
For further proof of that aspect of the film, check out Bruno’s outfit. He is a fugitive of the Disco Era where clothing alters identities and fetish, queer, and camp all met at the same crossroads under the glittering mirror balls. Think 1970s/1980s.
Also, notice that the tatted Ofelia is an occultist who plays with Tarot cards and has sex with her uncle. The occultism/mysticism theme played well in the Grand Guignol whose history (1897-1962) is within Ofelia’s personal time fetish.
The family is in trouble. It is dying of old age and needs re-energizing which accounts for the arrival of Uncle Felipe and Bruno. Incidentally, if aging is an issue, then they’re not vampires in the traditional sense. Maybe it’s really only Olalla?
Like the Victorian writers, Amy is leaving some of this up to us.
On the practical side, Felipe is the judge and enforcer (there is a gavel on the wall over his shoulder in one scene). His purpose is to discipline the two young women, because without them, the family line comes to an end.
In the meantime, the slothful aunt raises the ante when she tells Ofelia she must help her little sister or the childbearing “responsibility will fall on you.”
Everyone feels the pressure. Bruno comments that he and Olalla came to visit from the north (does he mean like the helpful Witch of the North who guides Dorothy to see the Wizard of Oz for a ticket home?). He bakes goodies for everyone’s sweet tooth and stores the blood bags in the fridge, all to keep the family in functioning mode.
However, Bruno is gay and everyone else is ancient in childbearing terms.
That leaves Ofelia, whose bondage fetish reduces sex to playtime, and the wayward Olalla as the only reproduction options. It’s not a pretty picture.
Notice there are seven family members, the archetypal number of completion found in myth and legend. Obviously, the recalcitrant Olalla must remain within the fold, so controlling her is number one on the family bucket list.
The film’s physical metaphor for time is the hallway in the family’s house. It is long and narrow with a bank of grimy windows on one side that over looks a deteriorating neighborhood.
Opposite is a dreary greenish wall lined with a myriad of plants positioned to strain for the sun which struggles to shine in.
The pottings are the family’s generations, once of “princely stock,” Stevenson says, but now “degenerate,” and, Amy shows us, totally immovable and dependent.
In the original story, Stevenson’s English soldier travels a road that “began to go down into the narrow and naked chasm of a torrent” (a stream) and later the reader learns that the family home was “hemmed” in by mountains. This visual imagery is repeated with the tightly packed buildings outside the hallway windows in modern times.
Amy maintains the same image in a flashback segment in the film. Roberto walks with Olalla and her daughters down a narrow pathway that is flanked by buildings on one side in an outdoor version of the hallway.
Earlier when we first encounter the corridor, Olalla approaches the camera from afar. The shot is elevated to emphasize the distance across time she travels from her childhood that is inexplicably a century earlier.
Using the hallway we can orient ourselves to interpret the story. By facing the windows with our back to the wall, a look to the left gives us the past, to the right, the present.
The characters move back and forth along its distance, but never leave because there is no future. Confined by a physical narrowness that robs them of all options, they are in limbo, essentially a suspended time warp that imprisons their depravity and dissolution.
Think of it this way by borrowing from Bram Stoker: wherever they go the family members must return to their soil. The hallway is their version of Dracula’s coffin. It, too, has no future.
In the end after Olalla reveals she has tricked the family, she leaves the party and turns left into the hallway. She’s going back to her personal past, in this case her nasty biting habits. The family follows her and pauses, uncertain what to do. Felipe points the pistol (that did not serve its intended purpose during the party) at Olalla. A single shot to the back of the head will do the trick.
But the family, like Olalla, is left suspended between reality and fantasy, the present and the past, unable to act in any meaningful way.
Told you Amy Hesketh is brilliant . . .
* * *
In the fourth installment of this analysis, we’ll investigate what it means to be a monster.