Jar (1984, dir: Bruce Tuscano; cast: Gary Wallace, Karen
Sjoberg, aka Carrion)
an obscure diamond in the rough.
I've discussed The
Jar in Midnight Marquee, in my horror collection, Halloween
Candy, and in my Horror Film Aesthetics. I do so again because the film remains obscure and out-of-print,
whereas it deserves to be celebrated and reissued. (The
Jar was briefly released on video by Magnum in 1987, and old
copies occasionally surface on Ebay).
some critics contend The
Jar's obscurity is
well-earned; that under the rough there's
only ... more rough. John
Stanley writes: "For 90 minutes little happens while Gary Wallace
sits and looks either blank or frightened. ... an auto accident [is] filmed
so darkly one can barely see it ... very few visuals ... isn't worth one's
Au contraire. The
Jar is an engrossing indie gem, and a quintessential example
of pragmatic aesthetics. By pragmatic
aesthetics (Chapter 2 in my Horror Film Aesthetics), I mean that a filmmaker has applied budgetary compromises to
aesthetic effect. Forced by a low budget to compromise on location,
lighting, whatever, the filmmaker has used that limitation in a way that
enhances the theme or story.
Jar is a surrealistic horror art film about an unassuming young
man (Paul, played by Gary Wallace) who chances upon a jar containing a
pickled demon-thing. After his dark discovery, the film chronicles
Paul's progressive mental deterioration as he struggles to understand and
overcome the demon's creeping psychic encroachment.
tormented by surreal visions: Blood arises in his bathtub and a boy emerges
from the blood; water drips in a grotto; a restaurant wall transmutes into
a doorway of glowing pebbles; children ride a merry-go-round; a youth kills
a boy in a foggy urban park and escapes
with Paul; black-robed monks trudge toward a crucifixion in the desert;
during a hairy Vietnam battle, a tuxedoed yuppie sipping wine observes
neighbor landing in a helicopter to rescue him.
Jar has "very few visuals"?
are not only numerous, but incorporate impressive locations too. And yet despite their wide-ranging diversity, the locations and visuals
Jar's surreal conceit.
appropriate locations is a major concern for low-budget filmmakers. Studios cost money, and the filmmaker's apartment can rarely double up
for every indoor scene in the script. Outdoor locations are a practical
solution. Nature's inexpensive majesty is equally impressive whatever
a film's budget (hence, the many summer camp slasher films).
Bruce Tuscano makes sweeping and imaginative use of The
Jar's many outdoor locations, setting elements of his story
in a Colorado desert, a Vietnam battlefield (albeit a distinctly non-tropical
one), an urban park. Taking full advantage of his locales, Tuscano
pans across the widely-spaced monks in the desert, then tracks the American
platoon's trek along a Vietnam river. Naturally, Tuscano reverts
to a tight frame when he must hide his less impressive (or nonexistent)
locations in offscreen space.
Tuscano's tight framing: The
Jar begins with an auto accident involving Paul and a strange
old man (who resembles Phantasm's Angus Scrimm). Closeups of stationary
car lights are all we see of
the "accident." Tuscano's frame follows
Paul leading the old man into Paul's car, but Tuscano does not show us
the accident wreckage, or
other cars on the road, or even the road itself. Tightly framed and darkly lit, Paul's car might simply be sitting in Tuscano's
driveway as Paul "drives" down the highway, a garden hose showering the
windshield to fabricate rain.
Paul "runs" in the rain, possibly in the middle of the highway. Surrounded
by darkness and a tight frame, he appears to be running in place -- as
he most probably is -- possibly in Tuscano's backyard.)
is correct in that the accident is darkly lit. But this is to Tuscano's
credit. He effectively uses low lighting and tight framing to (pragmatically)
hide a nonexistent accident. But these pragmatic choices also enhance The
Jar's surrealism. Hence, a pragmatic choice works aesthetically.
is rough. Paul smiles blissfully, we jump cut to a radically different
angle, same scene, and now he's no longer smiling. Other jump cuts
leave story elements missing, as though we've skipped over a plot point. Jump cuts are underscored by subtle changes in lighting and color hues
from shot to shot, within the same scene. It's as if Tuscano used
different film stocks within the same scene, or shot on different days
and was unable to recreate the previous day's lighting setup.
editing may be expected on a low budget. Seamless editing is expensive. To ensure a final edit without jump cuts, a director will often film several
master shots from different angles, followed by medium shots, closeups,
and insert shots of that same scene. Low-budget
filmmakers may attempt to save on film stock by only shooting the necessary
minimum of footage. If they foresee using a closeup in the final
edit, they will forego a master shot which might have ensured a smooth
while big budget directors avoid using different film stocks within the
same film (excepting a specific aesthetic motivation, as in Natural
Born Killers), low-budget filmmakers often have no choice. Film stock is costly, and money can be saved by buying "short ends" and
recans. Money is also saved by using film stock donated by studios,
manufacturers, labs, cooperatives, and arts councils. Often, a low-budget
filmmaker uses whatever he or she gets, making do with film stocks of different
ASA from different manufacturers. Hence, the differing color hues
within the same film.
Tuscano may have had no choice, The
Jar's rough production values aesthetically support the story's
Paul is battling demonic possession and its concomitant mental
breakdown. He laments to Crystal (Karen Sjoberg), his neighbor and
nascent girlfriend, that he no longer knows what's real, what's imagined. This deterioration of his subjective reality is effectively conveyed by
his (dis)placement in expressionistic locales, and by the jump cuts and
changing color hues.
Jar's rough soundtrack further enhances its surrealistic aesthetics. The
Jar seems to have been shot MOS (without synched sound), with
the dialogue dubbed in afterwards. Also, the scenes contain no ambient
saves on labor and sound equipment, and is often used by Hollywood filmmakers
when a scene contains no dialogue. But only very low-budget filmmakers
shoot scenes containing dialogue MOS, and even then, they mix in ambient
sound, if only from another source. Yet not only did Tuscano appear
Jar MOS, he avoided mixing in ambient sound from any sources.
of ambient sound imparts a disembodied background silence to The
Jar, as though we were listening to the actors at high altitude,
our ears congested. And although the dubbing is respectable, it's
rough enough so that the unsynchronized voices, conjoined with the disembodied
silence, support Paul's slow disassociation from reality. Paul's
conversations with Crystal and Jack (his boss) resonate with Pink
Floyd's line: "Your lips move but I cannot hear what you're saying."
what they're saying, but the subtle vocal desynchronization creates an
impression that the fabric of his universe is disintegrating. As
indeed it is.
Jar's soundtrack evokes Carnival
of Souls (1962), a film whose imprecise sound synchronization reinforced
its story about a soul trapped in an imprecise twilight world, one in which
material reality was always on the verge of slipping away. Yet while Carnival
of Souls filled its silences with eerie organ music, The
Jar compensates with discordant sound effects (unearthly breathing,
wheezing, and whining), a technique used to greater extent, and greater
effect, in David Lynch's Eraserhead (1978).
to Lynch are apposite. As with Eraserhead,
Tuscano's images only appear arbitrary. A water motif predominates:
Paul running in the rain, taking a shower, blood filling a bathtub, the
dripping grotto, the water from the waiter, spilled liquid from the broken
jar, even the parched desert. Water often connotes sex, and Paul
is conflicted over Crystal, whom he desires but spurns.
As with Eraserhead, The
Jar reveals a fascination with texture. Extreme closeups
of Paul's faucet and drain are synched to unearthly reverberations. Extreme closeups transmogrify Jack's cigarette into an orange glow burning
in an incongruous black void. For further emphasis, his one act of
cigarette-lighting is depicted repeatedly, as
is Paul's jar-smashing, thus evoking Battleship
Potemkin (Soviet 1925). Also apposite, because Eisenstein
too was a low-budget filmmaker; Soviet montage was developed in response
to a shortage of film stock, necessitating creative editing of whatever
stock footage was available.
excuses can be made for Tuscano's occasionally out of focus shots, as when
Crystal enters Paul's apartment and the camera tries desperately to bring
her into focus. Most likely Tuscano simply couldn't afford a retake. Yet even these blurry images contribute to The Jar's surreal sensibility. Because it is Paul's POV on Crystal that is out of focus, this further
suggests his weakening grip on reality.
lights are an inexpensive way to enhance an impoverished film. Tuscano
makes heavy use of colored lighting, toward two aesthetic effects, both
functionally consistent with his story's conceit: (1) As Dario Argento
did in Suspiria (Italian 1976), Tuscano uses colored lights to suggest the presence of
an evil entity. Paul looks in a mirror and sees the old man, lit
in blue from a low angle. Then when Jack knocks on Paul's door, a
quick flash of blue light from under Jack's chin intimates that Jack is
now targeted by the demon; (2) As in Norman J. Warren's Terror (British 1978), much of Tuscano's colored lighting is nondiegetic (i.e.,
the lighting originates from outside the story). As Paul drives the
old man away from the accident, Paul is lit from below in yellow-green,
the old man in red-orange. As in Terror,
these nondiegetic colored lights contribute a stylish sheen to The Jar's
unpolished production values. But more importantly, they support
The Jar's surrealism and Paul's mental deterioration.
is correct in implying that The
Jar's story is simple. A surrealist depiction of a man's
mental breakdown. None of the frenetic action of Evil
Dead or Re-Animator. As with Pulp
Fiction (1994) or Eraserhead, The
Jar eschews conventional narrative form. But The
Jar is enjoyable on its own terms. And upon repeated viewing,
one only grows to appreciate its artistry.
credits reveal that The
Jar even received some sort of Colorado arts council grant,
but don't let that deter you from seeking out this gem.
Review copyright by Thomas
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