a crash course in 70s horror from jenny hval
With songs of female vampires, blood power and ritual awakenings, let Norway’s magick Jenny Hval teach you her ways this All Hallows' Eve.
We speak with a sleepy Jenny Hval the day after a London performance spattered with rose petals and bat-like cape dances. References to lo-fi 70s films and their themes span her lyrics, music videos and live show. Her latest album, Blood Bitch, has blood powers running through its core and female vampires skulking in the shadows; their heavy breaths echoing throughout, disconcerting and beautiful. "So, you wanted to talk about films, right?" she asks, cradling her morning coffee. We do.
It was back when she made Apocalypse Girl and began working with producer, friend, and "film freak" Lasse Marhaug that Jenny reconnected with the medium. Searching for elements to draw on in her music, the one-time film student and aspiring director returned to lesser-known cult, or even occult, movies that veer off to the dark side. With no real intention to make you jump, they instead aim to disturb as they lead you through a portal of extreme confusion.
This Halloween, a holiday that Jenny has surprisingly never celebrated, we talk the scary talk and walk the scary walk down a candlelit path direct to the haunted house...
What sound scares you the most?
Silence. My producer one told me that he finds the canned laughter that they use in comedy shows the scariest sound though, because it's old laughter, so you can think of that as dead people laughing from some time in the past when they were alive. Ghostly laughter.
If you could live a normal life and then die, or live for eternity as a vampire, which would you choose?
It's hard. My creative part would say the vampire because it's too tempting to want to experience something else. But at the same time, what would you live for if there's no death? What is life when you don't die? So the sensible part of me wants to say that I'd go for the normal life and die my normal death. Imagine thousands and thousands of years of existential crisis... I mean, we're moving pretty fast into that with social media, but imagine just being on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, whining away for thousands of years.
How long would you survive during a zombie apocalypse?
I would die first of all the people on earth. With all kinds of survival, I'm out. I might enjoy being a zombie; finally I could have an unnatural body, which I'm singing about so much. Might as well die!
I suppose. Do you believe in the supernatural?
This is my new theory. It's like with medicine; do you believe in something that's not chemicals and scientifically proven? I think the occult is a big part of our history and our brains and it's a way to think about a number of things in our lives that help us to be more creative. And I think it could also be an important way to live your life differently and better. It's less about whether you believe in it or not, and more about using different tools for living. Also, creatively it's extremely important.
Have you done much research into modern day witchcraft?
Not yet. My research is mostly based on movies so far, often because I haven't really wanted to become very academic with things. I wanted Blood Bitch to be extremely unconscious. It was written on hunches and feelings and with the power of the music in mind, and the soundtrack element of looking for sounds; the relationship between certain sounds and narratives.
What's the last nightmare you remember having?
Last night I dreamt that me and one of my band members were witches. She was abducted because we were fighting against some evil system, and I was on a mission to become better at witchcraft so I could save her and fight the system.
What drove you to the dark side?
One of the things that drew me do it was that many of the films that I've seen are made on a very small budget, the very cult - not even classic - they're very underground. Sometimes they were an alternative to the films made under the pressure of Hollywood producers and production companies, but sometimes it's just some crazy people in some kind of crazy political situation managing to make films full of sex or horror.
What interests you about not-so-cult horrors in particular?
I've always worked in very lo-fi environments too, and subcultures have always been interesting to me, and the music from subcultures - that's where I've come from. With this type of cinema I had to watch these films without believing any type of illusion; just watching them abstractly because the locations were very unbelievable and the characters were under-developed - you know, all that stuff that you learn is good cinema. All that falls away. But there's something there instead; a very strong drive, very strong human desires, and urgency, and things that I recognise in a lot of music that I've grown up loving.
Why do you think there was such a crossover between porn and horror?
I guess they're both shady underground genres that weren't considered mainstream at the time. When horror became mainstream it also because a lot more boring and about psychology. When you see mainstream horror films, if you study them, you start to understand how much of it is about women; the woman as a monster, the mother as a monster, the vagina as a monster. But before horror films were a part of mainstream cinema, they was so much that was unsettling about the way the films were made. Now, even though they might be scary, it's all about the jumpy moments. They don't have the potential to say anything, they're only there to entertain. That also says something about mainstream pop culture I guess... about it being a very thinly disguised institution of rape culture, with the virgins and all that kind of stuff.
During your research, what are the stand-out films that influenced you most? The ones that, if people were dipping into the genre for the first time, they should definitely experience?
These are all drawn into the pile that became Blood Bitch. For me, they stand-out for having this disinterest in illusion and strong focus on desires rather than psychology and beautiful settings. It's about watching many films and giving in to them - and not in a Hollywood way where you let yourself be transported by illusion of another world. You just have to go through a portal of extreme boredom and confusion before everything falls into place...
"It has a track named after it on Blood Bitch! This film was made by the Spanish director Jess Franco, who made hundreds of films in his career. It's a vampire film but more than anything else it's very sexual in that, like many other vampire films, it links the attack of the vampire with sexual intercourse.. That's usually quite problematic with me because then it's saying something about rape culture that I can't stomach in mainstream cinema. But this was the lo-fi version of that, and more than anything, I think it is depicting in a very make-shift language and setting, the boredom of eternity. It's also a recycled kind of movie, because it was made in three versions and you never really know if you're watching the 'real' one until a certain point. There's a horror version in which the female vampire sucks blood. Then there's a sex version where she sucks semen, which is the one that I've seen. It's actually kind of incredible that in all of the vampire scenes there's no red, only a sort of clear fluid. It's quite striking. And then there's a hardcore porn version that I don't wanna see. It's the same as the sex version, but they inserted hardcore scenes from other movies. Gotta love cheap European cinema!"
A Virgin Among The Living Dead
"You almost don't have to see it, because it says it all in the title. This is also a slow-paced, hypnotic, kind of boring film... but not as boring as Female Vampire. It's very much where my song Untamed Region is taken from; one of those classic scenarios where a young girl enters an unknown house looking for her father, looking for relatives, looking for someone who's missing or sometimes even looking for her past. Things start to happen and the people in the house are really weird. It's very beautiful and extremely strange. There are some great characters and it's the experience of watching it that is interesting; what it does to you more than what it is in essence. It's not a very strong narrative so you have to look beyond it. You have to give up wondering what's going to happen because there's so much cheap surrealism."
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
"This one was an important part of the Czech new wave. It has beautiful music and probably had a much higher budget because it is much more cinematically beautiful, so you can't really compare it to Jess Franco at all. It's much more clearly a surrealist picture, also with a young girl in the main role. Valerie's week of wonders could easily be seen as her first menstruation because it starts with a strange scene in which some blood drips down from her onto the flowers and it becomes a hallucinatory narrative. It allows menstruation to be powerful and occult; life-changing, but not that it changes her life in becoming a woman, instead it triggers this other state of being. It's a really beautiful movie and I think that Trish Keenan and Broadcast were very fond of it, so I kind of connect it to their music as well; this kind of stream of consciousness and very beautiful pop music landscape. They even wrote a song called Valerie which is about the movie I think, and her earrings feature heavily. It's a more positive kaleidoscope of events unfolding, and I think it's also seen by some as a horror film because it has themes of blood and witch burnings and very scary figures throughout the scary dreamworld."
"This was directed by Andrzej Zulawski, who also made On the Silver Globe, a very hallucinatory sci-fi movie, which is also fantastic. It's a movie about infidelity and a woman who has an affair with who at first you think is a man, and therefore a story of divorce or break-up. But as the movie goes on, you have the feeling that she has the affair with something that isn't human; something that is changing her. And now I'm revealing the whole thing so it's not going to be interesting at all to watch it. Basically, it turns out she has an affair with a creature and there's an amazing scene in it that is a miscarriage scene. It ends up a horrific, almost sci-fi but also quite realistic scene and you aren't quite sure how you got there. It's a very beautifully made but quite low-key European relationship drama-focussed movie."
Text Frankie Dunn