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Dark Tower – Otherworldy Dysfunction

Sometimes, in films, cities are shown as places for fun, pleasure and glamour, but fairly often, they’re more likely to be locations where dysfunction occurs and/or are shown as being the causes or even enablers of dysfunction. To a degree, the loosely interconnected and defined cultural mode of “urban wyrd” (which I discuss further in the Preface) explores or represents a variation on such things, generally focusing on the “weird”, “eerie”, etc aspects of cities. Tower blocks, in particular, seem to get a particularly bad rap in films, and related depictions of dysfunction etc, have taken a considerably varied number of forms, including, amongst others, a tower block’s architecture being designed to focus and intensify occult and paranormal energies and facilitate Armageddon in the much-loved comedy horror hit Ghostbusters (1984); cost-cutting and focusing on profit by developers leading to disaster in the star-studded blockbuster The Towering Inferno (1974); the self-contained isolation that tower blocks can allow for and create leading to social dissolution, decadence, chaos and violent conflict in Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s iconic 1974 novel High-Rise; and last but not least in this (short) list, although much less well-known than the just mentioned films, is the 1987 supernatural horror film Dark Tower. This was co-directed pseudonymously by Freddie Francis and Ken Wiederhorn, the latter of whom, alongside Robert J. Avrech and Ken Blackwell, also co-wrote the film and who, apart from Blackwell, have a variedly extensive history in horror-related film and television work.

In Dark Tower, a successful female architect and other members of the staff of the tower block which she is both designing and working from experience strange phenomena and/or die in mysterious and often gruesome ways. A security consultant who works for the firm which owns the building and who has a form of undeveloped and previously unknown to him psychic ability investigates the deaths, and it becomes apparent that they were caused by a malevolent supernatural entity or spirit of some sort, which leads him to enlist the help of a parapsychologist and a psychic in order to defeat it. The entity is eventually revealed to be the revenge-seeking spirit of the apparently “evil” former husband of the architect whose malicious control she escaped from by burying and drowning him in the concrete of the tower.

One of the original illustrated poster designs for the film has a distinctive period aesthetic that could have tumbled straight from the pages of a fever dream about 1980s video rental tape cover art: against a darkened purple sky, a set of shadowed modernist/ Brutalist office blocks are gathered around a melodramatically ominous central tower that as it reaches to the sky fades into a depiction of an open coffin; dramatic lightning strikes the tower/ coffin as office workers en masse appear to be drawn like moths to a deadly flame towards the entrance of the tower, which in turn seems to be bathing them in its eerie glow; and across the bottom of the poster in a sensationalist manner the tagline says “It reaches Heaven… and touches Hell!”.

This tagline seems in part to suggest man’s sometimes Icarus like overreaching ideas and designs, as reflected in this instance by the grand scale of tower blocks, which in reality have often been sites for social dysfunction etc, only to be brought back down with a tumble, thud and worse by variously hubris, practical realities and so forth.

While Dark Tower is in some ways something a B-movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it also subtly brings a little more to the party than might be expected from other such genre fare from the time of its production that once lined the shelves of video rental shops. This is in part due to the presence of renowned British actress Jenny Agutter, who plays the architect and who, over a number of decades, has appeared in a wide variety of critically and commercially successful film and television productions, including, amongst many others, the much-loved family classic The Railway Children (1970), the fairytale-like deluxe dystopia Logan’s Run (1976), the iconic comedy horror An American Werewolf in London (1981), the alternate history World War II set The Eagle Has Landed (1976), Stephen Poliakoff’s hidden history conspiracy thriller Glorious 39 (2009)3 and the hugely popular period television drama series Call the Midwife (2012-).

Also, the psychic in Dark Tower is played by Kevin McCarthy, who had previously played the lead in the iconic hidden alien invasion science fiction horror cult classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), alongside having a small but notable cameo in its unsettling and heavily paranoia imbued 1978 remake, which in turn seems to thread and interlink Dark Tower with a lineage and history of hidden cinematic threats and horrors.

Alongside which, in Dark Tower, there is an almost art filmlike repetition of similar shots filmed inside elevator shafts as an elevator descends. In the horror film genre, such shots rarely bode well for anybody travelling in the elevators, which is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, often the case in Dark Tower and within such genre work, such scenes and images could be placed alongside the appearance of unclothed mannequins in, say, a shadow filled warehouse as signifiers and harbingers of doom. Accompanying these repeated and returning shots in Dark Tower, there are also striking repeated low-angle and almost still-like shots of the tower block and its modernist design, which have a threatening, minimal, ominous menace to them.

A number of the scenes are filmed amongst still active construction sites within the tower block, which through these locations often not having finished clad or painted etc walls and ceilings, being strewn with construction materials and occasionally also home to rats seem to reveal the hidden “skeleton” of the building and effectively turn it into an almost frontier-like edgeland that is at a remove from outside help and civilisation. This is further compounded by a number of the scenes being shot not in the corporately presentable, more public face of the building, such as the lobby and office suites, which the construction of is complete, but instead are set in largely featureless, utilitarian service corridors etc, down which the unseen malevolent spirit seems to roam unimpeded as it hunts its prey.

Also, curiously and unexplainedly, the film is set in Barcelona, which is the capital city of the Spanish community of Catalonia. Yes, it’s understandable that an apparently multi-national company such as the one which owns the tower would have different sites around the world, but the film, its characters and the depiction of the tower feel very non-Spanish, and the central characters are largely English and/or American and English speaking and this adds a certain subtle disjunction to Dark Tower, almost as if it is set in and a recording of a dreamscape where the tower and the main characters are both in Barcelona and yet in some unknown way at a remove from it or are transplanted strangers or interlopers. This is added to by the way that the modernist style tower, which is all gridded glass and concrete and its corporate, almost sterile seeming design, culture and general ambience contrasts with some of the older locations of Barcelona that are shown. These include streets of older, more worn and lived-in seeming multistorey apartment blocks which feature openly visible displays of unmediated day-to-day life such as being strung with hung out to dry washing and city walls that look like they have overseen the passing of many centuries and possibly even millennia of history. A visually distinctive Barcelonan cemetery is also shown, which appears to contain multi-storey above-ground graves arranged in cubed grids with glass fronts which have tributes to the dead behind them, and that could almost be a more organic community or folk art-like reflection, mirror or even rebuke of the “dark tower’s” design.

Alongside which, the security consultant, who, as mentioned previously, is shown to have a form of undeveloped psychic ability, has a curious emotional distance and possibly even otherworldly quality to him, almost as though he is not fully present in the day-to-day corporeal world.

He seems very determinedly and doggedly to try to solve the mystery of the deaths in the tower block and also to contact the malevolent spirit of the architect’s former husband, whatever the consequences, but once the spirit has carried out its mission to revenge itself on her, the consultant then seems curiously nonchalant and even jokily flippant about what has happened to her.

In an Edgar Allan Poe-esque manner, the husband’s spirit entraps and buries the architect with its decomposed physical body inside the concrete walls of the tower and covers its tracks by using its supernatural powers to re-render it.

Although the security consultant does not actually see this take place, he had seen the architect just before in a scene where she, him, the parapsychologist and the psychic are attacked in a poltergeist-like manner by the husband’s spirit, which leads to the latter two’s violent deaths. That this was the case, alongside how he previously variously determinedly wanted to solve the mystery of events in the tower and also him seeming at points to be attracted to or even quietly obsessed by the architect, it could be expected that he would want to fully solve the mystery and know what had happened to her.

However, in a somewhat curious final scene, he is shown walking alongside and through the above-mentioned Barcelona cemetery with his wife, and when she asks if it was discovered what happened to the architect, he tells her just to forget about it and not let it further spoil their vacation.

As they wander off towards the horizon, this leaves a lingering sense that perhaps in some way, the consultant’s psychic ability has enabled the architect’s husband’s spirit to enter and influence his mind and thoughts in order to further cover its tracks and perhaps even to escape from the confines of the tower block and its body’s hidden tomb and to continue its existence unfettered and with impunity.


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