Filmed on a 16mm Bolex purchased with inheritance money, made for peanuts in the West Hollywood home of married couple Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid (credited on screen as ‘Alexander Hamid’), Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) didn’t invent American avant-garde cinema, it wasn’t a Big Bang moment, far from it, what it did was provide an impetus and lead to an eventual wave of daring titles from artists outside the mainstream, collectively grouped by historians as the New American Cinema. Moments in the film have become not only influential on other filmmakers, the shot of Deren staring forlornly out of a window, the image of an unhappy woman framed as if trapped, not just physically, perhaps also mentally, in a suburban home, is arguably among the most famous images in cinema. Even if you haven’t seen all 14 glorious minutes of Meshes of the Afternoon, chances are you’ll have seen this still in a book about the history of the movies.
The ultimate meaning of the surrealist short, if there is one, has long been chewed over, debated, argued and hypothesised, but that isn’t the concern here. It isn’t time to play Armchair Freud, inviting as that is. In P. Adams Sitney’s essay on experimental American films, in the collection Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980), the writer puts it that Deren and others of that era ‘absorbed from their Dadaist and Surrealist precursors those formal tactics which allowed them to create a cinema that could describe a crisis of the self.’ That’s a fine summary, so let’s park this particular aspect here. There’s no need to say more.
Meshes of the Afternoon marked the directorial debut of Maya Deren, a true renaissance woman of her time. Ukrainian-born and American-raised, Deren was fiercely political, a committed socialist, she studied literature at university, became fascinated with dance and choreography, art history, she was a film theorist, a photographer, a director, a poet and college lecturer. Her short life (she died aged 44, in 1961) was devoted to experimental art. Meshes of the Afternoon was produced, edited and written by Deren, with Hammid serving as co-director, as the man appearing at the end of the film, and cinematographer. There is no dialogue, it deploys crude in-camera trick effects, which add to the freaky tone rather than detract from it, and, until the 1950s, when Deren asked Teiji Ito, who became her third husband, to add a musical score inspired by Japanese drum music and wind instruments, it played silently.
The music added an extra layer of tension and weirdness to proceedings undoubtedly, but in dismissing the innovations of sound design, dialogue and the traditions of musical accompaniment, in its original form, Meshes of the Afternoon must have felt palpably off-kilter and radical, massively out of step with conventions of the period, harking back to the days of the silent movie. It’s impact was recognised in 1990, when the short was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, where only the crème de la crème of cinema is preserved, as these are deemed to be ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’ Not bad for a strange short film with no dialogue, no stars, made for $250 and change outside the studio system, but ironically conceived and shot smack bang in Hollywood.
Did Maya Deren invent the slasher movie? This isn’t about sticking a square peg into a round hole. So, let’s rephrase the question. Let’s make it not a question, but a query … a kind of ‘Have you ever noticed?’ Well, have you ever noticed how Meshes of the Afternoon plays out like a slasher movie? While not considered a horror film, it readily fits. It could easily be a paranoid take on film noir, and included as a prime example of Hollywood gothic, deserving a place with films such as Sunset Boulevard (1950). If you screened Meshes of the Afternoon before David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), it would make all the sense in the world to do so.
Meshes of the Afternoon is like a Cubist take on the slasher. It appears to us like an accidental antecedent or the prophecy of a quintessential American subgenre to come. Other nations took their part in the sub-genre’s development, for sure, but the slasher is as American as apple pie and mass shootings. Deren isn’t thought of as a horror director, but her earliest work is suitably nightmarish. Her second short, At Land (1944), features one of the most despairing but beautifully mad final shots in all cinema (Deren running along a beach to God-knows-where, the horizon over-exposed, so that the background takes on the appearance of a void-like nothingness. Deren running free into oblivion). The unfinished The Witch’s Cradle (1944) boasts an explicitly occult theme, and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) is another haunting and ghostly take on the struggle to connect with the self, other people and our surroundings. Along with the RKO Val Lewton unit, Deren was making some of the most atmospheric and exciting horror of the decade.
Once you recognise what would later be identified as slasher tropes, in Meshes of the Afternoon, it is quite startling. Home invasion pictures were popular very early on, there were plenty of melodramatic one-reelers about the lower orders invading middle-class homes, burglars attacking housewives, gypsies stealing babies, that kind of scenario, but young women being home alone and menaced is a core tenet of the slasher and it has existed in some form or other almost as long as the medium. The American slasher emerged from films such as Psycho (1960), A Bay of Blood (1971) and other movies in between. Just as important, but generally unknown, are the University of Southern California shorts made at the start of the 1970s. This is all slightly before Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Bob Clark’s Canadian classic, Black Christmas (both 1974). USC counted among its illustrious alumni John Milius, George Lucas and Walter Murch, but also importantly, to US horror, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, who took part in launching the slasher with films such as Halloween (1978) and its sci-fi variation, Alien (1979).
The 1971 short Judson’s Release by Terence Winkless, and The Demon (1970) by Charles Adair, are both curiosity items. Not because they’re masterpieces, it’s because they’re US-made and because John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon certainly saw them (O’Bannon actually acted in the former). In Judson’s Release (also known as Foster’s Release), we get a dry run for Halloween and When a Stranger Calls (1979). In The Demon, a man and woman go away for the weekend and the woman begins to see a mysterious figure, and guess what? The man doesn’t believe her, thinks it’s all in her head … it isn’t. These long-unseen and forgotten USC student horror films were packaged together with a few others in a documentary, Shock Value (2014), and they really add to our understanding of horror film history. They’re overlooked because they’ve been so difficult to see but deserve a seat at the table, at least recognition. Maybe Meshes of the Afternoon does too?
Deren and Hammid’s psychological fugue, to borrow David Lynch’s description of Lost Highway (1997), unfolds in broad daylight yet it still manages to be skin-crawlingly creepy, a perfect nightmare. The opening shot is of a deserted curving driveway. It’s a blustery day, as we see trees blowing in the wind and overhanging bushes rocking. Deren appears in the frame, the camera tracking at a low angle, focussed on her shadow. Established is a theme and visual mood, not just of seclusion, but lurking and observation. It has an immediate voyeuristic flavour. The benchmark aesthetic of the slasher is in play! There’s a POV shot once we enter the house at North Kings Road, the Laurel Canyon abode where Deren and Hammid were living. The camera pans across the living room (echoes of the killer’s POV again). The camera movement has an unnatural mechanical lack of polish (due to budget limitations), but the inference is entirely of replicating a person’s point-of-view. The camera stops at a table. Embedded in a loaf of bread, like a play on Arthurian legend, is a knife. A knife! The slasher maniac’s weapon of choice!
The camera moves closer to the table, the shiny knife falls out of the bread. This is followed by a whip pan to a telephone with the receiver hanging and resting on the step of the stairs. Phones and phone calls are featured staples we see in slasher pictures countless times when desperate folk call for help. Deren then walks into view (a disembodied shot of her legs ascending the staircase). There is continuity cut, to a POV shot (ascending the stairs). A gothic image presents itself: a billowing curtain wafting in an empty room. The next cut: a low angle shot inside the bedroom. The sequence screams voyeurism, of walking around somebody else’s house when they’re not there or about to be surprised by an intruder. Now descending the stairs, the camera once more takes on a mysterious POV. This is undoubtedly the grammar of the slasher movie, like the opening of Halloween itself, where Michael Myers as a child walks through his house in the clown outfit.
In three minutes of screen time, an atmosphere of isolation has been established, a knife has come into play, and it will more and more, and there has been almost exclusive use of POV shots. As Deren sits in a chair by a window, for she has walked back into frame, she closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep. There is a cut to the empty driveway and the camera dollies backwards revealing an oval-shaped window resembling an eye, the circular window frame represents an iris. On the driveway, a person dressed all in black, head obscured by a hood, walks into view. Costumed menace! It might not be Michael Myers in a boiler suit and William Shatner mask, but it’s similar territory. The hooded spectre, like Death, or an evil nun, or a widow in mourning, turns and reveals not a face, but a mirror. Any slasher worth its salt has a masked villain. Curiously, it performs a corresponding function to the slasher psycho, as a representation of death.
On the driveway Deren appears, she sports an inquisitive look, somebody who is alarmed but intrigued to investigate, like the Final Girl of many slasher flicks. She enters the home and finds it empty. The scene is almost an exact repetition of the earlier setup, only the camera stops at the foot of the stairs because the knife is there, placed upright between steps. She ignores the blade and runs up the stairs in balletic slow motion (one of the film’s most iconic moments).Meshes of the Afternoon’s unsettling vibe is not solely down to its surreal premise and cyclical imagery. It’s the sense of detachment and eeriness evoked by the Hollywood Hills location, the house itself, by Deren’s nameless character(s), the shrouded entity, lonesome driveway, the lack of everyday environmental noise. The idea of a home as a place of safety is demolished, exactly like in a slasher. Its uncanny use of tropes and traditions from slasher movies, showcasing as it does its building blocks, decades before it became a thing, is extraordinary. Claiming Deren for horror might have experimental art cinema fans worried, like it’s a lowering of tone, but the reason Deren’s masterpiece has become so well- known isn’t purely for its arty flourishes, it’s because the film is full of alienation, dread, stalking death, and melancholy. That is really something, and why Deren being claimed for the horror genre feels right.